Monday, January 31, 2011

Too many PhDs? C&EN's Beth Halford tackles the question

Remind you of your committee?
Photo credit: AtixVector
Bethany Halford's long-awaited article on the "PhD glut" came out last night; it's a doozy, so you should just go over there and read it right now. I'll wait here.

Read it? Great -- here are my thoughts:

The Good: 
  • The statistics are basically inarguable and finally collected all in one place. Supply is going up, demand as measured by starting Ph.D. salaries has gone down by 1% between 1998 and 2009. Basically static demand, while the supply has continued to go up. 
  • The quotes from Prof. Michael Doyle ("Synthetic organic chemistry, process development chemistry, and medicinal chemistry have been severely affected by the downturn in the economy and the lack of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry.") and Prof. Amir Hoveyda ("Some people in organic chemistry have been very strongly gearing what they do in their programs toward what pharma needs,"). I sincerely hope that this will cause some amount of rethinking on the part of the academic community.
The Bad:
  • The quote from the biotech CSO at the end of the article: “We really aren’t training too many Ph.D.s for the jobs available. I think people just need to look outside the realm of chemistry research and start thinking about things that still involve chemistry and use the tools that you learned in graduate school but that aren’t necessarily bench-type jobs." O RLY? So what you're saying is that we're training too many Ph.D. chemists just as long as they want to be chemists. Oh, okay. 
  • The number of PhD-granting graduate school is 196 in the US. Does anyone think we'll be okay if we cut that number down to, say, 170? Or 150? Or 96?
  • The quote from the biomedical prof (Juliano) is telling, too. Ph.D. scientists going into regulatory affairs? Hey, you don't need a Ph.D. to do that...
The Ugly:
  • There's a physical chemistry Ph.D. who applied for a bunch of nanotech positions only to get turned down. That's not good for anyone; they're supposed to be the next thing after pharma. Uh-oh....
  • The quote from Professor Platz ("For 30 years, I’ve been telling young people that the only reason they should go to graduate school in chemistry or any field of science is because they have a calling to learn that field of science—the way someone has a calling for art, music, or the priesthood... You should only do it for that sense of love and personal fulfillment. It’s very hard to predict a job market five years hence.”) If this is true, there are a whole lot of people in graduate school who are there for the wrong reason. If this is true, the government should not be paying for many of these positions. If this is true, we're all doomed (a little.)
If you're a skeptic on the Ph.D. glut, you have to be able to refute the statistics at the beginning of the article or you have to be hoping for a big turnaround sometime soon. Finally, it's my contention that every single 1st year graduate student in chemistry should be required to read this article. Huge kudos to C&EN's Beth Halford for a really thorough and excellent article.  


  1. Very interesting article and quite depressing. I think the article does offer a possible solution - hiring some trained chemists to do research in academia instead of teach. If the issue is that universities need students to do research, wouldn't this cut down on the number of students needed but still allow for a lot of research to be done?

    It's frustrating because the need for people to do science is as strong, if not stronger, than it ever was but for some reason we don't want to pay people to do it. Is chemistry becoming like many other fields where the jobs are just being outsourced?

  2. @Unstable Isotope We talked about this a little bit in the comment threads of our chemjobs discussion (by way of getting rid of the PhD entirely and just having academe lab jobs be ... well ... jobs). But, this is one way at it.

    I suppose you could approach the problem the way you have suggested such that a PI HAS to keep a grad student in lab until they find employment elsewhere. And, until that person finds other employment, the PI cannot take on another new grad student to replace them.

  3. Matt, I suspect that if your plan went through, there would be a lot of accidental disappearances of graduate students. :-)

  4. The major missing piece in Academic/Basic Research today is the Research Assistant Professor(Scientist). Really good labs use post-docs to manage the sub-groups of grad student researchers. But post-docs also have to be focused on getting publishable results to the point that some ignore their mentorship requirements.

    Start "Hiring" at the $60k-70k level, which is more than enough to live comfortably in a decent college town, and you remove some of the student glut while also improving the productivity.

  5. “The proliferation of Ph.D. programs resulted in a demand for research funds that exceeded the (much-expanded) supply, and the imbalance of supply and demand contributed to a peer-review system that protects established fields at the expense of new ideas,” Whitesides and Deutch argue. “These Ph.D. programs produced too few new ideas and too many average scientists, and neither provided novel solutions to problems (or jobs), nor caught the attention of the public.”

    I thought that was rather scathing and sadly accurate.

  6. I really like your idea, anonymous. I wonder if we can get a major research university to do it. Better yet, perhaps the ACS can fund grants to do this sort of thing.

  7. I sincerely hope this message gets out there, not just for chemists, for ALL people in the sciences who are struggling (believe it or not, the glut doesn't just exist in chemistry).

