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Beryl Lieff Benderly

The Worth of a Science Ph.D.

Is getting a science Ph.D. worth the effort? Daniel Lametti, who expects to finish his in the coming academic year, thinks it definitely is. His reasons, as he explains in an essay at Slate, come down to an admirable love of science, especially of research, and an enjoyment of the freedom and intellectual stimulation that the graduate school lifestyle can afford. He also takes justifiable pride in the Ph.D. as a major accomplishment and as a contribution, through his dissertation research, to the world’s supply of knowledge. (The article does not identify his university but suggests that it is in Montreal.)

But Lametti also offers his opinion on the state of the scientific job market, expressing his doubt that it is, as labor force experts have long known, quite weak. I wish that the skills he deployed in researching this topic came anywhere close to those he is presumably using to earn his neuroscience PhD. He seems unaware of the voluminous scholarly literature on the scientific job market and cites no recognized authorities in his opinions.

From what his article indicates, his information comes mostly from news articles discussing the current sorry state of hiring prospects for scientists, plus some statistical information. And despite the accurate reporting in popular media such as Brian Vastag’s recent Washington Post article, which describes labor market difficulties that experts have recognized for years, Lametti discounts their conclusion.  

Lametti instead offers anecdotal evidence of a handful of Ph.D.s landing some pretty good jobs–anecdotes of a type  he would doubtlessly shun in his scientific research. What’s more, the people he mentions who are getting high Wall Street incomes are mathematicians and physicists, not life scientists like himself. His use of labor force statistics similarly lacks the sophistication that would come from deeper study of the subject.  

He argues, for example, that the current rate of unemployment among chemists–which is almost twice the rate that was considered normal before the Great Recession–is not so bad because it is only half as high as the overall national unemployment rate. The national rate, of course, includes everyone from high school dropouts to the most highly educated, and highly skilled people always suffer less unemployment than those with few skills. The important point is not how today’s market for scientists compares with the market for burger-flippers, but how today’s employment levels for scientists compare with those of last year or five years ago.  

Lametti also skips over the fact that the (pre-Recession) 2008 figure of 1.7% unemployment for scientists, which he cites as evidence of a robust labor market, counts among the employed the tens of thousands of postdocs earning not much more than $40,000 in their mid-30s. Though postdocs are technically employed, their situation hardly constitutes an argument for a strong market demand for their services. In fact, for decades experts have recognized postdoc positions as a form of disguised unemployment.  

Nor, as Lametti states, has there “almost always” been a glut of Ph.D.s. The current severe overproduction of Ph.D.s is the product of policies of the last 40 years or so. Before that, the great majority of science Ph.D.s did make their careers on university faculties. Only Ph.D. chemists have a “long history” of primarily taking industry rather than academic positions, and they have, until recent years, had fairly ample job opportunities in their field.

Beyond that, the loss of income that graduate students experience during their average 7 years of graduate study is not “hypothetical,” as Lametti calls it. The eminent labor economist Richard Freeman and co-authors, for example, found in a 2001 that, combined with the comparatively low earnings of the average life scientist, that loss adds up to a cumulative lifetime income disadvantage that is “huge” when compared to the earnings of highly educated people in many other fields. In the 7 years that it takes a scientist to earn a Ph.D., someone who started medical school the same year will be closing in on specialty certification.

No one can argue, of course, with Lametti’s belief that for many who love science, earning a Ph.D. can be an extremely gratifying experience. “Getting paid to learn,” as he says, can be one definition of joy. So here’s wishing the future Dr. Lametti success and good fortune in his post-Ph.D. endeavors and lasting satisfaction with his decision to earn the degree.