Thursday, July 14, 2016

Smart concept introduced in today's NYT on the STEM Ph.D. glut

The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle. 
We have been told time and again that the United States needs more scientists, but when it comes to some of the most desirable science jobs — tenure-track professorships at universities, where much of the exciting work is done — there is such a surplus of Ph.D.s that in the most popular fields, like biomedicine, fewer than one in six has a chance of joining the club in the foreseeable future. 
While they try to get a foot in the door, many spend years after getting their Ph.D. as poorly paid foot soldiers in a system that can afford to exploit them. Even someone as brilliant as Emmanuelle Charpentier, who in 2015 became head of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology after a momentous discovery in gene editing, spent the previous 25 years moving through nine institutions in five countries.
The article goes on to talk about a good idea from operations researcher Richard C. Larson (at MIT):
Dr. Larson and his colleagues calculated R0s for various science fields in academia. There, R0 is the average number of Ph.D.s that a tenure-track professor will graduate over the course of his or her career, with an R0 of one meaning each professor is replaced by one new Ph.D. The highest R0 is in environmental engineering, at 19.0. It is lower — 6.3 — in biological and medical sciences combined, but that still means that for every new Ph.D. who gets a tenure-track academic job, 5.3 will be shut out. In other words, Dr. Larson said, 84 percent of new Ph.D.s in biomedicine “should be pursuing other opportunities” — jobs in industry or elsewhere, for example, that are not meant to lead to a professorship. 
Here's Professor Larson's paper, which I regret I had not heard about until now. For readers of this blog, it's mostly not new information, but it is still worth a read. Good stuff, too late. 

24 comments:

  1. Wait, an elite media outlet acknowledged that over-production of STEM PhDs is a real thing? And not just any outlet, but the Education section of the NYT?

    I think my web browser must be broken.

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  2. Shouldn't higher Ro be better for Science overall, i.e. more candidates competing for each slot should lead to better candidates being hired and moving Science more efficiently? Clearly some caveats assuming hiring is an efficient process and that the progress of Science can be meaningfully tracked. Not much good about being on the wrong side of supply/demand (if you're Supply, for Demand things are peachy). I guess once PhD candidates realize the lower demand supply will decrease, but I don't know there's much sign that's happened the past decade.

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    1. As a first-level analysis, yeah, I think "more scientists and engineers" is probably better for society, sure. Sucks terribly for the underemployed scientists and engineers, though. I don't think that's a good or sustainable situation, though.

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    2. Depends on whether enough competent/passionate/creative people exist to justify the high Ro or we're just inflating the number with cheap (STEM crisis-incentivized) warm bodies. If I had to estimate conservatively for my department, science would not be negatively impacted if ~50% of the current PhD students were never admitted (and this is allegedly a top-tier place...). Adding chaff to the wheat does not improve the flour.

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    3. Schools still have a perverse incentive to admit more students than necessary - professors need people to run experiments and departments need TAs. I'm not sure what to do about departments wanting inexpensive TAs, but for professors rearranging funding to encourage postdocs and more permanent positions over graduate students seems like it would be useful.

      I'm frankly astonished at how low that R0 is allegedly. My group was relatively small and we graduated six PhDs in 4 years or so. Throw in big groups (the Trosts and Grubbs) and there must be some professors that are graduating a student and then retiring to keep the average that low.

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    4. The Iron ChemistJuly 15, 2016 at 9:07 AM

      Primarily undergraduate institutions.

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  3. At some point, though, when competition becomes too intense, people focus on safe solutions rather than being bold and creative. So then funding agencies start dreaming up gimmicks to reward creativity, but the simple fact is that creative work happens best when people have a happenstance mixture of pressure to push them at times and safe, lazy interludes to dabble and think. No pressure breeds sloth, too much pressure breeds a desire to take the safe path, and there's no algorithm to generate the right happenstance mix. So the current era of producing a metric shit ton of PhDs is not as optimum as one might hope.

    There's a reason why in many eras scholarship has come from men of leisure, and why the golden eras of great national labs and industrial labs were often times when their staff were simply expected to be productive but were under few micromanaging dictates to be producing at a steady rate in fields deemed to be of high impact and significance.

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  4. I don't think Emmanuelle Charpentier can be considered as a "foot soldier". Her being a department director at MPI tells us how important that her work at those 5 places were. Was she supposed to do one postdoc and magically become the director at MPI? I wish they interviewed scientists who did multiple postdocs and told their stories. Of course, I agree with the article in general.

