Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When do we REALLY have too many PhDs, and what then?

Recently, NPR ran a suite of stories (sample1, sample2) on biomedical PhDs either leaving academia or not having academic jobs available to them. I teach a class to entering PhD students, and many of them expressed concern about both the general fear being propagated by these stories as well as fear regarding their own  prospects post-PhD.

Meanwhile everyone with or pursuing a PhD has an opinion on the value of a PhD, whether there really is a crisis of too many PhDs, etc. Some describe a virtual pyramid/ ponzi scheme that's existed for decades, wherein growth in number of scientists in general or PhDs in particular is unsustainable. Others persistently argue that "The skills ... are useful in many professions, and our society needs to be more, not less, scientifically and technically literate." Still others say that the system should continue to take in many PhDs since we never know which will be the most successful. (I suppose there's an implicit "... and to hell with the losers who don't get the jobs they anticipated" in this last point of view.)

Elements of truth exist in each, so let's start with facts, then statements of the problem, and finally possible paths forward.

1) FACT-- right now, most science PhDs will not get tenure-track university jobs (for whatever reason). The figure I see often for biomedical sciences is ~15% nationwide. It's easy for elite universities to assume that THEIR graduates will fall into that fortunate 15%. We recently collected data for Biology PhDs from Duke University, specifically seeking ones that were not in postdoctoral stints. For our program, indeed, the fraction of non-postdocs in tenure-track jobs was around 50% over the last decade. Of the rest, a subset were in non-tenure-track jobs, and the rest had diverse careers-- research scientists, editors, writers, scientific sales, etc. Hence, even from elite private research I universities, a large fraction of the science PhDs will not get tenure-track university jobs (for whatever reason).

2) FACT-- research faculty have an intrinsic conflict-of-interest in considering whether there are "too many" PhDs. We faculty are judged by our productivity, which is partially (wholly?) associated with the talented trainees we bring into our labs. Turning down the tap of incoming PhD students could reduce our potential productivity, and thus our research program & career advancement prospects.

3) ARGUMENT-- there must be SOME hypothetical "maximum" number of PhDs after which point there are substantially more PhDs than necessary to fill jobs requiring that level of training. One of the points used against this argument is a general "more education is good". Sure, if time & money were no object, then yes, perhaps everyone could benefit from a PhD. Similarly, some sell the skills that one gets in a PhD as "useful in almost any profession." This is clearly true in a trivial sense--  pursuing a PhD is more valuable than sitting at home and watching Netflix for 6 years. But for someone who'll be either a base-level staff scientist or general administrator (or perhaps leaving science entirely), does it make more sense to get a PhD, or to spend 2 years on a masters degree and 4 years advancing their experience (and stature) within their chosen career that does not require a PhD?

So, with the above points in mind, I ask the first question. When do we REALLY have too many PhDs? Have we already passed that point? Are we coming close?

Here's some data (albeit crude) from a few years ago separated by country:
Note, for the US, they mention specifically "Figures suggest that more doctorates are taking jobs that do not require a PhD."

Some faculty toss out the word "industry" as a solution to the small number of tenure-track positions available, as though companies are struggling to get PhDs and these are easy jobs to snag (and as though these faculty even know what "industry" means). While some areas may be booming, many biomedical industry jobs too are quite competitive, and some PhDs who TRY to go into industry have difficulty getting in the door.

With that in mind, I ask the second question-- what do we do when we really do have too many PhDs? Turn down the pipeline at that point? It would already be too late for those who went through the pipeline that we purported to be mentoring. Some have argued we should reduce support for postdocs, but I think that is foolish since it "strands" people who already invested in a PhD.

Here are my thoughts on solutions, and I argue that these need to happen now, not later:

A) It's nothing short of criminal for graduate programs and advisers to fail to prepare students for diverse career possibilities. Some trainees may even prefer (gasp!) a non-academic route, not because it'd be any less competitive but because they prefer the work. How do we prepare such students? Some of the skills overlap between some non-academic and academic positions, such as project management, creatively thinking about science, rigor in science, some hands-on techniques, etc. But some aspects are not emphasized in PhD programs because they're less critical for securing research faculty positions than for other careers--developing a portfolio of writing pieces aimed at the general public, interfacing and networking with industry representatives, getting "real" teaching experience (a TA-ship is not "teaching"), etc.

