Toward More Comfortable Bottlenecks

By Sean Carroll | May 17, 2011 4:22 pm

Jessica at Bioephemera posts a provocative quote about the way we train and employ young people who are seeking careers in academia:

They’re doing exactly what we always complain our brightest students don’t do: eschewing the easy bucks of Wall Street, consulting or corporate law to pursue their ideals and be of service to society. Academia may once have been a cushy gig, but now we’re talking about highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich (and their friends are getting rich), simply because they believe in knowledge, ideas, inquiry; in teaching, in following their passion. To leave more than half of them holding the bag at the end of it all, over 30 and having to scrounge for a new career, is a human tragedy.

— William Deresiewicz, The Nation

The author goes on to bemoan this “colossal waste of human capital” — all those talented young people spending time getting Ph.D.’s, then not eventually landing faculty jobs, when they could be going right into productive careers in some other field.

I’m sincerely unsure what to think about the occasional complaints one hears along these lines. On the one hand, I firmly believe that the grad school/postdoc/junior faculty years should be enjoyable ones, not days of peril and gloom living under a cloud of uncertainty. If there were a way to make the journey easier, I would be all for it. I can think of small ways to do so, and am certainly in favor of such incremental improvements.

But on the other hand, I really can’t think of any sensible major improvements, for a simple reason: there are many people who would like to be academics, and few available jobs. Short of multiplying the number of college professorships by a factor of three or so, I’m not sure how to address the primary cause of this anxiety — the difficulty in getting jobs. If you knew you were going to land a tenured spot at a good place, it would be much easier to bear the indignities of grad-student/postdoc level salaries for a few years. Deresiewicz says, “If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore.” But if that were true, why are there so many “highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich”? These seem to be contradictory worries.

Obviously one thing to do would be to dramatically cut down on the number of people who get into graduate school. But that just moves the bottleneck around, it doesn’t change its overall size. And I don’t want to be the one who says to a somewhat-promising-but-not-superstar-quality grad school applicant, “Sorry, I’d enjoy working with you, but we’ve decided not to admit you because in our judgement your chances of eventually getting a faculty job aren’t quite as good as some of our other applicants. So you see, it’s for your own good.” Generally the people who advocate this kind of strategy are the ones who have already been admitted to grad school. (If you’re waiting for Deresiewicz’s solution, here it is: “The answer is to hire more professors.” Well, okay then.)

Again, I honestly don’t know what should be done. I would love to improve the lifestyle and general well-being of students and postdocs in any feasible way. Not sure what that way would be.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Top Posts
  • Sam Gralla

    I agree with this 100%. The only only possible improvement that I can see would be mentoring at the undergraduate level. Some grad students complain they were unaware of the job prospects when they decided to enter grad school, and this sounds like a failure of undergraduate advising. However, in my experience at the U of C, we were all perfectly well aware what we were getting into at the start. As far as I can tell, the system is working perfectly, allowing all of us to compete for these awesome jobs in as fair a manner as possible.

  • Mike Procario

    At the graduate student and postdoc level, academic departments should ensure that people are prepared for non-academic careers. This could require more breadth than is usual and developing connections with industry and other non-academic employers.

    The question is how to encourage that. Departments want to have the very best students/postdocs who can make the cut in academia, and to have good support for alternative career tracks make make them feel like they are lowering their standards.

    Tenure track faculty should know what they are getting into.

  • X

    Mathematician: a mechanism for turning coffee into theorems.
    Physicist: a mechanism for turning the naive hopes of young people into grant applications.

  • Marshall

    I have a PhD in the physical sciences, and even though I value what I have learned during the last decade, I don’t think it was a great decision for my future prospects. I think the critical mistake that I made was believing that I needed a doctoral-level degree to do interesting work, when in fact there are enormous opportunities out there if one is willing to broaden their scope and can convince employers to invest in potential talent that may not immediately match their current needs.

    As for what academics can do to address the problem, they can start by simply explaining the situation to any undergraduate who expresses interest in graduate school. The Royal Society released a report some time ago demonstrating that (in the UK) only 3% of doctoral graduates in the physical sciences attain senior academic positions, and over 75% eventually leave science completely, most leaving immediately after graduation ( Anyone starting a doctoral degree in the hopes of joining the ranks of academic researchers is either extremely confident or is making a tragically uninformed decision.

  • Jesse

    I think the key is gracefull exits at each stage of the progression.

    If there are real job opperunities that at least provide some level of reward for the extra levels achieved it makes it much less crushing to have to bail from the academic progression.

    Coming from an engineering background I woudl extend this even to an undergrad level. A number of my class mates did not end on goign to use their degrees directly, but it would have been helpfull for them to have a usefull bail out point where they still would have had the recognition for what they needed in their tangentally related careers. They engineers interested in design and academic work could have had a bit more in depth available then to avoid the inevitabe compromise in the curiculium design to fit both groups.

    As the 2. pointed out, allocating enough time to help the 50%+ of each level who will be bumped out would certainly help keeping the best and brightest coming into the progression, without feeling like it was a bait and switch…

  • Eric

    Sean dismisses “hire more faculty” as a silly option, but it’s not quite as absurd as it sounds. Sure, we can’t (and shouldn’t!) try to produce enough faculty positions to employ everyone who wants to do research, but there’s no good reason why the pressure on young academics should inevitably increase over time — there are a lot more Americans, a lot more of us are going going to college, and we’re a lot richer as a nation than we were when most senior faculty around today were hired. Why shouldn’t the academy expand more or less apace with GDP or population growth?

    Funding for the physical sciences has been more or less flat in real terms since the 1970’s or so, and so steadily declining as a share of GDP. Certainly a big component of the pressure on young academics must be a direct consequence of this gradual American disinvestment. This isn’t something we should just accept as an inevitable feature of academia, but it’s also clearly something that can only be changed with a shift in policy at the federal level.

  • Peter Woit

    Some general advice and comments, mainly for young people in the US:

    1. Consider whether it might be possible to get out of physics departments and into math departments. The job situation these days in mathematics is much, much better than in physics. This makes for an all-around healthier atmosphere. Whatever excuses are made, people who think that running large doctoral programs in fields with few jobs is a good idea have their own interests at heart, not yours.

    2. From what I can tell, most postdoc salaries these days are not “subsistence wages”. Looking around, I see that the latest solicitations from the NSF for postdoc grants are $60K +$12K /year research money in math $58K + $12K /year research money in astrophysics. Simons fellowships pay $70K/year already. This is significantly above the median income for people of any age, much less young people in their mid-late twenties. If you can’t live happily on this kind of income at this stage of your life, you should probably immediately change fields into finance, which is the only thing that’s going to provide a likely income that will make you happy.

    3. Don’t spend your life in academia if you’re not enjoying it. One of my father’s favorite sayings was “life is not a rehearsal”. I’ve yet to meet anyone who unhappily spent years of their life doing what they thought was necessary to get tenure who turned into a happy person once they did get tenure. If you can’t take advantage of and enjoy what a university environment, with all its problems, offers, best to find another environment where you’ll be happier.

  • BFG

    As someone who is about to come out the other side of this (with emotional well-being more or less intact), I agree that there’s not a whole lot that can be done to increase the supply of permanent jobs, and there’s not a whole lot that should be done to decrease the demand for them. (Moving the bottleneck back to the start of grad school would just be moving it back to where it was in the bad old days, right?) Getting a Ph.D. and learning to do independent research are useful, even if one doesn’t stay in academia. It is reasonable to assume that graduate students are grownups who can make their own career decisions, and it is reasonable to assume that they can do the necessary arithmetic to work out their less-than-even chances of winding up in a tenured position.

