Are there too many Ph.D.’s?

Would you accept work designing mass destruction weapons? Back when a was in college, one my most memorable philosophy assignment was a rebuttal to the claim that scientists working on weapons of mass destruction were responsible for the creation of the weapons. As intellectuals, and scientists, do we have to bear the full responsibility of our actions?

Somehow, we like to imagine researchers working on new weapons in lavish conditions. They are individuals with prestigious degrees who could have any job. Yet, they are enticed by greed to work on evil projects. Or are they?

I spent weeks in the library—the Web didn’t even exist!—documenting how difficult the job market for scientists was. As far back as twenty years ago, statistics showed that there were far more qualified scientists than corresponding jobs. (Ironically, years later, I became a scientist only to be surprised by how competitive the job market really is.)

Scientists may not be physically starving, but they have invested 10 or 20 years working toward a single goal: become a bona fide researcher. And jobs are scarce. Faced with reality, people compromise.

Yet, remember, this scarcity of Ph.D.-related jobs combined with a glut of Ph.D.s is not an accident:

By the fall of 1972, there are likely to be more Ph.D.’s looking for positions than there are (adequately salaried) positions with duties commensurate with Ph.D. training level in mathematics. (Anderson,  Are there too many Ph.D.’s, American Mathematical Monthly, 1970)

Source: Sébastien Paquet.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

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

5 thoughts on “Are there too many Ph.D.’s?”

  1. Would you say it is only related to math researchers??

    I think it depends also in the capability of each person, someone who managed to write more than 4 Journal Papers in their PhD’s maybe would not have any problem at all.

  2. Supply and demand – employers would like to pay as little as possible for educated employees. Thus the regular “studies” that proclaim dire shortages of engineers/scientists, even when the job market sucks.

    None of this has changed since before *I* went to college – more than 30 years back.

  3. @Palafox

    (1) It is not limited to Mathematics. In fact, the reference I point to states that things were better in Mathematics than most fields.

    (2) Writing four good research articles during your Ph.D. years might help you find a job, but people with 15 or 20 research articles routinely fail to get jobs.

    (3) Yes, the people who stand out get jobs, but standing out is a mix of different factors: luck, talent, work, nurture, support, and so on.

    (4) And not all jobs are created equal. Excellent applicants routinely get jobs as research assistants (or the like) whereas they desserve much more. So, it is not just a matter of who is getting a job, but also, what kind of job they may get.

    (5) And then again, there must be jobs in whatever subfield you have chosen. As some fields become fashionable, others become “passé”.

    (6) And of course, there must be jobs in the locations where you are willing to live. If you have three kids, moving them in the middle of nowhere for a so-so job is harsh.

  4. I think it is relevant right now, I just completed PhD and looked recently on job market. I have 10 conference papers and I found it is fairly difficult to get any job for PhD. For web development jobs I am overqualified, for low-level technical job possibly under qualified.

  5. By experience, for each tenure-track position open, there can be an averaged of 100 post-doc applicants or more… (independently of the field)

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