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Dueling narratives: what’s the job market like for scientists and is a Ph.D. worth it?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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At the very end of August, Slate posted an essay by Daniel Lametti taking up, yet again, what the value of a science Ph.D. is in a world where the pool of careers for science Ph.D.s in academia and industry is (maybe) shrinking. Lametti, who is finishing up a Ph.D. in neuroscience, expresses optimism that the outlook is not so bleak, reading the tea leaves of some of the available survey data to conclude that unemployment is not much of a problem for science Ph.D.s. Moreover, he points to the rewards of the learning that happens in a Ph.D. program as something that might be values in its own right rather than as a mere instrument to make a living later. (This latter argument will no doubt sound familiar.)

Of course, Chemjobber had to rain on the parade of this youthful optimism. (In the blogging biz, we call that “due diligence”.) Chemjobber critiques Lametti’s reading of the survey data (and points out some important limitations with those data), questions his assertion that a science Ph.D. is a sterling credential to get you into all manner of non-laboratory jobs, reiterates that the opportunity costs of spending years in a Ph.D. program are non-neglible, and reminds us that unemployed Ph.D. scientists do exist.

Beryl Benderly mounts similar challenges to Lametti’s take on the job market at the Science Careers blog.

You’ve seen this disagreement before. And, I reckon, you’re likely to see it again.

But this time, I feel like I’m starting to notice what may be driving these dueling narratives about how things are for science Ph.D.s. It’s not just an inability to pin down the facts about the job markets, or the employment trajectories of those science Ph.D.s. In the end, it’s not even a deep disagreement about what may be valuable in economic or non-economic ways about the training one receives in a science Ph.D. program.

Where one narrative focuses on the overall trends within STEM fields, the other focuses on individual experiences. And, it strikes me that part of what drives the dueling narratives is what feels like a tension between voicing an individual view it may be helpful to adopt for one’s own well-being and acknowledging the existence of systemic forces that tend to create unhelpful outcomes.

Of course, part of the problem in these discussions may be that we humans have a hard time generally reconciling overall trends with individual experiences. Even if it were a true fact that the employment outlook was very, very good for people in your field with Ph.D.s, if you have one of those Ph.D.s and you can’t find a job with it, the employment situation is not good for you. Similarly, if you’re a person who can find happiness (or at least satisfaction) in pretty much whatever situation you’re thrown into, a generally grim job market in your field may not big you very much.

But I think the narratives keep missing each other because of something other than not being able to reconcile the pooled labor data with our own anecdata. I think, at their core, the two narratives are trying to do different things.

* * *

I’ve written before about some of what I found valuable in my chemistry Ph.D. program, including the opportunity to learn how scientific knowledge is made by actually making some. That’s not to say that the experience is without its challenges, and it’s hard for me to imagine taking on those challenges without a burning curiosity, a drive to go deeper than sitting in a classroom and learning the science that others have built.

It can feel a bit like a calling — like what I imagine people learning how to be artists or musicians must feel. And, if you come to this calling in a time where you know the job prospects at the other end are anything but certain, you pretty much have to do the gut-check that I imagine artists and musicians do, too:

Am I brave enough to try this, even though I know there’s a non-negligible chance that I won’t be able to make a career out of it? Is it worth it to devote these years of toil and study, with long hours and low salary, to immersing myself in this world, even knowing I might not get to stay in it?

A couple quick caveats here: I suspect it’s much easier to play music or make art “on the side” after you get home from the job that pays for your food but doesn’t feed your soul than it is to do science on the side. (Maybe this points to the need for community science workspaces?) And, it’s by no means clear that those embarking on Ph.D. training in a scientific field are generally presented with realistic expectations about the job market for Ph.D.s in their field.

Despite the fact that my undergraduate professors talked up a supposed shortage of Ph.D. chemists (one that was not reflected in the labor statistics less than a year later), I somehow came to my own Ph.D. training with the attitude that it was an open question whether I’d be able to get a job as a chemist in academia or industry or a national lab. I knew I was going to leave my graduate program with a Ph.D., and I knew I was going to work.

The rent needed to be paid, and I was well acclimated to a diet that alternated between lentils and ramen noodles, so I didn’t see myself holding out for a dream job with a really high salary and luxe benefits. A career was something I wanted, but the more pressing need was a paycheck.