    However, there is much that can be done to better manage the expectations of incoming students and to give them more resources for finding their way outside of academia. Grad students and postdocs should be given the clear impression that a tenure-track position is only one career outcome among many, they should be encouraged to explore non-academic career options, and they should be given the resources they need to do so. One good place for departments to start would be by holding occasional talks from former students and postdocs who have left academia and moved on to new careers. Maintaining a grad-school alumni network that current graduate students could call on (like most universities do for their undergraduates) would also be helpful.

    I do fear that some departments will find such steps distasteful. There seems to be a general sense within academia that leaving constitutes failure, and those who leave a particular field are rarely spoken of afterward. Breaking down these attitudes would do a lot to improve things, I think. Many people at the postdoc level seem to feel trapped: unhappy with their academic job prospects but afraid to leave their field and unsure how even to go about it.

    Changing present attitudes may turn out to be difficult, though. The research that grad students and postdocs do boosts not only their own academic reputations but also the reputations of the professors who advise them. If the students and postdocs no longer have their eyes on tenure-track jobs, they may be less motivated to work the kinds of extremely long hours that are common in many fields, especially the sciences. (It’s of course not clear that this will cause their research output to suffer, but one might assume that it could.) So encouraging students and postdocs to consider other career options may not seem to be in the interest of their immediate supervisors (X #3 put it more succinctly above). For that reason, tinkering around the edges at the research-group or department level may not be enough. This may be an issue that needs to be addressed at the university level.

  • David Bruggeman

    So, Sean, what, if anything, would you do for those who leave academia? If you don’t see reasonable things to do for increasing faculty job or for decreasing the number of underpaid workers/grad students you admit into graduate programs, there’s still that ‘waste of human capital.’

  • Cosmonut

    From what I saw in the US, one reason for the academic glut is the really long time it takes to get a PhD.
    People who have stuck around for 7 plus years getting their degree feel their time was wasted if they don’t at least try for tenure. Which increases the glut at the postdoc stage and later.
    And conversely, US universities like having grad students around for long periods of time, since its cheap bonded labour.

    Why not shorten the PhD period to 3 years like the UK, with no teaching duties for grad students ? With a PhD at 25, rather than 30, people would probably feel more encouraged to explore other opportunities.
    Also, unis and profs wouldn’t be motivated to hold on to their students as long as possible.

  • Magoonski

    The problem is our society. We do not value education, I might even go as far to say that we don’t value human beings. Sure, politicians will spout about “the greater good” and improving science and math education but public schools are still crumbling and instead of dealing with it they’d rather pass off the responsibility to privately owned, for profit charter schools that are selectively biased against the disabled and other children who need any kind of extra support.
    If all education was treated like a federal job, and had low cost (or even free) tuition, more people would enroll, there would be more need for professors and support staff.
    If we really cared about our society we would invest in academia (as taxpayers) and the return would be advances in all fields especially technology and medicine. Education would be a status symbol, instead of superfluous merchandise that no one really needs (mansions, SUV, high heels, white iphones, etc.).

  • Mike


    You write: ‘Deresiewicz says, “If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore.” But if that were true, why are there so many “highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich”? These seem to be contradictory worries.’

    But they’re not necessarily contradictory. While the volume of grad students may be large, it’s likely that we’re actually losing a lot of the ones who would be at the very top. The very brightest young minds know how the academic market looks, and have instead been going into finance, generating opaquely overcomplex financial products and high-speed transaction algorithms with famously catastrophic results for the global economic system.

    What’s needed is a lot more training in career development for opportunities beyond the academy, and much better career guidance and information for current students.

    And I don’t know what Woit is referring to, but in high energy physics, postdocs at top schools run at around 50k per year. And that’s after five to seven years of getting 25k per year as a grad student. Considering the amount of time and education involved, that’s crap.

    And, yes, I say cut the acceptance rate to PhD programs in areas like high energy physics, and use the money to fund the creation of more faculty positions. Better to find out that you have no future in academia at age 21 than at age 28 — and then maybe the very brightest ones will decide their prospects are good enough and decide to stick around instead of jumping ship to Wall Street or business consulting.

  • Otis

    Why should it ever be assumed that a PhD should lead to an academic position? While doing my graduate work (aerospace engineering), it seemed to me that many of the people in academia preferred the cloistered life of the university environment, not wishing to deal with the real world. Society needs a few people with those inclinations, but it must be remembered that tenured academicians live off the rest of society. We don’t need too many of them.

    Any PhD program should prepare the student for a non-academic position. I agree with BFG: “Getting a Ph.D. and learning to do independent research are useful, even if one doesn’t stay in academia.” It worked for me. In my field, the real challenging work was being done outside of academia, with the academics only consulting and advising and were not really part of the action.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It should be very simple: Accept fewer applicants for PhDs.

    There is, however, a huge financial disincentive to making the process more selective. Once a graduate who isn’t suited for a long-term career in academia leaves their doctoral training, he or she is no longer the university’s problem. While in school, the graduate student does an enormous amount of work for the university while being paid below minimum wage. The funding for the stipend is primarily some fraction of a grant. It’s an iron-clad economic model for growth.

    Which is fine, so long as everyone is aware that those are the ground rules, and they are also made fully aware of the odds. Not only is the tenured position in a distant, uncertain future, it may only be available to you in a place other than the one you were hoping to settle.

    Again, as long as everyone knows what the game is all about, there’s no cause for anyone to complain. But is every prospective graduate student given that needed dose of reality? I don’t think so.

  • Peter Woit

    The salary numbers are from the NSF web-site. Numbers in physics may be lower, with institutions able to pay lower rates there just one more effect of the ridiculous ratio between number of people and number of jobs.

    “considering the amount of time and education involved, [50K] is crap”.

    If you’re spending your years in a phd program there not because you love doing it, but because you think you’re going to get compensated later with a higher salary because of this, you’re making a big mistake.

    And if you think 50K/yr income for someone in their late 20s is “crap”, you’ve got a problem with the entire US economy, since that’s above the median income. Academic jobs are a great gig compared to what most people do, why complain that they don’t also pay much more?

  • Scientist Charro

    There are way too many professors that are past their expiration dates (at least in Physics) in the US and they are still not retiring.

    At UT Austin Physics Department, the average age of the faculty is 59, with one fourth of the professors 70 or older. Those could be positions taken by newer people and that can help with “increasing” the number of faculty jobs. The worst part of it all, is that due to economic pressures, there is no guarantee that every one of those positions will be funded again when those old professors eventually retire which means that instead of increasing the number of positions (or at least keep them constant), the number will go down.

    As far as salaries, how come assistant professors in departments like finance or accounting make over $150,000 but in physics they make about half of that? Has any physics department ever looked at maintaining ties with the alumni that goes to the industry and therefore can make enough money to donate to their departments? It looks like the philosophy in physics is the opposite: if you go to the industry you weren’t good enough to be a professor.

  • Yuxuan

    In fact, most people choose to study math or science do not take into account of the job perspective, either because of ignorance or simply because they neglected the matter and focused on personal interest. Curiosity is a very strong motivation that can often trump everything else. As you said, there are only so many jobs and so many people want them, many apparently have to leave. I agree that there are no real easy solution, but there are many small things one can do. For instance, why can’t the research institutions, national labs and universities open administrative and other none faculty jobs to PhDs as part time support? For many people, such support, combined with access to the research environment at these institutions may be sufficient for them to work and produce interesting science. This may be particularly helpful to mathematicians and theoreticians.

