Too Many Scientists?

26Feb10

There’s been some discussion around the blogosphere about the academic job market, as well as an article on the Scientific American website titled “Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is below.

In science, there is an almost constant call for more qualified scientists. The future of America depends on it! However, as the linked article states, the facts don’t back up the statement that there is a shortage. So why do they continue to make these claims?

You see, in academic science, bodies are needed to do the work. In the first paper produced from experiments performed at the Large Hadron Collidor (LHC), it takes over 10 pages to list all the authors.That’s a lot of bodies, and a good number of those authors are probably graduate students who aspire to become academic or research scientists. Yet it’s been estimated that only 25% of PhD-holders will eventually hold the fabled position of professor (or assistant professor, the entry-level position). That number drops considerably when you consider students who start grad school but drop out without getting their PhD. And these estimates are in the sciences, where jobs are (relatively) bountiful; it’s even lower for those whose PhD is in French Art History.

French Art History: even Coldplay can do it

So the odds are against you, no matter what field you are in (if you want to become a professor, anyway). Of course, for those who fail to become professors (and fail is really the wrong word, as many just refuse to play the game), there are other opportunities available, such as teaching, journalism, patent law, and scientific work in corporate or government research labs. Yet it seems pretty wasteful to train scientists, only to have them jump ship to tangentially related fields.

One way to do this could be to make post-doctoral positions permanent (or at least semi-permanent), so highly trained individuals aren’t jettisoned after spending as many as 10 years training in a highly-specialized field, which is (obviously) a tremendous waste. Jennifer Rohn makes this argument in a recent post, and I think it’s a fantastic idea.Instead of the uncertainty of a future in a scientific field, only those who will become scientists are trained as scientists, drastically reducing attrition and potentially freeing those toiling away in post-doc (or grad school) purgatory to pursue other training.

Of course, it’s in the best interests of academic scientists to have plenty of cheap labour available, so in order to have semi-permanent staff, you would have to maintain the low, low costs of an army of graduate students. Is this economically feasible? I’m probably not the best person to answer that question, but it would be nice if something like this was implemented, as it would save a lot of people a lot of anxiety.

Of course, overproducing potential workers is not something that happens in academia alone…this is also a problem in teaching colleges in Canada, but I’ll cover that in due time.

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