Wednesday, March 12, 2014

McGowan on the PhD glut

John McGowan presents a well-sourced article (and somewhat old article) on the status of surplus PhDs we've been producing over the last thirty or so years. The appendices link to a number of interesting articles and reports on the topic.

By and large, I agree with the central thesis that the current academic model encourages the production of ever greater numbers of PhD students.

It is perhaps too much of a good thing.

Universities are driven increase the supply of PhDs. Students, on the other hand, are driven by the promise of more lucrative or meaningful employment. From a simplistic economic viewpoint, the demand for PhD students from universities exceeds the demand for doctorates. Thus, the incentives of universities are not necessarily aligned with the incentives of students, as I also remarked a while ago.

Having said that, and essentially murmured my agreement with the author, I think two of the arguments he lays down require additional qualification.
It is worth considering some basic arithmetic. A typical professor has at least two graduate students at any time, sometimes many more. A Ph.D. programs in the United States usually lasts 5-7 years. A professor will take on and “advise” students from about age 30 as a starting assistant professor to retirement or death (say 65). This means a typical professor produces at least ten Ph.D.’s during his or her academic career in his or her academic specialty. If all the students pursue an academic career, certainly the ambition of many, this means an additional nine (9) new positions must be created over 35 years on top of the professor’s own position. Even with a fifty percent drop out rate, at least four or five new positions must be created to absorb the new Ph.D.’s. Of course, nothing of the kind has been the case for over forty years.
From my anecdotal experience (chemical engineering in the  US) the fraction of PhD students seeking an academic position is much smaller than 50%. I would guess that it is closer to 10-20%. I am sure the numbers are different for theoretical physics, organic chemistry, petroleum engineering, etc., although I recognize that even these small levels would cause a "glut".

For many students, academia is not the endgame they seek.

There are more lucrative positions in the industry, that often offer starting salaries that are about 50% greater than in academia. I am sure a large fraction of the PhD quants on Wall Street, did not end up there because they could not find academic jobs. The menu of possible jobs for PhDs has certainly diversified in the past couple of decades.

The second is the argument about the unsustainability of the PhD production growth rate outstripping the GDP. Superficially, the argument makes sense. But the GDP is an aggregate of industries in decline (manufacturing) and in explosive growth phases (IT). It is quite possible that fraction of GDP due to PhD-level high-tech jobs is mounting a secular advance. I don't know if this is true (perhaps it is not), but unless that is ruled out, the "conclusion" is really a hypothesis to test.

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