  • Peter Woit


    Actually 25K is nearly twice the minimum wage. And life as a graduate student is a lot more pleasant than working at McDonalds.

    Scientist Charro,

    150K/year is an anomaly specific to finance, due to the unusually high pay scales in that field. Physics assistant professors are no worse paid than the average for all fields. Expecting everyone in academia to be paid on financial industry pay-scales is kind of absurd.

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  • Luis

    Re: the salary after your life as a PhD.

    Right now, in the middle of my 3rd year as postdoc, I pull around €27000/year after taxes —that’s about $38000 (I work in the Humanities). I don’t complain about money, but that’s mostly because I live in Berlin, which is one of the least expensive places to live (i.e., housing, groceries, and other basic living expenses for both me and my still-PhD-wife barely take 50% of my salary). Things would be different in a different place. I don’t think the amount of money I make would be enough in, say, Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, etc

  • Annika

    A few comments:

    1. I agree with the commenters who say there should be better preparation/exposure to jobs outside of academia. While university career centers are at least trying to provide some information and contacts regarding industry jobs, consideration of non-academic jobs is frowned upon (or the existence of such jobs ignored) at the departmental level, especially by more senior faculty. You’re seen as being “not good enough” if you so much as think about careers outside academia. This attitude needs to change.

    2. While prize postdoc positions often pay relatively well, non-prize postdoctoral positions don’t. There’s a huge disparity in pay for postdocs. Let me say that I earn FAR less than the prize fellows others have mentioned; I am pretty sure I could have gotten a much higher-paid job had I been willing to cast the net far, geographically speaking, but I have a two-body problem. I took a lower-paying job so that I have the privilege of living under the same roof as my husband. (see point 4 for a related comment) Regardless of my personal circumstances, the point is that most postdocs earn significantly less than $60-70K/year.

    3. Many top departments are on average quite old. What fraction of the faculty at Harvard or Princeton or Caltech are under the age of 50? Over the age of 60? There will need to be some serious hiring soon, but that in large part depends on the willingness of senior faculty to go emeritus.

    4. My big (possibly biggest) gripe with the current system of career trajectories is that it selects for a certain personality and attitude, and a certain taste for problems to work on. Because the competition for faculty jobs is so fierce, one needs to not just be outstanding but have some degree of single-mindedness (bordering on fanaticism for some) and minimal “distractions” outside of work to achieve the goal of getting and keeping a faculty job. It selects in some cases for “true believers” who would consider anything less than a faculty position to be failure (that said, there are many awesome people who got jobs this year who are not of this ilk). While I think both men and women suffer because of the competition, it is worse for women because the period of most intense competition is also the time in which it is really preferable to start having kids should kids be something you desire. I HATE the fact that if I got pregnant right now, it would essentially be academic-career suicide unless I basically resigned myself to not ever sleeping again and cut out everything from my life that wasn’t work or baby. Moreover, most women physicists I know have two-body problems. The two-body problem is an issue that most places can’t, won’t, or have a hard time dealing with. The University of California has some great programs, but they tend to work best for couples in different departments. Of course, the two-body problem becomes much stickier once kids are involved, which again disproportionately affects women.

    This intense competition also means that people tend to have more conservative tastes in the sorts of problems they tackle. If you are being judged largely on the number of papers you produce per year, are you going to work on a riskier or trickier problem or work on a series of smallish low-risk problems? I think that is really bad for science.

  • ray ban occhiali

    OK ,I think that I need it.useful

  • Nameless

    I concur that the first solution is to reduce the number of openings in PhD programs. It’s much easier for an intelligent student to miss the PhD boat and to retrain towards the industry at 22 than at 35.

    In addition, we have to abolish the postdoc institution. There should be two classes of people in science: PhD students and tenure-track professors. If we can’t provide tenure-track jobs to all PhD students interested in academic science, at the very least we shouldn’t force them to postpone the industry vs. academia decision till the age of 35.

    And we should think hard to understand why it is that PhD in sciences has no value in the real world. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if science PhD’s could get industry jobs for which their education & research experience were directly relevant. We wouldn’t be having it if science PhD’s could apply their education in positions which aren’t funded by other students or taxpayers. It’s one thing that people can’t get real jobs when they graduate with degrees in particle physics and astronomy: that’s perfectly understandable. But somehow things got so broken that even PhDs in life sciences (eg biochem) find themselves mostly useless when it comes to doing any real work, because pharma companies don’t really want them.

    Re: Peter Woit: median earnings for male full-time, year-round workers in the US is $45,363. And the median male full-time, year-round worker in this country never even went to college.

    Average age at first postdoc is 28 or 29. I’d have to say that making $50,000 for a 30-year-old with a graduate degree and the kind of intelligence we expect to see in physics & math PhD’s (most likely above the 95th percentile by intelligence in this country?), even if it’s not really subsistence wages, it’s still pathetic and wrong.

  • Justin S

    Alright then, all of you commenters providing some measure of solutions (or at least adding in further gripes), what do you recommend those of us “in the trenches”, so to speak, do about it? I’m about to become a first year graduate student at a university that is pretty well respected in its field and worry that the instinct of self-replication from professors will take another victim. A lot of the complaints so far are so far-reaching that it’s way, way too much for any one person to be able to change the whole thing, so what are some things that if, say, every new grad student this year started doing that would help to put us on a more sustainable path that’s fulfilling for everyone?

  • zimknuj

    I think Cosmonut has mentioned the fundamental problem in the US, which has little to do with junior researcher salaries and attrition rates. Neither of those would be a problem except for the fact that the system in the US has a vested interest in keeping junior researchers hanging on for a decade. If you spend 3 years getting a PhD as in Europe, you come out in your mid twenties, which is a perfectly sensible investment of time. Even after a couple more years in a poorly paid postdoc, if you find yourself job-hunting in your late twenties, it’s not a big problem (as long as you went in with your eyes open). It was a reasonable gamble that didn’t pay off.

    But the PhD program in the States that takes seven years on average is ridiculous, and the reason for it is quite clear: the cheap labor both in the classroom and the lab. Of course, it’s the students’ choice to let themselves be exploited in this way in the hope of making it to the top of the academic pile later. But as some have mentioned above, that’s not selecting for the best research talent. And of course to get rid of all that cheap labor and instead hire more profs would significantly raise the price of undergraduate education. But that’s just moving the costs around. Right now, those same costs simply come out of society elsewhere (e.g. the missing tax dollars those people aren’t paying). And one reason for the need for cheap labor is the fact that we’re sending way too many people to university due to some misconceived notion that any university degree contributes to the “knowledge economy”. (But that’s another debate.)

    So to my mind, the bottleneck in the US does need to be moved back and shortened. Things seem far more sensible in Europe, in my experience. There’s still the same competition for permanent jobs, but it’s resolved more efficiently.

  • banerjee

    Imagine what would happen to research if PhD students were paid at industry charge-out rates. Larger grants would be needed, and in a zero sum funding world, the list of the fundable would shrink.

    No, we need cheap student labor to get our work done and to sustain a larger research community. The students should be glad that they are able to sacrifice their time (and lives?) for the greater good.