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  5. Wait a sec if just looking at tenure track positions I would suggest there always has been an over abundance in the PhD pipeline since except for infrequent spikes in government funding the number of academic jobs has always faced limitations and exploitation of post-Docs and Grad students as cheap labor. The STEM problem is two-fold IMO with Industry no longer able or willing to take on the "excess" and the nature of the training is largely geared to churn out professor wan-a-bes so industry is frustrated with majority of people to do get (and adverse to spending anything to appropriately mold the skills in better directly fashions).

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  6. My high school algebra teacher has had about 2000-3000 students come through her classes, of which less than 10 have become high school algebra teachers. One could interpret this statistic as proof that high school students are taught too much algebra, because there aren't enough jobs for algebra teachers... or that students who have mastered high school algebra have gained some skills help them make a living and to contribute to society, outside of school. If the latter is true, then it might also be the case that students who master subjects more complex than high school algebra are even more prepared for the "real world".

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    1. Dependent vs AdultJuly 14, 2016 at 6:24 PM

      I really don't think that this is a fair analogy. Unlike mandatory schooling, grad school is a choice that is often made with some specific thoughts about career trajectory, especially once one's peers starting getting real jobs, homes, and families. When I was in my high school algebra class my biggest concern was how many doodles I could cram into the margins of my notebook or what my mom was cooking for dinner. The concerns I had and the maturity I faced them with are completely incomparable between high school and grad school.

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  7. As an undergrad rising senior these types of reports always make me nervous. I was planning on doing a PhD but now I'm worried that without any publications from undergrad (I have 3.5 years of research experience but they were all in different labs and i've only been working in my current lab for a year) i won't have a competitive application -> won't get into MIT/Caltech/Berkeley/Harvard -> won't get a job.

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    1. Even if you graduate from MIT/Caltech/Berkeley/Harvard you will still have difficulty finding satisfying employment in chemistry.

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    2. Catalysis cannibalJuly 14, 2016 at 6:33 PM

      Satisfying? Maybe so. But employment? You can work for a small number of famous profs where yes, you sell your soul for five years working 70+ hrs/week on a project "borrowed" from a less famous chemist, but when it comes time to graduate you will get multiple offers because you "played the game" and the old boys' network will come through. Quid pro quo, agent Starling.

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    3. You should always do what you want, but go forward with realistic expectations. By "job" if you mean a research professorship or well paid industrial position, then yes that is unrealistic. Think of your life as a scientist similar to being a monk, but not like a Mt. Athos Monk eating fresh fish and making your own olive oil or a Belgian monk making nice beer and sitting in quiet contemplation, more like the novice in The Name of the Rose. Or better still imagine a Russian writer living under Stalin, "I work like a pack mule, but it's my own choice. I'm like a galley slave who's chained for life to his oar but who loves the oar. Everything about it. Every grain of wood..." (Isaac Babel). Learn to love your oar. Otherwise you could enter other areas where you could have a wife, car, house, well-nourished children, hobbies etc.

      "Qui Pelago credit, magno se fœnore tollit.
      Qui pugnas et rostra petit, præcingitur auro:
      Vilis adulator picto jacet ebrius ostro,
      Sola pruinosis horret facandia pannis."

      "A merchant's gain is great, that goes to sea
      A soldier embossed all in gold;
      A flatterer lies fox'd in brave array;
      A scholar only ragged to behold."

      "All which our ordinary students, right well perceiving in the universities, how unprofitable these poetical, mathematical, and philosophical studies are, how little respected, how few patrons; apply themselves in all haste to those three commodious professions of law, physic, and divinity, sharing themselves between them, rejecting these arts in the meantime, history, philosophy, philology, or lightly passing them over, as pleasant toys fitting only table-talk, and to furnish them with discourse. They are not so behoveful: he that can tell his money hath arithmetic enough: he is a true geometrician, can measure out a good fortune to himself; a perfect astrologer that can cast the rise and fall of others, and mark their errant motions to his own use. The best optics are, to reflect the beams of some great men's favour and grace to shine upon him. He is a good engineer, that alone can make an instrument to get preferment."

      Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

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    4. A healthy dose of realism is very important...if you choose to go to grad school, go in with your eyes wide open. However, as a counterpoint to the mostly negative comments here, I will point out that most students I knew in grad school (at UC-Irvine) came in without any publications and with less than your 3.5 years of research experience. Most students from my school ended up finding good employment immediately or doing a 1-2 year post-doc at a top-10 institution and then got a job. That hasn't been true for everyone I know but if you are passionate about chemistry, I think grad school can still be a good choice.