We must engage students early in their PhD training to think seriously about their directions and advise them on how to best-prepare for their chosen routes. Implementing only a "one day workshop on diverse careers" is a pathetic solution to a real problem. The myIDP questionnaire is a good starting point. Longer-term programmatic solutions need to be in place, as well as individual faculty efforts. For example, I now insist all of my PhD students get trained in at least rudimentary computer programming/ bioinformatics-- this is useful to them in many careers and certainly broadens the careers from which they can choose post-PhD.

What I say above is necessary but perhaps not sufficient-- it assumes there are enough non-academic (or non-tenure-track) positions for all PhDs.

B) We must invest more in Masters programs. I'm a big advocate of the PhD having great value, but a research thesis MS also has value, brings more breadth to one's education and job prospects, and requires far less time.

The last is potentially the most controversial:

C) PhD granting institutions may need to begin a serious discussion about scaling back the number of PhD students they admit. I stress that the elite research universities should take the lead in this and not presume that Northeastern West Virginia State University (a fictional school) should scale their PhD program back before, e.g., Yale University does. I'm not positive that the community is at the point that we must scale back PhD student numbers, but dismissing this option without a serious discussion and exploration means we're waiting for the catastrophe to happen before we are willing to even assess. Let me reiterate point #2 above-- we faculty at research universities have an intrinsic conflict-of-interest, so we should be even more vigilant to make sure we're not sacrificing those we claim to be mentoring.

Finally, let me close with a note to current PhD-seekers and postdocs.Yes, a lot of your mentors (including me) had it easier than you do. But don't despair prematurely or give up. There are still jobs out there, both academic and non-academic. Pick the direction you want to go (academic or non-academic), find out what you need to do to both secure and succeed in that direction, and pursue it wholeheartedly. Get advice from both formal and informal advisers-- take initiative on asking for this advice. Don't stop pursuing your dream because NPR interviewed someone who gave up a similar dream and is doing something different. At the same time, diversify your portfolio. Build some skills that may open what you perceive as an appealing "plan B." The reason isn't for assuming you won't get your plan A job, but is because it's always better to have options than not. And don't overly fear being actually "unemployed"-- while clearly a handful of PhDs have struggled to get "any" job, the statistics on unemployment for PhD-holders are not so bad-- certainly they're far better than for those who had a college degree only. It's almost unequivocal that you got (or will get) something for that time investment in a PhD. In the meantime, if you hear people who've held faculty positions for a decade or longer saying nothing's really different, just know that your successes will have been harder fought than theirs.


  1. I'm interested to hear your take on this. What I would have liked is a path out with a Master's that didn't feel like quitting or failing. One that is a foot in the door for a career. By the time I took my prelim, I knew I did not want a tenure track career. I stuck around to not be a quitter and because I wasn't sure what else I wanted to do. I think the ideal situation for me would have been a transition out of the PhD program with a Masters that exposed me to a variety of career options. I also wonder if industry would benefit from this pipeline of students exiting a PhD program. Do you think it's worthwhile for the university invest in a method to get students like me out, in a positive way? I don't always feel like sticking it out for the PhD was beneficial to myself, my PI, or the program. I know so many others who felt the same way about their experience. Similar to the argument to take a lot of students, because you do not know who will be successful, it's also important for the student to test themselves and figure out if it's what they even want. More students could enter the program if more could also comfortably leave it and allow those who figure out they truly do have the passion for research to continue.

    1. Thanks for the post, Morgan! I think you raise a VERY important point. In my opinion, there's no shame in leaving a PhD program with a MS degree because you decided you didn't need the PhD for your (possibly revised) end-goal. That said, I have heard stories about some present faculty and/ or administrators referring to such departures negatively (utterly ridiculous!) and/ or being concerned that such departures reflect poorly on training grants. I love your idea of making MS-level departures a positive experience-- as you implied, you DID gain a lot from your pre-prelim time in graduate school, so why not stop the investment while the benefit-cost ratio is high if the student wants to leave? The training grant issue is a real one, though, so this requires not just a shift in thinking at the university level but also nationally (with grant review panels and agencies). Thanks again!

