Too Many Ph.D.s?

apprentice: 1 a : one bound by indenture to serve another for a prescribed period with a view to learning an art or trade b : one who is learning by practical experience under skilled workers a trade, art, or calling

This week’s lead Science & Technology Department story by Senior Editor Bethany Halford addresses a question that is on the minds of many people associated with the chemistry enterprise: Is chemistry facing a glut of Ph.D.s?

Halford has been working on this major story for several months. It has not been an easy story to report. Not surprisingly, some sources aren’t enthusiastic about being quoted on the topic. Vested interests are involved. Ph.D. students, after all, and the postdoctoral fellows they become are the source of cheap, highly skilled labor in the laboratories of our leading research institutions. Many organizations, the American Chemical Society included, work to encourage young people to go into chemistry.

Halford does a fine job of laying out the basics of the issue. As she points out, “The answer to the question—Are we training too many Ph.D.s?—comes down to supply and demand. How many Ph.D.s is the U.S. graduating and how many does it need?” Her article addresses both issues, drawing on data from the National Science Foundation and the ACS Committee on Professional Training for the supply side of the equation and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Chemistry Council, and a variety of other sources for the demand side.

What she finds is that we are producing a lot of chemistry Ph.D.s, and many of those Ph.D. chemists are having trouble finding jobs. That’s not news to many C&EN readers, I know. Several of her sources suggest that the changes in the employment landscape facing chemists may well be permanent. University of Maryland chemistry professor Michael P. Doyle, for example, told Halford: “I think we’re in a serious time of restructuring in the U.S. The people who have been trained in graduate departments in the U.S. have to expect that their employment will not be in the areas that they thought they would be in.”

Halford cites a number of recent commentaries in her story, including an essay in Nature by Harvard University chemist George M. Whitesides and Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist John M. Deutch entitled “Let’s Get Practical” (DOI: 10.1038/469021a) and an essay in The Economist entitled “The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a Ph.D. Is Often a Waste of Time” (Dec. 16, 2010).

Interestingly, to me, both essays refer to graduate students as “apprentices” or graduate training as an “apprenticeship.” Among their suggestions for improving the situation chemistry faces, Whitesides and Deutch write: “Teach students, rather than using them. Many subdisciplines of chemistry still use an apprenticeship model in which a professor conceives the problem and strategy, and graduate students execute the bench work. It is hard to imagine a worse way to prepare tomorrow’s chemists to work at the integration of many disciplines. Instead, professors should teach students the tools of curiosity. An independent, engaged student, exploring as a colleague in a promising area, will do better work than a simple apprentice.”

While I agree with Whitesides and Deutch at a practical level, I think the apprentice model for graduate study is more insidious than they suggest. Apprentices train to become their masters. That means that too many chemistry graduate students are training to become chemistry professors, which is probably not what we need more of, at least not in the traditional sense.

To be fair, Whitesides and Deutch advocate a radical restructuring of graduate training in chemistry that moves away from the apprenticeship model and emphasizes a focus on societally important questions and a more holistic curriculum. And while they state that “academic chemistry is overpopulated,” I’m not sure they’re advocating training fewer Ph.D. chemists.

I don’t think it’s really a question of whether there are too many Ph.D.s in chemistry. I think it’s a question of whether Ph.D. students are learning what they need to know to succeed and benefit society.

Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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10 Comments

  1. I do not feel we trained enough Ph. Ds. I feel that we are giving out too many “Ph.D” too easily and–cheaply. The consequence is that company found it difficult to find a real talented Ph.D… It is like finding a needle in hays.

  2. PhD cannot be anything that is in need by the labor market. There are always things PhD cannot be however we revise the training. So within the possibility which is limited there of course will be problems of “too many or not”. The suitable question to ask thus is what is still the need that a PhD can possibly be? If there is no such need, then of course the PhD is too many.