  • Krish

    I’m from India and I’ll be starting by PhD in theory physics soon in the US. My only hope is that the academic job prospects here in India would be much better than in the US. The Indian government is pushing basic research with some gusto, and my only hope is that India’s institutions would start coming into their own in a few years. Of course, nothing would beat the research environment of the US for decades to come, but job opportunities may start pushing more and more ex-pat Indian PhDs (and I’ve heard that there are quite a few of them) to return, and thereby improving research quality here. I can only hope.

    Look especially at the ‘India’ section of:

  • WC

    The article from which Sean quoted, – is almost funny in a tragic way.

    My personal favorite is this line: “Doctors and lawyers can set up their own practice, but a professor can’t start his own university.”

    My solution to this problem is, that all those who don’t get academic jobs should indeed go and start their own university. Maybe it was not possible in the old world – in the new – who knows?
    The closed world of academic research is choking on its own importance anyway – it needs a bit of fresh outside competition.

  • Martin

    I’m surprised no-one has said this yet, but here goes: to some extent, complaining about a ‘waste of human capital’ in PhD training is missing the point. The system *requires* that waste, as things stand, and the reason is that there is no way of selecting people who will make good scientists from among the applicants to PhD programmes. In so far as the present system is designed to do anything, it’s to filter out the people with bags of enthusiasm, or stellar ability to do exams, or a whole bunch of other good things, but little or no actual aptitude or even liking for research. Anyone who’s spent any time in a supervisory role gets to see these students (OK, maybe some people or departments only get superstars, but believe me, that’s not all that’s out there) and currently the PhD + postdoc system is doing a rather efficient job of finding out whether they can actually do what’s needed and, on the whole, gently easing them out before they take up a faculty post if not.

    (You can argue, and if I weren’t trying to be provocative I would do it here, that the filtering selects for the wrong kind of person, or that it’s particularly unfair on women, but I don’t think it’s possible to argue that some sort of filtering isn’t necessary.)

  • Annika

    I agree with Martin: some sort of filtering is necessary. The two big problems are: a) figuring out whether the filtering process selects for the right kind of person/research program, and b) even towards the latter stages of the filtering process we have a pigeonhole principle at work.

  • Matt

    The problem starts in undergraduate school. Too many students in undergraduate school means too many going to graduate school. Easy student loan availability makes it easy for too many people to attend collage.

    If you want to fix PhD programs, then first eliminate government sponsored student loans for undergraduates. That will significantly reduce the number of students seeking graduate degrees.

  • Brendan

    Matt: Not to mention significantly reduce the number of students from poor backgrounds seeking degrees of any form.

  • Lab Lemming

    A question for the seniorish academics with regards to limiting grad school intake:

    How good a correlation is there between the rank of incoming students and their eventual research productivity as professors. If it is poor, then limiting intakes will necessarily reduce the quality of the researchers produced.

    That being said, the ability to do independed research is useful in wider society; improved communications between grad schools and potential non-academic employers would help.

    Part of the problem, of course, is that in many cases, professors have never worked outside of academia in their field. Introducing more non-academic professional relationships into academia would probably help guide those of us who love research but hate academia into finding sensible careers.

  • Valatan

    A terminal masters’ degree should be near-mandatory on your way to a doctorate. Few 22 year olds know anything about research, and expecting them to pick out a graduate department that is a good match, AND to make a four to eight year committment to that graduate department is a little much. If getting a masters and finding a new school was standard operating procedure, they’d have a little bit of experience at research, good context for deciding whehter this is for them, and they could move on with a lot more initial knowledge.

    Also, the most successful students in my doctoral program almost all came in with masters degrees.

    Also, I’d be much more sympathetic to Sean’s argument if the explosion in classes being taught by adjuncts and gradu student weren’t taking place. Schools are intentionally cutting back on faculty, because faculty are expensive.

  • BFG

    Nameless: I have a degree in astrophysics. I had zero problem landing a job outside my field, once I figured out what kinds of jobs would find me valuable. The problem isn’t that industry jobs don’t exist for people with PhDs in particle physics and astronomy, it’s that they’re not obvious. More career resources for grad students and postdocs would help tremendously.

    Justin S: You’re wondering what you can do as a grad student to help change things. Does your department hold a student-run seminar series? Try getting involved with that and occasionally inviting back former students and postdocs who have left the field and can give talks about their current careers. I think this is a really useful step that current students can take to help themselves out.

  • Rick


    As you’ve said:

    “With Russia and China positioning themselves to defeat America in a future nuclear war, I decided to track the progress to war in the future. The idea being that historians in the future would be able to see the signs of nuclear war, so we should be able to see these signs too, but before a war actually occurs. The signs exist today, and I am in the process of moving out the United States to Europe. Also, recently I moved this blog to New Zealand from Seattle to make it survivable in the event of war.”

    [Update: May 5, 2011] — On April 25, 2011 my family and I departed the US on a flight to Switzerland]

    You think there’s a good chance that the war will come in the summer of this year? Gee, if this is what you really think is going to happen, who cares about student loans anyway? 😉

  • Thomas Larsson

    “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
    Albert Bartlett

    Exponential growth in population or resource use – or in the number of physics professors – is simply not sustainable. The number of physicists grew exponentially between 1870 and 1970 or so, and has remained flat thereafter. To think that a large fraction of PhD students could land a permanent academic position in a steady-state situation is absurdly naive. Perhaps sufficiently naive to disqualify an applicant from graduate school.

    Also ponder that advising students is an important part of a professors job. With less students, less professors are needed. Or is there a reason why a university would hire ten professors to advice ten students in 20 years, when a single professor could do the same job for a fraction of the cost?

  • Oren

    As a 50+ year-old physicist-manque who fell off the rails after getting my PhD, I agree 100% with the sentiments Sean is expressing. I would add a few things:
    1. Grad school was a great experience, even though I didn’t continue in physics. Though the substance of my dissertation never became at all relevant, the sharpening of my math skills and the extra time I had for programming both helped a lot with my future work. Earlier gatekeeping would have denied me a great 6 years and the time to improve my knowledge and abilities.

    2. Before going to grad school, I was much more certain I wanted to be an academic than after I got there. I would have been seriously bummed had I not gotten into a good PhD program, and doubt I’d ever have fully gotten over the rejection. Getting an up-close look at some real geniuses helped me to recognize the gap between me and them. I also learned what level of obsession it takes to become an academic, and realized that I didn’t have it.

    3. A small criticism of academic physics training: because there are virtually no faculty who’ve had careers outside academia before returning to teach, there’s very little knowledge within the community about alternatives after the PhD. Senior faculty are unable to provide useful guidance to anyone who decides the academic route is not for them after all. I have no idea how to change that…

  • Heather

    As a 3rd year PhD student (Immunology), I’m at the stage in my graduate school career when it seems that everyone asks me: What are your plans after this? I, like most of my peers, dread this question. I decided to travel down the doctorate path because after spending a few years with a B.S., as a laboratory technician, I realized I craved more independence and opportunities to design my own experiments and learn new skills. These were things that I believed I could not receive as a lowly, technician in the medical/health field.

