Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Jon Bardin misses: the costs of graduate school

A recent commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education by neuroscience graduate student Jon Bardin restates a lot of the truths about graduate school: that tenure-track positions in the biomedical sciences are extraordinarily hard to come by, that graduate school is a great place to learn effective communication skills and problem solving and that graduate school mentors need to learn to guide their students towards paths away from academia and towards 'the real world.'* However, what marks Mr. Bardin's essay is an air of nonchalance towards the typical "What did I just do?!?" panic of typical senior graduate students. He tends to lean heavily on the 'alternative career' path, as you can see from the following excerpts:
...These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot. (emphasis CJ's)
...A few months ago, I attended an event sponsored by several local biomedical universities titled "What Can You Be With a Ph.D.?" The event was spread over numerous auditoriums and included panels on science writing; teaching at the elementary, high-school, and college levels; government jobs, both in bureaucracy and research; forensic lab work; nonprofits; finance; biotechnology; consulting; and, yes, even postdoctoral research. Roaming from panel to panel, I was amazed at the sheer scope of opportunity for science Ph.D.'s. The event reinforced that, as the world becomes ever more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields. Looking around, it became clear that we've been looking at this pyramid upside down.
Here's what I think Mr. Bardin's essay elides: cost. His Ph.D. education (and mine) were paid for by the US taxpayer. Is this the best deal that the taxpayer can get? As I've said in the past, I think society gets a pretty good deal: they get 5+ years of cheap labor in science, (hopefully) contributions to greater knowledge and, at the end of the process, they get a trained scientist. Usually, that trained scientist can go on to generate new innovations in their independent career in industry or academia. It's long been my supposition that the latter will pay (directly and indirectly) for the former. If that's not the case, is this a bargain that society should continue to support? 

Mr. Bardin also shows a great deal of insouciance about the costs to himself: what else could he have done, if he hadn't gone to graduate school? When we talk about the costs of getting a Ph.D., I believe that we don't talk enough about the sheer length of time (5+ years) and what other training might have been taken during that time. Opportunity costs matter! An apprenticeship at a microbrewery (likely at a similar (if not higher) pay scale as a graduate student) or a 1 or 2 year teaching certification process easily fits in the half-decade that most of us seem to spend in graduate school. Are the communications skills and the problem-solving skills that he gained worth the time and the (opportunity) cost? Could he have obtained those skills somewhere else for a lower cost? 

This last problem leads me to a core dilemma of alternative careers for Ph.D. educated scientists. In the range of careers that Mr. Bardin uses to suggest "the sheer scope of opportunity for science Ph.D.'s", in how many of these fields will a science Ph.D. be an entry-level credential or an advantage? Patent law, for example, offers (or did?) Ph.D. chemists an opportunity to increase their wages significantly versus a career at the bench. How many of these fields would see a science Ph.D. as a wild overqualification (i.e. elementary education?) Would someone in one of these careers welcome a Ph.D. scientist or see them as a usurper of positions away from whatever entry-level credential that's preferred? This is a problem to be confronted, not wished away. 

While I sincerely hope that "as the world becomes ever more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields", betting over 50% of your 20s on that hope seems like a risky proposition. 

*BTW, I'm getting bored and irritated with these sorts of comments:
Crucially, they [professors] must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor's time... But too many young scientists are made to feel worthless because of their desire to leave academic science. It has to stop.
Perhaps it's the fact that most chemistry graduate students (used to?) end up in industry. But your self-worth shouldn't be dependent on whether or not you can become a tenure-track professor and the vagaries of your mentor's evaluation, true or not.

57 comments:

  1. I understand that on one hand graduate school seems to offer a raw deal in terms of the pay and the time it takes to complete a degree, but keep in mind that many graduate students (myself included) graduated in 2008/2009 or after. The choice isn't between grad school and a job. The choice is between grad school and being unemployed like many of our friends, and that choice is much easier to make.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You won't feel better when you do graduate and the market is still crap. You'll just be even more unemployable because you're "too specialized", or as people like to put it, "overqualified." If you're hiding out in grad school just to wait for the job market to improve, leave with your MS. Your prospects with a Ph.D won't improve.

      Delete
    2. Graduate studies is not training to get a better job, it IS the job. If I had realized that a long time ago, I suppose I would have been a lot more adjusted.

      Delete
    3. Regarding the above assertion that: "You won't feel better when you do graduate [with the PhD] and the market is still crap", that of course presumes that the market will indeed still be crap when you do finish the PhD. Maybe it will be, maybe it won't. I certainly can't predict the future of the economy, and for those who think they can, might I ask: what exactly are you doing reading this blog anyway? Wouldn't your time be better spent using your prognostication insight to place lucrative investment trades?