  3. While institutions certainly benefit, perhaps even unfairly, from the glut of cheap labor that graduate students provide, it is unfair to characterize these students as wholly naive and with no responsibility. Even with glib universities extolling the success of their graduates, these students have already graduated college and ought to posses the basic decision making abilities needed to come to an informed and accurate decision as to what path to take. If not, the fault certainly does not solely lay with the PhD programs.

  4. Part of the problem is what the workforce wants. Ph.Ds are supposed to be people with a base set of intellectual, physical, and tempermental skills needed to enter and be successful in a field of science, but industrial Ph.Ds appear to be hired for particular skills and discarded when those skills are no longer useful. If training in particular skills is what companies are willing to pay for, then there is likely to be a serious mismatch with how academic and discovery chemistry and Ph.D. training works.

    It would be easier to blame Ph.D. students for their prospects if there were clearer evidence of employment prospects before entering school, but since schools don’t generally discuss where their graduates end up, and hardly anyone (without a major research project) seems to be able to get reliable employment data, that seems like an unreasonable expectation.

  5. If it was up to me (luckily, it isn’t) I’d have everybody get a PhD. Earning a doctorate, whatever the field, is really about solving problems. And since the world seems to be facing a lot of seemingly intractable problems, more problem solvers would surely be a good thing.

  6. I don’t know what the message is supposed to be to Chemistry Departments and especially to research professors. It is a free market system. The professor decides what she wants to study or what could be funded within that space and writes a proposal. The funding agencies, and to some extent companies and universities, decide what research they want to fund. Any one of these groups could offer entrance counseling to students or interview them before they are accepted to make sure they really want to spend 5-6 (or more) years of their life studying things connected to that. Beyond that I think it is really a funding question. In my opinion, it is not easy to get a Ph.D. and after you have it, you are still unlikely to be employable without a postdoc. I remember being told in high school in 1994 or so that it wasn’t a good field to go into if you wanted a job. I just really liked it and I would completely offer the same advice as Matt platz

  7. Good parents can raise kids who, thanks to the larger economic picture, can’t find a job after college. Similarly, the overproduction of Ph.D.s, the decline of American industry, and the current recession have created an environment where new Ph.D.s taught by even the best advisors find beginning their careers to be an uphill battle.

  8. This is an interesting and timely topic, but once again the wrong questions are being asked. If a larger proportion of students are convinced not to pursue doctorates, this may temporarily make unemployment numbers look better, but it will hurt the economy and US competitiveness worldwide in the future. Despite the fact that a significant number of Ph.D. chemists are unemployed, underemployed and/or unhappy with their positions, these are still low numbers relative to most other professions. We should focus on the demand side rather the supply side of the issue: why do employers need Ph.Ds. and how can people with doctorates best be employed. Paradoxically, I believe that what is needed is more technicians. If business owners and corporate managers can be made to see that their own self interest is served by more patiently growing their businesses, they will be more willing to commit real resources to training more entry-level employees, as opposed to current norm of trying to cherry pick the available workforce for maximum immediate returns without serious commitment to ensuring that qualified people are available in the future. If investors and corporate managers, who are collectively sitting on hundreds of billions of uncommitted dollars would agree to give more support for education and increase the level of technology investment in the economy as a whole, there would be more jobs at all levels.

    One misconception at the heart of the discussions Mr. Baum describes is the idea that hiring of scientists at all levels is a zero-sum game. In the short term, this appears to be true: if you hire an experienced Ph.D., a fixed salary budget is reduced by roughly what is needed for two entry-level technicians, so the question comes down to whether you need planners or “pairs of hands” at the moment. Individual managers must make decisions on this basis at any specific point in time, but this view neglects the future impact which hiring a balanced workforce will have on productivity. Small company labs nationwide are commonly short-staffed when it comes to technicians and masters-level scientists, so overextended Ph.Ds. often find themselves to forced to squeeze multiple technician-level tasks into their daily schedules. While some companies clearly hire too many Ph.Ds. usually they are there for a reason. (One Ph.D. or M.S. supervisor for eight technicians – an accountant’s dream – may be OK for a lab doing lots of standard analyses, but may work badly in a start-up where people are constantly developing new methodology.) As a broad business strategy, a shift of priorities to higher early personnel investment (as opposed to padding payrolls later in flush times) would be the best way to grow a newer business enough return the investment, (and macroeconomically, the best way to grow the job market) but financial sources are almost always strained for small firms. The same can be said of new enterprises in the larger economy.