    Perhaps I was naive that, graduate school-earning that PhD, would open multiple doors to new careers that weren’t accessible with a mere B.S. I had no idea what I wanted to be post graduate school (although I wrote about being a Professor in my personal statement…), but I knew I didn’t want to be lab tech for ever. Now, halfway into my PhD career-many qualities of academia has been revealed: the endless begging for money, writing grants, hour long meetings that consume entire days, dealing with annoying graduate and undergraduate students who aren’t prepared or care about research, budgets, writing papers, teaching, grading, etc. Sure, most of those qualities are pretty unattractive, but attaining a full Professorship seems to be the most difficult job to attain for a PhD grad. It takes a lot of time (most people in biology reach Professorship in their 40’s), a lot of research publications, and a lot of experience writing grants, teaching and designing experiments. I figure all of these skills are qualities that successful graduate students need to obtain as well-no matter what career they choose. For that reason, I put “Professorship” on a pedestal-something to work towards, because it keeps me motivated to be productive and successful throughout grad school. I reason, as long as I’m still passionate about the research, it won’t do me any harm applying for pre-doctoral grants, working long hours, TAing, publishing as many papers as possible and applying to post-doctoral research positions. Any career I’m interested in (journalism, policy, teaching, academics, etc.) will value each of these skills. I’ve realized that you don’t merely learn about scientific research in graduate school-you learn independence, communication, and politics.

    I know many students, who are certain they do not want to go into academia and for this reason, believe they don’t need to have a lengthy graduate school CV filled with good publication, presentation and scholarships. Sure, they have learned laboratory techniques, but it is as if they have given up midway through the PhD process. Perhaps, these PhD-holders are part of the “bottleneck clog”? Many graduate students have no idea what they want to do, except that they don’t want to do research anymore. But they haven’t gained many useful non-research skills. Professors urge their students to follow in their footsteps, after all they chose this career and perhaps stress the importance of academia to bolster their life choice. For this reason, most of them call any job not at a University as “alternative”. This nomenclature really deters many students from seeking out non-academic positions, causing them to feel trapped in a career path they aren’t passionate about, which can greatly affect the quality of our academic workforce.

    Something, I definitely think should be improved in the biological sciences departments, is to offer graduate level classes/credits in non-biological fields (finance, journalism, policy, etc) not only to offer assistance to students who are interested in non-academic careers, but also for students interested in academia-because to be successful you need more than research-you need to know finance, writing and policy skills too to operate your own lab. My advice to current graduate students is to find something to be passionate about, only then will you gain insight into what you really want to do with your PhD. Because I am not exposed to these opportunities though my program, I search them out independently by: learning about politics and finance by serving on various Graduate School Student Government committees, embracing my teaching assistant-ships (not complaining about it, so much), and practicing my scientific writing by launching an Immunology Research Blog. I figure, if I aim high (academia) and miss-I’ll still earn a great career post somewhere…or am I still being naive?

  • clayton

    Here we have asymmetry of information: undergrads often do not know the eventual job prospects from getting a Ph.D in a particular field, while colleges do. This results in a market in which power and benefits accrue to the informed, the college, and away from the student.

    I suspect that most students use acceptance to a graduate program as a proxy for eventual job prospects ( I know I did ). However, the imbalance between the number of accepted and faculty jobs show that this is a poor proxy.

    The problem, of course, and probably the root of the problem, is that current academics and university administrators require the current number of students to be admitted. That’s a key part of the revenue supporting their employment.

    The answer to this conundrum would include, but could not be limited to, a reduction in the number of students accepted.

    Contrary to your claim, Sean, this would not “just move the bottleneck around.” This would in fact eliminate much of the waste in human capital that comes from the eventually unemployable academic spending ultimately unproductive years in grad school and post-doc. So, instead of spending 8 years in school and post-doc and then finding another career, the rejected would-be grad student finds that career much earlier, and begins building economic value for society and for themselves.

    Further, why would you not want to have to tell the not-superstar applicant that they aren’t good enough? Graduate schools do this all the time, given acceptance rates for Ph.D programs in the single digits. This would just expand the rejection pool by a few applicants per year.

  • MovingOutOfAcademia

    I am speaking as someone who has failed to even get a postdoc and is now moving on to other things.

    No one in this discussion seems to have really grasped what is so miserable about this system when you are at the bottom. Martin speaks of a ‘filter’. I agree that a filter would be useful if it was, in any way, meritocratic. As it is, unless you choose your PhD supervisor and subject such that it is something that is currently ‘sexy’ or ‘trending’ in your particular field, it really doesn’t matter how clever you are because no one is going to care about your work.

    If I were leaving the field because I felt that I wasn’t smart enough then at least I could feel I could move on to something else, but being forced to leave because no one cares is not why I signed up to do a PhD in the first place.

  • Professional Researcher

    University systems function under a cooperate model where graduate students and post-docs are not paid what they deserve. However, deans and higher ranks are paid much more than they deserve. The system feeds self-promotion and self-congratulatory behavior and pads the egos of those who succeed whether they are deserving or not. The expansion in university research over the past 20 years has diluted the talent pool and undermined those truly capable of great achievements. The peer review system is a poor regulator and is systematically corrupt. Anyone who thinks that living on a crappy salary is a sacrifice for contributing to societal good is a dupe.

  • Annika

    Another comment on the point of postdoc pay: entering my fourth year as a postdoc in physics, I am now earning far less, in terms of total compensation or compensation/hour, than either of my *younger* brothers. Neither has a degree more than a bachelor’s, and neither brother has been working at their current job for more than two years. And what are their jobs? One is an engineer, the other is a *state park ranger*. While our mom complains frequently that they never pursued graduate degrees, but honestly my brothers earn more, work less, and have free time to do the non-work things they enjoy.

  • Peter Woit

    “Anyone who thinks that living on a crappy salary is a sacrifice for contributing to societal good is a dupe.”

    The reason for being happy with a post-doc salary (or the academic pay-scale at any level) is not that you’re having a miserable time, but “contributing to societal good”. If you want to do that, go work for a badly-run non-profit devoted to helping the sick and the poor. The only good reason for working in academia doing scientific research is that you’re enjoying it. And getting paid enough to live on to do work you enjoy is the foundation of a good life.

    Again, academic salaries on the whole are not “crappy”, but typically significantly above those of the average person of the same age. Having been paid to spend years learning what you want to in a graduate program doesn’t entitle you to a higher salary. Being in the top 5% of the IQ distribution may mean you have the choice to do things that make a lot of money, or things that are personally rewarding. It doesn’t mean that you have the right to both.

    The problem with the academic job market is not the pay-scale, but the lack of job security for younger people. The main problem with being a post-doc is that you don’t know what kind of job you’ll have in the future (and in some subfields, can be pretty sure it won’t be doing what you’ve been trained to do and want to do).

  • Ryan

    I. I really think that the notion that years of education and/or intelligence should be direct correlates to income is somewhere between sadly delusional and hilariously naive. I can’t help but wonder how many people complaining about this have espoused the theory that economics isn’t a science. It would be pedantic and condescending to cast this in terms of supply and demand, and probably wouldn’t penetrate the entitlement mindset anyway.

    II. Higher education, as an industry, is completely broken. Some of the commenters above have hit on quite valid reasons as to why this is, but the basic truth is that undergraduate degrees are exceedingly easy to obtain. There exists no option for someone who wishes to have even the most menial office job to not have a college degree. This exerts a bottom-up pressure on any exceptionally talented (and, truthfully, any marginally talented) individual to seek higher education. The proliferation of “professional masters” programs, the explosion of lawyers, and various other graduate degrees are part of this phenomenon. The government subsidy on loans exerts more of an influence on cost inflation than the quality of undergraduates, in my estimation. It is simply inarguable that the subsidization of tuition has not wreaked havoc on costs:

    III. A fix for the stated problem (limited options for PhD graduates) is somewhat elusive, but my knee jerk reaction is “what’s wrong with being a postdoc?” (other than the implied failure to become a professor). The best solution, as clayton hit dead on, is to reduce information asymmetries, which will have the effect of making the pursuit of a doctorate less attractive. Given that supposedly PhD candidates are intelligent and likely computer literate, it’s possible that enough of them don’t care about money that the market is already where it should be economically.