      What we do know is that the economy was indeed dreadful in 2008-2009 and frankly hasn't gotten much better in subsequent years, which would be the years with which you would presumably have bailed out of grad school with the consolation master's. I therefore actually view sheltering yourself in grad school during this recession as a rational choice, given the unpromising alternatives. At least you're getting a stipend, if nothing else.

      As a historical analogy, consider the dotcom crash that all too many of us painfully endured. Those EE/CS bachelor's degree graduates of 2000-2001 who chose to shelter in PhD programs rather than enter the worst engineering/CS job market in recent history completed their PhD's around the 2005-2007 time frame and joined an engineering job market that had substantially improved from tragic days of the bust and has remained robust - perhaps even irrationally exuberant - even through the current recession. Seems to me that their strategy to avoid the fallout of the dotcom bust proved to be ingenious.

      Delete
  2. ..A few months ago, I attended an event sponsored by several local biomedical universities titled "What Can You Be With a Ph.D.?" The event was spread over numerous auditoriums and included panels on science writing; teaching at the elementary, high-school, and college levels; government jobs, both in bureaucracy and research; forensic lab work; nonprofits; finance; biotechnology; consulting; and, yes, even postdoctoral research. Roaming from panel to panel, I was amazed at the sheer scope of opportunity for science Ph.D.'s. The event reinforced that, as the world becomes ever more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields. Looking around, it became clear that we've been looking at this pyramid upside down.

    Where was this held, The University of Narnia?

    The author was shown all of the theoretical jobs he might be able to apply for, not the actual number of jobs available to him if he actually were job searching. Has he even explored what the job market is like?

    What if you spent 5-7 years learning organic chemistry and actually wanted to be an organic chemist? I don't know a lot of people who opt to spend the better part of their 20s slaving in a lab with the goal of being a consultant. He completely ignores the notion that people go to graduate school to learn about a certain subject and most likely wish to do that in some capacity as a professional, either in academia or industry.

    An advanced degree means you're a smart person, but it doesn't magically open closed doors for you when it comes to getting a job, something a lot of your readers certainly get.

    Don't get me wrong, we need smart people to pursue advanced degrees, but let's lot put this idyllic notion that you can just invent a career when you're finished. I don't think it is really that easy anymore.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely agree with your comment here (and laughed at the UofN joke). Your last point with "invent[ing] a career when you're finished", is particularly salient. Even under the relatively broad "chemistry" umbrella, my PhD in organic chemistry still made pharma companies laugh at my resume (literally) because it was all in polymer synthesis and characterization. I know that I couldn't get a job as an analytical or inorganic chemist, even though my experiences have components of each. If it is that difficult within the chemistry discipline, going to a completely different field and relying on my "data analysis and collection" skills to get me the job is not likely going to fly.

      Delete
  3. His arguments about "communications skills and the problem-solving skills" are clearly bollocks, and certainly not the sole purview of a chemistry PhD (which is, of course, learning chemistry.....).

    Statements like "Looking around, it became clear that we've been looking at this pyramid upside down" are equally (maybe more) annoying, and rise to the cringe-worthy level of idiots at BCG or Mckinsey. That said, it sounds like he's still a graduate student, and I assume that within a few years the weight of the world will have crushed his spirit.

    I'd be careful with arguments based on opportunity cost, though. It's a great concept if there are clear quantitative comparables, but I don't think that's the case here. Maybe quitting PhD school with a MS and pursuing patent law is more financially rewarding, but does that include the decreased life span and increased odds of liver disease that will inevitably result from excessive drinking to deal with the massively boring day to day life of patent law? I guess maybe you could sub Xanax or percocet for booze, but those must have similar consequences.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Not that anyone needed to be pointed to Bardin's cluelessness, but does he honestly believe that going to graduate school to get a Ph.D is the smartest way to get a job teaching elementary school? What a doofus.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This guy is grasping at straws. The idea of spending the better part of a decade of your life, plus any lost earnings for working for such low pay, so you can move into a profession that never would require a PhD in chemistry demonstrates unbelievable stupidity not great insights or critical thinking. You have to earn a living so everyone must work. Chemistry no longer will pay the bills, so unless you want to be a starving chemist, better stop the magical thinking and figure out what will before you violate the rule of holes.

    ReplyDelete
  6. These careers he talks about were "alternative" when traditional path was open to the majority of graduates. Now that regular industrial jobs for fresh Ph.D's have all but disappeared, the alternative has become a norm. And speaking about teaching career in particular - experience in coaching football will trump any sort of problem solving and communication skills.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This discussion is reinforcing to me that the very best reason to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry is because you want to learn what it is like to build new knowledge in chemistry, in an academic setting. Since being plugged into a particular kind of career (or even job) on the other end is a crap-shoot, if you don't want to learn about this knowledge-building process -- and want it enough to put up with long hours, crummy pay, unrewarding piles of grading, and the like -- then possibly a Ph.D. program is not the best way to spend 5+ years of your life.

