Does the US produce too many scientists?

Scientific American has an interesting article on the broken labor market in the U.S. for scientists.

Interesting points:

[li]The U.S. K-12 education system is at least as good as all other industrialized countries in math and science, as long as you’re not a minority.
[/li][li]There are way more candidates for science research faculty positions than there are jobs available.
[/li][li]Most research labor is done by post-docs who are poorly paid and have little chance of ever getting a grant-receiving faculty position.
[/li][li]It’s very easy to get a visa for a researcher; since they come with a visa, these post-docs are much more attractive for foreign junior scientists than they are for Americans.

No time to read the article now (will when I get home) but is the article only addressing University jobs? Since the vast majority of scientists in the country do not work in academia.

The article focuses on basic research, which is largely done in universities and federally funded.

Hence reinforcing the matter of my physics degree being useless.

This is just the absolute last thing I need to read right before an exam period.

I think the system is near perfect from a consumer standpoint. You don’t want to spend the last five years of your life in a nursing home being fed through a tube, so you give money to the government, who dispenses NIA grants to various labs that study the aging process. As a consumer, you can be assured that these labs are well run, because the competition for grants is brutal (at one point less than 10% of the grants in our field were being funded). The competition for a chance to start a lab is even worse, and it’s not unusual for a faculty position to have hundreds of applicants. When the grant is funded, the research is conducted for dirt cheap prices by highly skilled labor. In short, the current system is getting you a lot of quality scientific research for very little money.

Obviously the system is less awesome for the highly skilled professors, postdocs, and graduate students it’s composed of. I personally consider getting a PhD to have been a mistake, since I don’t think it was worth the seven year opportunity cost. Still, it’s not like I have anyone to blame but myself.

Most college science graduates have enough sense to avoid academia, and the resulting labor gap is filled in with international students, mostly from China and India. These are the people who I do feel really bad for, because despite the fact that they had to work ten times as hard as I did to get into the same program, they have one-tenth the options when they finish. Most of the US citizens who finished my program went into industry, but others became political science advisers, started careers as science writers, joined the military as a scientist, or got full-time teaching positions. For most international students, the shortage of H1 visas makes those opportunities very difficult to pursue. Their options are most often limited to getting a postdoc or going home. And that’s the one thing I would change if I could.

Competition is a good thing. I’d say that you WANT to produce more scientists than you actually need.

Well, again, the comment that we produce more scientists than we need is inaccurate - we need a LOT of them in the industrial side. And we do a lot of fundamental, basic research on that side. One of my first projects in industry was a very fundamental structure-property study on the effect of certain substituents on the motion of macromolecules, using a very cool combination of low temp NMR, FTIR, and fracture mechanics. I’ve worked on vectoring studies for anti-cancer agents, RNA analysis, and more. But that also doesn’t mean that science that is more applied isn’t “real” science.

So yeah, if you want a job in academia and a lot of money from the government, that is a pretty competitive world. Though again, I know a pretty substantial number of Ph.D.s who decided to go into academia, and none of them were unable to find a job. In some cases they had to start at smaller schools, but then they eventually ended up at Notre Dame, Michigan, Illinois, etc.

Yeah; point is, doesn’t seem to me that antlers’ comment that the labor market is “broken” is accurate at all.

In fact, one issue we’ve seen in the last 10 years in the industrial science world is so many fewer kids going into science, choosing instead to go into law, business, etc. The one area that has grown is forensic science, as a result of all the CSI type shows (I work with a couple of academic forensic science programs) - most of them are disappointed when they realize the job is not much different from any analytical lab job and they will not be carrying guns, interrogating or even seeing suspects, etc.

Well in Pogos case its quite doubtful its the degree that is useless, just the degree holder, so you should be fine.

I decided not go to go grad school, and instead picked up a second set of skills to help my biology/wetlab skills. Bioinformatics was just an amusing curiosity in the mid 90’s, but now it’s the hot place to be. I find that I get to work with plenty of incredibly smart grad students / post docs / PIs (the PI refers to them as “your post docs” as I get to mentor them a bit), and have been payed very well since I traded in my micropipet for a keyboard. One of the side benefits is that since I’ve worked with many of these guys closely and had successful projects, I’ve always got a network of people to go to if I get bored where I am - I haven’t interviewed for a job in a formal way since 1999.

I’m never going to make quite what PIs are making, but they put in far more hours than I do. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who sink the time into getting a degree, as it’s a hard slog…but I’m glad its a route I didn’t go down.

An abundance of scientists relative to the job market is not good from a national point of view. It means you’ve got highly educated citizens contributing little because the job market doesn’t support them. A lot of researchers don’t go into it for the money since, as the article noted, pay isn’t terribly great. Further, a lot of them likely took government subsidized loans, so the government is losing out twice: unemployed (or underemployed) high value citizens and the same citizens at risk of repaying their loans.

