Daniel Lemire's blog

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Why are there so many science PhDs?

McArdle, an economist, recently wrote that a substantial fraction of PhD programs really shouldn’t exist. McGowan goes further by pointing out that there is little demand for science and technology PhDs. I can only agree. Meanwhile, the gap between tenure-track positions and the number of new PhDs keeps on increasing. In countries like Japan, we are facing a crisis:

Of the 1,350 people awarded doctorates in natural sciences in 2010, just over half (746) had full-time posts lined up by the time they graduated. But only 162 were in [academia], of the rest, 250 took industry positions, 256 went into education and 38 got government jobs.

In the US, things are getting worse and worse:

In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating (…)

Even in a field like computer science, 55% all new PhDs go into industry, rarely landing a research position while less than 7% end up with a tenure-track position in a doctoral-granting school.
Yet between 2000 and 2010, in the US, the number of STEM graduate students grew by 30%. Why?

McGowan writes:

It is not surprising that many STEM students believe there is a strong industry appetite for freshly minted Ph.D.’s given these numerous advertising and public relations campaigns by many businesses.

McGowan provided little support for this assertion. I went looking and found nothing in the last 10 years. In fact, I ended up reading several articles warning students against graduate work… I am left with something of a mystery… why are we producing more and more PhD students?

My thoughts:

  • To a student, the PhD job market is an abstract entity. The financial incentives provided by the government (e.g., scholarships) are not.
  • Even though the job prospects of a science PhD might be bad, maybe the alternatives look even worse. Yes, you can make a good living as an engineer or an accountant in industry… but maybe students imagine that the life of a PhD, no matter how difficult, is somehow more exciting?
  • It might be all about status signalling. A science PhD might be a way to tell the world that you are smart. Even if employers are unimpressed, maybe your friends or prospective mates could be impressed?
  • Schools and professors are misleading students. If your local dean says that there is a shortage of science PhD, are you going to check the data for yourself?

What are your thoughts?