[EAS]PhD Overproduction?

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Oct 12 22:02:40 EDT 2000

Mail*Link® SMTP               PhD Overproduction?

Grad Student Needed--PhD Incidental.
The article refers primarily to the biomedical area, but may be
relevant, or equally irrelevant as some would claim, to other areas
of PhD studies.  --PJK

Date: 10/12/00 9:09 PM
From: reis at stanford.edu

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The excerpt below looks at a new study arguing against increasing
Ph.D. production in the biomedical, clinical, and behavioral
research areas. The question of the appropriate level of Ph.D.
output in any field is controversial because of the difficulty of
predicting demand 4-6 years in advance, and because of other
factors such as the mix of industry and academic positions (very
discipline dependent), and the role of postdocs in advancing
research (essential in most sciences).  The excerpt is from The
Scientist 14[19]:32, Oct. 2, 2000, by Douglas Steinberg.  The full
article, with additional tables, can be found at:
<http://www.the-scientist.com/current.htm>. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
reis at stanford.edu
UP NEXT: E-Moderating - and I'ts Role in Teaching

                  Tomorrows' Graduate Students and Postdocs

          -------------------- 1,803 words ---------------------


                   NRC panel recommends a no-growth strategy

The Scientist 14[19]:32, Oct. 2, 2000,
By Douglas Steinberg

At a meeting right after Labor Day, Princeton University's
molecular biology department surveyed the plans of its recently
graduated seniors, and professor Shirley M. Tilghman wasn't happy
with the results. Thirty-one out of 72 students awarded bachelor's
degrees last June were going to medical school, eight planned to do
community-service work--and only three were heading directly for
Ph.D. or M.D.-Ph.D. programs.

Recalling the meeting, Tilghman notes that the cohort of doctoral
wanna-bes has never topped 10 percent of graduates. But she
describes this year's yield as the worst ever. "It worries me
because the future of science needs these kids opting to do
science," she says. "And they're not opting to."

A new 120-page report from the National Research Council (NRC)
helps explain why. "Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for
Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists"
(www.nap.edu/books/0309069815/html) is the 11th in a series of
reports since 1975 mandated by the National Research Service Award
(NRSA) Act. Rife with graphs, tables, and demographics, this
"National Needs" report differs from earlier ones by examining the
entire workforce in the targeted sciences, not just NRSA trainees.

Drafted by an 11-member committee drawn largely from academia, the
report discusses biomedical, clinical, and behavioral research, as
well as inadequate minority representation in those fields. Its
starkest conclusion about biomedical science is that the number of
new Ph.D.s awarded annually "is well above that needed to keep pace
with growth in the U.S. economy and to replace those leaving the
workforce as a result of retirement and death."

The report notes that biomedical Ph.D. production swelled over the
past quarter-century as the bulk of funding shifted from training
grants to research grants. It recommends that "research training
and overall Ph.D. production in these fields should not be
increased." No particular strategy is advocated to achieve that

Why didn't the committee call for a decrease in the number of
Ph.D.s awarded? Chairman Howard Hiatt, a professor of medicine at
Harvard Medical School, explains that "to change suddenly the
numbers of people could be very disruptive to the research that's
going on at the present time"--research that he stresses is
"extraordinarily effective." Insisting that "the notion of keeping
things constant is, in itself, a major step," he observes that a
future committee could assess the outcome of a no-growth strategy
and, if warranted, propose a decline in Ph.D. production as a
further step.

As another observer points out, NRC reports are political documents
whose messages are carefully calibrated to be taken seriously. If
the committee had advocated a cutback, this observer continues,
"All hell would have broken loose," even though the proposal may
have lacked any practical means of enforcement.

Reports Have Impact

The findings and advice presented in the National Needs report
should induce a sense of déjà vu. Two years ago, an NRC-sponsored
committee chaired by Tilghman also depicted a Ph.D. glut in the
life sciences and called for restrained growth of the graduate
student population.1 And in 1995, a paper by William F. Massy, now
professor emeritus of business administration and education at
Stanford University, and Charles A. Goldman, a senior economist at
RAND in Santa Monica, Calif., shoehorned science training into a
theoretical framework consistent with the new report.2

Massy and Goldman argued that doctoral enrollment was driven more
by the need for research and teaching assistants than by the labor
market. The resulting Ph.D. glut, they explained, had led to
chronic underemployment and deteriorating career attractiveness,
particularly to American students. Though the paper encountered
some hostility at first, Goldman points to "an accumulation of
corroborating evidence and perspectives in the last five years."

Although these reports and papers may seem ineffectual--as well as
obvious--to many biomedical trainees, their authors do perceive the
work as having an impact. "I think there's a lot of interest in and
concern about these issues" at the National Institutes of Health,
says Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Alfred P. Sloan
Foundation in New York and a member of the panel that drafted the
National Needs report. Tilghman notes that unpublicized proposals
"are wending their way slowly through the NIH machinery."

Both the 1998 and the new NRC reports mention gradual increases in
the duration of graduate and postdoctoral training. Tilghman points
to a recent initiative to treat this "symptom of a system that is
broken": In 1998, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory established a small
graduate program that expects its students to earn Ph.D.s in four
and a half years. If the program succeeds, she hopes it will force
other elite programs that compete for the same pool of applicants
to speed up training as well.

According to Goldman, the NRC studies and his and Massy's paper
have had two other notable effects: Graduate departments are
increasingly exposing students to teaching skills, which are in
greater demand than research skills. Departments are also much more
conscious that "large numbers of their students will not be going
into academic careers."

