Friday, August 20, 2010

Overproduction of PhDs?

I saw this interesting post and follow-up comments at Inside Higher Ed by Monica Harris, a professor of Psychology. In her post, Prof. Harris discusses the poor academic job market in psychology and how she tried to warn potential students about it. In the end, she says:

After a few years of watching the academic job market collapse into a seeming death spiral, I also started to wonder whether my "full disclosure" strategy of trying to scare off prospective graduate students was adequate. I started to entertain the possibility that if the problem was too many qualified applicants for too few jobs, then perhaps the responsible – even ethical – course of action would be for me to stop contributing to the oversupply of applicants.

So, a few weeks ago I revised my departmental web page to include the following statement: "Notice to prospective graduate students: I will not be accepting new students in my lab for the indefinite future."

This seems like a total overreaction to me. Now, I am in a STEM field, so even though the academic job market is poor, there is still pretty good demand for Masters and PhD holders in my field outside of academia, especially in non-research positions. According to the scientific societies that track such things, unemployment is low among PhD-holders, and in general remains much lower than the general unemployment rate even in times of recession.

Furthermore, what percentage of grad students go in wanting to become academics? In my field, it is pretty low--maybe 30%? None of my current students (or in fact any of the many students I have interviewed for my group) have said they want to be professors, which is similar to what GMP has experienced in her field. Maybe this is not the case for the social sciences and humanities. Even so, I find it hard to believe that the skills of a PhD in anything (statistics, research skills, writing, analysis) are not transferrable to other job areas.

In my own experience, I have a friend who went to a top-10 University, published in Science, and uses his PhD to teach high school (which was his plan all along--he just loved his field, and wanted to spend a little time delving into it before starting his career). Another former classmate is now an ordained clergy person, after getting a PhD in our field (also for the love of it). This on top of all the PhD holders I know in law, business, non-research science, and other occupations by choice, not as a last resort. Given the HUGE variety of motivations for getting a PhD, it seems kind of patronizing to say "I am going to save you from yourself, kid." Especially in fields where the main cost is opportunity cost, and grad stipends are livable.

I can understand the feeling that there are too many PhDs, but I think that is because there are more people in general, and more of those people than ever before have opportunities that used to be reserved exclusively for rich, white, Christian, heterosexual men. I do not believe that academia is a pyramid scheme, any more than I believe admissions to prestigious Universities are a pyramid scheme. My fear is that if we restrict admissions to PhD programs, we will go backwards on the progress we have made towards diversity. Tightening admissions requirements would screw over the disadvantaged in our society. I would much, much rather allow people to make their own choices and roll the dice on a TT job if they so desire.


Female Computer Scientist said...

From what I've gathered from my colleagues in psychology, as researchers they have far fewer non-academic options than we do in STEM. (Unless they're willing to do clinical work)

Also I think funding is even tighter for them in this economy than it for us. I know of at least one person who quit her job as a professor (after being one at an Ivy for several decades) because she couldn't stand being unable to get grants anymore. I think that's why there's so much cross-disciplinary research going on in their field today - it's the only way they can keep putting food on the table.

GMP said...

Tightening admissions requirements would screw over the disadvantaged in our society. I would much, much rather allow people to make their own choices and roll the dice on a TT job if they so desire.

I totally agree. In STEM, getting an MS or a PhD degree does significantly improve the earning potential outside academia. Going to grad school is a good choice for many STEM students (get paid AND get a degree), and they are certainly not confined to academic positions.

I don't know how I would feel if there were no jobs for my PhD students anywhere outside academia, though... I suppose it might be really disheartening.

JaneB said...

I agree too, being in STEM. Though I still feel it incumbent on me to repeatedly make sure that students understand the downsides of being an academic, are aware of the range of job options outside academia, and take opportunities to meet with people in those jobs/find out about them. It's not just academics who have a PhD=faculty and all else is failure type of mind-set, I've found, entering students can be just as bad!

Dr.Girlfriend said...

Is the employment for PhDs higher than that of non-PhD college graduates?

A PhD is necessary for some careers, is not a good investment of time if your ultimate goal is a high-salaried life. Many PhDs end up doing jobs that they could have been doing without a PhD, and I am not convinced their earning potential is greatly increased.

One reason I did a PhD and not a medical degree was that I could not afford the later. I did not want to be any particular job or career, I just wanted the highest degree possible.

Being a grad student is not a poorly paid position, and there is obviously a demand for such trainee researchers. If this were not the case, PhDs programs would expect students to train for free and even pay tuition like undergraduates!

However, I do wish programs would quit false advertising and overselling the PhD as a smart career move. It is not. And if you do not enjoy the time spend working towards your PhD, then it is not worth pursuing.

I think that there is too much emphasizes on education as a means to an end, and not enough appreciation for endeavor itself. If your PhD is not a labor of love then you are going to be disappointed.

I believe the door should be open but the bar kept high - meaning anyone should be free to try for a PhD, but not everyone should be awarded a PhD for trying.

GMP said...