    As far as society's costs in a system that educates more Ph.D. chemists than there seem to be Ph.D.-chemist-appropriate jobs for, the price per publishable unit of data generated by grad students is pretty reasonable, and one might think that having a populace more of whose members have a clearer idea of how scientific knowledge is built would be A Good Thing. Whether the concomitant increase in cynicism (on account of dashed dreams of chemistry careers) is worth it is another matter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not just increase cynicism based on dashed dreams of chemistry careers, but increased cynicism based on knowledge of how academic chemistry is actually done, with irreproducible results.

      Delete
    2. While I'm just as cynical as the next chemist about academic chemistry's output, I should note that the relevant study was on cancer target validation, which is mostly molecular biology-based.

      Delete
  8. Well said, Janet. Thanks for injecting some realism (and, date I say it, a hint of optimism?) into the discourse

    ReplyDelete
  9. Full disclosure: as a chemist-turned-academic philosopher, I probably have an unreasonably high estimation of the value of education for its own sake. If you want to protect your youth from me and my ideas, I completely understand!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Education for its own sake is nice concept, Janet. The anti-intellectual sentiment in parts of our society absolutely baffles me. If I could do it, I'd quit my job tomorrow and get a PhD in Military History because I find the subject completely enthralling, although not one with a ton of job prospects. At the end of the day, or graduate degree, one still needs to be able to pay the bills, though. With the rising cost of an undergraduate education these days this usually translates to steep student loans. Being educated is great. Being well educated and poor simply sucks.

    For the most part, people go to law school to become lawyers. Medical school to become doctors. Most people go to graduate school to pursue a career in the field they find interesting. Few people spend 4 years in medical school simply to learn more about medicine or 5-6 years getting a PhD simply for the sake of gaining knowledge and increasing the number of educated individuals in the world, unless they are independently wealthy. When I win the Mega Millions tomorrow, I plan on spending the rest of my life studying and learning new and interesting things that I don't have time for right now, having to work to make ends meet.

    I think part of the cynical undertone here is that a lot of posters, myself included, went to graduate school at a time where you could plot a course to have a successful career as a chemist. The last 10 years have brought about steep changes and a lot of mid-career scientists have found themselves highly educated with a great CV and probably a few kids and a mortgage and few chances to do what they love to do and are good at. They read articles like this one that make it seem like there are just SO many jobs out there for folks with PhDs, all they have to do is look and imagine! The reality is far from that rosy picture. If you're in your mid 40s with a PhD looking for work, in a lot of ways you're on the outside looking in, and it's a hard place to be...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The thing is, if you want to be educated, you can do that quite cheaply. Even fantastic lectures are available online in tough subjected.

      Now, if want you want is schooling and a degree, *that* is expensive.

      I applaud people wanting to educate themselves and being intellectual. But school is not necessarily the best way to do it, unless you really want to spend a lot of money for nice architecture. You can (and should!) educate yourself anyway.

      Delete
  11. Absolutely, being able to pay the bills is a part of human flourishing -- I'm not a Platonist idealist who would deny that.

    However, my sense is that the numbers mismatch between how many Ph.D. chemists are trained and how many "jobs for Ph.D. chemists" (under a standard construal of what that includes) that there are has existed for a long time. I remember vividly, my first year in grad school (after getting the standard spiel as an undergrad chemistry major about the critical undersupply of Ph.D. chemists in the U.S.), picking up the lab's copy of C&EN and reading that the U.S. was producing something like 30% more Ph.D. chemists than the market had jobs for. That was in early 1990!

    So, yeah, I think it's fair to be cynical about having been misled as far as likely prospects for employment. But given that it's been going on for at least a couple decades (and maybe more), how the hell is it that people in Ph.D. programs haven't already figured out the score? Is it that they expect that they will be the ones awesome enough to get those scarce jobs? Have they really not thought far enough ahead to seek information (maybe even from a disinterested source) about how plausible their life plans are before they turn up at grad school?

    Honestly, I'm trying to understand why it's taking the relevant facts so long to get to the people who might reasonably want to incorporate them into their decision-making.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Darn good questions.

      I suspect Peak Pharma was 1996-2002. High salaries and signing bonuses. For my entry-level CRO/CMO position in 1999, I was offered a 10% signing bonus.

      Delete
    2. I got the same spiel in the early 90s about the dire undersupply of scientists, and how if we stuck with it got PhDs we'd be assured great jobs for all eternity.

      That said, as a....let's say much younger person....I really didn't analyze that too much, and didn't seek any actual information prior to applying to grad school. I suspect, but don't know, that this is the case for most grad students. We didn't have these new fangled interwebs back then, so the information in blogs like this was not (at least to my knowledge) readily available. I don;t know if grad students today are better at seeking out this information, or if I (and most of my classmates) were particularly naive.

