There They Go Again…

Throughout the mid-to-late 80s, the NSF and other organizations would periodically issue alarmist reports about an impending dangerous shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S. These projections for shortages turned out to be utter nonsense, as anyone who looked at the situation honestly could have foreseen. By the early 90s, instead of a shortage, the bottom dropped out of the employment market for scientists. In the math department here I saw a large number of very good graduate students and post-docs leave the field because there were no jobs for them.

Particle theory is a field in which the job market has been varying degrees of awful since about 1970. One might argue that while this is tough on young particle theorists, it means that the few who get jobs will be truly outstanding and the subject will flourish. The problem with this argument is that particle theory has seen extremely little progress since the mid-70s, about the time that one would expect the effects of the tight job market to be seen. The main reason for this is that the standard model is just too good, but one could plausibly argue that the evidence is that a very tight job market is bad for the field. Good people don’t go into it; those that do and survive do so by not working on anything too ambitious, because it could easily fail and they’d be out on the street.

Mathematics is a much more normal job market than particle theory, but there still have always been a lot more Ph.D.s than jobs where they can use their talents. The job market in math was terrible in the early-to-mid nineties, got better in the late-nineties and is not so bad now. Our students seem to be doing relatively well at getting jobs. Budgets are tight, especially at state universities, but a lot of people hired during the 60s are finally starting to retire.

The NSF is now at it again, with its National Science Board issuing a glossy report entitled An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force. A good article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on this, but also has a lot of information debunking the report.

Why does the NSF repeatedly engage in this kind of alarmism and dishonesty? If you take a look at the membership of the National Science Board, you’ll find no young scientists, but a lot of university and NSF administrators, corporate executives, and senior professors. All of these people have a large vested interest in flooding the scientific labor pool in the U.S. so that it will provide a lot of cheap labor. The NSF gets much of its funding from Congress by emphasizing its role in training scientists, so of course it wants to claim that more of this needs to be done. Universities and corporations want lots of new Ph.D.s so they can get the best ones to work for them for peanuts. Universities want lots of grad students to provide cheap labor as TAs. Senior professors, at least in the experimental sciences, want lots of grad students to staff their labs cheaply. These people all seem to firmly believe that a system that produces huge numbers of underemployed and badly paid young scientists is the best thing for science and for the U.S. as a whole. In fact, it is just the best thing for their personal interests.

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15 Responses to There They Go Again…

  1. DrP says:

    wrong wrong wrong


    Just because our society doesn’t ‘value’ science doesn’t mean our society, the job market, the corporations, whatever, is right.

    The question is how to make the valuation of science match it’s value.

    There’s tons of incomplete scientific projects. Protenomics, diseases we didn’t know we had, brain/computer research, nanotech, whatever… lots of valuable potential for hundreds of years. The fact that these are not getting the attention that they deserve, should be regarded as a fault of the system, not an affirmation of the system and it’s correct working due to infallible economic ‘laws’.

    People would benefit. If society structures (ie corporations, governments) don’t “benefit”, so much the worse for all. For what is it all for?

    An investment in science is an investment. If the current system can’t see beyond the shortsighted next accounting period, so much the worse in my regard for the system.

    Wealth is result of science. Lawyers, MBAs don’t create wealth, they just administer the moving of the wealth from pile to pile. (Even though they may be ‘knowledge workers’.)

    If our society pays more for other jobs, encouraging our best to enter other fields, it’s just evidence of being a badly organized society. It is not living up to what it COULD be. If planet Earth had to “compete” on a comparison basis with a similar planet Earth2 that had a much stronger scientific culture, which would be getting ahead? So why not make this world be that other world?

    The question, (as has been said,) is how to change it. (And if you don’t recognize what quote I’m making an allusion too, well, so much the worst for us all.)