  • jim

    Magoonski has it right. It will take a cultural revolution to fix these problems.

  • Anon

    The best people, who have the most options, tend to go into other fields. Academia ends up with the mediocre ones, who can’t do anything else but are simply the most persistent. That is where we already are; our universities are full of good-not-great physicists with some amount of luck and a huge commitment to physics.

    Easy answers: Restrict the number of PhDs. Give more job counseling. Make available more statistics instead of hiding them away. If you really can’t think of anything to be done, then you should get out of physics; this is pretty trivial stuff.

  • TimG

    The problem with the “accept less grad students” argument is it assumes the only reason to get a Ph.D. in physics is so you can get a job in physics. In fact, there’s another great reason to get a Ph.D. in physics — it’s a great way to learn a whole lot of physics. The fact that everyone feels like they’re doing it for the job is a cultural problem. I’m not sure how to fix it… more career counseling to expose grad students to other options? Multiple grad school tracks, one for future researchers, one for the guy who just wants to understand string theory or whatever before he jumps ship for finance? I imagine most people would choose to start out in track A, but just having the other as an option might get people thinking “You know, I can learn a ton of physics and then do something else with my life, and that’s OK”. Undergrad institutions often have such multiple versions of the physics major, why not grad schools?

  • David Derbes

    My story is probably atypical, but: I went off to grad school to get a doctorate with the intention of teaching high school, which, after the doctorate, I have done for 32 years. It’s been a very enjoyable life. I have outstanding students and my salary is easily the equal of many professors’ at the sort of places I would have been likely to get tenure. (How good are my students? This has nothing to do with me, of course, but: Michael Turner gave a talk to two of my classes (his son was in the second) and after having several of his questions answered, said, to the earlier class: You’re better than my (University of Chicago) undergraduates.)

    I think people should get Ph.D.’s not because they necessarily want to teach college or even do research, but because they want to learn a lot about a subject they love. After that, if you are really good at research (I’m not), you ought to try to land a job at a university or a place like Wolfram/Apple/Microsoft/NAG or whatever. If not, if you love your subject and love to teach, there are a really fabulous bunch of high schools in this country where the pay is surprisingly good and the students as good as Harvard’s. (Where do you think those Harvard kids come from, anyway?) There are world class public schools like New Trier in Winnetka and Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York, and a bunch of private schools that are also excellent.

    Teaching high school is much, much harder than teaching college (I’ve done both), and there is really no time (except maybe the summers) for doing any sort of research. But for me it’s been a very good life, and some might want to consider it if Plan A doesn’t work out.

  • ossicle

    Peter, just want to applaud your contributions to this thread. Always great to see you pop in. Your voice (principally in your book and on your blog) is invaluable.

  • clayton

    Knowledge of the subject is all well and good (I value it, too), but at some point you have to support yourself and, potentially, a family, pay back those student loans, etc. That’s where knowledge for knowledge sake fails.

    Physics is fortunate in that it prepares people for several other jobs (let’s not forget that physicists who fail to get post-docs, tenure, etc. benefit from another massive misallocation of human capital: finance). But that’s not true for Ph.D.s in all fields, many of whom become pretty irrelevant if they fail to get an academic job. Not many sociology Ph.D.s valuing derivatives on bank trading floors.

    Knowledge for knowledge sake idealism is part of the problem: undergrads in deep denial and/or ignorance about life in the economy can easily rationalize away any facts about the academic job market by employing knowledge for knowledge sake arguments. Idealism is certainly not in short supply among potential grad students.

    Professors giving potential students the “scared straight” treatment is also a good idea, but it’s not systematic and is thus limited. I benefited from such a talk, myself.

  • BFG

    TimG: Exactly. Those who argue that the solution is to restrict grad-school entry are implicitly buying into the notion that the only point of getting a Ph.D. is to be a tenure-track professor. This is simply not true. There are plenty of good reasons to get a Ph.D. and then go do something else, not least the opportunity to deeply study something you’re interested in for a little while. And there are plenty of jobs outside of academia that either require or prefer you to have a Ph.D.

    I’m 34 and about to jump to a new career. I have absolutely no regrets about the decade I’ve spent studying cosmology, though. It’s been wonderful. I don’t mind having taken the pay hit to do something I loved. I just wish we were more honest and forthright about the fact that my career path is much more common than a professor’s these days.

    The idea that professors can’t help their grad students find non-academic careers, just because they themselves stayed in academia, is BS. When it comes to undergraduate education, a professor’s job is (at least nominally) to prepare students for non-academic careers. Why can’t the same be true for some fraction of grad students?

  • FlyingDice

    The best piece of advice I ever got came years after I had gotten a Ph.D.: Know where you’re going to work after you graduate BEFORE you start the program. Which is just another way of saying that you should be career-oriented the entire way through your program. Have this conversation with your potential advisor. And don’t be afraid to jump ship if your advisor can’t ‘show you the ropes’ with respect to the kind of career you want. My advisor was horrible about getting his work published. As his work was also to an extent my work, this meant that I had fewer publications to my credit upon graduation. I worked with another professor for a year and had my name on two publications by the end of that year.

    Do it because you love it, but do it with your eyes on the big picture.

  • Scientist

    “Again, I honestly don’t know what should be done. I would love to improve the lifestyle and general well-being of students and postdocs in any feasible way. Not sure what that way would be.”

    Umm, this really isn’t that hard. You want better job opportunities for scientists, hmm, how about more funding for basic scientific research! Duh!

  • Vicky

    I haven’t read through all the comments yet, so I’m probably repeating what’s already said, but I think it’s important.
    I’m about halfway through my first postdoc now, coming up to the time where I have to decide whether I want to carry on this track — applying for another postdoc position with the hope of getting on the tenure track in a few years time or leaving academia. In the 4 years of undergrad, 3 years of grad school and now 2 years of a postdoc I have NEVER been able to get reasonable careers advice from anyone regarding what is possible outside academia. The standard response is “I don’t know, I’ve never done anything else”. No one has been able to suggest anyone to talk to. I’ve done my own research but outside the generic graduate finance programs, it’s not clear what is out there. That is one of the reasons I’ve stayed in research. It’s not the only reason — if I didn’t enjoy it I would be doing something else.
    However, “enjoying it” isn’t the be all and end all. I moved from the UK to Pasadena for this job. In two years I will more than likely have to relocate again. I have a partner (who is also an astronomy postdoc) and we have plans. We have resigned ourselves to the fact that the next few years will probably suck and that our plans are on hold as we move around, panic about where our next jobs will be, if our grants will be approved, if we’ll ever get tenure.
    Yes, we were told in grad school that 50% of us would not go past postdoc level. But if anyone believed they would be in the 50% that didn’t no-one would go for it. The fact that no guidance or advice is ever given regarding alternative careers makes it even less believable. I mean, if they were really going to get rid of 50% of us, then surely they’d help us work out what else we can do, right?
    My point is that the system is broken. We employ thousands of grad students and postdocs to do the science, keep them working hard by telling them that they only way they can keep their jobs for another year is to be the best of the best. And then even when they are the best, we get rid of them and hire a new postdoc in their place, because we can’t have a postdoc doing the same thing for too long, even if that means the person who put in all the initial work doesn’t want to leave and NOW HAS NO JOB. The system makes no sense, and right now it makes me very sad to be a part of it.