In the last few years, that realization has apparently taken hold
among students and postdocs. "Now I go to Career Day meetings at
universities, and people are admitting that they got into their
Ph.D. program in order to get a job in industry," says David G.
Jensen, managing director of Search Masters International, a
Sedona, Ariz., recruitment firm for the biotech and pharmaceutical
industries. Stephen Rosen, chairman of Celia Paul Associates in New
York, notes that most scientists who consult him about career
transitions "are trying to move out of the academic environment
into an industrial environment," even if that means changing

The National Needs report asserts that growth in industrial
employment slowed in the mid-1990s, with the percentage of
biomedical scientists working in industry slightly lower in 1997
(23.9) than in 1993 (25.1). But for now, Jensen sees a swelling
demand from companies, which keeps recruiters "very, very busy." He
acknowledges, however, that the job market still isn't hot enough
to absorb all Ph.D. recipients, except for those in a handful of

Postdocs and Post-Postdocs

The National Needs report documents a drop in the fraction of new
Ph.D. recipients planning postdoctoral study, from 73 percent in
1996 to 65.1 percent in 1997, the lowest such figure since 1977.
But it's too early to tell if this downturn signals a trend or is
merely a historical blip. The preliminary figure for 1998,
according to NRC project officer James A. Voytuk, is 67 percent.

"Our initial reaction was that the figure for 1997 was a reflection
of improvements in the economy," says Jennifer Sutton, NRC study
director for the National Needs report who has since moved to the
National Cancer Institute. Instead of planning to do a postdoc,
"[Graduates] were more likely to find other types of more permanent
or more attractive jobs." Graduates were never interviewed,
however; they merely indicated (on a survey form) their plans
rather than their subsequent actions, and Teitelbaum describes the
numbers as "really hard to interpret."

For Ph.D. recipients who carry through on their intentions to
become postdocs, the report suggests their plight better than it
does their options. It briefly mentions a 1998 paper by Elizabeth
Marincola, executive director of the American Society for Cell
Biology, and Frank Solomon, a biology professor at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, that advised "the creation of respectable,
reasonably paid professional scientist positions, to be held by
fully trained researchers who neither write grants nor train
others."3"People genuinely want to do labwork at the bench as their
career," Marincola remarks now. "But we've not yet made a place for
them." While acknowledging that a few such positions already exist,
she adds, "The vast majority lack the stability that we would like
to see them have. And I think it's a critical mass issue, because
unless jobs are available on a fairly wide scale, then they stand a
good chance of being marginalized."

A case to consider are the hundreds of nonpostdoc, non-tenure-track
staff scientists employed by NIH's intramural program. Generally
appointed five years or more after they have received their
doctorates, they lack independent resources and are supervised
(usually one per lab) by senior investigators. Their appointments
can last as long as five years, and annual salaries start at about
$55,000. Noting that many staff scientists' appointments have been
renewed, Michael M. Gottesman, deputy director for intramural
research, asserts that he "can state unequivocally that this new
professional designation has been a big success at the NIH" since
it was introduced six years ago.

More Studies--and More Money?

According to Hiatt, NRC plans to send the National Needs report to
the NIH director, who will forward it to the Secretary of Health
and Human Services. Hiatt is set to discuss the report with the
director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. An
NIH spokesman says the report will be sent to congressmen who
request it.NRC issued the report six years after the last National
Needs report and almost two years late. More frequent publication,
however, may be in the offing. NIH research training officer Walter
T. Schaffer says that the National Academy of Sciences (of which
NRC is an operating agency) has proposed providing interim reports
to NIH. These would appear every two years following release of the
demographic data on which the National Needs reports are based.

Marincola and Solomon, meanwhile, are wrapping up a second phase of
their work, in which they're collaborating with Richard B. Freeman
and Eric R. Weinstein of Harvard and the National Bureau of
Economic Research, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. (Freeman was
also on the committee that drafted the new National Needs report.)
Focusing on 25 prominent cell and molecular biology labs in the
United States, the group is asking all the principal investigators
and many of the postdocs and graduate students detailed questions
about their productivity and career choices. The study, which the
group hopes to publish by year's end, examines subjective judgments
of productivity rather than objective measures such as numbers of
papers published.Goldman says he and RAND colleague Valerie
Williams may do a study pursuing topics in the National Needs
report in greater depth. One idea meriting further analysis, he
adds, is "increasing the [NIH] stipend in good times so that when
funding is increasing, the number of positions that are created
does not expand as fast as the funding. Then when funding is
leaner, keeping the rate of stipend growth low so that the number
of positions can be preserved until the next funding increase."

In a similar vein, the National Needs report recommends regular
cost-of-living increases in stipends and other forms of trainee
compensation. It advocates that such increases "be incorporated
into budget planning, so that stipends are not again allowed to
decline in real value." Recalls committee chairman Hiatt: "We urged
these changes because they seemed so obvious."

Douglas Steinberg is a freelance writer in New York.


1. P. Smaglik, E. Russo, "NRC report: cap life sciences graduate
school enrollment," The Scientist, 12[19]:6, Sept. 28, 1998. The
report is at the Web address

2. W.F. Massy, C.A. Goldman, "The production and utilization of
science and engineering doctorates in the United States," Stanford
Institute for Higher Education Research Discussion Paper, 1995. This
paper is soon due to come out as a book, The Ph.D. Factory (Bolton,
Mass., Anker Publishing Co., 2000).

3. E. Marincola, F. Solomon, "The career structure in biomedical
research: implications for training and trainees," Molecular Biology
of the Cell, 9:3003-6, 1998.

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