    I think it's also important to note Juliano's comment about the bad economy driving people who aren't motivated to go to grad school. This does nothing to help the value of a Ph.D.

    The most pathetic thing about this whole situation is that being a bench scientist has become a dead end career. Staying at the bench too long means you start making too much money and are easily replaced by a fresh graduate for far less. It is critical that you remove yourself from the lab at some point if you want to remain employed until retirement age. These days, scientists aren't getting the chance to remove themselves; they're being forced out and a vacuum of knowledge/expertise has replaced them. And politicians wonder why innovation is lagging.

  8. @Unstable Isotope

    I don't think you fund the RAP from grants, they have to be semi-permanent positions, and seen as regular employees.

    They should handle the managing the lab tasks for each tenure-track professor. Let the professor focus on grant writing, and being the face of a group.

    Otherwise let's limit the size of research groups to 10 students and 2 postdocs.

  9. Graduate studies is simply a jobs program for the underemployed youth of today. Regardless of the discipline.

    I can imagine a future where you will need 60k of student loans to pump gas. They used to have a word for this, it's called "the working poor." I was amazed when people forgot what "moonlighting" meant. People seem to remember that one quite well these days.

    I like this article, but I think "restructuring" is exactly what describes the current trend. Ultimately, the tab for modern civilization will come due, and someone is going to have to pay for it. Public or private, I don't really think anyone gives damn, but we need researchers, and we need to solve the technical problems that face society.

  10. I also don't agree with the first part of the biotech CSO's comment (in "The Bad"). Even if you took into account all the openings in areas like consulting, patent law, and (ahem) science writing, we still wouldn't be able to employ everybody.

    But I do agree with the second part. We don't need to treat a Ph.D. in chemistry like a certificate from a trade school. It does give you the skills to move outside the bench if that's what you want. But this raises two questions for me:
    1) After the 'traditional' chemjobs are filled how much of a surplus (of people that go into these other fields) can we really sustain?
    2) If the # of Ph.D. grads continues to rise will we see a proliferation of Ph.D.s going to jobs where one isn't needed- creating false prerequisites that just perpetuate the glut? (I don't know anything about regulatory affairs but I'll take CJ at his word that you don't need a Ph.D. to do it).

  11. "Graduate studies is simply a jobs program for the underemployed youth of today. Regardless of the discipline"

    Got it in one. A similar thing happened in the UK under Tony Blair's labour government. They massively upped the numbers of 18 year olds going to University to keep them off the unemployment line. Now we have mediocre 'graduates' coming out our ears, and zero jobs. No one is hiring.

    The whole situation is a chronic mess

  12. @Anon7:25 - " being a bench scientist has become a dead end career. Staying at the bench too long means you start making too much money and are easily replaced by a fresh graduate for far less. It is critical that you remove yourself from the lab at some point if you want to remain employed until retirement age."

    Honestly, I work at a (admittedly small) CRO, and many of my coworkers are in the 50-60 age bracket. They're working at the bench, and passing valuable skills on to those of us who weren't yet born in the '60s and '70s, during the synthesis heyday.

    I think it's only so cutthroat at the bench in Big Pharma....perhaps us folk at smaller companies see the wisdom in retaining someone in lab who's "seen it all"

  13. @Matt

    Quagmire here again, giggity. I hate pushing the job model this hard, but it's the ultimate compromise between stubborn PI's addicted to federal money and students who are deeply indebted to federal money (i.e. student loans). Many of the grad students I know came to grad school because they just can't find a job in science (or engineering!). Grad school provides good cover to postpone loans until the post-doc. Then they have to prove they are too poor to pay the monthly $500-700 (yes some have had that problem!).

    The grad school process for science is promoted to students like it is a practical method of training for a viable vocation, but it really is just becoming what it was supposed to be, a priesthood of the world's hardest working nerds.

    The lifestyle Americans desire is incompatible with today's nomadic style of industry science. Imagine having to move every year to another place, trying to sell a house then find another. Then imagine doing this in some of the most expensive areas of the U.S. (SF, SD, Ann Arbor or Boston) They would be better living in an RV or working at companies like FoxConn in Taiwan where onsite housing is provided next to the work area.

  14. @Giggity Goo

    I agree. It is scary how nomadic we have become with our profession.

    I also take issue with Whitesides and Deutch saying that the increased number of PhD programs is the sole problem. Whitesides doesn't do much soul-searching of his own. Does his research group, or others like his, need to be as big as they are. Would some of those students be better off/better mentored/better prepared had they gone to a smaller school where their advisor actually took the time to (gasp) advise? This is the fatal flaw of their article.