Verily, by the time I completed my chemistry Ph.D., this was a very pressing need. It’s true that students in a chemistry Ph.D. program are “paid to go to school,” but we weren’t paid much. I kept my head, and credit card balance, mostly above water by being a cyclist rather than a driver, saving money for registration, insurance, parking permits, and gas that my car-owning classmates had to pay. But it took two veterinary emergencies, one knee surgery, and ultimately the binding and microfilming fee I had to pay when I submitted the final version of my dissertation to completely wipe out my savings.

I was ready to teach remedial arithmetic at a local business college for $12 an hour (and significantly less than 40 hours a week) if it came to that. Ph.D. chemist or not, I needed to pay the bills.

Ultimately, I did line up a postdoctoral position, though I didn’t end up taking it because I had my epiphany about needing to become a philosopher. When I was hunting for postdocs, though, I knew that there was still no guarantee of a tenure track job, or a gig at a national lab, or a job in industry at the end of the postdoc. I knew plenty of postdocs who were still struggling to find a permanent job. Even before my philosophy epiphany, I was thinking through other jobs I was probably qualified to do that I wouldn’t hate — because I kind of assumed it would be hard, and that the economy wouldn’t feel like it owed me anything, and that I might be lucky, but I also might not be. Seeing lots of really good people have really bad luck on the job market can do that to a person.

My individual take on the situation had everything to do with keeping me from losing it. It’s healthy to be able to recognize that bad luck is not the same as the universe (or even your chosen professional community) rendering the judgment that you suck. It’s healthy to be able to weather the bad luck rather than be crushed by it.

But, it’s probably also healthy to recognize when there may be systemic forces making it a lot harder than it needs to be to join a professional community for the long haul.

* * *

Indeed, the discussion of the community-level issues in scientific fields is frequently much less optimistic than the individual-level pep-talks people give themselves or each other.

What can you say about a profession that asks people who want to join it to sink as much as a decade into graduate school, and maybe another decade into postdoctoral positions (jobs defined as not permanent) just to meet the training prerequisite for desirable permanent jobs that may not exist in sufficient numbers to accommodate all the people who sacrificed maybe two decades at relatively low salaries for their level of education, who likely had to uproot and change their geographical location at least once, and who succeeded at the research tasks they were asked to take on during that training? And what can you say about that profession when the people asked to embark on this gamble aren’t given anything like a realistic estimate of their likelihood of success?

Much of what people do say frames this as a problem of supply and demand. There are just too many qualified candidates for the available positions, at least from the point of view of the candidates. From the point of view of a hiring department or corporation, the excess of available workers may seem like less of a problem, driving wages downward and making it easier to sell job candidates on positions in “geographically unattractive” locations.

Things might get better for the job seeker with a Ph.D. if the supply of science Ph.D.s were adjusted downward, but this would disrupt another labor pool, graduate students working to generate data for PIs in their graduate labs. Given the “productivity” expectations on those PIs, imposed by institutions and granting agencies, reducing student throughput in Ph.D. programs is likely to make things harder for those lucky enough to have secured tenure track positions in the first place.

The narrative about the community-level issues takes on a different tone depending on who’s telling it, and with which end of the power gradient they identify. Do Ph.D. programs depend on presenting a misleading picture of job prospects and quality of life for Ph.D. holders to create the big pools of student labor on which they depend? Do PIs and administrators running training programs encourage the (mistaken) belief that the academic job market is a perfect meritocracy, and that each new Ph.D.’s failure will be seen as hers alone? Are graduate students themselves to blame for not considering the employment data before embarking on their Ph.D. programs? Are they being spoiled brats when they should recognize that their unemployment numbers are much, much lower than for the population as a whole, that most employed people have nothing like tenure to protect their jobs, and indeed that most people don’t have jobs that have anything to do with their passions?

So the wrangling continues over whether things are generally good or generally bad for Ph.D. scientists, over whether the right basis for evaluating this is the life Ph.D. programs promise when they recruit students (which maybe they are only promising to the very best — or the very lucky) or the life most people (including large numbers of people who never finished college, or high school) can expect, over whether this is a problem that ought to be addressed or simply how things are.

* * *

The narratives here feel like they’re in conflict because they’re meant to do different things.

