Friday, October 8, 2010

Should Ph.D. students delay graduation because of lack of employment?

Helpful commenter Anon6:32a requests that I write about the increasing time-to-doctorate (TTD) numbers coming out of US universities. For example, this NSF brief shows that the median TTD for all chemistry disciplines is 6.8 years. Wow. Can't really say much more than that; well, maybe I hope the trend doesn't continue to go up. (Why it's happening should be the core of another post sometime soon.)

But it reminded me of something that I've heard is going on: grad students delaying their graduation because of their difficulty in finding employment (other than a postdoc). I'm going to guess (hope?) that there's not a ton of evidence outside of anecdote that this is happening, but let's address it with the assumption that it is.

The chemistry job market (especially for entry-level positions) is structured such that you're basically competing against the people who entered graduate school at the same time that you did. If lots of students from the same cohort delayed graduation, you'd still be competing against the same people plus the people in the year behind you. Adding to the numbers of your competitors doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

I'm not a game theorist, but this is basically a version of the Prisoner's Dilemma (ironic, no?):
You have two graduate students. If they both decide to look for a position now, they will be competing against each other. If they both decide to delay graduation, they will still be competing against each other. Should they (and if so, how?) cooperate to find an optimal solution?
Unfortunately, I suspect that problems like this is why the postdoc market is also kinda full right now. Sorry I don't have much better news than that.

*Note to J-bone: a run-stuffing interior lineman is always helpful.

24 comments:

  1. When I was in grad school (mid 2000s), two senior labmates didn't get jobs the first time around. Both were solid workers and got onsite interviews. They were also adamantly against doing postdocs and decided to stay another year. Second time around they each had added more publications to their CV's and actually got jobs.

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  2. I think it's more a matter of timing the job market than competing against peers for specific jobs. Also, as has been noted ad nauseam here and elsewhere, it seems that as the value, prestige, and adjusted salary of a PhD has dropped, so has the talent bar for many doctoral programs- some people probably just...take longer to get their projects done because they're not quite as suited to the work, and nobody ever told them.

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  3. @chemjobber: At least chemistry has the shortest RTD according to the outdated NSF study. Still not that much consolation!

    "Table 3 shows time-to-degree differences for 2003 by more detailed science fields of study. Chemistry has the lowest times to degree on all three measures. For the registered time-to-degree variable, mathematics (6.8 years), engineering (6.9 years), and biological sciences (6.9 years), and physics and astronomy (7.0 years) were the next closest fields to chemistry (6.0 years). The longest registered time-to-degree total was found for anthropology (9.6 years)."

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  4. Anon7:13 I dare you to question the quality of all those >6th year grad students at Berkeley, Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Stanford, and other "diluted-prestige/value" PhD programs.

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  5. @7:27

    1. Go look up the definitions of 'many' and 'some.'
    2. There ARE other programs out there. Not everyone went to Big Swinging Dick U.

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  6. This really means that professors and grad students alike really really need to foster an environment of entrepreneurship. Isn't that the end goal of a game theory mentality. The job market seems to be better if you get into the start up environment. The problem with the start up environment is that its very hard to find connections and network. Especially when you are neck deep in chromatography.

    When it comes to networking as a chemist, I am always stumped at how to meet and network with people, that well ... the major players at least, really don't like networking, teamwork, or even people

    Professors and students alike need to afford some projects with lower hanging fruit that are a little closer to market, and then network accordingly. If we build up our relevance from the ground up, we can come back stronger than ever before, and take back our destiny from "big pharma" and outsourcing.

    If both grad students (and academics) were cultured in an environment that fosters cooperation and creativity, both of chemjobber's mentioned grad students might have a couple ideas on getting capital together and afford more even MORE jobs for more chemists in the long run.

    It will also add more jobs to the community, because lets face it, college towns are usually generally quite dumpy.

    I think most importantly, it will generally spread a better attitude and good will among chemists, and it might give more meaning back to our work. Professors (not surprisingly) are not as well connected as they would like you to believe, yet if they create their own markets for their technologies, they might have more impetus and inspiration to drive their group. Even if a handful of chemists at university have their hands in a couple cookie jars, it would make for a smoother transition from grad school to a job.

    It's a lot more opportunistic attitude than to think oh whoah is me, I can't find a job! The mentality of entrepreneurship was the whole point of flooding the market with Ph. D.s anyways.

    Jablonski

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  7. @Anonymous 7:47 AM:

    1. Go look up the definitions of 'many' and 'some.'

    The NSF study found by Chemjobber showed that the median TTD is 6.8 years, ergo most grad students were taking longer than 5 years, even during the "Good Times" of 2002-2003.

    2. There ARE other programs out there. Not everyone went to Big Swinging Dick U.

    For me, it would be more like, "Not everyone worked for a big-shot PI." My school had good on-campus industrial recruiting, but the recruiters were overwhelmingly alumni from one dominant group.

    Lavoisier

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  8. I would say no, don't delay. I think it will always look better the faster you finish. Take a postdoc if you must. Unfortunately it's almost inevitable that you will have to anyway. It's becoming a requirement it seems and at least you'll get a raise. I'd be careful to avoid any minor dude that thinks you'll automatically be in it for 2-3 years. This could effect the quality of the postdoc you get, but you don't want some idiot holding you hostage when you're not really learning anything anyway. Or, in other words, the guy better be really fabulous/connected to put up with being stuck there long term. It's not that I see postdocs as being terribly beneficial. I don't. It's essentially job experience, but better than prolonging grad school or being unemployed. Just my take.