      Delete
    3. You are correct. I got my PhD in the mid 90's. Without the internet back then, how would we have a clue about the job market. I don't feel to bad for the people getting PhDs now. There is plenty of information available. I believe they deserve their fate.

      Delete
    4. Janet, the answer is simple, everyone thinks that they are above average and special.

      John Bardin's essay was published because it's in the academy's interest and it keeps the
      pipeline full of suckers.

      Delete
    5. I am a third year PhD student and I have been thinking about exactly these sorts of things for over two years now. But I, crucially, did not think about the right things *before* I came to grad school. I'm not sure who to blame for that - myself, my undergrad professors? - but I think a large part of it was simply that I was young and had very little concept of the "real world". My first instinct wasn't actually to get my PhD in science - I very much wanted to do a masters in science writing, but one of my undergrad professors in particular said I shouldn't "waste" my potential by giving up on bench research so quickly. I had my misgivings, but he and others managed to convince me. (Another prof told me how when she decided to go get her PhD after undergrad, some friends took "time off" with plans to come back to a PhD, and got so "comfortable" that they never did come back, and she said it like it was the worst fate ever... I envy those people now.) I think they only had the best intentions for me, but no one ever really talked about the prospects after a PhD. It was just sort of implied that I'd end up as an academic researcher. I didn't know, and it didn't occur to me to check (because why wouldn't they tell me something so crucial?) whether getting an academic job was even a reasonable expectation. I think they didn't even bother to bring it up because I was an exceptional student and they had no doubt I could make it. What they left out of their equations was that I'm not naturally inclined to research, but that's a whole other kettle of fish. What it boils down to is that I put too much trust in a handful of authority figures and didn't independently seek other information. I was young and naïve, as I think many entering grad students are.

      The event that caused me to finally confront all these questions was meeting a guest lecturer in my first year who was the first person to be frank about these things - she said that having a PhD was actually quite a hindrance in some fields, and we better be ready for that. She opened my eyes in many ways and I'm very grateful to her.

      But I'm not sure if I could have done all this soul-searching in undergrad, or what I would have done instead. Graduating from college in 2009 was a bit of a death sentence, career-wise. Another commenter said it's a choice between grad school and unemployment, and sadly I think that's largely true. I don't think I'll truly regret my time spent here, no matter what happens, mostly because I don't think I had the self-awareness to do anything else at that time. I'm trying to make up for it now.

      Delete
  12. I don't believe the numbers mismatch has always been there. I remember my first year of grad school, and my graduating colleague had nine plant trips, along with nine job offers. There was a time where you would get a secure job, pension, and a good salary. The fact is we are competing with workers from China and India. Until our salarys come down to theirs, or theirs come up to ours, you can expect a low paying, unstable, and short career as a chemist.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I remember how hard it was to get even a job interview in the mid-1970s. I still have 70-80 rejection letters from that time in an old folder. Most are from very large company research centers that no longer exist in the US. Once the number of annual graduating PhD chemists dropped 30% things improved a lot. Perhaps things would still be OK if we had not flooded the pipeline with so much imported talent or talent in general over the past 30 years. The surplus number of PhD chemists following the 1960s seriously depressed chemistry starting salaries and despite the "good times" after the down sizings in the early 1990s, inflation adjusted salaries are still depressed relative to the 1960s to this day. In reality we have had too many chemists since the late 60s, just cycling good economic times and a temporary biotech bubble masked the fading of this profession and now off-shoring has killed it for most.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I believe the numbers mismatch is worse than 1-2 decades ago, coupled with a major change in the way companies hire chemists. When I first started working 30 years ago, a chemist could move around from a commodity chemical company, to consumer products, to an oil company, and so forth (I don’t recall drug companies being in this mix). But nowadays, for a chemical company to hire you, you already have to be experienced in whatever narrow field they have available NOW! A good example of this is the BASF job announcement that is in a thread below. They want a 10+ year management/technical leader with over 10 patents, with a proven track record, who knows something about the FCC (whatever that is), yada yada yada. Twenty years ago, a company like BASF would have hired brand new chemists nearly every year, and made the investment to develop that talent in house. They would not have expected other chemical companies to develop their talent for them. You can substitute ‘Dow’, ‘DuPont’, ‘Bayer’, etc. for BASF.
    On the original subject of this thread - Mr. (soon to be Dr.) Bardin is an optimist, for sure. From reading the original article, he worked as some sort of writer before going to graduate school for a Ph.D., and now his aim is to go back to being a writer once he gets his degree. He needed a doctorate for this? A M.S. I can understand, but this is overkill. And frankly, he would have been better pursuing his writing career over the past 5 years, rather than spending time in the lab. Actually, to me he sounds like one of those perpetual graduate students who just likes hanging out in labs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. Re: "Twenty years ago, a company like BASF would have hired brand new chemists nearly every year, and made the investment to develop that talent in house."