    Further weblog blatherings on this topic are available at

  2. erinj says:

    My two pence on this: I also agree with Peter, and also JC and Steven. I too was appalled at how post-doc research actually was in reality (in the UK in my case), and I worked similar hours to you Steven. Increasingly I see my post-doc year as simply an experiment: I wanted to find out what it was like, and try to achieve something lasting, but looking back I am beginning to regret it, as it seems to have done little for me in terms of career prospects, it’s value when applying for other occupations and my health.

    I could immediately relate to your comment about having “too many” degrees, JC: since finishing my post-doc, it has taken me months to find office-based temporary work, and I believe I only got the job because I omitted my PhD from my resume! For every other job I applied for, in which I included my PhD in my resume, I was either rejected or never contacted about the job.

    I never realized possessing a PhD would make things harder for me (especially when it comes to employment), but it definitely seems to have done so. People with PhD’s are just not meant to find work easily!

  3. Wish it were completely invaluable. I mean, that we had so huge quantity of reasoning minds that their monetary value were zero.

    Actually I wish the same about production of commodities, but that is politics 🙂

  4. Ralph Lee says:

    appreciated the perspective, thanks.

  5. bob says:

    I’m so glad the academia is feeling the pain physical labour workers have known for a long time. Your work once it becomes commoditized is no longer valuable because of the surplus amount of workers competing for jobs you can exploit them for all they are worth for the benefit of the owners of the school or business in question.

  6. bob says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of capitalism. Now you know why people like Albert einstein endorsed some form of socialist policy and regulation of capitalism, he didn’t want to eliminate it totally he wanted to eliminate the exploitation that capitalism brings and the negative capitalistic traits. Capitalism is not about being competitive it’s about making it to the top and making sure you and your family stay that way. Once you get a significant amount of money you can keep making more and more because the amount gives you the power to become an economic imperialist where you just buy out your competitors or sit on your nest egg and sell things below cost until your competitors go out of business and you have the monopoly of ownership once more.

  7. Jon H says:

    ” I could really become a fat rat and get an MBA. There is no shortage of MBA’s that have an actual clue about the technology. But the real question is this. Do I want to surround myself with assholes all day, or be in the technical trenches with my network administration team, discussing routing issues and solving congestion problems? Do I always want to have to rely on a geek like me to stay afloat in front of the board because I am clueless? Do I want to be in charge of a team that has no respect for me, aside from work authority and my witty personality? I am continuing my education in CS. Why? Because Im not a fucking moron that will dumb myself down for a bigger pool or lexus.”

    Getting an MBA doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work as an MBA.

    There’s probably a good case to be made that, after getting a degree in science, getting an MBA would be a good way of making contacts with business people – either your professors, or your classmates.

    Knowing such people would make it easier to start up a company if you have an idea for a technical service or product. You’d do the science, they’d do the business.

    Or, if they know you have an advanced degree in science, they might turn to you if they need such a person as a partner in a new venture they are considering.

    It seems to me that one place where you do often find people with graduate science degrees is among the founders of startups or small companies. Getting an MBA and knowing MBAs are things that would help *you* be the founding partner with the graduate science degree.

    Come to think of it, maybe college science departments should start throwing meet & greet parties or dinners with the business department.

  8. Dennis Kipman says:

    Seven years ago I graduated from high school and went into the workforce building PC’s. From building PC’s at 7.50 an hour, I learned that a good way to make more money would be to learn how to build a network. So I did, reading $24.99 books at Barnes and Noble and taking advantage of any work opportunities (employers that didnt want to pay $$ for a college educated employee). I currently make $85k as a network analyst in IT after jumping a few jobs to increase my salary as I learned more topics over the years. Since my most recent job pays for school + all books, I couldn’t pass up going to school and getting educated. Having gone through a BS in CS now, and about to embark on more schooling, I made a choice. I could really become a fat rat and get an MBA. There is no shortage of MBA’s that have an actual clue about the technology. But the real question is this. Do I want to surround myself with assholes all day, or be in the technical trenches with my network administration team, discussing routing issues and solving congestion problems? Do I always want to have to rely on a geek like me to stay afloat in front of the board because I am clueless? Do I want to be in charge of a team that has no respect for me, aside from work authority and my witty personality? I am continuing my education in CS. Why? Because Im not a fucking moron that will dumb myself down for a bigger pool or lexus.

