Too many science PhDs or too few jobs?

A study by MIT researchers makes bleak reading for young scientists – at least if they want a job in a university. It says that the supply of science PhD graduates far outstrips available positions for them in academia in the US and the situation is only going to get worse.

“The system in many places is saturated, far beyond capacity to absorb new PhDs in academia at the rates that they are being produced,” the report says.

But the solution is not in creating more tenured academic positions, it says, but focusing more on undergraduate and masters’ level graduates to address the paradoxical shortage of suitable Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) candidates demanded by American businesses.

Fewer than 17% of science, engineering and health-related PhD graduates find tenure-track positions within three years.

The authors, engineers Richard C. Larson, Navid Ghaffarzadegan, and Yi Xue, treat the problem as similar to a demographic one.

“We show that the reproduction rate in academia is very high,” they write. “For example, in engineering, a professor in the US graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his/her whole career on average, and only one of these graduates can replace the professor’s position.

“This implies that in a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA.”

A lack of growth on the demand side suggests that is unlikely to improve, the report says.

“Except computer science, which experienced rapid growth in the past 30 years, and life sciences with the average growth of 1.5% per year, many fields have seen little increase in their faculty slots.”

But, in any case, increasing positions would only make things worse in the long-run, the authors say.

Ironically, American employers are crying out for suitable STEM candidates for jobs, for which the authors have a solution.

They describe the conundrum as “an engineering design puzzle” – how to design the academic research enterprise so as to perform the research effectively while at the same time reducing the ‘PhD birth rate’ of professors.

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