      The "skills grid" used by HR departments now is so exacting and micro-granularized, it's as if people are static bags of skillsets. A very sad ideology boding poorly for the future, as eventually the supply of "pre-mixed experts" is going to run out.

      Delete
  15. Your point about over qualification is pretty important. There are people on physicsforums talking about leaving their Phd's off their resume! Imagine all that hard work for nothing. :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I well remember my shock the first time I was told that people sometimes do this. The concept of a PhD is so elevated in our culture that the reality of a *limited* set of opportunities is pretty startling. Such a sad disconnect.

      Delete
  16. I made the decision to enter grad school as an organic chemist back in 1984, but I never had what you could call a definite plan about where I wanted my career to go, and to be honest, even with all the information available today, I still wouldn't. The job market changes, so it's not going to be the same when you finish grad school as when you started. Right now though, it's the worst I've known it.
    Thinking about how my "career goals" changed over time, I think they went something like this (tongue slightly in cheek):
    Age 8: I like cartoons: I want to be an animator.
    Age 10: Lots of people can draw better than I can, better think of something else.
    Age 11: I like chemistry: I want to be a chemist. At least I won't end up as a starving artist. Buy lots of chemicals and experiment in garage. My hero is Humphry Davy.
    Age 16: "O" levels in chemistry, biology, physics, maths
    Age 18: "A" levels in chemistry, maths french(!)
    Age 22 (at the end of my chemistry degree): Part II supervisor tells me that not having a Ph.D. limits your options if you want to work in industry, i.e. lots of companies have a ceiling above which you can't rise without a Ph.D. He advises me to get a Ph.D, then post doc with a Big Name, then get a job with a Big Pharma company, and I'm set for life (this was 1984 after all). I figure doing a Ph.D. now will be a whole lot easier than coming back and doing it later, or even trying to work for one while holding down a job (all but impossible, I would imagine). That was the basis on which I made my decision to enter grad school, then:
    Age 24: Oh Sh*t, this sucks! It's really hard work and I'm not enjoying it, what do I do now?
    Age 25: figure I'd better write up my thesis rather than waste the past 3 years. Won't be doing a post doc!
    Age 26: do PGCE (teaching certificate)
    Age 27: Teach chemistry at a high school. Absolutely hate it.
    Age 28: Casual laborer.
    Age 29: back into the chemical industry with a small commodities manufacturer.
    Since then, I've worked for 9 years in the manufacturing end of the pharmaceutical industry, moved to the US in 2001 and worked for nearly 8 years at a CRO, got laid off, did a variety of temporary jobs including 7 months as a contract synthetic organic chemist, and am now back in the commodities manufacturing business as a "permanent" employee.
    So what's my point? I guess I'm trying to say it's impossible to plan your career in anything but outline,unless you're one of the top guys in your field (I realized I wasn't that a long time ago, but one of the ways I figured it out was by doing a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry). I'm in my 50s now, and the past three years have been tough, but I haven't starved. Would I do the same over again? Difficult to say. I like science, so even if I didn't choose chemistry, I'd choose something in science, because that's what I like. Many of my fellow chemistry students went into accounting or banking. No doubt some of them got rich. I never will, but at least I've spent the last 24 years doing something I enjoy most of the time, and am moderately good at.
    I don't want to sound like some kind of Pollyanna type claiming that everything is lovely: it patently isn't, and it's particularly rough if you're at the beginning of your career. I think all you can do is pick something you like doing, that has at least some prospects of employment at the end of it, and hope for the best.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hi, this has been pretty enjoyable to read through--I think a lot of pretty strong criticisms of my piece are presented here that haven't been expressed elsewhere. I just want to make one point: the article is not aimed at those who are considering graduate school. I think someone who doesn't really want to be a scientist but is considering grad school for other reasons should abstain. But for those of us already there, I see a lot of desperation among peers who are nearing the end and are terrified they can't make it as an academic or just have learned they don't want to. I wrote it for them, and for me. Also, I would just point out that many of us phd students are not in fields like chemistry that have well-established non-academic tracks. I do work with brain injured patients that has little real generalizability outside of academic clinical medicine.

    I Absolutely agree, though, with the idea that a brewer could have gotten more utility out of two years as an apprentice than jumping into a phd. That is a totally valid critique. But again I was trying to write something for those of us currently in school looking out at a shitty academic market and trying to make sense of it.

    Also, I can tell you from experience that having a phd is not over qualification for science writing--the data analysis skills I spent four years developing are invaluable when I am assessing other scientsists' work. They might be my chief asset.

