Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Overproduction of PhDs, revisited and with some data

There has been a really interesting discussion of the number of PhDs, the number of TT positions, and exploitation at potnia theron's blog. In thinking about the issues, I looked back at my thoughts on the subject from ages ago. I find that I agree with my younger self still: that making opportunity available to as many qualified applicants that can be supported with current resources is more important to me than the difficulty in finding a TT job. Let people roll the dice on a TT position if they want to. In my field, there are loads of non-academic opportunities, grad students don't make all that much less than a newly minted BA or BSc, and the grad stipend is livable if not luxurious, so the main cost of doing a PhD is opportunity cost.

I know that this is highly field specific, so there may very well be fields where the calculation is different based on the availability of employment, but I strongly feel that if we artificially limit the number of PhD seats, it will be the underrepresented and/or marginalized folks that will lose opportunity. I find that in my field few incoming students plan on an academic career, so I don't consider myself to be training future professors, just future scientists. I certainly do make sure my students know that many highly desirable  (TT either teaching or research, corporate research science, National Lab staff scientist) are very difficult to get without a bit of luck, and that if they want those things, their job is to get qualified and have a plan B just in case. In any case, a PhD is only worth it if the experience is valuable to someone in its own right. Getting a PhD for the gold star is a waste of time.

I believe there are fields for which these things seem to be more precarious. I believe that there are fields for which many (most?) PhDs are underemployed, forced to leave the field, or otherwise unable to use their degrees in a way they would like, even in STEM fields. I've heard that some biomed/life sciences fields are particularly afflicted as a side effect of the rise and fall in NIH funding. I am not sure how I would feel if I were in one of those fields--my students have (thus far!) all found positions they are happy with that require their degrees. At the same time, I also wonder how generalizable this doom and gloom about overproduction really is.

It's kind of like the extended media coverage and gnashing of teeth about the stress level of high school students who are applying to Ivy League-type schools, when the vast majority of higher ed students attend local schools that are not so competitive, making these articles mostly irrelevant. I do see loads of comments, blog posts, and articles about overproduction of PhDs in my field, which does not match my experience with my students or in my department. Do we see the unhappiness of PhDs unable to find desirable positions coming from "pedigree" schools, while the silent majority are happy enough with their outcomes (note that ProdigalU is not a pedigree school), or is the doom and gloom appropriate across the education landscape? How can we know?

Stats from the professional societies I belong to suggest that PhD unemployment is very low. That said, many of the articles complaining about overproduction in my field say that many of these young employed PhDs are in temporary or underemployed situations. I know that my department only really looks at the first post-degree position, so it is hard to say what happens to those who take postdocs or internships. I do know what happens to my students and to others I've worked with at ProdigalU, but I am one PI and not statistically significant. The NSF data I played around with in 2010 is way out of date. People complain about the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), 2015 data published in 2017, but it is pretty much all we have for newly minted PhDs. I can say that I received a doctorate in the US, and I never saw the survey, so at least some of the questions about the reach of the survey are definitely valid. There is also the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), which follows some people from doctorate to age 76. The SDR is due for an update in May 2017, but the last posted data is from 2013 (published in 2014).

The SED there suggests that a high percentage of those with definite post-grad plans in physical or life sciences at the time of survey plan on a postdoc. Something like 40% of new PhDs are visa-holders, which likely influences their post-grad plans and choices. Postdocs are normal in my field for those who want a research-heavy position, even outside academia, so this is not too surprising. Looking at the trends over time, the percentage of new PhD holders in physical science with definite employment commitments is within the historical norm (65-70%) since 1994. The trend in life sciences is a decrease over time, from a plateau at ~70% to ~57%. There was a sharp 5% drop in 2007, which held steady until 2010, when a slow decline began that continues to 2014. I didn't have a position set when I finished my degree, but I wasn't looking all that hard and found one soon after, so I don't know how strong a statement this is, but it does suggest that things are changing in the life sciences for new PhDs. The percentage of those with definite commitments who are doing a postdoc is more or less unchanged for both physical science (~50%) and life science (~70%) over the period 1994-2015, suggesting that there are fewer life sciences postdocs available, leading to a decrease in those with firm plans at graduation. But is this the result of taking longer to find something, or a sign that new life sciences PhDs are unemployed?

We can check of the SDR for a better idea, at least until 2013. The SDR suggests that as of 2013, unemployment was ~2% across a wide range of fields, and about 3% of surveyed science PhDs have involuntarily left the field (average, highest was 7.4% for physics). I don't have time for a detailed review of the data, but a brief look at the main tables does not suggest a calamity of unemployment for PhDs across all fields, and especially in STEM fields. The percentage of employed PhD holders 5 years or fewer post-degree has held steady from 2010 to 2013, so the trend in postdoc commitments in life sciences from the SED does not show up in the SDR. It remains to be seen if there was a huge change in the upcoming data release.

