Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The PhD-Faculty Gap

Source: Nature Biotechnology. The figure caption said the following:
"Since 1982, almost 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields, whereas only about 100,000 academic faculty positions were created in those fields within the same time frame. The number of S&E PhDs awarded annually has also increased over this time frame, from ~19,000 in 1982 to ~36,000 in 2011. The number of faculty positions created each year, however, has not changed, with roughly 3,000 new positions created annually."
The above figure has been making the rounds on the internet. It's from a recent essay in Nature Biotechnology. This isn't even the main focus of the essay, as it's only used to introduce the topic, but it's been getting a lot more attention than the essay's actual content.

The graph does oversimplify things. For example, it includes engineers, who I've heard enjoy more job positions outside of academia than people such as ichthyologists. The graph doesn't show at all if there's an increase in positions outside of academia. Many PhDs are still trained by academics for an academic job, and that this is entrenched in academic culture. Some professors still view academia as the end-all be-all for their students, and if their students want to explore other careers or don't make it into academia, that is the equivalent of failure. Students still unwisely go into academia, not sure what the academic job market is like, myself included. Sure, the academic job is not the only job path, but this is not heavily emphasized, and many PhDs are resigned to trying to go into academia since no other options are made clear to them. This figure shows how the academic job market is getting increasingly competitive.

Of course, this isn't news. Here are three other graphics that people already made to portray the gap between PhDs being awarded and the number that can actually get hired as faculty.

Source: Nature
Nature covered this PhD gap in 2011 in a special on the future of the PhD. In articles like The PhD Factory, Nature showed various graphics that showed that the job market for those targeting an academic life is becoming increasingly competitive. There are lots and lots of PhDs, translating into lots and lots of postdocs, and the faculty job pool isn't increasing enough to keep up with it.

Source: PhD Comics

PhD Comics is well known among academics for its satirical look at life as a graduate student. The above comic really drives it home. Darwin noticed that reproducing organisms would be limited by resources, causing competition. The populations of faculty (and available funding) are also limited, resulting in extreme competition among PhDs to get academic jobs. Quite simply, it's not sustainable for PhD students to expect to be going into academia, as there are only a few jobs out there.

Source: The Royal Society. This figure focuses on the UK. The original caption:
"This diagram illustrates the transition points in typical academic scientific careers following a PhD and shows the flow of scientifically-trained people into other sectors. It is a simplified snapshot based on recent data from HEFCE33, the Research Base Funders Forum and from the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) annual Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education’ (DLHE) survey. It also draws on Vitae’s analysis of the DLHE survey. It does not show career breaks or moves back into academic science from other sectors."
This last one shows a particularly bleak picture for those aiming for a faculty position, where less than .5% of PhD students actually become a professor. It's from The Royal Society, but regardless the disparity between PhDs produced and the faculty positions available is not unique to the UK. Needless to say there are many other people that have written about this problem, and other figures out there that neatly display the problem.

If the increasing competition for jobs wasn't enough, there many other reasons not to go to graduate school

The problem has been known for quite a while and people have thought about various ways to fix it, such as slashing the number of students accepted into PhD programs, or by getting schools to better prepare PhD students to do things besides going into academia (which can be hard to expect professors that went into academia to do for their students). You can read many of these suggestions in Nature's special I mentioned earlier. These dismal job prospects prompted the authors, who are graduate students themselves, to take control of their own futures, and most of the article goes into how the authors formed a group (and eventually a company) that provides consulting to start-up companies and their university's Office of Technology Management. It's really interesting and really quite impressive. On the other hand, it's so different from the current system, it's hard to imagine. But that's probably what we need.

I don't know how to fix the PhD. But one day I hope there will be an infographic that shows that the Phd-Faculty gap doesn't matter.