    Thanks for the honest and thorough critiques!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kudos for taking peoples' criticism in stride. And good luck in your future endeavors.

      Delete
    2. I agree that having a PhD is not over qualification for science writing. The state of science journalism makes me think it should be a minimum qualification sometimes.

      Delete
  18. In so many other industrialized nations, including China, the cost of education is placed on society. Those that are educated in other countries, are very appreciative of the quality of citizens they create and very appreciative of education for educations sake. In many European nations, people have no qualms of walking away from their dissertation and trying new and different things with their life. In the States, the cost of education is placed on the individual. Even with a Ph. D. stipend, many of us took out loans, because we weren't doing a great job at such a low standard of living. But the same goes for doctors, lawyers, etc. etc. With everyone drowning in debt from their individual and inflated costs of education (student fees, books, campus, private school tuition and all) now we are all bitter over our educational experiences because of our deflated salaries and lack of opportunity. Add the fact that our "education" in our Ph. D. was two years of classes and years and years of valuable scientific work, for which many of us will never be fully compensated. Well, it makes everyone quite bitter and cynical.

    The net result is, I don't think we are all being fair to the knowledge and experiences we have. I don't think we are being completely fair to academia, science, or the educational experience. In some respects placing the burden of education on the individual has put many of us on the wrong side of what is essentially class warfare. Part of that is undervaluing knowledge and sometimes it seems these threads take on an anti-intellectual flavor.

    Why do I feel my salary is crap? Because there is a persistent culture that believes we can pray all of our problems away. That if we cling even harder to our jingoistic attitudes "things will get better." Communities that support their creationist museums. People that believe vaccines cause autism. Chemophobia. The list goes on and on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm baffled that you think that the US places all the cost of a graduate education on the individual. Society pays quite a lot, including that stipend that you think is so small. My program and others never had any problems attracting great foreign students (including from Europe) to live on those stipends (without taking out loans).

      Now undergraduate education is a different matter (though European and other schools often save money on building fancy new buildings, and US colleges could slash tuition if they didn't want to be in the endowment-building business), but even there there is some societal contribution.

      I'd say that you think that your salary is crap because you believe that you can pray all your problems away by getting "society" to fix it. Doctorate holders still make a lot more money, enough to put the average doctorate holder in the top 5% of individuals by income, and you still feel that it's "class warfare" against you?

      Delete
    2. @John

      "Doctorate holders still make a lot more money, enough to put the average doctorate holder in the top 5% of individuals by income"

      Do you have a source to support this claim? The question is when do they get into that category? Maybe 10-15+ years after they get their PhDs? How does that compare to other degrees?

      Paula Stephan has some excellent data on this in her book 'How economics shapes Science'.

      Delete
    3. This experience is not limited to the US. Australia/NZ now burden undergraduates with exorbitant education costs, and the job market for PhD chemists is extremely poor locally. One prominent government science agency here has just thinned the number of permanent middle-level places by 200 (I have just been retrenched from such a position) and the retrenched have been replaced with recent post-doctorates or PhDs who are paid for a maximum 5 yrs, then they are shown the door. Revolving-door science. In addition, the available PhD positions at this govt agency and local universities are increasingly going to foreign students with sponsorship from their home governments (so you can see the potential for trouble). Clearly, people are being trained for jobs which don't exist, and their needs to be transparency about this situation. Not just a higher education sales pitch to the unwary.
      What I see that these discussions haven't yet addressed, from what I have read, and which is definitely problematic in Australia, is the following: who gets the academic positions here is determined by just a handful of chemistry professors at one or two universities. It doesn't matter if you are a super-scientist, if you don't have the right pedigree, you don't get the job. To prove this point, just look at the CV's of the academics in our chemistry departments (not just the organic chemists either). To get an academic career in science here, you buy into the Ponzi scheme.
      As for alternate career paths in communication/journalism etc., there are specialised degrees for those positions. The PhD chemist's job application wouldn't make it through the first round cull in most instances. So suggestions of available alternative careers (entering an employer-employee relationship as opposed to self-employment) is just so much BS.
      Salary-wise, my friends who are plumbers, electricians, carpenters, teachers......all own their own homes. We (me/family) are way behind on this front, and likely to cede more ground now with my retrenchment(my partner is also an unemployed PhD chemist - 15 months and counting). Just like cigarettes, the packaging for the chemistry PhD needs to carry health hazard warnings...........

      Delete
  19. "Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator."

    They sure the hell do! And I'm pretty sure they don't teach that in chemistry graduate school as one recent postdoc, who kept working on a failing project that affected his mood and had a really short temper, recently showed. They guy couldn't go one day without being pissed off with something or being angry at somebody. Maybe he should have gone into whatever place teaches you to be a problem solver, articulate communicator, and a thoughtful arbitrator. It sure wasn't the grad school department.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I see old grad school classmates at weddings and conferences, I'm amazed at how much calmer and kinder they are when the pressure of grad school is off. I was unemployed for a year after I finished up; looking back it's probably a good thing because I would have been the guy you described if I had gone straight from grad school to the workforce.