Anecdotally, it does seem harder for people to find positions, which is backed somewhat by the data in the SED for life sciences, but PhD-holders do seem to be finding them. This is consistent with my experience at ProdigalU, where students are taking a bit longer to find something, but are still finding good jobs in our field. There is a general rise in employment uncertainty in the US right now, with contract and part time labor gaining on full time employment as the new norm, and the adjunctification of some sectors of higher ed is certainly a symptom of that. Coupled with the normalization of full or partial soft money TT positions in medical schools (and really, WTF! I don't understand how a position can be TT soft money!) and the overall reduction in support for basic research, many people are in a precarious situation. But this doesn't appear to reflect the majority of PhD-holders, and I don't think makes a strong case for a reduction in the number of PhDs.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How I spend my summer "vacation"

My family members are pretty much the only people who don't assume that I have the whole summer off, like a K-12 teacher. I actually like the ebb and flow of the academic calendar--except for when I was at National Lab, I lived this way my whole conscious life! I do remember when I was a grad student, sitting in the office with my groupmates, and wondering what our advisor did over the summer. So here's how I plan to spend my summer this year:

1. Academic travel: I have plans to meet with a couple of my collaborators face to face. I am also attending a major conference in my field. I like summer conferences, because I can focus on the conference without the nagging feeling of the teaching I am missing/falling behind on.

2. Research push: Several of my students are sitting on projects that are 70-80% of a story. I am planning on doing a major push to get these manuscript ready (if not written in a first draft) by the end of the summer. Towards this end, I have several undergraduate researchers in the lab this summer, half of whom will be running control or repeat experiments to validate our results. I actually have time to interact with my undergrad researchers over the summer other than hello/goodbye and group meeting.

3. Paper push: I have two or three manuscripts sitting on my desk that need polishing/editing to get ready for submission. I want to get these done over the summer when I (sometimes) have uninterrupted blocks of time to write.

4. Proposal writing: I want to get proposals roughed out and drafted for the fall proposal season so I am not teaching and frantically writing at the last minute this year. I have 2 planned for summer submission and 4 planned for fall submission. It is better to spread the writing out so the proposals stay fresh.

5.  Cleaning up my courses: I am actually mostly done with this--I do it in the first weeks of the summer while I still remember well what worked and didn't. I am teaching the same courses next year, so I spent some time cleaning up my lectures, marking up assignments for editing, and writing notes to myself on what I should improve for next time. I'll pick this back up again a week or two before classes start to get ready.

6. Catch up on literature in my field: I really miss just reading papers that are interesting. I got to do a fair amount of this when I was on sabbatical, and I would like to carve out time for it in my normal work life. This year, I was unsuccessful, so I will try to restart the habit this summer.
7. Vacation! I hope to spend at least a week without working. We'll see if I can do it!

Most of my summer plans involve tasks that are best done in largish blocks of time. In the absence of teaching and service obligations, I am hopeful that I can be really productive. We'll see how much of this extremely optimistic list I actually get done.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Recruiting in a time of uncertainty

How are you handling it? Funding my students keeps me awake at night. I dropped my target steady state group size, which actually works better with my management style anyway. While I always want to recruit quality, a mistake in smaller group and with less funding cushion is much, much more painful. I am being VERY careful with who I am taking. In this case, I am attempting to select for enthusiasm, work ethic, and scientific curiosity (better predictors of success than GPA or pedigree, in my experience). Unfortunately, this also means I am only taking students with research experience, because I can't afford for someone to try it out for the first time in my lab and decide it isn't for them.

I am fortunate, because in my field it is possible to do research without lab techs and postdocs (I have exclusively students right now). Postdocs in my field last 1-2 years, so a one year contract with a possibility to renew is the norm, which is helpful in the current funding climate. At ProdigalU, postdocs are still more expensive than students, but students come with a 5-6 year time commitment. This compares poorly to the usual 3 year timeline on grants in my field. It is definitely possible to start a student on a project and then run out of money part-way through the PhD. I worry deeply about this, but so far, I have been able to string together related projects in such a way that my students don't get disrupted.

One may say that there are too many PhDs, and that reducing the number of PhDs is a feature, not a bug of the current funding situation. I don't doubt that this is true in some field and specialties. That said, my students are finding jobs that use their degrees (though it has taken up to a year for some). As is the norm in my area, most of my students are interested in industrial positions, not academia. While I of course think my students are really good, I would think that if there were too many PhDs in my field that some of my students (even if very good) would be unable to find good jobs and would move on to other things. This has not been my experience so far. I actually don't think there is much of a connection between the demand for highly trained workers and support for their training. Aside from the long lag time due to the time to degree, companies can always import trained people from other places if they have unmet needs. And universities will always be able to fill paid student positions as long as the money is there, regardless of whether the students are employable at the end. If there is an actual interest in reducing the overall number of PhDs, I would think that a strategically planned reduction (that targets overpopulated areas) would be much better than random chance, which is what we are getting with the current system.