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  9. I agree with Tumbler. If you can, finish ASAP and start the postdoc, even if you have to go somewhat outside your field. Unless your prof has a lot of clout (like Nobel laureate level), landing an academic or industry job straight out of grad school is becoming impossible. Multi-disciplinary research is becoming popular, so as an organic professor you may have a better chance of securing grants if you put a biological, materials, or environmental spin on your proposals. Don't slug it out for another 1, 2, or 3 years in your PhD screening ligands or synthesizing a natural product that nobody cares about.

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  10. CJ, there wouldn't be too much of a prisoner's dilemma when the senior grad students had each other's guts!

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  11. A11:38 I'm guessing you meant "hate each other's guts".

    LMAO my security word is "losers"!

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  12. I can't say it's for everyone but i definitely agree that postdoc is better than grad student. I recommend to anyone considering 'lingering on' as grad student to go ahead for a postdoc. The pay is better, slight improvement in quality of life, new opportunities (you will feel less burned out), more publications (students you mentor putting you on their papers), etc etc. Dammit, i had a list somewhere...

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  13. Hey, Jablonski -

    Great idea to introduce entrepreneurship to university faculty. Several observations:

    (a) isn't hoodwinking students into doing a doctorate a form of entrepreneurship?

    (b) One means of instructing (many) tenured faculty in commercial entrepreneurship would be to take away their tenure.

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  14. Anonymous @10:45

    I'm still not convinced there was any deliberate hoodwinking on the establishment. Sure the establishment screwed up royal, but the story of the frog and the scorpion come to mind, "it's in my nature"

    The type of person that wants the coveted security and isolation that ivory tower academic research affords, the type of person that doesn't want to do any more networking other than reading the most recent issue of JACs, is going to have a difficult time concerning himself with the trivialities of the world and covet the entrepreneurial spirit.

    I also don't think profs are incapable of empathy for their future students, I just think they are slow and have hard time coming to it. A lot of crappy stuff happened very quickly to chemistry, and it's going to be a little while longer for academic institutions to adjust.

    They will most certainly start to feel the burn when their talent pool dries up and goes elsewhere for economic opportunity, and then they will have to adapt accordingly.

    In the same breath, I don't think our chemistry now is any less relevant than the chemistry we did in the "good ole 90's". I do think the good profs are recognizing this and learning, slowly, how to network and adjust their expectations accordingly.

    For starters, the thing that peeves me the most, and I think breeds the most personal detachment from those at the top, is rewarding grant funds to Ph. D. producers. Every grant proposal I have ever read boasts the number of Ph. D.s that were produced in the process of doing research. Either a) make better Ph.Ds, or b) hire techs.

    And as for making better Ph. D.s, it's obvious the world doesn't need the guy who ran the most columns in a week and knows every name reaction back and forth, but no ... the ones can either NETWORK, ADAPT, or SELF START.

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  15. I remember several instances at my PhD program where senior grad students were ready to finish but had to wait for space to become available in their intended postdoctoral labs. I suspect that the delays were partly due to grad students at those labs who were putting off their own graduations. Delaying graduation does not help anyone; the material and psychological benefits from staying an extra year or two really don't justify impeding the career progress of fellow chemists. Although I'm not advocating that grad students do half-ass research to finish early, staying in PhD purgatory will do little to enhance one's breadth of knowledge since the student is typically focused on one project by the fifth year. Maybe grad students need to be slightly less territorial about their research; after all, wouldn't most advisors be grateful to those who leave behind a fruitful legacy (e.g. novel methodology) that future scientists can explore? Anyway, it sucks that organic PhD students typically have to secure their postdocs 1-2 years before graduation. Some of my classmates even applied right after advancing to candidacy!

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  16. Should I Stay or Should I Go?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqH21LEmfbQ

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  17. Gotta love The Clash! Anyhow, I agree with the above Anon...getting a postdoc isn't that trivial. It seems like some of the high-demand labs have unspoken exchange agreements when it comes to trading postdocs. Yeah, I know...that's why first-years clamor to get into big-name labs at big-name schools. Still, it's depressing to think that working hard to do good science and graduate on time will ultimately land you a job as a Kelly Scientific or Aerotek whore.

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  18. Hmm...prisoner's dilemma? Like in the movie "Saw"?

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  19. I wonder how long before synthesis groups look like those in physics- 2-3 students, and not the massive armies you still see these days. Do the new students just not realize the situation? Do they assume they are special? Do they assume things will get better before they finish?

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  20. Eka-silicon,

    I think it must be all of the above, but mostly they don't realize the situation. I have seen that myself with brand new and early 2nd year students. I think they've got to realize what's up by the end of their 2nd year though, or at least started to see it. I think I have seen that as well.

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  21. @Eka-silicon: Well those 2nd years should start applying to postdocs right after advancing to candidacy!

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  22. Hmm.

    Let's say I'm writing my cover letter for a tenure-track position at either a MSc-granting department that really does research or an average PhD-granting place.

    I write in that cover letter that I only wish to graduate as many MSc (respectively PhD) candidates as can reasonably be expected to ultimately find the kind of job that they wanted to from day #1.

    What would the response of the selection committee or the Dean be?

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  23. @Anon 11:45pm
    "Still, it's depressing to think that working hard to do good science and graduate on time will ultimately land you a job as a Kelly Scientific or Aerotek whore."

    I've recently been contacted by someone from Aerotek, seemed like a decent job... should I run away fast?

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  24. @A3:24p:

    Not necessarily. I suppose you shouldn't expect much, but the experience I've had with Aerotek is fairly positive. (Obviously, your mileage may vary.)

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