The Gathering Storm: Category 5

Back in 2005 an illustrious group was organized to produce a report addressing the state of science and technology in the United States, resulting in what became known as the “Gathering Storm” report since it was entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm. This report recommended that various steps should be taken to increase the number of science Ph.D.s produced in the US and going into the US labor market (while noting that there was no evidence of a shortage of such Ph.D.s).

Last month the group was back, now claiming that the gathering storm has become a hurricane of nearly category 5 intensity, with a new report entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5. Yesterday they appeared before the House Science and Technology Committee. In an analysis of what happened to their recommendations, they noted that the call for more Ph.D.s had been effective, with the NSF spending $475 million on graduate student funding during FY 2009-2010. As for the effect of this on their goal of more well-paid jobs for Americans, here’s what they had to say:

A paradox exists in the debate over whether there is a shortage of scientists and engineers or whether there are too many scientists and engineers for the jobs that are available. Most business leaders maintain the former; however, with regard to the more “conventional” functions of these fields it may well be that de facto there can no longer be domestic shortages of scientists and engineers. Firms facing this proposition are simply moving work elsewhere. Similarly, the observation that many scientists and engineers elect to pursue careers in other fields is in many instances simply reflective of the value placed on education in these disciplines by business, law, and medical schools and related employers and should not necessarily be decried. However, if the sole purpose of a PhD in science is considered to be to prepare future educators in science, then a surplus of scientists (often evidenced as a surplus of Post-Doctorate researchers) seems inevitable. The Gathering Storm recommendations are based upon the premise that federal investment in research must be doubled (the report’s second highest priority recommendation)—in which case there will be commensurate increases in demand for researchers . . . and not solely for the purpose of providing educators.

It seems that the idea is that while there’s no Ph.D. shortage at the moment, the Congress will double funding for scientific research over the next few years, so just maybe there could be a shortage in the future and this must be addressed right now.

As for the “paradox” that business leaders see a shortage of the kind of trained scientists and engineers they would like to hire at the wages they would like to pay, it appears to be the same paradoxical shortage I regularly encounter of first-class plane tickets to Paris available at the price I would like to pay for them.

In the real world, the latest Notices of the AMS has data showing the number of mathematics graduate students increasing from 10,883 in fall 2008 to 11,268 last fall. The situation graduating students face is described as:

The job market for doctoral mathematicians took a decided turn for the worse during the 2008-2009 hiring season. For all mathematics departments combined, the number of full-time positions under recruitment during 2008-2009 for employment beginning in fall 2009 decreased 27%, dropping to 1,464 from 2,012 reported last year. This is smallest number of such positions reported since 1997 when it was 1,246. The number of tenured/tenure-track positions under recruitment during this period was 930, down 23% from the previous year’s figure of 1,213. The number of full-time positions filled was 1,274, with 710 of these tenured/tenure-track positions. These figures are down 30% and 27%, respectively, from the figures reported for the 2007-2008 hiring season.

For all mathematics departments combined, the number of new doctoral recipients hired for positions beginning in fall 2009 was down 13% from the previous year’s number, to 656. Likewise, there was a decrease in the number of new doctoral recipients obtaining tenure-track positions for fall 2009 with 301 such hirings reported compared to 378 reported for fall 2008.

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21 Responses to The Gathering Storm: Category 5

  1. Anonymous says:

    “As for the “paradox” that business leaders see a shortage of the kind of trained scientists and engineers they would like to hire at the wages they would like to pay…”

    I believe this is exactly correct and the aforementioned business leaders would then proceed to break the airline unions so they can get the price they would like to pay for that Paris trip. There is a shortage of various types of engineers in the US based on demand, but business leaders would rather setup operations overseas to get reduced labor. I have seen the first hand effects of this – unfortunately, it’s not easy applying the kind of mind-games that business leaders like to play on scientific personnel when their minions are half-way around the globe and can’t be forced to work late in their own time-zone. So they bring the jobs back to the US and secretly pray for the equilibrium to shift in the other direction (towards a surplus of people) by dumping personnel in the market, hoping that it will create the conditions they want. Not being very good at analyzing the dynamics, they don’t quite understand why it doesn’t work (including why many engineers leave the field altogether, reducing the supply). Maybe we should use NSF funds to properly educate business leaders, including requiring them to take (and pass) the real calculus that the rest of us take in school.

  2. CIP says:

    The shortage, I think, is of graduate students profs would like to train for jobs that don’t exist.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The problem is that since graduate student can be used as cheap labor, there are far more openings for graduate students than for faculty members. When the scientific institutions finish exploiting a graduate student, the student is dumped with little hope of landing a faculty position. He’s also in effectively at a disadvantage if he seeks jobs elsewhere, because of the amount of time wasted in graduate school. I can’t see how this problem can possibly be resolved in any manner.

