Whatever model or models the nation chooses, many observers believe that the existing system of research by professors who constantly produce large numbers of scientists unlikely to achieve their career aspirations is near collapse. The real crisis in American science education is not young Americans’ inability to learn, or the schools’ inability to teach, but a distorted job market’s inability to provide them careers worthy of their abilities.
ludz13 at 09:17 AM on 02/23/10
The professional sports analogy is very apt. Academia really has become a huge competition with very few winners reaping all the spoils (academic jobs), while the majority of competitors toil away in the minor leagues (as post-docs, etc…) until they eventually give up and go do something else once they give up that dream.
Most people who pursue PhDs do want to become professors, at least for a while, despite any protests to the contrary. PhD degrees are like viruses: The only thing they are good for are making more PhDs. In part, this also represents a failure of our graduate education system, which only prepares students for careers in academic research.
As a PhD graduate of a major American research University, with, as a result, many PhD friends, I really do not know a single person who finished their degree in the last 15 years and who would recommend getting a PhD. Even those of us lucky enough to have attained some measure of academic success recognize how brutal
and unworkable the process has become. I almost feel guilty helping to recruit new graduate students. And I never recommend to even the brightest undergraduates
that they pursue a research career. My wife (also a PhD) and I often joke that our kids can grew up to be whatever they want–except PhDs.
I think the article overstates how much better the situation is elsewhere. Good jobs are still sparse; the ultimate goal is the rare and coveted independent research position, which very few people attain anywhere.
eekm at 03:29 PM on 02/24/10
Great, well researched article. As a recent PhD in biochemistry, I can tell you this is right on the mark. I went to one of the top research schools for my PhD and the success rate coming out of the PhD program was ~1/20 landing a tenure track research faculty position (after 5-10 more years of postdocing). Most of us thought we would be profs when we entered (we were all heavily recruited by multiple top schools. How could there be so few jobs at the end?) After many years as slave-labor PhDs and postdocs, many have left science and found other careers. Why would the smartest kids in America stick around making $37k a year with no benefits or job security when their friends are making much better money in more stable careers. It would just be dumb to continue to be slave labor. The article is right on in pointing out that non-Americans have the incentive of using this as a ticket into the U.S. Many of my non-American science friends have married Americans or gotten permanant green card status and stayed. It really has been their ticket, so it didn’t matter as much to them to spend their 20s and 30s being slave labor. But spending 10-15 years as slave labor (while friends are building their careers, buying houses, getting married) matters to most bright, highly trained American kids, so many of us end up leaving science. It is a terrible system that perpetuates the myth of scientist shortages. Teaching more people to understand science (which does need to be done) is not the same as saying their are scientists shortages. To make that connection would be as silly as blaming illiteracy on lack of novelists (rather than a lack of good reading teachers and parental input).
sdanzi at 12:03 PM on 02/24/10
Absolutely true. I loved this article. When students ask me if they should pursue a graduate degree and career in science I tell them if they have to ask, they shouldn't do it. It's just not a good job and there is no security. You only do it because you love science. I have never known a scientist who doesn't love what he/she does.
Taq at 09:46 PM on 03/03/10
I am currently working as a post-doc at one of the ivy league schools. I am a foreign national who came to this country to do PhD in biological sciences. If I had read this article during my undergradute degree, I would have refrained from getting a PhD. Life is too short to get economic and job security at the age of 45. Most of my friends with Bachelor's degree in engineering make around 100K , whereas as a postdoc, I have to struggle with bare minimum (37-40 k), put in the slave labor and suck up to miserable bosses. Being international postdoc is more tough because visa status is tied to the employment, making postdocs more vulnerable to exploitation. This is the main reasons international national postdocs are preffered, as most of them will not stand up for themselves. American postdocs will not tolerate such exploitation as they have alternative career options. After postdoc it is also difficult for international postdocs to establish themselves as faculty members if they have language based communication issues . They also have a very few choices in getting positions in biotech/pharma industries and and govt jobs which are mostly restricted to citizens or permanent residents. International postdocs are underpaid, overworked and exploited intellectuals whose dream of american dream mostly remains a dream...