Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Academia and Pyramid Schemes

I've been thinking a bit about the whole "pyramid scheme" thing when it comes to academia. There are many people who bitterly accuse professors of actively setting one up and/or exploiting their students and postdocs who will "never get jobs". I don't think this is really true, and never did (even when I ran screaming from academia). For one thing, the unemployment rate among science PhD holders (going by statistics from professional societies like the APS, ACS, MRS, etc) is much lower than the general unemployment rate. All those PhDs not joining the TT are also not joining breadlines. For another thing, many PhDs are not even interested in an academic career (recently noted by GMP here).

I guess I don't really see much difference between academic job hunting, and job hunting in general. Starting out with undergrad admissions, there are many more qualified people for desirable positions than available slots. Who gets those slots is a matter of hard work (to get qualified) and luck (to be one of the qualified people who is "chosen"). So how is the TT any different from grad school admissions (in ANY prestige program), law firm partnership, company CEO, professional artist/athlete/performer, attending physician, investment banking, etc? The pool of qualified applicants is many times larger than the number of slots, and there are desirable perks to success (money/prestige/fame/security/intellectual freedom) making the supply of those willing to try for the goal pretty much infinite.

Maybe I have rose colored glasses on because I have always been lucky enough to find a position in research, but there are no guarantees in life. When I was interviewing in industry, I saw many really interesting jobs available to science PhD holders that were not in research. If I hadn't gone to National Lab, I would have been happy to take on one of those instead. Sure, my life would be different, but it wouldn't make my PhD a waste of time or a failed opportunity.

I've been telling my students that loving science isn't enough--they need to think about what they want to do with their PhDs, and start preparing for that before they are looking for a job so they can tailor their PhD experience appropriately (more teaching/writing/industrial partners/whatever). My current crew is undecided about what they want to do next. I do ask them periodically, though because 5 years goes by fast.

11 comments:

GMP said...

I've been telling my students that loving science isn't enough--they need to think about what they want to do with their PhDs, and start preparing for that before they are looking for a job so they can tailor their PhD experience appropriately

This is a great thought, Prodigal!

Dr.Girlfriend said...

I wonder what the employment rate is for PhD's in positions that require a PhD. How many PhDs are in jobs that they could have gotten with just a BS or an MS?

I am not saying PhD is a waste of time, but it is if your goal is to be wealthier than other college graduates.

I did not embark on a PhD under any illusion that it would improve my job prospects. I wanted the highest degree possible, and I thought my graduate student stipend was a good salary. I have no regrets and I want to do it all over again.

I think that exploitation really does exist, especially for postdocs in institutions that offer no protection against bad practices. Whether this is intentional or not, there are plenty of postdocs being treated as disposable technicians. A senior technician costs more, and generally works only 40 hr weeks. Postdocs are better qualified, obsessive workers, and easier to fire. If a postdoc has invested a year or more and has generated data they are not in a good position to leave without a publication.

Not everyone is lucky enough to find a good and fair mentor and there are no guarantees. However, institutions can and should try to make sure certain standards are maintained.

Hope said...

I pretty much agree with you on this, perhaps because I, too, have never had a problem landing research jobs, even with just my BS. If I thought that the only reason to get a PhD was to be a prof, I never would have returned to school – and I’m not sorry I did (so far!).

I’m reminded of a woman I met during Orientation who was getting a PhD in astronomy. She told me that she knew there was a close-to-zero chance of her landing a TT job somewhere, but she was content to study what she loved for the next 5-6 yrs and then move on to something else. I find it hard to think of her as “wasting” her time.

I do sympathize with the pyramid scheme believers on one count, though. You aren’t the first to compare landing a TT job to succeeding as a professional artist/athlete/performer, but you must admit that society at large considers the latter a much more risky venture than the former. I don’t think many parents panic when their kids tell them that they want to be profs – no one says, “But how will you make a living doing that?”

Perhaps, thanks to the internet, young people are much more aware these days of what getting tenure somewhere entails. As an undergrad centuries ago, I wasn’t; and I never met a single prof willing to enlighten me in that regard, either.

prodigal academic said...

Dr. Girlfriend, I agree with you that some postdocs are exploited. There are many exploitative jobs in many different industries (and at all education levels). The existence of exploitation does not make academia a pyramid scheme.

Hope, I also had no clue about tenure as an undergrad (only that it was hard, since a popular professor didn't earn it while I was doing my degree). I quickly learned in my first year as a PhD student, though!

I find your anecdote about people knowing that they were going to spend 5-7 years doing research for the love of it not uncommon. I know a few PhDs who intended to teach high school all along, but loved science enough to want to explore it in more detail doing research for a few years. As for why parents freak out about professional performer vs. TT prof, with the training to be a TT prof, you get marketable skills that enable a number of well paying jobs with good working conditions (unlike professional performer). If my kid wanted to play in the minor leagues for the love of the game, and spent the offseason learning something practical, I would be cool with it.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

I do think that a college education in general is oversold. Kids are told it is the only way to get ahead, so even if they hate academic study they feel compelled to go to college.

Before I got into university in my mid twenties I knew plenty of graduates my age working the same crapy jobs as I was earning just as little. It does help you get ahead in certain professions, but it universities are way over-selling the product as a sound investment.

Am I jealous that my non-college educated 30yr old younger brother earns more than I do driving trucks? A little, but not really. So far my experience has been worth it on a personal level.

GamesWithWords said...

So I started writing a response as a comment, but decided it was too long and just wrote a whole post about it.

The basic point is that whether academia looks like a pyramid scheme depends a lot on what kind of school you're at. In some programs, nearly everyone gets tenure-track jobs after graduation (or at least after a post-doc). I think this is true of pretty much all education programs: people go to many different schools in the hopes of getting the same kind of job, but almost all those jobs go to people who graduated from a tiny proportion of those schools. If there's a problem, it may lie less in students misunderstanding the value of a PhD per se, but in their misunderstanding the value of a PhD from a particular school.

Hope said...

@PA: As for why parents freak out about professional performer vs. TT prof, with the training to be a TT prof, you get marketable skills that enable a number of well paying jobs with good working conditions (unlike professional performer).

I agree that studying to be a prof leaves you with transferable skills. But I think that the reason *most* parents don’t freak out is because they have no idea what the odds are of landing a TT job.

prodigal academic said...

Dr. G, I totally agree with you. College is way oversold in this country. It also means that employers can demand a college degree for jobs that don't require it, screwing over people without the resources to go.

A family friend went to 1 year of undergrad, refused to go back, and now has his own HVAC company. I would totally support one of my kids if they wanted to do some type of training other than college, but "unskilled" labor is a tough way to make a living. I have a good friend whose husband is in construction, and he keeps saying no kid of mine is going to follow me into this life.

GWW, I posted a longer comment on your post. The short version is that yes, where you go matters, but your fate is not decided by your pedigree.

Hope, I'd say that is definitely true too. :-)

GamesWithWords said...

Certainly your fate is not decided by your pedigree. But I thought we were talking about whether whether PhDs were a scam. The main point was that there are school which, if you go to, your chances of getting a TT job are more or less assured, and there are schools which, if you go to, your chances are very slim. That seems relevant.

I have a longer response to the rest of your comment back on my site.

prodigal academic said...

Games, I responded over at your place, but I thought I would point out that in many fields (like mine), there is nothing you can do to virtually assure yourself of a TT position. Even people with prestige schools for undergrad, PhD, and postdoc with good CVs are not guaranteed to get one.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe I have rose colored glasses on because I have always been lucky enough to find a position in research"

you think?