  15. If I post this now, I won't be tempted to post it as a Wed/Fri fun post.

    To the tune of TMBG's Sevens:

    What's that at window?
    A whole bunch of chemists
    They're coming in now
    And there's a lot of them
    And down the chimney too
    ("Hey guys, come on in!")
    I bet they want some jobs
    "We want jobs! Where's our jobs?"

    My lab is full of chemists
    They're filling up the group room
    Running lots of columns
    Talking on the telephone
    Inviting over more chemists
    ("It's a state school that will hire us")
    I'm running out of jobs.
    "We want jobs! Where's our jobs?"

    My lab is full of chemists
    "We want jobs! Where's our jobs?"
    Lots and lots of chemists
    "We want jobs! Where's our jobs?"
    Many more are stopping by
    Chemists add and multiply
    There's only way to subtract them:
    Let them eat up all the jobs

  16. I take issue with Whitesides for many reasons, but he might have a point that the quality of our programs might be hindered by the loyalty to our the roots and to our core disciplines (at least that's how I read his quote). I'm not convinced that being a narcissist and a borderline sociopath is the answer to the fundamental problems we face. I think the arrogance many of these people is rather dismissive to the human condition, that we all must work harder ... or shall we say "let them eat cake".

    My problem, personally, I'm tired and I am mortal. This is not dismissive to my passion or my pride, but short of getting a coke habit, I am not sure I can work any harder, especially on a postdoc salary. I can not work any harder or faster to make science "work" in a manner that the world seems to demand of us. It will take most of us 20 years to have some thing marketable to the complex demands of society. Are we supposed to live on raman noodles until we are 50 to contribute back to society so it will hopefully welcome us back? If that is truly the case, the tech sector of this country will be in for a very rude awakening.

  17. I thought it was interesting that there were no quotes in the article from Big Pharma (one way or the other). C&E News has no problem getting pharma execs to comment on other stories but either they didn't ask or no one would comment on the record for this one.

    As someone who moved from pharma to regulatory affairs, there are PhD's in reg affairs (on the government side), although the job rarely pays well except at the highest level. But as CJ pointed out, you don't need a PhD for most of these jobs. However, many people with a BS in chemistry don't know anything outside of classwork. It's really a job for someone with an MS, and perhaps many of the students getting PhD's really should be getting MS degrees. But most programs push people toward the PhD and only see the MS as a "consolation prize". If flexibility and changing careers is the way of the future, it should be much easier to get continuing education in chemistry. There are very few practical classes in advanced chemistry (MS level) and the ones that are offered tend to be difficult to access and/or very expensive. You can't do lab work online, but online classes would be very helpful for chemists moving from the bench to other areas of chemistry. (The ACS was trying this for a while but I always found their offerings pricey and not that relevant.)

  18. “The proliferation of Ph.D. programs...protects established fields at the expense of new ideas,” Whitesides and Deutch argue. “These Ph.D. programs produced too few new ideas and too many average scientists, and neither provided novel solutions to problems (or jobs), nor caught the attention of the public.”

    The disdain effused by the quoted passage is offensive yet sadly unsurprising. Are we to assume that ALL the academic progeny of Whitesides, Deutch, and other top-tier faculty have "provided novel solutions to problems" and "captivated the public's attention"? Does anyone really believe that the average bruiser on the streets of Southie or Dorchester has even heard of Whitesides?

    I'm particularly irked by the unwillingness of many prestigious professors to admit their roles in creating the PhD glut. Many so-called "medicore" PhD programs are populated by junior faculty who were grad students or postdocs at the elite chemistry institutions. Even the lousiest teaching jobs at Tier-5 colleges are hard to get without a high-impact school on your CV!

    The statistics that I find most disturbing from Halford's article are the percentages of foreign nationals serving as grad students and postdocs in the US. Although I don't condone xenophobia, I understand why there is growing resentment towards foreign workers in science and elsewhere. Even during the recent/ongoing recession, I have witnessed science-based companies continue to hire foreigners, going through the extra trouble to sponsor work visas. While the "getting the best and brightest" argument can be levied, I find it hard to believe that equivalently qualified candidates couldn't be found among the droves of unemployed scientists who are also US citizens or resident aliens.

  19. @Chemjobber

    First, I don't think the job model will lead to any mysterious disappearances. It will just cause high attrition through a quit (or be fired) process. My "job model" idea does not compel any PI to keep a grad student till they get a job.

    Second, the PhD can simply be awarded once they have achieved some widely recognized milestone. For example, attaining an H-index of 5. An employee can work for a variety of places, industry, academia, etc. to attain this milestone.

  20. I was surprised at the unwillingness of other un/deremployed chemists to put names to their contributions in the Halford article. Paranoia?