      Delete
  20. I put the following comment on Lowe's Pipeline blog:
    I've done a lot of research on this and to sum it up...it is basically a pyramid scheme with a lot of supporting factors. A great writeup was done here:

    www.nber.org/~peat/PapersFolder/Papers/SG/NSF.html

    Congress also had a House subcommittee meeting on this, with "expert" panelists including a VP of HR claiming they can't find talent...

    judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_10052011_2.html

    As a biologist I will be in my 30s and still be considered a "trainee" with a PhD, no retirement benefits, and making roughly $40k/year. Why can't PhDs look after their own like MDs, PharmDs, DDS, etc??

    ReplyDelete
  21. Regardless all of the arguments about "opportunity cost" and more efficient career paths, these arguments fail to take into account the average income with a PhD.

    http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0232.pdf

    While lower than the average salaries for professionals (doctors/lawyers, etc.) it is considerably higher than that for bachelor degrees, trades training, or masters degrees. Generally, it is enough higher to recoup the lost income of 5 years, quickly and handily.

    Whether or not it is a good model for society, or for a specific individual, it is certainly a "good deal" for the student, when the data viewed as a average. It is particularly advantageous for females, where doctoral level training shows the greatest pay equity.

    Finally, generally speaking it is considerably more difficult to get in to professional school than graduate school. This makes professional school not an option for many would be graduate students.

    ReplyDelete
  22. @Anon, 9:22 AM:
    "Finally, generally speaking it is considerably more difficult to get in to professional school than graduate school. This makes professional school not an option for many would be graduate students."

    And therein lies the problem. Too many dumbasses getting into graduate school (which then turn into entitled, whiny students). They should be more selective. If "professional" schools are not an option, neither should graduate school.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. agree, but then who would do all the cheap/free labor for PIs? (i say this with sarcasm--i think it's wrong). grad students and postdocs make the world go round in my department; the only thing the profs do is lecture and write for grants--they couldn't do field or lab work if they wanted to because they don't know how anymore.

      i'm glad i funded my own phd by working 32 hrs a week and NOT joining on a PIs project. i didn't go into debt, still have my job, did research i wanted to do and designed myself. but i have no expectations of a better job when i finally have those letters behind my name, because there aren't many jobs out there, and there are a bazillion bitter phds now who were really just cheap technicians and field hands. even though i wasn't one of them, i get a little bitter thinking about how wrong it all is.

      Delete
    2. Im an immigrant graduate student in my 4th year and I completely agree with the above comment. Unfortunately I wasn't as prepared to be in graduate school as I was supposed to be. I've got only myself to blame but had I gotten a hint of what it would be like, I probably would not have joined. Now i'm in the middle of nowhere with a difficult boss, dealing with my own inefficiencies and a terrible market outlook. Hmm.

      Delete
  23. I started graduate school in 2002. At the time the company I was working for was expanding, as where other pharma companies, and it seemed like a good idea. 7+ years later when I was looking for a job things were really different. I doubt will stay in Chemistry for my whole career and I will eventually stop using the technical chemistry skills I acquired in school. However, I don't regret going to graduate school. It was hard and frustrating but I learned a lot about myself, about how to deal with difficult people, how to solve all kinds of problems and how to handle disappointment and at times despair. I don't know that I could have gotten that type of education in another setting. In summary I think the most useful stuff I learned in school has little to do with Chemistry and that it will serve me well in the future. At least that's what I am hoping.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I don't think taxpayers get a pretty good deal with grad students. I think they get an INCREDIBLE deal. In a world where the government pays 25 dollars for a screw, it pays a screwed grad student/laborer a massively discounted wage. There is no debt to the taxpayer to be paid.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think this does a pretty good job of accenting your point. Tax-payers pay less for grad student labor than for nothing at all.

      http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1215

      Delete
    2. Lol, that comic strip always nails it.

      Delete
    3. When grad students talk about how low their wages are, they fail to take into account the substantial tuition (can be as much as their stipend) and healthcare benefits that are paid on their behalf by their faculty mentors. They get training and can come out with a degree and no debt. For those who think that faculty consider students as just cheap labor, my students cost me as much as postdocs, more than research associates and I sink a huge amount of time, effort and money into their training.

      Delete
  25. These days, chemistry is the new Ebonics!
    And that's how we are treated and paid.

