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Science Careers Blog

August 19, 2010

Should we produce more Ph.D. students?

Monica J. Harris, a social psychologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, made a compelling case in yesterday's issue of Inside Higher Ed that the number of Ph.D. students should be reduced. 


Harris, who has been the committee chair or co-chair for 13 Ph.D. students in her 23 years of professorship, has become increasingly concerned in the recent years about the dire career prospects for young scientists in academia, she writes in the opinion piece

"Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn't sustainable. We're not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today's economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well."


Until recently, the way Harris dealt with the poor academic job market was by warning prospective graduate students against the difficulties ahead as they came to her office seeking to take the first step toward a tenure-track position, she says. But seeing a staggering number of strong applicants compete in recent faculty searches at her institution got her wondering

"what would come of the countless others in the pool who had decent, even impressive, vitas but simply couldn't vault to the top of a short list? And would the students I train be able to compete at such a level? At this stage of my career, I'm publishing steadily but not spectacularly. I feel I can offer students excellent training in research methodology and theory, but I am no longer confident that will be enough to propel them to the top of a short list for the kinds of jobs they came into graduate school wanting."


Harris has decided that her "full disclosure" strategy is no longer adequate. A few weeks ago, she decided not to accept any more Ph.D. students until the job market shows signs of recovery. Meanwhile, she plans to take on honors undergraduates in spite of their greater need for supervision, collaborate with other colleagues who have Ph.D. students, and move her scholarship in new directions.

"Knowing that prospective students apply to graduate school of their own free will, with hope in their hearts and stardust in their eyes, doesn't absolve faculty of some portion of responsibility for the current crisis. ...  I think I will sleep better knowing that I am no longer contributing to an academic job market that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Ponzi scheme on the verge of falling apart."


Harris's opinion piece was met with readers' comments that ranged from the very critical to the very supportive. 


I applaud Harris's ethical approach and her sense of professional responsibility. But in the course of the articles I have written for Science Careers, I've met countless young scientists who made satisfying careers for themselves in academia and in all kinds of alternative sectors. Some of them had a Ph.D. supervisor far less nurturing than Harris. Others started out in research in obscure or obsolete areas, entered the hottest of the research fields, or set their hearts on career alternatives no less competitive than academic science.


The job market is tough and probably always will be. The best solution, I think, is not deliberate population control but full disclosure. Make sure prospective Ph.D. candidates know the odds of succeeding in academia and are aware of the range of career alternatives open to them if they should fail in, or decide not to pursue, an academic career. 


But let them make the choice, because we cannot know ahead of time who will fail, who will find their dream job at a research university, who will solve our energy problems or cure some horrific disease, or who will end up happy in a career they had never heard of when embarking on a Ph.D. Whether or not one stays in academia, one develops many valuable and marketable skills while training to be a researcher. And sometimes you have to go through the process to know what you want to do in life. 


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