Via Slashdot, I saw this report from the NIH advisory committee. The summary of the problem: there are too many graduate studnets produced in biomedical fields for the number of academic positions that will be available for them in the future. Quotes include:
NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period.
Of course, earlier there is the statement of purpose:
Attract and retain the best and most diverse scientists, engineers and physicians from around the world to conduct biomedical research as well as increase the number of domestic students from diverse backgrounds who excel in science and become a part of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce
This is a decades-old story at this point. I remember my junior or senior year of college (back in 1989 or thereabouts) hearing news stories about how there was going to be a “shortage of scientists”, because all of those who rushed into science after Sputnik were going to be retiring. BS, of course, because during the intervening decades they all groomed multiple replacements for themselves, but they’re only retiring once.
In my very early years of graduate school (1990-1992 or thereabouts), there was a statistical continuum of letters to the editor to Physics Today talking about the sea of physics post-docs out there: PhDs who could get a temporary post-doc position, or two, or three, but who couldn’t find permanent positions. The astronomy journal club (I believe it was) at Caltech dedicated one of their meetings to talking about this issue. And, the professors there all gave lip service to “training students so that they can go into other careers.” But I could practically hear each and every professor there thinking “but not my students— they will be the ones who get the coveted academic positions.” (Some may even have been generous enough to think “Caltech” students.)
The sad truth is that those professors were probably mostly right, although not entirely. Of the three PhD students who worked with my advisor, Tom Soifer, when I was there, we’re all in faculty positions. James Larkin is at UCLA and Tom Murphy is at UCSD. I’m the odd one out, teaching at a teaching-focused small liberal arts college rather than at a prestigious research Unviersity, but still I’ve got one of those rare and coveted professor positions. In Physics, professor positions everywhere are heavily dominated people with degrees from the top handfull of schools… yet they are all themselves still training graduate students, with graduate training programs designed to produce more academic researchers.
Socieites and meetings and focus groups will meet every so often and wring their hands about the problem, and give lip service either to increasing the number of staff scientists and decreasing the number of graduate students, or give lip service to “training graduate students for other careers”. But little has changed despite this hand-wringing in the last twenty years, and I don’t expect it to change any time soon. The professors, the ones in position of power, are the rare few who got the desired positions, so they aren’t feeling the pain, and thus have little incentive to change it. Meanwhile, funding agencies keep talking about “attracting the best scientists”, which leads to university administrations talking about “improving the graduate program”, which inevitably leads to trying to attract more graduate students. It’s a vicious cycle that’s not going to end.
(And even if you do get into a scientific research position, you’re still screwed. At least in astronomy, funding has gone completely into the toilet. Last I heard, NSF astronomy was granting only about 1/8 of the proposals it received, which is even worse than when I was failing to get NSF grants in the 00’s. Also, national observatory facilities are being eviscerated on the altar of ausperity and gigantic projects. Not only are there too few research science positions for the graduate students we’re producing, there are too many research science positions for the amount of science that our society is willing to support! It’s bad all around.)
What you should do about it is be open and honest to any young people you know. Warn them that going into an academic PhD program is a trap. You will be enticed with the promise of an intellectually fulfilling job as a research scientist, once you put up with the years of hazing you undergo as a grad student. Only, at the other end, statistically you won’t be able to find a job. I wrote about this back in January in my post Why go to graduate school in Physics?. The short version is that there’s only one reason: because you want to be a physics graduate student for six years, and it’s worth it to you to take six years out of your life to do that. Yes, if you want to be a professor, you have to get a PhD. Similarly, if you want to win the lottery, you have to buy lottery tickets. but the competition is intense.
You will also spend much of your graduate school career frustrated as you will see that everybody around you knows that the system is broken, that academic PhDs are being vastly overproduced… but that nobody is willing to do anything about it.
So do something about it yourself. Don’t let yourself into the trap unless it’s not a trap for you, but an interesting diversion for your life.