Friday, June 13, 2014

A scholarly look at Ph.D. production in chemistry

From the Journal of Chemical Education, a worthwhile paper on Ph.D. production and efforts to increase diversity in chemistry Ph.D. graduates. There's a very interesting  table (Table 2) that shows the "top 50" universities, and their growth in Ph.D. production -- here's how Drs. Laursen and Westen talk about it:
This analysis examines both descriptive data and time series data for all students in chemistry Ph.D. programs. Table 2 shows the results by department for total doctorates, growth in degrees granted, and the rank of each institution in size and growth. Institutions are listed by rank in average number of degrees granted. 
Figure 2 shows the trends in absolute numbers from the NSF database of chemistry degrees awarded per year, which indicate almost no growth in total chemistry doctorates or masters degrees granted since 1966. The number of bachelor’s degrees has fluctuated substantially over the years, but has shown little overall total growth. In the 50-school data set, the average number of doctorates awarded by each school (five-year average, 2005−09) is 25 and the average growth rate is two degrees over the entire 22-year sample period. 
While aggregate growth is small, it masks a large range of increases and decreases in total Ph.D.s granted by individual departments. Of the 50 departments, 29 showed a positive growth trend and 18 a negative trend; two schools showed no net change. Over the 22-year period, six departments grew by 10−20 Ph.D.s, and four shrank by over 10 Ph.D.s. 
We found only weak correlates to the magnitude of departmental growth; while there is a small negative correlation between the average size of a department over time (on one hand) and growth, this relationship was not statistically significant. It is possible that more departments showing a net long-term shrinkage exist but are outside the Top-50 data set; however, the overall trend in growth is consonant with growth from all schools in the national data.
This backs up Paula Stephan's comments that chemistry Ph.D. growth has been flat (same data set, really) and that trends in employment in chemistry are primarily related to a fall in industrial demand for scientists. That said, it does not appear that Drs. Laursen and Westen have gotten the news about that relative lack of demand. From their introduction:
Yet concerns are widespread about the supply of Ph.D.-trained chemists, owing to retirement of the baby boomers and a continuing decline in the number of U.S. students pursuing doctoral study.2,5
Those references are a National Research Council report from 2007 and our old friend the Carnevale/Georgetown "STEM" report. Suffice it to say that I disagree with them on that point. All in all, a worthwhile analysis, though. 

10 comments:

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    1. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/ed4006997

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  2. This graph is a little misleading.

    The annual number of newly minted Ph.D. chemists grew from 1005 in 1955 to 2284 by 1971. Then there was a crash in chemistry employment in the late 60’s/early 70’s.

    In the 70’s employment opportunities for PhD chemists sucked. The number of newly graduating PhD chemists dropped, the scientific labor market corrected. By 1979 the annual number of newly graduating PhD chemists dropped to 1518. Subsequently the job prospects for PhD chemists significantly improved.

    By 1991, the annual number of graduating Ph.D. chemists was once again above 2200. Then industry began tossing chemists overboard while at the same time exporting jobs to ex-US talent centers as they deconstructed their US chemistry infrastructure.

    These numbers come from the ACS and were published in C&E News.

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    1. I agree that if you blew up the graph, you'd see more cyclical/secular changes than at its current scale.

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  3. my hunch is that the number of non-top-50 PhDs granted would show consistent growth with time

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    1. ah, i'm looking at the paper now and see that they have this data as well, nevermind

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  4. I think the graph totally misses the point. Yes, it shows that the production of PhD has been steady over the past few decades. What it does not show is accumulation of degree holders vs available opportunities.

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  5. "Yet concerns are widespread about the supply of Ph.D.-trained chemists, owing to retirement of the baby boomers and a continuing decline in the number of U.S. students pursuing doctoral study."

    Bwahahahaha! Those baby boomers Ph.D.'s are like Rolls Royces - most of them are going to be out there so long as spare parts are available.

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    1. Heh, good analogy.

      (Seems to me that the issue w/Baby Boomers and retirement is the state of their 401ks. If they took a big hit back in the day (2007-2011 or so), that'd slow retirement significantly.

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    2. Not only that, I know people who unretired.

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