This essay in Miller-McCune by Beryl Lieff Benderly is a year old, but I just came across it. She tells a story which is important to me personally, and important to the nation's future.
We often hear that the U.S. is falling behind other nations in science, and the blame is generally placed on our educational system. We are purported to have a shortage of scientists -- and the prove is that tens of thousands of foreign Ph.D.s, most of them Chinese, are filling postdoctoral positions in U.S. universities.
It turns out this is the wrong diagnosis. In fact the number of Ph.D.s awarded in the sciences in the U.S. has been increasing steadily over the past two decades. The problem is that we are producing 3 times as many of them as there are faculty positions. Post doctoral fellowships, which were once prestigious awards to a small number of the most promising young scientists, are now the required gateway to have any hope of a faculty appointment, and people often get stuck in the for many years, working long hours at low pay, and never getting a tenure track job. The reason Chinese people take these jobs is the same reason Mexicans pick lettuce -- it looks like a better deal to them than it does to similarly situated Americans. As Benderly writes:
Starting about three decades ago . . . placing students in desirable faculty jobs became more and more difficult, and several years of postdoctoral “training” gradually became the norm for nearly everyone rather than, as formerly, a mark of special distinction. It was, in fact, a form of disguised unemployment. “Simply put, there are not enough tenure-track academic positions for the available pool of … researchers,” according to the Bridges report.
Whereas new Ph.D.s had formerly spent a year or so applying for perhaps three or four faculty openings before accepting a job, they now spent multiple years sending out scores of applications, often without success. Graduate students and postdoctoral “trainees” were less and less the protégés of mentors morally responsible for their futures . . . . They morphed instead into highly skilled, highly motivated and invitingly inexpensive labor, doing the bench work needed for professors to keep their grants. Winning those grants gradually came to outweigh placing their students in good jobs as a major mark of professional stature.
So we have a situation in which getting a science Ph.D. and trying to become a scientist means accepting the likelihood of many years of penury and toil with a low probability of ever becoming an independent scientist, or getting the security and prestige that comes with a professorship. Indeed, the ultimate outcome may be driving a taxi, or going back to school to get certified as a high school teacher. We really need to fix this.