  • clayton

    This problem can be boiled down thusly, if we think economically:

    –The supply of Ph.Ds outpaces demand for them. Thus, economic conditions for Ph.Ds is poor: low pay, low placement rate, indentured servitude.

    –In a normal market place, these conditions would cause the supply of Ph.Ds to fall via lowering demand for graduate school.

    However, this mechanism seems to be blocked by these factors: lack of information (many undergrads going to grad school are ignorant of the forward path); idealism (I don’t care about the job characteristics; I just want to learn psychology, e.g.).

    Additionally, there is another factor gumming up this mechanism: demand for grad school is not a direct map to supply of Ph.Ds.

    For those faculty reading this message: if the number of applicants to your Ph.D program fell, would your department reduce the number it accepts accordingly? I’d bet not, thus, even a sharp decline in demand for graduate school would likely have a minimal effect on the supply of Ph.Ds.

    This suggests that even full knowledge of the hardships of seeking academic tenure may not dent the problem.

  • BFG

    clayton: You are assuming that the problem is simply an oversupply of PhDs. I would argue that it’s a lack of information about non-academic career options for those to choose to get PhDs. At least in physics, my experience is that most people who leave have little trouble finding a job. So the demand is there–it just happens to be in a different market from the one where most PhDs are trying to “sell.”

  • Dave

    I’m just annoyed that this discussion generally flippantly paints all PhD students, regardless of major or graduate school, with the same brush. It’s this sort of stupid mass-generality that will discourage the brightest people from getting PhDs.

    Want to be honest? Don’t imply that a Stanford CS PhD is going to have the same job prospects as a [insert mediocre state university here] [insert obscure liberal arts field here] PhD.

    The problem with this discussion is that it’s taking place at basically an astronomy blog, and there isn’t much of a job market for astronomers outside academia. If you really didn’t know that before going in, you really shouldn’t have that professorship.

  • clayton

    BFG: Not necessarily assuming that. I address the physics issue in a previous post above (yeah, it’s not so bad in physics because you can’t go to another sector rife with major economic imbalances: finance). Art history Ph.Ds or sociology Ph.Ds struggle on bank trading floors, however.

  • Nameless

    BFG: My point was not that it’s impossible for an astrophysicist to land *any* industry job, but that it’s impossible for an astrophysicist to land a job doing astronomy (ie stuff that he spent 10 years studying). I’m glad that you don’t have any regrets spending a decade doing cosmology, now that you’re moving on to a better paying field. But it’s still very wrong.

    A contrast with, say, medicine can be made. 30-year old former medical student, having spent 4 years in medical school and 3-5 years in residency studying neurology or cardiology, is not expected by the society to forget all about neurology and go find a job “in a different market”. He has an ironclad guarantee of landing either a research job (in a university) or an industry job (as a neurologist in a hospital) where he will directly apply his acquired knowledge and skills, and he’ll be paid $200,000+ whatever he chooses. How did it happen? Because neurology is more relevant in the real world than astronomy, and medical schools formulate curricula which are directed primarily at industry demand, not at self-reproduction of professors. And also because medical doctors did what scientists failed to do – they formed a cartel and put a system in place that severely restricts the number of entering students, allowing just enough to ensure that all of them end up employed.

  • Short Sighted

    I’m now in my fourth year as a postdoc and I’m reaching the end of the road after traveling down it for almost 15 years. The problem as I see it is that the people who have the power to change the system, do not have it in their best interests to change it. Who benefits in the short term from having an oversupply of PhD’s working relentlessly to try to secure a reasonably secure job? Obviously the established institutions and funding agencies. Each department gets their choice of several hundred qualified candidates for every job that opens up. There is an endless supply of disposable labor. Grad students and postdocs do an enormous amount of teaching and research for very little cost. Short term contracts are easier to dish out. Just look at the NSF and other funding agencies…they still have a mindset that there is a shortage of people interested in going into science. This is obviously false.

    Of course the problem is that it is extremely short-sighted. Research quality has gone down. The reputation of academia is slowly but surely catching up to the facts. My field is currently losing an entire generation of researchers and they haven’t caught on to it yet. New research programs aren’t popping up like they used to. Young scientists are forced to follow older programs if they want to stay in the field. I could go on…

  • BFG

    clayton: There are many options besides finance (you might be surprised how many physics PhDs are behind those remarkably well-targeted ads from Google, for example.) Some of them even still have some relation to astrophysics (going to work for the satellite builders at Northrop comes to mind). I’m going in none of those directions, though, and I’m not getting an immediate pay increase, either. (I am getting a more secure career path, however.)

    Look, I fully agree that there’s a problem: academia is ultimately a Ponzi scheme. I just don’t think that telling more people they can’t get PhDs is the solution. Instead we need to be clear with people from the outset about their chances of staying in the field of their PhD, their options afterwards, and the opportunity costs of following your passion for a little while. After that, shouldn’t we let people be adults and make their own life choices?

  • Nameless

    “After that, shouldn’t we let people be adults and make their own life choices?”

    No, we shouldn’t. We’re talking about introverted, somewhat idealistic 22 year olds with no knowledge of the real world who spent the last 17 years of their life studying. For them, stayng in a rut and going on studying is an extremely attractive option, even if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, even if they are informed of it.

  • JohnB

    The problem is that the productivity of faculty at research institutions rely on the relatively cheap labor of Post-Docs and graduate students. Therefore far too many PHDs are generated by the research grant system, to replace the few faculty at top universites getting the big grants. The solution is to provide for something in academia for these PHDs to do outside of becoming full professors themselves.

    Once obtaining a pHD the only real chance a scientist has of ever following up on their own scientific ideas is to become a faculty member, because working for another professor usually means researching someone else’s ideas. Many scientists have great ideas, but are not suited to running large research groups. Science and progress would be favored by providing greater opportunity to do truly some truely independent research by experienced scientists that have passed through the Post-doc process, but do not have the desire to run a large research group or become full faculty members.
    Increasingly grants are given to larger and larger projects, and the few grants given to independent single researchers, are generaly only avalible in the first few years after their pHD.

  • Mike


    I’m afraid that in the end all we can really do is give people the best possible information: as complete and and as nuanced as we can muster — after that it really is up to them.

    I’m the step-father of one of those 17 year-olds you mention (actually 18 now). He’s off at a top school doing a math/computer science undergrad major. And, although he’s extremely smart, he really is inexperienced, introverted and somewhat idealistic (don’t know if this last thing is all that bad — someone should keep idealism alive, and, for the most part, it won’t be people my age).

    Anyway, here’s the thing: for a very long time we’ve had very little effective control over, or even substantial influence on, his decisions. We talk, sometimes he listens, sometimes he’s right not to listen. Sometimes he talks with and listens to his peers, his teachers and his close friends. I hope he investigates everything and processes all the information he comes into contact with.

    Perhaps institutional changes can be engineered by reducing the number of school slots or by increasing the number of job positions, and that would be important facts and circumstances he could consider.

    But here’s one thing that I know for sure: if he decides he wants to go on and do graduate work and then a post doc, it will be his decision, no one else’s. He’d have it no other way.

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  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    The typical grad students I’ve known put in 60-80 hour weeks (not counting classes, i.e. lab work, “pedagogy”, etc.). If that doesn’t amount to below minimum wage, it’s close enough to be sobering.

    I’ve never known a grad student in the sciences whose only alternative would have been McDonalds.