The individual-level narrative is intended to buoy the spirits of the student facing adversity, to find some glimmers of victory that can’t be taken away even by a grim employment market. It treats the background conditions as fixed, or at least as something the individual cannot change; what she can control is her reaction to them.

It’s pretty much the Iliad, but with lab coats.

The community-level narrative instead strives for a more accurate accounting of what all the individual trajectories add up to, focusing not on who has experienced personal growth but on who is employed. Here too, there is a striking assumption that The Way Things Are is a stable feature of the system, not something individual action could change — or that individual members of the community should feel any responsibility for changing.

And this is where I think there’s a need for another narrative, one with the potential to move us beyond the disagreement and disgruntlement we see each time the other two collide.

Professional communities, after all, are made up of individuals. People, not the economy, make hiring decisions. Members of professional communities make decisions about how they’re going to treat each other, and in particular about how they will treat the most vulnerable members of their community.

Graduate students are not receiving a mere service or commodity from their Ph.D. programs (“Would you like to supersize that scientific education?”). They are entering a relationship resembling an apprenticeship with the members of the professional community they’re trying to join. Arguably, this relationship means that the professional community has some responsibility for the ongoing well-being of those new Ph.D.s.

Here, I don’t think this is a responsibility to infantilize new Ph.D.s, to cover them with bubble-wrap or to create for them a sparkly artificial economy full of rainbows and unicorns. But they probably have a duty to provide help when they can.

Maybe this help would come in the form of showing compassion, rather than claiming that the people who deserve to be scientists will survive the rigors of the job market and that those who don’t weren’t meant to be in science. Maybe it would come by examining one’s own involvement in a system that defines success too narrowly, or that treats Ph.D. students as a consumable resource, or that fails to help those students cultivate a broad enough set of skills to ensure that they can find some gainful employment. Maybe it would come from professional communities finding ways to include as real members people they have trained but who have not been able to find employment in that profession.

Individuals make the communities. The aggregate of the decisions the communities make create the economic conditions and the quality of life issues. Treating current conditions — including current ways of recruiting students or describing the careers and lives they ought to expect at the other end of their training — as fixed for all time it a way of ignoring how individuals and institutions are responsible for those conditions. And, it doesn’t do anything to help change them.

It’s useful to have discussions of how to navigate the waters of The Way Things Are. It’s also useful to try to get accurate data about the topology of those waters. But these discussions shouldn’t distract us from serious discussions of The Way Things Could Be — and of how scientific communities can get there from here.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. priddseren 7:54 pm 09/7/2012

    Music or art on the side is easier than science? Didn’t Einstein write his theories on the side while his main job was working as a patent clerk?

    I do a job that pays very well, top 1% and the guy on my team with me has a PhD from MIT, I do not. He will in fact admit what I know and what I can do is actually better than what he can produce and more extensive than what he knows, leaving him wondering why he spent all that money on a PhD.

    I think the problem here is university degrees in general are not really all that valuable at least not at what they cost. What is the value I mean, the assumption that the degree is what makes the person successful, intelligent or capable. The reality is success, intelligence or being capable is the person not the degree. I know plent of people with degrees and they cant do anything just the same I know people without any degree beyond high school and they are make loads of money, invent new things and etc.. The point being those people with or without a degree will still invent, make money, succeed or achieve whatever they desire simply because they desire it and they have the self determination to make it happen.

    This is why you have the difference in the arguments, real world experience will never match the so called trend because the the existence of a degree never creates success.

    Your assumption is not correct in the definition of what makes up the measure for this trend. It is not number of successful PhD owners in a field that are causing the jobs to be available or not, it is the success of the people and business in that field and this again happens independent of any kind of PhD. All the PhD does is lets someone into a field that is new and can at least be measured against some standard called a PhD, to have some level of security he has minimum knowledge. After this, it is all about experience and no amount of education and PhDs can take the place of experience.

