Too many PhDs — will rising career stress diminish the quality of research?

A number of interesting articles caught my attention this weekend, concerning the oversupply of scientists and engineering professionals. The first article reports a dramatic over-supply of new PhD-level physicists generated by the large hadron collider (LHC) [1]. According to Science magazine’s weblog, Science Careers, teams affiliated with LHC produced 174 new PhD graduates in a single year. By comparison, there are only 152 advertised positions for post-doctoral employment, and of those only 61 are in North America. The LHC graduates will enter a pool of nearly 1000 young physicists competing for these positions. Just a few days ago, I wrote about the general overproduction of doctoral graduates for whom there are dwindling career prospects. This article focuses on a particular sub-population who will face an unprecedented level of professional stress as they launch their scientific careers. According to the article:

Such competition is hardly unusual these days. Stories abound of a single postdoc drawing more than 100 applications and the best and brightest coming up empty in their hunt for academic jobs.

Academia’s new hyper-competitive normal is only likely to get worse, since programs continue to increase graduation rates faster than faculty size. We now have a generation of underemployed and insecure post-docs who must manage low salaries into their 30’s or 40’s. In the highly competitive environment, they will be forced to invest increasing mental bandwidth on institutional politics (for self protection), personal financial concerns, and constant rounds of applications for their next hopeful position. My hypothesis is that the added stress will diminish their competency as scientists.

To provide some support (admittedly weak) for this hypothesis, I appeal to a second article about the effects of financial worry on basic decision making [2]. This article reports on a mall study:

With the 101 shoppers, they gave them a series of problem-solving tests – for example, asking how they would handle a 5 percent salary cut, a 15 percent salary cut; or an emergency car repair costing either $150 or $1,500. With that in their heads, they were also given basic IQ and computer-based tests of focus and concentration.

The shoppers made on average $70,000 a year, but some made as little as $20,000. The poorer and richer shoppers did equally well when they had a minor financial issue at the back of their minds. But when the car repair was more expensive, or when the salary cut was higher, the lower-earners did significantly worse on the later tests than the higher-earners.

“It’s what is in their mind that changes,” Shafir told NBC News. “The test is the same both times. All that changes is how much it takes to fix your car. It’s being distracted by fixing your car that all of a sudden takes away your attention. You are just as smart when the car is cheap and you are less smart on the exact same question when fixing the car is expensive.”

Although the research cited in this article is directed toward explaining the “vicious cycle of poverty,” it seems a small leap to predict a “vicious cycle of post-doc’ing”, especially considering that post-doctoral salaries are sometimes barely above poverty for scientists in their 30s or 40s, who may be supporting families. There is some evidence that post doctoral salaries are improving [3], but I’m not aware of any reports that simultaneously account for the growing competition for post-doc positions, and how that might affect a person’s ability to maintain consistent employment over a period of many years. According to New Scientist,

For some postdocs, the financial woes can start as soon as the ink dries on the doctorate and student loan repayments and graduate school costs kick in. To make things harder, postdocs generally lose their subsidized housing at this point, too.

Considering that the debt burden of new graduates is increasing along with the competition for employment, the small growth in salary may not mean very much to a postdoc who must weather long periods of unemployment.

In spite of the extraordinary over-supply of PhDs, universities are still under pressure to manufacture them at ever increasing rates. The IEEE has repeatedly acknowledged the problem of oversupply in STEM fields. According to an article in this week’s IEEE Spectrum [4],

President Obama has called for government and industry to train 10 000 new U.S. engineers every year as well as 100 000 additional STEM teachers by 2020….

And yet, alongside such dire projections, you’ll also find reports suggesting just the opposite—that there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000. Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers….

Another surprise was the apparent mismatch between earning a STEM degree and having a STEM job. Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees. Viewed another way, about 15 million U.S. residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline, but three-fourths of them—11.4 million—work outside of STEM….

The departure of STEM graduates to other fields starts early. In 2008, the NSF surveyed STEM graduates who’d earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 2006 and 2007. It found that 2 out of 10 were already working in non-STEM fields. And 10 years after receiving a STEM degree, 58 percent of STEM graduates had left the field, according to a 2011 study from Georgetown University.

It is amazing to me that we hear so little about this massive crisis — a crisis that is being made worse by government efforts that are supposed to help STEM fields. The article’s conclusion is spot-on:

Many children born today are likely to live to be 100 and to have not just one distinct career but two or three by the time they retire at 80. Rather than spending our scarce resources on ending a mythical STEM shortage, we should figure out how to make all children literate in the sciences, technology, and the arts to give them the best foundation to pursue a career and then transition to new ones. And instead of continuing our current global obsession with STEM shortages, industry and government should focus on creating more STEM jobs that are enduring and satisfying as well.

There you have it. The strength of our system is not a matter of head counts. It is a more elusive matter of quality — that includes education at all levels, public literacy and interest in scientific subjects. It is also a matter of serious investment in the professional lives of STEM professionals, not just in manufacturing more graduates. We need to make sure that this army of geniuses have meaningful places to do their work.


[1] Adrian Cho, “After the LHC, the deluge,” Science Careers, August 29, 2013.

[2] Maggie Fox, “Poor people aren’t stupid; bad decisions are from being overwhelmed, study finds,” NBC News, Aug 29, 2013.

[3] Suzanne Elvidge, “Postdoc payday: Salaries for fellows are on the up”, New Scientist, 08 May 2013.

[4] Robert N. Charette, “The STEM Crisis Is a Myth,” IEEE Spectrum, 30 Aug 2013.


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