  9. D R Lunsford says:

    Faraday a janitor? How do these legends get born? Is there an antilegend for every legend?

    Faraday was “Davy’s greatest discovery”. After Faraday presented him with a bound copy of his lectures on chemistry, Davy hired Faraday as a lab assistant.

    The info is only a google away.


  10. Michael Faraday was a janitor at the Royal Institution, wasn’t it?

  11. JC says:

    Interesting www site about the “real deal” about science type jobs:

    I don’t know whether it’s just “sour grapes” from the author, but a lot of the info at the site looks informative.

  12. Peter, I can’t agree more with you !
    In fact, what you have said fits really well with the situation here in France. What surprises me, is that I thought things were better in the States. We always consider the States to be a heaven for research, but it seems to have changed. However, the job market in France is certainly in a much poorer situation than in the USA, and this is the main reason for the huge protest of reaserchers that happened last year (it was the first time in the history of the country). We also have a report saying that there will be a shortage of scientists in the years to come, but this time it is true, because since about ten years, students leak away from science. There have been something around 30% loss of undergraduate students in ten years (the situation is especially critical in maths and physics).

  13. JC says:

    When I was in grad school, I was sort of a night owl type and was literally on a first name basis with the night shift janitors on my floor. Over the years I found out they were making around the same salary as many professors, and working a lot less hours.

    One janitor I found out actually went to grad school for math in the 1970’s but dropped out without finishing his thesis. He mentioned that it was difficult finding any science or engineering type jobs in the 70’s, and he ended up doing various janitorial type jobs ever since. By the time more “jobs” opened up in the 80’s, he was already a manager that dealt with overseeing janitorial duties for several large buildings on campus, and was being paid half decently for it. (He also had kids to support, which was a huge factor for him staying in the same job over the years).

    A few other folks I knew over the years, who never pursued any post-secondary school education, ended up working at other menial or blue collar jobs, like garbage collection, post office, driving trucks, etc … Most of them are making more than many professors at the local universities nearby, and working a lot less hours.

    At times I wonder what kids today are thinking, when word is already out that there’s hardly any good paying jobs that require a PhD. In many workplaces, a degree isn’t much more than an easy way to “weed out” job applicants. When HR has several hundred or thousands of resumes to sort through, it’s easier on the first cut to just delete all the resumes which don’t have any degrees or have “too many” degrees, so that they have a “managable” number of resumes to look at. Almost everybody I knew over the years who worked in HR at various corporations of all sizes, mentioned that most of their daily work is to “weed out” as many resumes as possible that are submitted over the internet or (less commonly) by postal mail.

    I don’t have a reference handy, but there’s allegedly already huge declines in folks majoring in computer science and engineering over the last few years at places like MIT. Despite Bill Gates trying to advocate kids into majoring in fields like computer science, kids seem to be able to see through the farce and propaganda and aren’t taking the bait so easily.

    In the near future, will there be a day when going to college no longer makes any financial sense? At the present time the propaganda advocating college education seems to be things like low interest student loans, along with “dreams” of a better life and career after finishing college. In some cases it’s family pressures. Many kids find out the hard way after graduation that their degrees are worth jack shit, and are hardly even worth the paper they’re printed on.

    At times I wonder if there will ever be another great “self-taught” mathematician and/or physicist that comes out of the blue, like a Ramanujan or Fermat. These days many of the “self-taught” physicists and/or mathematicians seem to be mostly crackpots, instead of serious scientists.

    Historically before the 20th century, it seems to be an exception for mathematicians or physicists to be on faculty at a university. It appears that the expansion of university faculty jobs in America came after World War 2, with the GI Bill and Sputnik. With that huge surge in government money in the 1950’s, it seems to have made many sciences a viable middle class career for a period of time afterwards.