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    5. I suspect a far higher percentage of MIT/Caltech/Berkeley/Harvard graduates go to tenured positions. After all, we will always have death and retirement. Many of those graduates do not and likely form the majority of those chemists just fired by Merck (http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2016/07/12/merck-cuts-back-again) just to mention a recent mass firing. The famous profs mentioned above are over promising and under delivering.

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    6. "Do what you love and the money will follow"...note, this doesn't suggest how much money....

      At 21/22 you're too young to be stressing out about getting a job in 5-8 years. Ya, going to a top school makes life easier (and in a lot of ways probably better), but even schlubs like myself went to a school you've never heard of in a country most Americans can't find on a map (hint, it's bigger than the USA and on top) can still do OK. as some smart person said, "50% of your decisions will be luck, just like everyone else......". University, even at some podunk school, is going to be more fun that the workaday world most people spend the majority of their lives in.

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    7. Ah, the cream always rises to the top fallacy. I call it a fallacy because the recipient of this advice, lacking any frame of reference, always infers that he or she is in the cream phrase, not the skim milk phrase. For an alternative point of view, I suggest driving on Route 206 in New Jersey past the abandoned Sanofi research campus. It’s less than 10 years old, cost billions (with a b) of dollars, and employed hundreds of PhD chemists from elite schools. I suspect the vast majority of those chemists thought themselves safely in the cream cohort right up until the time the armed guards escorted them off the property.
      If undergraduate anonymous is determined to work in pharma, I suggest going the bio macromolecule route. It not that the science is any better but the C-suite suits have convinced themselves that there is longer exclusivity because of manufacturing and equivalence issues compared to small molecules.

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    8. Okay, first let's not over exaggerate and get your facts straight. As a former employee of Sanofi (formerly Aventis when I first started), the research campus that you are referring to (the one on 202-206, not to be confused with other Sanofi sights) is/was: not less than 10 years old (I started in 2001, by my math, that's more than 10 years), not sure where you got the billion dollar value, and did not employ hundreds of chemists from elite schools. Sanofi's medicinal chemistry presence at that site was always much smaller than most of its counterparts in the area. I think at best, we had 80+ medicinal chemists going strong when I was there - and that was up until when they shuttered the site. Also, Sanofi - and a reason I chose to work there over others - was much less concerned about the elite school status. And, no, we never thought we were safely in the "cream cohert" as you call it. Sanofi (as it ended up being) is probably the worst example you could have made up. It was variety of companies over the many years, HMR, RPR, Aventis, so everyone there knew exactly where they were throughout.

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  8. Anon 5:24, your worries are not unfounded - unfortunately, chemistry has become incredibly saturated these days. The major issue, which the article doesn't address, is that not only is academia saturated with PhD's, but so is industry these days. Good luck trying to get an industry job in organic synthesis as a fresh PhD chemist today! It just goes to show - when I think about what happened to the students who graduated from the PhD program at my university, the international students stayed in chemistry as postdocs, largely because they had limited options, whereas the domestic students abandoned chemistry for more fertile pastures upon graduation (such as law school, medical school, dental school, computer science, journalism, and for a lucky few, consulting).
    This leads to another question - if someone gets a PhD and then leaves the field entirely to do something else, is that a good thing? I would see it as a market failure and a waste of taxpayer money.

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  9. The focus on academic jobs is unfortunate. Most people who don't know much about the subject will read this and assume that those oh-so-precious science PhDs will just have to leave their ivory towers and work for a company like a regular person.

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    1. Agreed, but if the private sector were so keen on getting PhDs then they'd be recruiting aggressively and more scientists would choose the private sector over a postdoc. We have a lot of people spinning their wheels in postdoc positions hoping to either move up the academic ladder or into a decent private sector job, but the academic ladder has precious few spots above postdoc and the private sector doesn't need half as many PhD scientists as the "STEM Crisis!!1!!11!" hand-wringers claim.

      I do wish that these articles spent more time questioning those reports on the alleged "STEM Crisis!11!!!" and less time talking about how hard it is to move up the academic ladder.

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  10. the STEM crisis myth definitely needs to be exposed for the lie/half(or less)-truth that it is to the general voting public, but its an uphill battle with the Bill Gates and Zuckerbergs of the world selling the public and our politicians on the easier to swallow fiction of STEM shortage.

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