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  2. 2. photohv 8:53 am 09/8/2012

    I do have a doctorate in chemistry and a very successful industrial career, but very different from most PhD chemists.
    I moved very quickly through the ranks, not because of my PhD but my leaderships skills and ability to drive projects. It is not to say I didn’t create new products and technology, I did, several patents, papers etc.
    I soon realized that companies are no longer interested in basic research, they want technology and products that sell. Alot of PhDs are enamoured with the degree and prestige that comes with the degree and miss the point of business.
    Generating new products that customers want (companies can make) is what drove my success.
    I expanded my career by being flexible, taking on new opportunities that were presented to me and finally landed in manufacturing management.
    Most PhD do not do well in a manufacturing environment, too rigid for the creative mind. I took the creativity and discplined it with continous product/process development.
    Another recent development is rate of technology change and short product life cycles. Technology is changing so fast that product development time needs to be shortened. This is counter intuitive to most PhDs, we need to completely understand the technology and chemistry, go beyond just making it work, I need to completely understand it. Modern business doesn’t have the time. By the time I figure it all out, the competition already has a better product.
    On the academic side, I chose not to pursue because of the heavy politics in university departments. Not that there isn’t any politics in industry, it is somewhat muted as long as you are producing. Plus I did’t think I could teach, as my career developed turns out I am good teacher.
    The other threaten issue is salaries, we are paid very well in this country, but you can employ 2-3 or more PhDs in developing worlds for what I was paid. To top it off we educated them in this country.
    My advice is go for the PhD, but do it because you are passionate about learning and chose a field that really excites you. Be productive, chose a advisor who is new and eager to get tenure. And be flexible, there are jobs, but you will need to relocate, several times. It is the reality of modern employment.
    Finally, you do not need to be PhD to be successful in life, there are many examples of individuals with an idea and the intelligence to drive the idea to fruition. There just isn’t many of them relative to the population.

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  3. 3. Archimedes 9:12 am 09/8/2012

    The relative and absolute number of American citizens graduating with advanced degrees in the sciences is extremely small.
    Thus, reasonably speaking, unemployment amongst the same can reasonably be attributed to the employment of foreign scientists in the USA and/or the outsourcing of scientific employment.
    Of course, the same applies to Americans with undergraduate degrees in the sciences.
    As I remember it, American citizens with degrees in engineering were essentially replaced with foreign citizens with engineering degrees resulting in the massive unemployment of American engineers.
    I don’t know whether this is still the case.
    The political establishment seeks to maximize it’s power and authority by determining who wins and who loses in American society rather than insuring that American citizens have those reasonable employment opportunities that are protected by U.S. Constitutional guarantees.

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  4. 4. mdarey 12:42 pm 09/8/2012

    This is the most thoughtful and helpful analysis of the “Ph.D wars” argument that I have encountered so far. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the “duelling narratives” angle. It certainly makes sense to me, as a fifty-something chemist, gainfully employed again after a lengthy period of semi-employment. There were many times during my job search I felt I had been rejected by the chemistry community. It was almost as if they were saying: “you’re not one of us, deal with it, loser!” Obviously it is not helpful for me to think of myself in these terms, so one constructs an alternative narrative for oneself, just as you say.
    I also agree with your comment that the community should show a greater sense of responsibility to their less fortunate members than they do at present. What we seem to have right now is a culture of superstars and nobodies, locked in a pitiless struggle for survival. It doesn’t have to be like this. For my part, if I am contacted by a member of my professional network regarding employment with my company, I try to help them the best I can.
    Thankyou for making a balanced and thoughtful contribution to the on-going Ph.D. debate.

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  5. 5. Cramer 12:52 pm 09/8/2012

    Priddseren said, “…leaving him wondering why he spent all that money on a PhD [at MIT].”

    Who pays “money” for a PhD (especially from MIT)? Brings your whole anecdote into question. The rest of your opinion reeks of resentment. You also post a lot on SciAm for a 1%er working in a scientific field (this is a publication for the lay public; and where do you get your time?).

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  6. 6. geojellyroll 2:43 pm 09/8/2012

    I’ve been a geologist for 36 years. 98% of geologists work in the private sector. A PhD adds no value to one’s monetary contribution or earningsin geology…nor should it. I pursued my Masters for self satisfaction.

    PhD’s are fine if one wants a career in academia. One can do a doctorate in some ‘niche’ or on an obscure subject matter…however, back in the ‘real’ world in most disciplines it usually has little value when applied (not that it doesn’t have value enhancing scientific understanding).

