NSF Reports No Geek Shortage

Slashdot reports that there is no geek shortage. One of the comment is interesting:

There is a glut of Ph.D’s in the US creating an over-competitive environment that’s drastically deflating the pay level. What really should be done, is restricting the Ph.D’s that schools push out to help overcompensate for the over inflation. But this won’t happen. Why? Grad students are cheap labor for PI’s. Schools accept grad students not because they are interesting in training and bringing more qualified people into the field, but rather because they need them to work for PI’s. A PI is only as good as his/her grad students. If you add in a post-doc period, you are looking at, in some cases, 10 years (a figure nowadays that has been increasing as many people are having to do multiple post-docs) of getting paid 1/2 of what you would have gotten if you had just gone straight into industry. Mind you, this isn’t a bread and butter time either. This is a period where (in most cases), people are spending ridiculous hours working weekends/nights trying desperately to get data. And for what? An even more competitive academic environment where the positions to applicants ratio is (in some fields) 1:10. We haven’t even gotten to the whole tenure track part. Add in all these factors and it is not surprising that 1 in 3 of these students never even complete their graduate “training”–most fighting for a masters.

I hate to seem pessimistic, but this article is long overdue, and at the same time, disturbing. We are flooding the market with ambitious bright individuals with promises of great prestige and fortune.

I really think they need to make a “Sims:The rise to professor” game depicting the rather long and gruesome journey to professorship. It would have to be realistic, so on average, you should only be winning, say, 5% of the time. Most people don’t realize how different the actual and perceived opinion of prospective graduate students is from the actual reality of academia. I’m actually quite surprised that only 4-5% of Ph.D’s are working outside their field (mind you, this figure doesn’t include people that wanted to be in academia but couldn’t get a position and ended up in industry). Sadly, I know a few that are working in simple jobs as security guards.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

2 thoughts on “NSF Reports No Geek Shortage”

  1. Has there ever been a shortage of PhDs? Unless grad students are more naive than in my day, I don’t think that there are any “promises of great prestige and fortune”. Even I, someone who had little idea of what academia would be like aside from reading popular science articles, knew that the money I was forgoing in grad school would never be made up. And anyone who has ever heard President Bush speak (and win re-election) knows that prestige and contempt are neck-and-neck in the public’s minds, at best. No, we go to grad school because we really don’t have much choice: something drives us.

  2. Mike,

    When I began my Ph.D., the University of Montreal stated they wanted to double their faculty size in 10 years (what happened was a reduction instead!!!) and their greatest challenge would be to have enough Ph.D. holders to fill the ranks (their greatest challenge is choose one applicant out of 100 each time they open a position). At about the same time, many articles were written about “Science and Engineering Ph.D. shortages”. These articles were not balanced and fall squarely in the realm of propaganda.

    As early as 2002, I was told by the dean of a university that he was flooded by requests **from industry** for more Ph.D.s That’s the story he told all new students. Well, in Montreal, Nortel has closed most or all of its R&D labs. Solid science jobs in industry, right now, in Montreal? Maybe the pharmaceutical companies, or entrepreneurship. That’s it. Sure you can go and create a company and earn a good living with a Ph.D., and I did it, but not all of these students can do it.

    I’ve worked in industry, I’ve worked in academia, I’ve worked for a government lab. Nowhere have I seen any shortage of Ph.D.s These are lies. They are lies from universities to get more funding, and lies from industry to get cheaper labor.

    Should we just let these lies pass by because “the students ought to know” or “they would get the Ph.D. anyhow”. I don’t think that’s quite right. Some of these students may opt out for another path if they know what awaits them: 5 years for the Ph.D., 5 years for a post-doc, 4 years of tenure-track… and then, possibly, an average salary or unemployment. I’m thinking, in particular, of people who want to have a family, buy a house early, and so on.

    You know what happens to these folks who got a Ph.D. and just assumed there would be a spot for them? I see them all around me. They are lecturers earning $30k a year on the fringe of society. At the school I work, 65% of all classes are offered by lecturers. Professors only give 1/3 of all classes. Are they happy? Probably not. A lot of them are miserable. Can they go to industry? Most of them simply do not have the skills industry required for solid non-research positions. Can they start companies? Sure, but when you are in your thirties, you started a family, is it the right time to risk it all? Maybe. I don’t know.

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