Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

01.29.13

Too Many Science Students?

Is it even possible too have too many science PhDs?

Here's a phrase you don't hear every day:  "We need to stop training so many PhD scientists."  

That's blogger DrugMonkey, arguing that graduate schools are pushing too many students through because taking on more students is a substitute for hiring a more expensive permanent workforce.  

This is going to hurt the many, many of us (and therefore the NIH) who depend on the undervalued labor of graduate students. This chart (click to enlarge it) from the NIH RePORTER site shows the relatively slow increase in NIH funded fellowships and traineeships compared with the more rapid increase in research assistantships (light blue). Read: graduate students paid directly from research grants. The more graduate students we "train" in this way, the more we need to secure more R01s and other R-mech grants to support them.

Spare me your anecdotes about how graduate students cost as much as postdocs or technicians (to your NIH R-mechanism or equivalent research grants). If they weren't good value, you'd switch over. The system, as a whole, is most certainly finding value in exploiting the labor of graduate students on the promise of a career that is now uncertain to be realized. This is because the charging of tuition and fees is still incomplete. Because students have the possibility at some point during the tenure in our laboratories of landing supporting fellowships of various kinds. Because some departments still receive substantial Teaching Assistant funds to support graduate students (and simultaneously ease the work of allegedly professing Professors). And above all else, because we are able to pull off an exploitative culture in which graduate students are induced to work crazy hard in a Hunger Games style bloodthirsty competition for the prize....and Assistant Professor appointment.

What he's describing is a classic glamor labor market.  A large number of aspiring entrants, who are poorly paid, but have a shot at fame and fortune if they reach the top slot.  A small number of people in the top slots.  And very little in between, in part thanks to the huge oversupply of labor at the bottom, which makes it cheaper to use three less experienced people than one person at a middling wage scale.  That big blue bulge in the graph below is research assistants--graduate students--who are doing more and more of the work on NIH grants.

But . . . STEM PhD's?  A glamor industry?  Are there really loads of people panting to get into academic chemistry because of the fame and fortune?  

Maybe.  Being an academic scientist is not going to get you the same level of recognition that, say, Kanye West enjoys.  On the other hand, it will bring a great deal of respect.  And if you are the sort of person who enjoys chemistry or physics, the job also brings a great deal of autonomy and intellectual stimulation.  All in all, it's not surprising that there are more entrants than the market can readily absorb.  

But there is another possibility: that the students don't really understand how poor the odds are until it is too late.  Anecdotally, one hears over and over that advisors were less than straight with prospective graduate students about the long odds of getting a job.  (Though I do also hear from some academics that their advisors were straight with them--and that they persevered anyway, despite the risks.  22 year olds naturally suffer from optimism bias.)  By the time they realize just how hard it is likely to be to secure a tenure-track position and adequate research funding, they have invested a great deal of time into their program; abandonning it means writing off years of hard work.  Better to pull through and take their chances.  

If that's the case, then it's worth asking whether PhD programs have a responsibility to their students: admit fewer, and pay more for professional research assistants.  This would help the glut in two ways: it would create more career-track (if not tenure track) jobs for people who want to work in science; and it would reduce the number of people laboring for below-market wages in the hopes of securing a job that doesn't exist.  

How you answer that question depends a lot on how you view the ethical obligations of employers--and whether you think that a school with a grad student is basically an employer/employee relationship.  

Does an employer have an obligation to pay more for workers when they can get them for less?  I'd say no; others may differ.  

Is it unethical to maintain an employment situation that's structured like a tournament--a few at the top, a lot at the bottom, and ruthless culling of most of the workforce every few years?  I don't like these sorts of systems, whether they're in academia, or law firms, or the military.  But I'm not sure I'd describe them as "unethical".  

But is a graduate program really like an employer? I'd argue that a graduate program has greater responsibilities than an employer does--including not admitting students who will struggle to find jobs in the field for which you are allegedly preparing them.  That's not to say that programs need to exactly match the number of job slots they think will be available, but there shouldn't be large multiples.  

But I think we should be a bit more flexible about calculating those jobs numbers than DrugMonkey is.  Of course most graduate students would like to end up with a tenure track job, but I'm not going to weep too hard if their PhD leads them to a well-remunerated position in private industry or the government.  Do we really have a problem of too many STEM PhDs?  Or just a problem of too many STEM PhDs who can't do exactly what they want?

I don't know the answer to that.  But in fairness to DrugMonkey, many people suggest STEM education as the answer to all our economic woes, as if the market could absorb literally any quantity of STEM students that schools care to produce.  This is unlikely to be true (though it's certainly possible that the schools would run out of students who can do the work long before the market runs out of jobs.)

And many of the traditional industries where STEM students have traditionally taken their PhDs are themselves going through a bit of a hiccup--the finance industry is not as robust as it used to be, Big Pharma has been downsizing like mad, and other areas of healthcare look a bit rocky as Obamacare tries to wring out the profits.  It may be that we are producing more STEM graduate students than the market can absorb.  Which is itself a terrifying thought.  If a PhD in chemistry won't guarantee you a job, what will?