  4. anonymous says:

    This is something I feel deeply and personally. I’m 27 and just drive as a courier currently because I can actually live well on it. I’d love to pursue a higher education in physics but the debt load and prospects seem crushing. What to do about housing and money, the intensity and deadlines all scare me, not the complexity. I love to learn naturally on my own, for fun, with the feeling of exhiliration and pursuit of deep understanding. Yes work can be a drag, but at least I can pursue art, music, reading, science and FUN in relative freedom.

    In other words I’m doomed!

  5. Bugsy says:

    Thanks for the link and comments, Peter; the article linked to by Ralph Ballart is also fascinating. The comments there are also worth reading….
    Interesting that on the AIP site and also the cited report site there seems to be no place for comments. Good for them, as a lot of us would no doubt call “BS” on the whole enterprise.

    Bad news from across the seas: the Sarkozy regime is making life so unbearable for academics that I predict many (those who can) will try to “get out”, though given the situation in the US now that could only affect the very top levels.

    Some examples: general low pay, and now apparently those previously privileged CNRS researchers will now have to undergo “evaluations” every 6 months??? with similar hurdles on the way for all academics, the overwhelming emphasis being put on sheer numbers of publications…there are many opportunities in the new system for friends to help friends, in a desperate race for
    grant money and hence survival, which will encourage all manner of abuse of power and influence….there is a general threat in the air that those who are a bit older or are “less productive” will be rewarded by a doubled teaching load….social services are being cut…and on and on.
    So my prediction, other than many wishing they could leave the country, is an increased suicide rate among those who feel trapped in the present situation, for a multitude of reasons…

  6. gs says:

    As for the “paradox” that business leaders see a shortage of the kind of trained scientists and engineers they would like to hire at the wages they would like to pay, it appears to be the same paradoxical shortage I regularly encounter of first-class plane tickets to Paris available at the price I would like to pay for them.

    Exactly. Back in the 1980s when IBMer Erich Bloch headed it, the NSF was stating that a boom in demand was a few years ahead and scientists would be writing their own tickets in the 1990s.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    gs,

    Yes, I should have mentioned that there’s a long history of these bogus claims about “shortages” of US scientists. I think the NSF one you refer to calculated that by now (2010), the US would be in truly desperate straits, with a shortage of about 700,000 scientists.

  8. Yatima says:

    @Anonymous: “I believe this is exactly correct and the aforementioned business leaders would then proceed to break the airline unions so they can get the price they would like to pay for that Paris trip.”

    Really now. Whatever happened to economic education? I know it has been in the dumps since at least WWII, but still.

    What *would* happen is that aforementioned business leaders would proceed to set up an airline that could offer low, low rates to engineers wanting to get a correct price for plane ticket to Paris.

    It’s that simple.

    What would furthermore happen is that unions would mess the plan up by demanding higher wages or cushy job conditions for employees that are also unions members, then the governement would demand special “green” taxes, income taxes or nonsensical antiterror measures so the airline would go bankrupt and we would be back at square one.

    Then capitalists get blamed for “greed”.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Please, no more ideological rants pro or con unions. In the job market at issue here, for better or worse, the number of union members and people interested in trying to form unions is infinitesimally small.

  10. Charlie C says:

    “The job market for doctoral mathematicians took a decided turn for the worse during the 2008-2009 hiring season. For all mathematics departments combined, the number of full-time positions under recruitment during 2008-2009 for employment beginning in fall 2009 decreased 27%, dropping to 1,464 from 2,012 reported last year. This is smallest number of such positions reported since 1997 when it was 1,246. The number of tenured/tenure-track positions under recruitment during this period was 930, down 23% from the previous year’s figure of 1,213. The number of full-time positions filled was 1,274, with 710 of these tenured/tenure-track positions. These figures are down 30% and 27%, respectively, from the figures reported for the 2007-2008 hiring season.

    For all mathematics departments combined, the number of new doctoral recipients hired for positions beginning in fall 2009 was down 13% from the previous year’s number, to 656. Likewise, there was a decrease in the number of new doctoral recipients obtaining tenure-track positions for fall 2009 with 301 such hirings reported compared to 378 reported for fall 2008.”

    It would be interesting to know what the equivalent numbers are for China. Does anyone have data on that?

  11. Iowa Beauty says:

    The Miller-McCune argument is pretty compelling so long as we continue to imagine that the only successful employment for a STEM doctorate is research and teaching in a world class university. The system is heavily biased toward that belief, but it’s deeply unfortunate. Industry needs people both in research and product development that have the knowledge and skills of PhDs. But most new doctorates consider an industry job second class, PhD programs do little or nothing to prepare their graduates for non-faculty positions, and most industry disdains to nurture their employment outside the few genuine industry research labs still operating.

    We need a track toward the end of PhD programs that actually prepares graduates for real-world positions – allowing them to specialize their skills in directions that would make them business savvy, or properly geared up for undergraduate education, or for the very most creative, research.

    Of course, we also need industry that can see beyond next quarter’s results, but I guess that’s a topic for another place and time.

  12. David says:

    Doesn’t the quoted text including “For all mathematics departments combined, the number of full-time positions under recruitment….”
    show exactly what the problem is?