Dr. G, good point about employability. I think there are differences among different STEM fields. Most of my kids will go into research labs or semiconductor industry. In this industry, there is a marked salary difference for PhD vs MS vs Bachelor's and graduate degrees are really sought after. I would say a graduate degree is virtually a necessity; a number of companies may pay for you to go to grad school.

I don't know how things look in the biomed...

Dr.Girlfriend said...

@GMP - in your field it seems that there is an UNDERproduction of PhDs if demands are not being met!

I do not think this is the case with biomed type degrees where many PhDs take technical, teaching, or business positions that do not require PhDs. In bioscience two-thirds of postdocs claim to want a faculty position, but less than half of these individuals will get one.

Going back to the main point - I do think PhD admissions should be limited to individuals the department can afford to fund and are willing to invest in.

I do not like it that education is largely a profit-making business. I would much rather it be funded by tax payers and limited to the most dedicated beyond over 18s.

prodigal academic said...

@FCS: Wow--that bad in psych? That really sucks. That said, access to education is really important to me, so I don't think I would make the same decision.

@GMP: I agree that I don't know how I would feel if my students had no place to go in science. I feel fortunate that the field I love is also employable!

@Dr. G: I agree with you totally on the school support. As much as I want people to have access to advanced degrees, they must be qualified, and the department must be capable of supporting them with adequate resources and stipends for their time in grad school. I just don't think we need to artificially reduce the number of students (even though we could support more) just to "control" the total number of PhDs.

I think that giving fair warning about employability and salary is fine, even if many PhDs don't end up in high paying jobs in the field. For example, a high school science teacher with a PhD makes more than one with a BS, but less than someone in industry or research. A BS teacher with more experience might also make more. I still don't think the PhD was a mistake for this person, as long as they enjoyed the process.

I would never encourage ANYONE to pay for grad school (other than a professional school like business, law, or medicine) or to accept a position without a stipend. The costs don't justify the outcome. In most STEM fields, the costs are mostly opportunity costs, as a student stipend is livable if not luxurious. I certainly didn't feel deprived.

Hope said...

Dr. Girlfriend makes a number of excellent points:

Is the employment for PhDs higher than that of non-PhD college graduates?

In my engineering discipline, PhD’s find work in industry easily, and although they do make more than an MS or BS just out of school, their hiring salaries are not higher than an MS/BS with 5+ yrs on the job. My experience in industry has been that initial salary differences due to education are quickly overshadowed by bonuses and raises due to actual productivity; and that there’s more than one path to any particular job. OTOH, those interested in leadership roles or heavy into the research side can benefit from a PhD.

If your PhD is not a labor of love then you are going to be disappointed.

Exactly! If you are constantly miserable in grad school, you need to leave. Find another school, another field, another profession – life is too short!

I believe the door should be open but the bar kept high - meaning anyone should be free to try for a PhD, but not everyone should be awarded a PhD for trying.

I couldn’t agree more – a PhD should mean something, and the standards to which students are held should be independent of their post-grad plans or their advisor’s tenure status.

I also think that the fear that tightening admission requirements will cause us to backslide in terms of diversity is unfounded. For the past 20 yrs, admission to Harvard (and other top colleges) has been getting more and more competitive, but this has not resulted in less diverse entering classes. Tightening admission requirements != eliminating all affirmative action efforts. It’s also worth thinking about who we mean by “disadvantaged”: racial/ethnic minorities, women in STEM, the poor? Because the poor are often left out of affirmative action, even though not having access to good schools obviously has a big impact on success in higher ed.

GMP said...

I couldn’t agree more – a PhD should mean something, and the standards to which students are held should be independent of their post-grad plans

This is a very nice thought. I think this is how universities used to operate -- all PhD's were trained to be scholars. I would love it if this were true now, but it's no longer true and will likely never be again.

One reason is that these high standards would mean way fewer people going in and making it out. In the current university funding climate, especially public universities, the money a university receives (and the money that trickles down to departments) scales with the number of enrolled students -- so there you have it. So many graduate students will be enrolled without financial aid or sufficient qualifications. The poor quality and motivation of the average grad student (with exceptions, of course) is one of the worst things in a faculty's life, right there with low funding rates.

Another issue is the complete devaluation of the BS degree. It's become almost what a high-school degree used to be 30 years ago. Now you can't do almost anything without a BS; also, in order for everyone to get a BS, it has become watered down, with emphasis on breadth rather than depth, so basically all in depth technical training is now deferred to grad school.

I have a few more cynical thoughts, but I am hijacking Prodigal's comments, so I am stopping now. Bottom line: I agree with Dr. G and Hope with what a PhD should ideally be, but it's a far far cry from that. I am afraid there is little that we (faculty) can do about it, as it's a systemic nationwide issue tied to how universities are (under)funded and what a BS is understood to be (everyone's right, as long as you can pay)... Many, many things are wrong here.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the great comments. I've responded to this last round of discussion between Hope and GMP in my next post. The summary is that I agree with Hope that a PhD should mean something, and also with GMP that the ideal meaning is distorted by reality.