    Since the country needs to find be more jobs at all levels to replace vanished manufacturing employment we need to focus on total technological employment, since U.S. tech companies are among the only ones capable of creating comparable jobs. A 2010 Kauffman Fdn. study found that since the mid-1970s, almost all real job growth (as opposed to recovery from previous declines) was from start-ups. In addition to consulting people from large federal agencies and elite universities, the author should really have interviewed people who are likely to do net hiring in the near future, as opposed to ones whose organizations we all know are maxed-out or contracting.

    Finally, I appear to be the first to say I’m appalled by Richard Freeman’s glib notion that in the future we SHOULD just poach other countries’ graduates when supply/demand swings the other way and we run out of our own. Yes, that’s fine, so long as you want to give every schoolchild in America the message that we don’t care whether they have a chance at a scientific career. Freeman’s next publication will no doubt be a cookbook for seed corn; don’t expect to see a second edition.

  9. The biggest danger of the current situation is that the top young minds will not enter chemistry or other scientific fields under unattractive working conditions and career prospects. This is indeed happening in the U.S. as demonstrated by the statistics. There has been a precipitous 50% drop in the recruitment of the top quintile of US-schooled students entering science careers/post-graduate training in the last 10 years (http://www.docstoc.com/docs/14021642/Steady-as-She-Goes-Three-Generations-of-Students-through-the-Science-and-Engineering-Pipeline). NSF/ACS may want to conduct a survey to determine what would make chemistry more attractive to the lost top quintile of U.S. science students. You may want to ask the upcoming generation of students what they are weighing in their decision (eg. compensations, career prospects). I do not think our current (over)employment of foreign science students and post-docs is advantageous for recruiting the top U.S. science students. The compensations for the two groups are not the same if you implicitly throw in a path to U.S. citizenship for one group, but not something of equivalent value for the other.

  10. After earning a Ph.D. degree in a top 5 university. I have decided, that I will look for a job, instead of post-doctoring. After my Ph.D. I wanted work and enjoy its fruit, a car, a home, a family. I have seen Postdoctor’s approaching 40 and not having any of the above.
    I have interviewed some 20 top Corporations(Proctor and Gamble, Merck, Monsanto, etc.) and not got a single job. I have learned that in 6 years I have learned laboratory techniques, that nobody wanted, that Ph.D.’s are considered too old for retraining and to set in their ways. My advisor recommended me to go to Medical School for more training without any consideration whether I have any interest in it.
    With a Dean of my Ph.D. school helped me to get a job in the Semiconductor industry, but I lost it in 2 years due to lack of job expereince, soft kills, etc.
    I ended up going to a trade school, which what I learned there, I combined with some of my undergraduate training, I got a job advertised in the market place, relying on my own skills I learned from the trade schools, instead of being hired by the recommendation of my “famous” advisor. After 30 years of career that spans top Defense Contractors, Broadcasting, as a Software Engineer.

    I think the Universities besides teaching “thinking skills, and creativity” should start teaching specific skills, that actually can result in a job.

    I think B.A. Chemist should go in the job market first, and when they understand what is out there in the market place, then they should go for a PH.D. – It would reduce the number of PH.D. applicants, and would create experties, that may be valuable.

    Our current Professors should become better teachers, and advisors. Most of them do not have industrial experience. They need to learn about human motivations and consideration for their students instead of focusing on their own grants, and papers.

    Today I still regret that I have not been able to use my training in chemistry, and that is a human loss(>10 years of my life), and the cost, of my education, NIH grants, etc is a loss of all of Society.

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