PhD Glut

This is sort of thing is usually discussed scoffingly over at the PhysicsForums, but there is a massive over-supply of PhDs. When even Nature is publishing articles on the subject, something has to give.

There have been some attempts to reform the Ponzi scheme nature of grad school in the US.

Some universities are now experimenting with PhD programmes that better prepare graduate students for careers outside academia (see page 280). Anne Carpenter, a cellular biologist at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to create jobs for existing PhD holders, while discouraging new ones. When she set up her lab four years ago, Carpenter hired experienced staff scientists on permanent contracts instead of the usual mix of temporary postdocs and graduate students. “The whole pyramid scheme of science made little sense to me,” says Carpenter. “I couldn’t in good conscience churn out a hundred graduate students and postdocs in my career.”

But Carpenter has struggled to justify the cost of her staff to grant review panels. “How do I compete with laboratories that hire postdocs for $40,000 instead of a scientist for $80,000?”

I suspect the problem is that an experienced scientist isn't actually twice as productive as a post-doc, which makes the scheme so appealing. The system is set-up to generate cheap scientific labor in a manner the maximizes the metrics chosen: number and dollar amounts of grants and citations for the PI. What this does not do is maximize scientific progress. The path of least resistance for getting a paper published is to do something that hasn't been done before, but the easiest way to do that amounts to stamp-collecting. "Let's sequence this environmental isolate." Ad infinitium. But why?

At this point it seems that the paradigm that reigned during the twentieth century is over. Most of the big principles have already been discovered [for now], so the tasks remaining to scientists involve filling in the details. Why don't we switch to a focus on engineering and try to apply what we already know? I have a suspicion, so far unproven, that modern science has removed itself much further from engineering and applications than was usually the case from Newton on.

The Germans seem to be thinking the same thing:

Germany is Europe’s biggest producer of doctoral graduates, turning out some 7,000 science PhDs in 2005. After a major redesign of its doctoral education programmes over the past 20 years, the country is also well on its way to solving the oversupply problem.

Traditionally, supervisors recruited PhD students informally and trained them to follow in their academic footsteps, with little oversight from the university or research institution.
But as in the rest of Europe, the number of academic positions available to graduates in
Germany has remained stable or fallen. So these days, a PhD in Germany is often marketed
as advanced training not only for academia — a career path pursued by the best of
the best — but also for the wider workforce.

Universities now play a more formal role in student recruitment and development, and many students follow structured courses outside the lab, including classes in presenting, report
writing and other transferable skills. Just under 6% of PhD graduates in science eventually go into full-time academic positions, and most will find research jobs in industry, says Thorsten Wilhelmy, who studies doctoral education for the German Council of Science and Humanities in Cologne. “The long way to professorship in Germany and the relatively low income of German academic staff makes leaving the university after the PhD a good option,” he says.

 So far, I have observed that a graduate education in science can stifle the urge to be useful.