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
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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] cosmicvariance.com .

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