    PhD/MBA

    ReplyDelete
  26. Ok...if we want something to happen we need to get the ball rolling. What is our next step? Create a core list of issues? Start a union of sorts (with lobbying power, like MDs do)? How can we correct this?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the industrial chemists' union is your best option. At first, don't take any dues, but get signatures of a few thousand chemists and have an agenda and spokespersom. With a few thousand signatures, you can start contacting major newspapers and congress members. An industrial chemists' union calling to limit the number of chemists trained because of excess will make for a great news story and CNN and co. will be all over it like... newspeople flocking to the scene of a senseless shooting or celebrity marriage.

      Oh, make sure your spokesperson is articulate and doesn't say anything stupid that will get you laughed at. You know, pick someone like Derek Lowe or chemjobber, but that doesn't have to worry about his job.

      Delete
  27. Thank you CJ, comments have been spot on. I would like to point out that another cost in addition to the 5+ years of time (or 7+ if you add in a couple for a postdoc) is the cost of not saving for retirement and the associate interest. As a postdoc in my early 30s I have zero money saved for retirement. In graduate school I got paid almost nothing and could not save; in my postdoc, I am trying to pay down loans that I deferred while in graduate school and I cannot save. Now I cannot find work and am considering another postdoc in which I will not be able to save.

    Had I left school completely, I may not have gotten a high paying job, but I would have been placing money (typically matched by my employer) into a 401k. I believe we all know what impact 6-10 years of compounding interest can have on a principal. Graduate school/postdoc followed by a stagnant economy leads to a retirement fund that is nonexistent, and relegates one to depend on social security that will not be there either.

    ReplyDelete
  28. I am retired now but the one thing that has never let me down is my education! Reflecting over the past 40 years having earned a PhD has enriched my life in many ways! The Great Professional Experiences enjoyed did not just fall out of the sky as it took working hard, selling myself and persistence. Earning a PhD for the right reasons can bring a Level of Satisfication not acheived in any other way! God Bless you all and do not give up!

    ReplyDelete
  29. Regarding the following paragraph: "His Ph.D. education (and mine) were paid for by the US taxpayer. Is this the best deal that the taxpayer can get? As I've said in the past, I think society gets a pretty good deal: they get 5+ years of cheap labor in science, (hopefully) contributions to greater knowledge and, at the end of the process, they get a trained scientist. Usually, that trained scientist can go on to generate new innovations in their independent career in industry or academia. It's long been my supposition that the latter will pay (directly and indirectly) for the former. If that's not the case, is this a bargain that society should continue to support? "


    Well, look, ever since October 2008, it's frankly rather hard for me to be highly incensed about the relatively trivial waste of taxpayer's dollars that might be incurred by some newly minted PhD's who don't use their taxpayer-financed educations to generate new innovations.

    And what exactly happened in October 2008 that triggered such a change in my attitude? Two words: financial bailouts. Exactly why are we so concerned about the potential waste of taxpayer dollars for some PhD students who won't utilize their educations when we're evidently perfectly willing to instantly drop billions of taxpayer dollars with minimal political debate to rescue rich bankers from the consequences of a financial catastrophe that they themselves had started? If we're truly so concerned about societal waste, let's talk about the societal waste of a bloated and largely criminal (witness the LIBOR scandal and the HSBC money-laundering investingation) financial services industry that finagled their way towards take the rest of the economy hostage (hence necessitating the bailout) and continues to extract massive rents from the productive economy.

    I would also juxtapose any taxpayer spending on PhD students with that of the public K-12 system that is not only provided gratis - at full taxpayer expense - to every single child in the nation until high school graduation, but is also compulsory for every child until the ages of 14-16, depending on the state. Let's be perfectly honest, Paul Simon's lyrics to his iconic song Kodachrome was spot-on: most of what you learn in high school is "cra*" that you will never actually need to know. How many Americans actually use algebra or trigonometry in their daily lives? How many actually need to know how to deconstruct Shakespeare? How many actually need to know when the Spanish-American War was fought and why? At the same time, the K-12 system seemingly almost willfully chooses not to teach useful skills as requirements, offering perhaps only a modicum of practical skills as electives. My local high school offers a class on only basic software development as an elective, and certainly no classes, not even electives, regarding, say, database/server/network management & design, electronics/circuit design, or finance/accounting. But they do require that every student take 3 years of English if they want to graduate.

    I'm well aware of the counterargument: that while high school students may not be learning skills of immediate practicality, they are learning general problem-solving and cognitive developmental skills that they can leverage later in life to quickly learn whatever practical skills they will need to know. And that may indeed be so.

    But then it seems to me that precisely that same logic could be applied to those earning PhD's: they too are developing problem-solving and cognitive developmental skills with which they can use to quickly learn practical skills.

    And if they don't, well, I don't see how that loss of resources (both for themselves and for the taxpayers) is any worse than forcing kids through the force of law to stay in school until they're 14-16 years of age while having them learn topics that they may never use.

    ReplyDelete