    Again, all’s fair, as long as everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into. My impression is there’s little incentive for institutions to portray the nature of the beast accurately.

  • Math is just as bad, and finance is OVER folks

    In response to Woit’s above assertions, I happen to be in both mathematics and physics (PhD in math). I’m finishing up a postdoc in physics, and am unemployed next year. I can tell you: the situation is NOT much better in math departments. It’s all terrible. This is after applying over the past 3 years to hundreds of math and physics departments. Math is also a pyramid scheme – don’t delude yourselves.

    I’d also like to point out that I (along with 90% of the postdocs that I know) make $35-40K per year (I personally make $33K). Trust me, you can’t support even a tiny family on that wage. To add insult to injury, I was finally offered a postdoc for $20K/year next year! I have turned it down. Those NSF salaries that you are referencing only apply to the few who are lucky enough to get one.

    I am leaving academia. For those who think that finance is a backup plan, I can also tell you (after a dozen interviews at multiple places) that the finance alternative is basically a thing of the past. They’re not hiring anymore. I currently know more unemployed quants than working ones. Furthermore, there are now so many specialized programs in mathematical finance that the approach “I have a PhD in physics/math, I’m smart, hire me” doesn’t work now.

    In case you are thinking “maybe this guy isn’t good enough” I’ll say, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I am good – really good (since this is anonymous I can just be straightforward about it and say the truth). As somebody said earlier: there comes a time in life when you are done proving yourself. Science needs to make a commitment, because some of their best young people (yes, me included) are leaving.

  • Brainetics

    Maybe you want try it:

    Brainetics is an educational program, was recently released. This is just a very controversial product, which sense, it does brainetics work items and your children are very advanced methods in memory.

    With Brainetics It allows you to achieve it, but there are so many benefits. It, we can use our minds better, faster, and now we just need to spend 20 minutes a day to master these skills. Brainetics math tricks through the use of mathematics. This indicates that the figure is not just boring old numbers.

  • Bruce Bassett

    An alternative to the traditional academic route might be a life of freelance research. It certainly isn’t without problems but it does present a model interpolating between current-style faculty positions and the “real world”. I discuss the proposal in some detail here:

  • Lee

    Hell, I can look at a PhD paper and come up with improvements in a few minutes, but I can’t even get a degree with the funding (read: loans) and deliberately meandering prerequisite courses, much less getting higher qualifications that would actually be useful.

    I’ll support academia once it’s publishing all it’s papers free to everyone, and provides equal opportunities to everyone for advancement. At the moment, it seems to be more about corrupt/selfish research “opportunities”, making money off students, and protectionism. In its current form, academia doesn’t deserve to survive.

  • Thomas Larsson

    @55, Vicky: “Yes, we were told in grad school that 50% of us would not go past postdoc level. ”

    Each professor has on average ten students during his or her career.

    Since physics is in a steady-state situation, the number of professorships does not increase.

    Hence 90% of the physics students will not become professors.

    This was obvious to pretty much everyone when I was a student in the 1980s. But it depends on the school, of course. If you’re from Harvard or Stanford your odds are better.

  • Peter Woit

    “Math is just as bad” is right that the job situation in finance is different than it used to be. You can’t just show up with a math/physics Ph.D. and expect to be hired, which was the way it was ten years ago. There are still jobs though, students who go through our department’s one-year master’s program in math finance are doing very well on the job market.

    The job market in math is less than ideal, especially in mathematical physics, but is on the whole very different than in physics. This year we had quite a few finishing Ph.Ds, and I believe they all found jobs, many of them quite good ones. As always, moving on to a tenure-track job is harder.

    Entry-level jobs in math are somewhat different than entry-level jobs in physics, since they almost always involve some amount of teaching. On the other hand, they do pay better, with typical pay scale at top institutions this fall around 65K/year for fresh Ph.Ds. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to hire a math Ph.D. for 20K/year at a research university, this seems to be the kind of thing that occurs in physics due to the grotesque oversupply of Ph.Ds. there. There may be cases where institutions are hiring adjuncts to teach at that kind of pay, but that’s another story…

  • clayton

    BFG: Didn’t mean to limit physicist’s opportunities to finance, of course. The point remains: not many history or theology Ph.Ds in Silicon Valley, either. Some disciplines provide better outs than others.

    I have one of those financial mathematics degrees Math is just as bad … was talking about above, and it doesn’t surprise me to here that finance is a lot harder to get in to for folks with Ph.Ds in other fields.

    I also have had the experience of working a Christmas season at Border’s about 12 years ago. Out of about 30-40 employees there, at least 6 had Ph.Ds in English. They were making minimum wage (or just above it) and stocking shelves. Brutal.

    I would say, “there’s always Border’s”, but there really isn’t that anymore either.

  • George Musser

    Sean, apropos of comment #14, I’m not sure I follow why you object to reducing graduate admissions to bring them into better balance with the available positions.


  • Howard Merken

    I’m a poor chemistry PhD. I left college teaching to go into Christian school teaching. Despite student loans whcih I can barely afford to pay back, grad school was worth it. The lessons I learned about intellectualism, academics, and the philosophy of learning were worth more than all the academic knowledge I learned. Poor at the moment, yes–but happy. My hope is that I can impart this philosophy of education to others who might not be going into grad programs. Cumes, hoop-jumping, and the rest–how else can we really learn that we need to really learn?

  • Ian

    The population is larger than the 70’s, and more people go to college, so therefore there should be more physics faculty and correspondingly higher funding levels. In addition, student-faculty ratios should be closer to 1:8 (or so) than 1:30, and professors should teach all classes. All these factors point towards more faculty positions…

    Being able to conduct research is useful. So is having a strong mathematical background, and the ability to think analytically. All phd graduates shouldn’t be expected to strive to become permanent faculty. They should strive to become strong researchers with the background and self-initiative to see problems through. The number of students isn’t a problem. However, viewing the career advancement of all those students as a collective process of attrition is a problem.

  • Matthew Saunders


    interesting, I have never thought of academia in the way you have presented it — that failure/not succeeding is a part of it. I wonder if academia could adopt, somehow, the business model of a Facebook — they’re making money off of selling NOTHING. Perhaps, with the advent of the internet, with the ability to make a living off of catering to the long tail instead of the thick part of the bell curve…perhaps school should be encouraging and helping those academics to build up a web presence, instead of being held down to one physical location (University, College, Country, whatever). That might mitigate some of the petty politics and the stupid tribalisms that can infect science? Hmm.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “But on the other hand, I really can’t think of any sensible major improvements, for a simple reason: there are many people who would like to be academics, and few available jobs. Short of multiplying the number of college professorships by a factor of three or so, I’m not sure how to address the primary cause of this anxiety — the difficulty in getting jobs.”

    The obvious solution, while keeping the total amount of money spent constant (whether one wants to change that is another question) is to have fewer temporary positions and more permanent ones, giving people a permanent job at a lower age. When one goes to work in business or industry, the standard thing is a permanent job right away, perhaps after a trial period of 6 months. And these people have much less of an idea about what awaits them than someone in academia does. Any talk about temporary positions being necessary for one to prove one’s worth is bullshit. The only reason they exist is because funding agencies don’t want to make long-term commitments. Think of the people you know. Is there even one example of a person whom you thought was worthy of a permanent job in grad school, but later turned out a disappointment, or vice versa (not that the latter case would even have a chance of being observed—huge selection bias here)?

  • J. Rich

    Pay faculty less.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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