Have Grad Students Made a Terrible Life Choice?


Last time I wrote about college students entering the private sector. This time I want to talk about students who want to continue in academia. One of my friends who’s interested in neuroscience research recently called me in distress the other day. He told me to read this article in Miller-McCune. I read it. I was freaked out. No wonder he was so alarmed and depressed by the article. Miller-McCune argued that his interest in pursuing a career in academia would be one of his worst financial decisions. Why? Because there are no clear or easy career paths in academia anymore.

Splotchy summary of the Miller-McCune article:

  • incessant warnings about America’s lag behind other countries in mathematics and science is pure BS
  • instead of a lack of smart students with math/science backgrounds, there’s a huge glut
  • the current academic system of Ph.D.s training more and more Ph.D.s is broken and collapsing under its own weight
  • professors used to help their students find stable academic positions and career paths, but with tenured professors clinging onto their positions until they keel over and more higher-ed institutions posting adjunct or lecturer positions instead of tenured ones, these career opportunities are disappearing
  • as a result, America’s established research community has betrayed the very students it once nurtured
  • students are turning to other careers like business, law, medicine because they see that it’s simply not worth the time and money to get a Ph.D. in math/sciences
  • (more great points in the article which you should read for yourself because I’ve still not wrapped my mind around them)

Maybe this is all common knowledge and I’m a little behind the times. But this quotation from the article helps point out how dire the situation really is:

The director of postdoctoral affairs at one stellar university, who requested anonymity to avoid career repercussions, puts it more acidly. The main difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers, he jokes, is that the Ph.D.s don’t pick fruit.

According to a recent post on the blog of a well-informed physicist, eight people have already accepted postdoc positions at Princeton in the field of particle physics for the coming year. That is one particle physicist shy of the total number in that field hired nationally as faculty members this year.

The article compares the academic system to a giant Ponzi scheme approaching assured self-destruction if it stays the course. A system that recklessly burns through the nation’s intellectual capital by taking in suckers of doe-eyed graduate students, chews them up, and spits them out.

Here’s an astounding statistic:

These drastically different opportunity structures explain why more than half of what the National Science Board has estimated as 93,000 postdocs in the U.S. are now foreigners on short-term visas.

These are temporary H-1B visas that don’t necessarily lead to permanent residency. It might be to the benefit of the US to let these people stay. You give them taxpayer money, train them, they want to stay with their new skills and ideas, but you then send them packing back home. Should we be surprised if this comes back to bite us in the ass later in the form of better companies, innovation cropping up in foreign countries? Seems pretty stupid to me.

So read the Miller-McCune article. If you really don’t have time or are illiterate watch this Simpson’s clip. It sums it up nicely.