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Eye on Ph.D. production (Part 1)

Warning:  This is not an uplifting column . . .  The STEM disciplines account for eighty percent of the Ph.D.s awarded annually by U.S. universities.  Much has been written lately about the phenomenon of over-production -- an imbalance between the supply of new Ph.D. recipients and the demand for them across all sectors of our economy. For example, see "The Disposable Academic:  Why Doing a Ph.D. Is Often a Waste of Time," in The Economist.

Peering through this lens, we glimpse a problem with many wrinkles.  The most prominent are a depressed academic market, the swelling ranks of postdocs, and a turbulent global economy.  If we look deeper, the problems appear even more structural:  Non-replacement of retiring tenured faculty, and increased temporary (adjunct) hiring to cover course demand. Furthermore, half of all new STEM Ph.D.s are foreign nationals, a proportion that approaches two-thirds or more in physics, mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering.  (We won't belabor the gender imbalance in these fields.)

What's wrong with this picture?  Is the market alone "deciding"?  Universities and their federally funded faculty value the skilled hands, minds, and tech savviness of their predoctoral students and postdoctoral appointees. These are the human resources that power the research machines and bolster the publication records invoked as evidence that more funding should come their way.

Now the picture turns tainted, if not ugly. Foreign-born Ph.D.s trained in the U.S. can go home to feed their growing economies, while U.S. citizens discover a mismatch between their credentials and skills on the one hand, and market opportunities on the other.  The National Postdoctoral Association reports that no more than one in three postdocs will ever land a faculty position.

Yet within this morass, U.S. universities—purported liberal bastions—find a way to largely exclude significant numbers of women and minorities from competing for science-based positions in and out of academe.  A generation ago, Sheila Tobias et al. concluded that the over-production of Ph.D.s in the physical sciences was perpetrating a huge deception on students destined for disappointment:  stillborn careers that oversold the virtues of meritocracy—men interviewed blamed increasing numbers of women for their plight—and faculty mentors slow to retire and unable to assist their charges in the transition from Ph.D. research to the workforce.

For a progressive institution, U.S. universities seem to have mismanaged its seed corn.  They have become outsourced havens for doctorate-craving foreign talent (most of whom are not allowed to join the domestic technical workforce for long).  Meanwhile, U.S. Ph.D. recipients either struggle to find jobs after earning the degree or, in the case of persons of color and women—the "underrepresented"—are denied access to doctoral programs on various grounds (e.g., weak academic preparation or wrong baccalaureate institution).

One would have thought that the elders would do better by their disciples, and that research universities would have cultivated a system less supply—and more demand-driven . . .  and more financially independent of federal and state sponsors.

An exception to these trends —accentuating the positive—will be profiled in Part 2.

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