  21. It's also shocking that the article completely ignores the stomping elephant: that chemistry jobs (at least in organic chemistry, but I suspect in other areas of chem, too) are simply largely going to low-cost sources in China and India. Reflection on that is extremely relevant, for many economic, political and social reasons. And that trend has had an increasing effect on academics (in US and abroad), which furthers the cycle... US-educated (and frequently employed initially in the US) foreign nationals return to China and India to work for companies hiring lower-cost native chemists, or else to teach at their universities... This increases the #, and probably quality, of foreign chemists, and continues to have a negative effect on equivalents in the US. Maybe one day the salary of these positions abroad will increase to the point where they are less drastically competitive, but by then there may not be many US-based chemistry jobs left anyway.

  22. "They would be better living in an RV or working at companies like FoxConn in Taiwan where onsite housing is provided next to the work area."

    Oh man... for the first five seconds I read that sentence... I first thought, "brilliant idea! RV! Why the hell didn't I think of that!?" continued with, "I wonder if I can park close to chemistry buildings in all the good schools... the closeset trailer park at my PhD school was a long walk away. What about heating issues or taking care of sewage? I've never lived in an RV before..."

    Of course, by then the five seconds were up and I though, "Wait, what the hell just went through my head? Thank God I'm doing a postdoc overseas."

  23. Wasn't there a MLB player who got busted down to the minors, and then lived in his RV in the parking lot or something?

  24. Also, the picture does remind me of my committee a bit. You just have to remove the good and then merge the bad and the ugly and copy it two times. I was stupid enough to pick the 'most famous' people in the department onto the committee. Also the biggest hardasses. Trust me, the reference letters aren't worth it. And I say that with enough distance and time, removed from the traumatic events.

  25. Rod Beck.

  26. The article appears to be quite honest and well-balanced, and I'm glad to see C & E News confronting the reality of the employment situation.
    The part about the nanotechnology Ph.D. was somewhat surprising, but not entirely so. There's certainly plenty of research dollars available academically for this area, but how much of this effort has translated into commercializable products is anyone's guess.

  27. @fentonh, 2/1/11 - Perhaps, with the job market being this poor, no one wants the bulls-eye on their back of being "that guy who complained about jobs to C&EN"

    Every little bit helps!

  28. Great, another quote from Prof. Michael Doyle because he's close to the ACS offices in DC.

    I used to be mad at Doyle for being a bad advisor because he had such a high attrition rate in his group (more than 50%). But in retrospect, the guys who ended up staying for their PhD with him, were really good chemists (synthetic organic and methods development) at the end even though they hated every minute of it, they were deserving of their degree. There were a lot of people who joined his group who couldn't really cut it in chemistry actually. They would have gotten a PhD with an advisor who actually didn't push them as much and was more hands on, but Doyle cut you off after a year if you didn't learn on your own and fast (and if you didn't figure out that half the stuff he said was bullshit. You also had to learn how to think for yourself and fast and read lots of literature). In this type of economy, his approach may be correct. If there were more advisors like Doyle, maybe we wouldn't have an oversupply of chemistry PhDs (some of whom don't really deserve the degree).

    I can't believe I just wrote that... I thought there would never come a day that I would say nice things about him.

    1. Sounds like he's doing himself, the university, and the job market a favor! I go to a university that is supposedly really good in the discipline that I am currently here for, but some professors continue to pass complete morons! For example, like any other university, as graduate students we are required to TA until we get funded. We have students that can't teach a general chemistry lab without the help of Google! These people get pushed along because their committees don't want to piss off the PI by telling them that their student is incompetent, thus producing another Ph.D. that has no clue what they're doing.

  29. I would like to know where she gets the figure that the starting salary for chemists in government is over $100k. Because if that is true I'm getting royally screwed.

  30. @Anon3:42 - Couldn't agree more - if 100K is the new baseline, sign me up! I miss that target by several, several percent!

  31. Frankly there aren't that many jobs out there since the ones that used to be in America have been outsourced globally by the MIC (Military Industrial Complex) and by other industries. Also, take into consideration that fewer and fewer Americans are trained in the art of chemistry. And yet, there are still no jobs. I think I will go make me some distilled ethanol; since this is the only job I can do...

  32. Great article! I think that students, academics, and policy makers alike should read and digest the information, and come up with a progressive plan to make changes for the future.

    Having been through the PhD system myself (Chemical Engineer) I believe it is based on outdated concepts and ideas, and needs to be updated and replaced with a new approach. I don't have the answers at the moment am curious what others think.

  33. I agree with Anonymous. The PhD degree and the system/ underlying assumptions behind it I believe are many decades outdated, especially in the chemical, physical, and biological sciences. I don't have the answers either.

  34. "The Changing PhD – Turning out millions of doctorates"


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20