Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Science Grad School Scambloggers?

Lawyers aren't the only people having trouble dealing with Education Overproduction. Even PhD. scientists (gasp!) of all people are having difficulty on the job market.  I have a Masters degree in one of the physical sciences, so I have been aware of this problem for over a decade, and last night I stumbled across the remains of a blog dedicated to science graduate school scambusting.  I haven't spent much time looking it over yet, but it's not hard to get the gist of it.  So, I thought I would post a link to it here:

Science Ph.D. Job Issues Blog

Also, check out this NPR Science Friday discussion about the problem:

Young Scientists Issues (1996)--At least listen to the ten minutes to hear a funny skit and a list of 5 things unemployed PhD.'s (and JD.'s) do not need to hear..

Granted, science PhD.'s don't have the kinds of student loan problems that lawyers and liberal arts PhD.'s suffer under, but they have still invested years of their lives to train for a glutted field and they may have undergraduate student loans that compounded interest while they were in graduate school.  Since it takes 5-7 years to earn a PhD., they have higher opportunity costs than law students.  That number increases if you add on time served in postdocs or include half of the years (2) spent majoring in science as undergraduates.  Normally, science graduate students do not pay any tuition and receive small stipends (think $15,000/year, often without any insurance).  The rationale behind the stipends is that they work as teaching assistants and research assistants, often for 65+ hours/week.  It really isn't a bad way to earn a PhD., and these degrees are not as useless as Art History or Philosophy PhD.'s, but these are bright people who might have been better served if they had gone into other fields where they could have found work with their Bachelors degrees (engineering, computer science, accounting, or business) or just headed Med.

After they finish their PhD.'s most end up working low-paid 2-3 year gypsy scientist positions called postdoctorates in the hopes of being able to eventually land an assistant professor position (good luck with that).  After two or three postdocs, most wash out of science, the best years of their lives having been wasted.

Science research at the universities is essentially structured as a pyramid scheme, with deans and professors needing a horde of graduate students to teach the undergraduates (laboratory TAs, review classes, etc.) and most importantly, to do the repetitive grunt work that is science research.  The institutions have no concern for whether or not our nation needs more PhD. scientists nor whether they will find real, solid middle class employment in their fields.  Also, since they cannot feed enough Americans to the machine, they import thousands of foreign graduate students who later compete for postdocs and academic and industry jobs with the Americans.  (The foreign grad students are good, hard-working, often very bright, rather likable people, and I have nothing against them personally, but this discussion and this blog is about what is in the economic interests of Americans, not whether or not people in other countries are good people or worthy of our jobs.) 

The end result is that we are producing a large oversupply of frustrated and disenchanted science PhD.'s.  But how will science research get done without the grad students?  Some people have proposed that we train fewer people and create permanent research positions for PhD.'s at $50-60,000/year.  They would probably be just as cost-effective if not more so than the graduate students because they are already trained and productive, just as postdocs are more efficient and productive than grad students.  

Before you conclude that science professors are necessarily in on this and that they are doing well, unlike law professors, they suffer from the risk of losing their research grants and their jobs, and tenure is being eroded.  (You might say that the "scientists career half-life is low.)  I don't think they are paid nearly as well as law professors either.  If you are an assistant professor you will have to work your ass off to make sure that your lab's research is productive and you will always be writing grant proposals, seeking extremely competitive grants.

Unsurprisingly, many of these unemployed, underemployed, angry, and disenchanted scientists have fled the science field to come to law school in the hopes of becoming well-to-do intellectual property lawyers.  So now we have an oversupply of people with a combination of advanced science degrees and law degrees!  That something like that is possible, that people who are so well-trained, well-educated, and skilled could have difficulty finding a job commensurate with their credentials is unfathomable to most Americans.

To an extent, I am also a science career scambuster, too.  Of course, I am interested in the problem of our nation's Education Arms Race in general as well as other economic and societal issues.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I basically agree. The only way to stop the slide that america is on right now is to take away the power of the federal govt. Take all power back to the states. Do that by cutting the fed govt budget to the bone

Anonymous said...

I basically agree. The only way to stop the slide that america is on right now is to take away the power of the federal govt. Take all power back to the states. Do that by cutting the fed govt budget to the bone

Dupednontraditional said...

(sigh) I managed to dodge the PhD Engineering trap, only to fall for the nontrad JD trap...whaddayagonnado? Capitalism is about trapping people, I guess.

your_homework said...

Since you linked to it and it is my first time reading it, I guess I need to defend an institution that is quite different from the law school scam scene. 78% of chemistry grad students get health insurance (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/88/8843cover.html), and I believe that the average salary is closer to 25K than what you reported. I speak only of chemistry, though I can only see this faring worse if you lumped in things that are definitely not sciences (biology grad students I think are compensated even better).

The graduate school system for science students is so enticing, in fact, that it has recently been much more competitive to enter due to all of the recently laid off people trying to get a job. There are a lot of older people trying to do grad school now (which is inadvisable since it does not seem to give them a better chance at a good job than had they not gotten the degree, but at least it was a paying position usually with benefits).

That being said, like any academic decision, you should know what you are getting before pursuing forward. Specifically, since graduate school is a system where one is mentored by a faculty member it is very much worthwhile to research on where prior members have gone after graduation and talk with the people who are or are in contact with the person you are considering as an advisor.

So I think you can see that there is a very big difference between law school and graduate school in the sciences. You get paid, you get health insurance, you get a free education, and you have a bit more security about your future if you choose a good advisor. Also, you get to be one of the people who pushes technologies and discoveries forward.

Anonymous said...

I'm on the chemistry faculty at a Ph.D.-level university. I agree with the comments of your_homework. The production of US chemistry Ph.D. has remained fairly constant since the 1970's. Here's data from the American Chemical Society for 1998-2009.

http://pubs.acs.org/isubscribe/journals/cen/88/i34/html/8834acsnews1.html

You can graduate debt-free and get about a $75,000 starting salary. Still there's a tough economy out there. I've heard back from several former students looking for jobs. I've been able to help a few. I tell my present students that they can't be picky about job offers, e.g. location or type of work as former ones where 5 years ago. Off-shoring of R&D is a big topic in my profession. Who does that not affect? The plumber?

I think we're all paying for the de-industrialization of the USA which has been a big mistake.

Anonymous said...

I was in the Ph. D. trap. After the second year I switched to the MSc. track after I saw what was going on.

The senior students were discussing of they could hide their Ph. D. as there were few jobs at the appropriate level and they were discriminated against as overqualified for many of the alternative careers. They then ended up in post-doc limbo for 35k no benefits moving across the country.

Also a lot of PI's, who are supposed to mentor you, are in it for themselves. The university desperately needs English speaking TA's to teach undergrad science and PI's need cheap technicians to work in their labs. My PI basically let anyone join and if you did a lot of good research he would take credit and keep you there by not letting you graduate for 7+ years. One of my colleagues had to threaten to go to the provost after 7 years. If you didn't, he ignored you until you quit.

Science is set up for maximum exploitation and abuse of people from BS/MS level jobs that pay less than a garbage man, to the grad/post-doc system. There are tons of other fields out there that reward intelligence and hard work rather than abuses it.

Do pharm school if you love chemistry. Also, Med, dental, and optometry are good. Heck, 2 years for a MSA and you can be on the road to 6 figures in accounting if you get the CPA later. However, do yourself a huge favor and stay the heck away from science.

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