  2. I 100% agree about MS programs. Here's the problem I'm facing at a big Research I University: MS students are not supported. MS students receive a lower salary and if they serve as Teaching Assistants, MS students must pay for their tuition (waived for PhD students). This causes faculty to not be able to take MS students because we simply can't afford them (the responsible thing being to pay their tuition so these MS students can survive; otherwise, there is no way they could survive on their salary without getting an additional job, taking out loans, etc.). To me, the problem lies with the business model of the University - the University does not care if there are too many PhDs. How do we get these big University's to better support MS students? Is there a way?

    1. You're exactly right. Alas, I don't have a good answer on how to do this-- I appreciate that universities can't just ignore finances, but it'd take a rethinking of the overall financial structure. One option may be to differentiate thesis and non-thesis masters degree tracks, and have the former treated more like PhDs while the latter following the undergrad-like model? The key then might be one cannot move from a thesis to a non-thesis masters within a program, or else the potential for cheating would be too high.

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  4. This is an excellent post and I agree with almost all of it.

    One point that is somewhat neglected is the fact that the interests of science as a whole (and thus society, since basic science is intrinsic to our civilization) and prospective scientists may overlap poorly. For example, the quality of play basketball play (and thus the experience of the consumer - sports fans) does not suffer for the NBA being a lottery profession (i.e., one in which small differences in ability translate into enormous differences in reward). The highly competitive nature of our profession may actually help to drive quality science. (I don't necessarily subscribe to this viewpoint, but it is at least a possibility worthy of consideration - in which case we should ask, what degree of competitive is good for science, and what degree is too much.)

    If, indeed, Ph.D. trained scientists are being overproduced, one institutional change that could help ameliorate the situation is to disincentivize the use of graduate students as research labor. In my university (and many, but not all, others) it is much cheaper to hire a graduate student on a grant, than a tech (by about 2 fold) or a postdoc (by about 3 fold). Ironically, however, even if we concertedly decide it is in our community or individual best interest to hire techs and postdocs, in lieu of graduate students, we would then be in conflict with NSF's congressional mandate in which graduate student training and education is among the core missions of the funding agency!

  5. The only other thing I'd add is all this discussion of the 'limited job prospects' at the other end of a Ph.D. can create biases in the type of students likely to subscribe to this career trajectory. For instance, it would not surprise me at all if (due largely to societal factors) women & underrepresented minorities are more likely to behave in a 'risk averse' fashion in this regard. (It's not a stretch to imagine this. Consider first telling a student "there aren't many jobs in academic science" and then having them look around and, consciously or subconsciously conclude, "hey - there aren't that many people *like me* in academic science". Other factors may also contribute to increased risk aversion in this group.) If this is true then we should be conscious about the possibility that the way that we discuss the academic science job shortage, as well as the job shortage itself, can also act to exaggerate gender and race biases that already exist in our profession.

  6. Great post. I'd offer one additional caveat to the idea that industry can/will absorb a boundless supply of PhDs. In my experience in industry (and granted this is an N of 1), we are very often recruiting from a pool of grad students and postdocs who are also finding success in the academic job market. A person who has a strong CV, gives a great job talk, works in an exciting area of science, and interviews well is going to be attractive to academia or industry. PhDs struggling to differentiate themselves from the pack for academic jobs will probably - on average - also struggle to do so in industrial jobs.

    The other trend I've noticed is that we in industry tend to work very hard to recruit two types of PhDs. 1) those with expertise in a super-hot new area of research (e.g. metagenomics), or 2) those who have skills in an area where there are few practitioners and academic funding is scarce (e.g. classically trained cytogeneticists and physiologists). In the terms of Kuhn's scientific revolutions, the folks practicing "normal science" are the ones who are really going to have to work hard to differentiate themselves. That said, I would say this plays second fiddle to my point above. Exceptional people will stand out regardless of where they fit into Kuhn's ideas, and industry and academia will wish to hire them.

  7. The question of when we have enough PhDs can be turned into a general question applied to every field. Throughout our economy, many educated, skilled, and professionally qualified people are working part-time, freelance, or consulting jobs when they need a full-time job to pay the bills. Many jobs no longer have regular work schedules. There is no security. Adjunct professors are overworked and underpaid after all their efforts to educate themselves for a good-paying, secure career. I have studied for several technical careers and found myself to be obsolete after only a few years, sometimes even upon graduation. I wouldn't mind the part-time or freelance work if it paid for my living expenses and retirement, but that is far from reality. These are political problems and are not being addressed at all in a meaningful way.