Of course, I’m arguing with Rimbo, which is pointless.

Further, a lot of them likely took government subsidized loans, so the government is losing out twice: unemployed (or underemployed) high value citizens and the same citizens at risk of repaying their loans.
As a quick clarification, it’s very rare for a science PhD student to need additional student loans. Your tuition and stipend is paid for by either a grant, fellowship, or teaching assistantship. By the end of graduate school, my stipend was a little under $2000 a month, which was more than enough to pay for rent and food. I was living in a high cost of living city, and our department was well funded compared to others, so most aren’t going to be that high.

But again, I would argue that here is NOT an abundance of scientists relative to the job market. The vast majority of the scientist job market is not academia.

As for the value of the Ph.D., depends on what you want to do. I have never regretted getting mine. It opened a lot of opportunities in my career. For example, without the Ph.D. I would have never had the opportunity to lead a large organization of scientists doing fairly long range R&D in a global organization (and 80% of that lab were Ph.D.s.) When I needed to go find a new job, the Ph.D. helped me get opportunities to interview for a lot of jobs where the Ph.D. was a requirement. On top of that, there are skills and competencies I learned in getting the Ph.D. that were extremely valuable to me.

But as far as the money - unless you are going to lead R&D in a very political area like, currently, Climate Change, science is not the area to go into. If you want a profession that maximizes your income., there are a LOT that provide more opportunities. No doubt you can make money in the sciences - I was paying a several scientists in one of my labs in my previous company $100K +, and in most of the labs I’ve led there were several scientist (and some of them fairly young) making $100K +. In almost all cases (but not all) these guys and gals were Ph.D.s, just doing research. FWIW.

Yeah, I never knew any of my peers in graduate school who had to pay tuition and books. You had to pay your housing and food, but everyone had some type of school provided funding. (Though back in my day - hitching my pants up to my chest - my stipend was $550 a month. But it was plenty for my cheap housing and board, and I worked part time in a jewelry store to earn beer money.)

I only skimmed the article and I never considered a PHd…

It seems me that crux of their argument is we make PHd slave away at pretty poorly paying jobs for many years. Once they graduate there are more applicants than jobs and the ones who don’t get into academy are forced to take jobs unworthy of their education.

JeffL has it right IMO the vast number of science math jobs are in industry and I contend that is good thing. One of the strengths of America is transforming scientific research into practical application which enhance the world’s living standards. I reject that a CS, or Math PHd that can’t find a professorship and has to take a job at Google or Microsoft Lab has job which is unworthy of them. The same thing would be true for PHd in material science taking a job at Intel, a molecular biologist at Genetech or many others. It is common for science PHd to move back and forth between academics and industry, unlike say PHd in philosophy or Woman’s studies and I think that is also a good thing.

Finally looking using wages and means for judging the supply and demand isn’t the right approach. A better way is to look at the unemployment rate. I don’t have any data, but I would guess the number of folks with science/math PHd who aren’t employed in their chosen field is very small. (I am not counting those who by choice go to Wall St. or become professional poker players).

In contrast let’s look at the NCAA players this year. I would imagine that the majority of starting seniors in the tournament effectively majored in basketball, and virtually all of them their top career choice would be NBA player. Who can blame them with an average NBA salary of $4.9 million. If salary is the right way to judge demand, obviously our schools are not producing enough basketball majors :). On the other hand if you look at the underemployment rate for basketball majors it is probably 80-90% even for the elite who start in the NCAA, and much higher for the thousand of other college basketball players.

All of the benefits of having a PhD that you listed all had to do with being credentialed, and nothing to do with what you actually learned or did to get that PhD… (ok, you did in the last sentence)

I’m about a fortnight from a PhD myself, and my biggest gripe with the system is the lack of any sort of scientific middle class. If you don’t get a PhD, and still want to do science, you will likely get stuck being a technician doing grunt work for PhDs. Alternatively, you can work 5-6 years for low pay, sacrifice social opportunities like having children, and have the potential to maybe research something you like, or go into industry and get paid more to research what others like. There is no middle path.

In retrospect, I would advise my pre-college self to get an engineering degree (probably biomedical) since that has a much wider range of opportunities.

This is not true in biological sciences, to my knowledge. Once you leave academia, it is hard to get back in.

In contrast let’s look at the NCAA players this year.

This is not a fair comparison.

It isn’t true that the vast majority of science PhDs work outside of academia. A slight majority of physical science PhDs work outside the academy, a slight majority of life and social science PhDs work within the academy. Overall, it’s about even.

As others point out, the article is much too pessimistic. A freshly minted PhD may not get that cushy tenure track position, but there are lots of opportunities in the private sector and government, at least in the sciences and related fields. The average pay for a PhD is substantially higher than for any other degree except some professional degrees.