    RE a comment above on art. I had a minor in music. It was ‘over my head’ but I was given the US equivalent of ‘B’s because I’d go to the instructors and explain that I wanted to study classical guitar but had no formal training. I was able to keep at it because I’d get a pass mark that didn’t put much of a dent in my grade average. Bottom line….music was more demanding for me than most of my science classes. I really admire those who pursue some type of music profession.

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  7. 7. LarryW 4:38 pm 09/8/2012

    Missing by all accounts is a crucial issue. The Science! Who is, if not the PhD moving on to post-doc work, going to maintain and extend the mantle of mastery? Or we and the science community going to allow the talking heads who are as certain about their opinions as they are wrong about all manner of things on which they opine, determine the truth because of the void of those who studied to learn the truth.

    To geojellyroll: If your masters degree was anything like mine and everyone else I know with bachelors and masters degrees, the knowledge gained was important and self-satisfying, but it did not give us mastery.

    In no sense, have those without terminal degrees (and those achieving PhDs but not going further) learned enough to ensure knowledge is passed on to the next generation and not swamped by the utter stupidity of the opinion makers.

    If we have what it takes, we owe it to the society and the society owes it to us to preserve and extend real knowledge for ourselves and future generations.

    Name a price and cost for that!

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  8. 8. suzanna 4:58 pm 09/8/2012

    I think that author has missed a crucial point. Statistical data simply point to liklelihood. With modelling they are meant to be predictive. But this does not mean at individual-level, the predicted outcome of interest will occur for every individual. This is a very well known phenonemnen called ecologcal bias and affects a multitude of situations from cancer survival to job prospects for those with a Phd! Aggregated data will always be useful because at the end of the day they provide information.This informtion should only be taken as a guide. But ultimately individual outcomes will depend on individual circustamces. So in the example of PhD decision making, whether to do a PhD or not will depend on motivations and assessment of opportunity costs especially in the context of the economic climate. By the way I do not think you should control the supply end of PhDs as suggested by the author! She seems to think that this will devalue the currency. I really don’t think so. However I do think there are ways to curtail supply but dictated by the potential student. A student may now be very choosy about where to go in terms of novelty value of the subject matter and the credentials of supervising staff especially in this economic climate. The demand side is acute at the moment because of the economic climate. But this might change despite the economy depending on the expertise needed for new areas. We still need to keep the economy going after all.

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  9. 9. krish.mallipeddi 10:31 am 09/9/2012

    I completely agree on your take on why we do PhD if we know that there is no guarantee that we will end up in a well paying job – because we wanted to.

    Also regarding this sudden rise in lack of respect for a PhD degree is very interesting. This seems to be directly correlated to the lack of jobs for these new graduates unlike a few decades ago. Yes, 5 years of toiling in the research lab over a topic you have chosen with limited monetary gain is an experience and a very life-changing one at that. Yes there are lots of people without PhD degrees that have learnt a lot through job experience and potentially have similar or better knowledge than a PhD degree holder. But that doesn’t mean that the PhD degree is irrelevant or only necessary for academic jobs.

    The necessity of a PhD degree strictly depends on the individual and their area of interest. I have seen computer scientists and mathematicians with no PhD degrees that have solved their itch to study these topics on their own time. This practice is very much not possible in fields like the life sciences. Research in these subjects requires the use of expensive instruments, physical presence of advisors, large downtime to learn the background knowledge. All of which are not crucial in some other fields of study and lack of a PhD is not the end of the world.

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  10. 10. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 2:20 pm 09/9/2012

    Let the record reflect that I have expressed doubts about the wisdom of throttling the supply of Ph.D.s. But since the number of Ph.D.s in the market does seem to matter for the well-being of those Ph.D.s (at least on the employment front), it’s a suggestion that keeps coming up.

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  11. 11. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 2:26 pm 09/9/2012

    I agree that in general, making more scientific knowledge is a good thing. However, for the Ph.D. scientists trained to make knowledge who are struggling to find permanent jobs in the knowledge-making biz, I’m not sure it’s fair for society to demand that they sacrifice their personal well-being to keep contributing to science. At a minimum, I think it’s fair that they receive support from the scientific community to whose knowledge-building efforts they contribute.

    Or, to put it another way: knowledge-builders should still be allowed a shot at a middle-class standard of living. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of reason to embark on those years of toil beyond just following your passion.

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