  14. Steven says:

    Peter, you are spot on there. I got a phd in the 90s (from the UK, I am a Brit) and took up a postdoc in the US at a major university (an Ivy League one actually). This was in theoretical biophysics/biology although my background is in theoretical physics. I went with high ideals and enthusiasm but quickly became disillusioned and deflated to realise that the big postdoc pool there was badly paid and had virtually no status or respect. They were neither students or faculty and existed in a sort of limbo. I was under the illusion that the title “phd” at least carried some (a lot of) respect but in US universities even the secretaries consider themselves a cut above you. Most of them (postdocs) were from China and India, were paid very little, follow orders without question, and would work very long and hard for peanuts (including weekends/Saturdays and holidays). Any of them could easily be replaced. (I believe the Polish word is “Robotnic”).

    Basically they can have a pool of slave labour doing experiments and laboratory grunt work virtually 24/7. Very little academic freedom although being in theory was somewhat better. The campus (at postdoc level) felt like the intellectual equivalent of a slave plantation, far from the very niave ideal I once had of civilised minds working together to advance science and better humanity. Also NO American postdocs did I ever encounter and very few american graduate students. Most of them seem to have had wised up to the fact that science is no longer a viable middle-class career path.

    The Darwinian misconception in all of the sciences at this level is that this system “weeds out” the weakest students/postdocs and that “the best” then survive. What actually happens is that it weeds out the people who don’t want to destroy their lives working 60-70 hour weeks worrying about how ions affect protein folding dynamics and so on. It seems to get rid of the people who want balanced lives and other interests outside of science. Who want to go to art galleries, theatre/music concerts, restaurants, spend time with their families and have relationships etc–ie the sort of people who in the end actually make the best scientists!! The ones that make it to permanent positions often turn out to be (although not always) those that can withstand the most mindnumbing drudgery and who work the politics right, and who play safe, take no risks, and don’t do anything that can actually advance science.

    I published 4 papers in (good)journals but my supervisor did’nt consider it “useful or practical enough” and the funding eventually trickled away. Even if you do good work you can still be at the mercy of your superiors who might not like your style of doing things. Doing good work your superiors don’t understand is also asking for trouble. One day I was in a diner, when it was not busy, listening to two waitresses at another table talking and filling in their tax stuff and I realised they had better money, hours and conditions than myself and any of my fellow postdocs! That was it for me really lol. I had had enough.

    Later I tracked down some of the guys I graduated with (at degree and phd level) via internet and email to see how they were doing. One really brilliant guy I knew as an undergrad had done a years postdoc in particle theory and had also packed it in and left academia. So I am convinced academic science is losing a lot of good people (if not all the best people). I wish I could paint a brighter picture but I am sure very many other poeple have had virtually the same experience.

  15. JC says:

    Is it true that corporations really want PhDs in the first place? Over the years I got the impression the private sector aren’t as interested in PhDs, compared to folks who only have a bachelor degrees. It seems like they will only hire PhDs when they really desperately “have to”. In many ways, the overproduction of PhDs is the classic economic case of “supply WITHOUT demand”.

    Getting the NSF to do the advocacy work for more PhDs with the government partially funding the programs which create more PhDs, in some ways is the ideal framework for many corporations. It’s an easy way of getting the taxpayers to pay most of the costs in educating more PhDs, while the private sector reaps all the rewards. With a huge flood of PhDs on the labor market, it acts like a damper on the salaries of white collar workers.

    The only obvious cynical reason I can think of for corporations and universities advocating the production of more PhDs, is mainly to bring down the pay scales of white collar workers. If you have a huge flood of PhDs and other educated workers, the pay scales will be brought down eventually to the point where PhDs and other educated workers are a “dime a dozen”, or about the same salaries as blue collar workers.

    Since slavery is illegal in most richer countries, the best they can do is to turn many skill sets and jobs into a “commodity”. It’s a lot easier to run a business when workers can be easily interchanged and/or replaced like a “commodity”, and where unions have very little to no power. All employers have to do these days is to threaten that they will move their operations overseas to places like India, China, etc … and it will stop most workers from asking too many hard or demanding questions.

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