    Their idea is that people with a PhD should go into industry, not get jobs in math departments. The math departments can quite obviously produce many more PhDs than the universities need, the over production is for the benefit of industry, and the graudate students should know that a majority of them will not get university jobs. This is already the situation in e.g. Germany.

  13. Anonymous says:

    @David: You’re entirely correct that the majority of PhD students should expect to build their future career outside academia. However, unless you know you probably want to stay in academia, doing a PhD is a bad career move (in most case anyway). Is the industry really craving for PhD applicants rather than those with a Master’s degree but several more years of work experience? I don’t think so. Beside, doing a PhD already means losing several years of salary (Working anywhere else is better paid).

  14. bane says:

    There’s another paradox in the process. People who’ve come up through the industry route know different things than PhDs — indeed the fact that doing academic research causes you to learn different useful stuff (in stuff like mathematics; dunno what it means for a theoretical physicist) is presumably why business people want PhDs. But in the interview process it’s customary that you can only answer the questions you’re asked, and you generally get interviewed by an industry person. They ask you the questions they know the answer to from their background, then reject you with the reason “you don’t seem to know as much interesting stuff as I expect”, completely missing the point that you might know different stuff they don’t know.

    If there’s one good thing about interviews for academic posts, it’s that the interviewers are very good at giving you opportunities to tell you about stuff YOU know about that THEY don’t.

  15. Iowa Beauty says:

    “on the interview process it’s customary that you can only answer the questions you’re asked”

    Man, not in my world. I always ask open ended questions, such as “what do you think you can do for me?” (after explaining the position), and I encourage people to demonstrate problem solving ability and creativity by telling me about their hardest and most interesting accomplishments. Anybody really wanting a job would take those openings and run with them.

    That said, I do expect people to come to me prepared to relate their skills and knowledge to the position, and to understand that we hire people to accomplish business goals, not purely intellectual ones. I don’t see that many PhDs, but the ones I do see seem as often as not to consider industry work a consolation prize, and not be as fully engaged as others.

    And of course, everything above is anecdotal, so apply appropriate error bars.

  16. bane says:

    I suspect it may vary with field. I work with computers, which is perhaps unusual in that graduate level mathematics is often powering what the user sees. I’ve recently been to interviews with various software companies, including some of the most famous ones in the world, and ALL the questions have been “Here’s this problem I like, solve it”, no questions that were remotely open ended or picking up items I’d drawn attention to in the cover letter. Probably I wasn’t right for any of those jobs, but what’s annoying is the feeling that the interviewers didn’t ask the more open-ended questions that would have given them a feel for what I could have done for the company. In contrast, every academic position interview has had a mix of “testing questions” and “show me something useful you know questions”. If you’re consciously asking open ended questions to get a better view of the potential employee then I think you stand above many other interviewers.

  17. Hutom says:

    Nobody retires. New positions are created by people dying or by expansion of departments. The real surprise is that so many new positions are still available every year.

  18. truth says:

    It’s not even really the business leaders. They want BS in Comp Sci from India (for same reasons of cheaper). But wrt Ph.Ds in sciences or math, that is just professors and unis wanting to have research programs and needing the transiet slave labor for the faculty.

  19. Terra says:

    The tenured establishment welcomes anything that increases the numbers of PhD’s produced because they’ve already got secure jobs, and they can hire more graduate students to do slave labor in both research and teaching.

    Looking at from another perspective, if we’re thinking ahead for the good of society, the older generation owes the younger generation a chance to be trained for careers that actually exist.

    I got my Ph.D. in physics at a time when the APS estimated that 3% of Ph.D. students would get permanent jobs in the field. I went to an elite school, and out of a graduating class of 50 or so, I think two people got jobs. One was an affirmative action case (female child of a professor) and another (child of a professor) is working at a new university in the Middle East.

    It gratifies the narcissism of the tenured establishment to believe “the cream floats to the top”, but they’re actually filtering for desperate people who will tolerate an intolerable environment. Something I’ve noticed is that an overwhelming majority (80%+) of the professors at this elite school have parents who were also professors.

    I got into a discussion with a professor (who I hope is in English or some other un-quantitative field) who told me that, at best, he could manage to get somebody placed by a connection once in his career. Well, when tenure-track jobs are in a steady state, that one act of nepotism effectively lowers the chances of the son of construction worker to spend a life in science to zero.

  20. Bugsy says:

    Terra, don’t assume all kids of professors get jobs because of nepotism.
    There are very simple reasons for kids to want to try a career similar to that of their parents–
    it is something you grow up around so it seems natural, accessible and understandable and, if you are lucky, interesting (and that part can apply to academics’ kids just as well as to those of the owner of a small business). So the sample is bound to be (very) biased. Plus, knowing the ropes in an intuitive way can sure help out a lot in any career.

    Beyond that, I agree with all else you said. And indeed, life can be tough in a dfferent way for a professor’s kid:
    dreaming you can copy your daddy’s success in perhaps a very different epoch but then seeing your own chances for “a life” go down the drain is emotionally challenging to say the least (brutal and dehumanizing being much more like it!)

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