Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When is Peak Chemistry Postdoc?

So there's peak oil theory, which can be crudely summarized thusly*:
  • In the 1950s, an American geologist correctly predicted that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s. Since that peak, oil production in the US has basically fallen. 
  • At some point in the past? near-future?, the world will hit peak oil production. After that time, oil production will basically fall. 
  • When Peak Oil hits, the price for oil will begin an ever-increasing rise with concomitant negative consequences. The end of the modern age, Richard Simmons becoming a global tyrant, etc., etc. 
According to Matt Yglesias, Peak Law Student might have been 2010:
One year of data can be a blip, but for Internet purposes two years is good enough to be a trend so I'm willing to say that with a 24 percent decline in the number of people taking the LSAT over the past two years that Peak Law School Applications arrived in 2010.
What do you call 1000 lawyers, etc.? Sorry, bad '80s habit. I'd love to know when Peak Chemistry Grad Student or Peak Chemistry Ph.D. or Peak Chemistry Postdoc will be. Problem is, of course, NSF's data only goes to 2006 or so.

I suspect that the local maxima (if not Peak Chemistry Grad Student) will be 2011, but I could be wrong.

*First, please pardon the pun. Second, I am a Peak Oil agnostic -- I don't really know who to believe and content to remain more or less rationally ignorant. 

20 comments:

  1. I don't know if we'll ever see it for a couple of reasons:

    1) There's still plenty of undergrads who are planning to go to grad school with no idea what they want to do, they just assume they need to go. Likewise, there's plenty of professors and blissfully ignorant grad students to encourage them to do so.

    2) When American student stop applying, universities will just let more foreign grad students in to make up the numbers. Even better for the PIs, not only do they not have to care about what happens to their students afterwards, they're almost guaranteed to never know about it because the students will have to go back home when they can't find a job in the US.

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  2. I think the fact that PhD production is not demand-based has been discussed ad nauseam here. Well, it is in a way - it is connected to a number of undergrads choosing science majors. So, my prediction is that it peak will 4 years after either tuition gets to a point where less kids will be able to go to college, or when the fact that science is a terrible career choice will filter all the way down to the masses. Less chemistry majors, - no need for TA's, less students, less postdocs - that's how it will happen.

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  3. Guess it (still) depends on how hard Fed and State gov'ts proclaim the "We need more STEM workers!" mantra. More shouting = more funding = more students = bigger backlog until economy grows again.

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  4. I am by no means an ardent fiscal conservative, but perhaps this problem could be approached on the supply side. Slashing the federal discretionary budget is all the rage right now, so why don't we as a professional community support cuts to NSF and NIH? It sounds harsh, but less grant money means fewer students and postdocs, and a possible easing of the glut in the long term.

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    1. I would argue against that since it would become highly politicized and cuts will cut at the expense of the programs politicians consider their prerogative. But cutting educational H1-B exception, now that might produce some results.

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  5. I wonder when/if we will see peak college student. I figure it has to happen sometime because the cost/value curve is shifting in the negative direction quite rapidly.

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  6. They'll just make shale postdocs with new drilling methods. If you limit your own postdoc production because of 'research environment' concerns, well guess what? Do you think the emerging economies are not going to buy the postdocs that you reject?

    If the idiots in government stop dragging their feet and build the pipeline to China to buy their sweet, sweet postdoc oil, we won't be hitting the peak until we develop alternative research technologies (like well paid staff scientists or dedicated research labs not just in the middle of nowhere) in about 50 years and by that time we won't have to worry about running out of postdocs. In the meantime, we need cheap postdoc to run our research economy or we will stagnate in research and make people like the following many cry:

    hxxp://schultz.scripps.edu/personnel.php

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    1. Uncle, you never cease to make me laugh.

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    2. Sweet! It worked even with the bad syntax and the spelling mistake that I just noticed: "the following man cry" not "the following many cry".

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  7. I suppose an indication of PGS and PP will be falling wages. By that measure, we're not quite at Peak Chemist (maybe?)

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    1. I'd say we are. Look at the falling numbers in last year's ACS salary survey. If the negative percentages made it through the C&EN's rose-colored glasses, sunshine up your a**, cheery editorial process, you know it must be getting bad. For example, a 10.8% drop in salary for ages 20-29. Guessing that encompasses just about all new grads, and they aren't even counting "postdoc" positions in that (why not?!). I'm guessing real numbers are far, far below what they publish.

      Low ball job offers are all the rage, at least in my experience. I have had two industry offers now that pay below what I was making as an academic postdoc, and both were in major metropolitan areas and looking for someone with a PhD + X years experience. These places think they can get away with it, so that is what they are offering. I'd rather become a surfing instructor or wait tables, thanks.

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    2. http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/web/2012/03/Unemployment-Data-Worst-40-Years.html

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    3. It's a telling title - data after all is just that - data. It only becomes worst if all of it is bad to some degree.

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  8. Peak college student might happen in the next couple years if the economy doesn't start producing more jobs and tuition keeps rising. But I don't think peak grad student can happen as long as there are plenty of international students willing to come to the US to do grad work and get visas to do it. And it will be a while before that changes. Even if the supply from China were to decrease, the supply from Africa is increasing. Of course, if peak professor happens due to old faculty lines going unfilled, then I guess that will force peak grad student just by the numbers.

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  9. The excess PhD and postdoc problem can be solved by exterminating professors with grants and destruction of academic research facilities. It is not as if they are doing anything useful nowadays.

    If what I am saying seems too harsh, consider the number of lives each grant-receiving professor now destroys in his lifetime. I believe that removing such people and their kids/ grand-kids from the realm of the living is as rational as treating cancers through chemotherapy or radiation.

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    1. 1) I do not condone violence or threats of violence against any professor or university.

      2) I believe people have more agency than that.

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  10. Hi Chemjobber,

    If you say that professors who screw over scores of grad students and postdocs are just doing their job- isn't that a lot like the "Nuremberg defense".

    Most people who served the Third Reich, Stalin or Imperial Japan were also decent "family-minded" people who were "just trying to stay afloat". I mean.. ya, sure they participated in institutions that killed tens of millions of people in gruesome ways, but it was just a job.. right?

    I believe that people are culpable for their actions even if they later claim duress.

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    1. Work or live outside the world of the university much?

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    2. I think I was in his P-chem class.

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    3. How many profs do we all know, or have worked for, doing research in fields that are obviously inconsequential or completely derivative. We've all heard the argument that any kind of research is inherently good because it contributes to the "greater body of accumulated human knowledge", but does anyone else agree that there is a LOT of fat to be trimmed from academic budgets and institutions? My former advisor raked in tons of federal funding, but he openly admitted that he wrote grants just to do work he considered interesting. Millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars just to support one person's hobbies?

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