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


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.

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

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