Archive for careers

Yes, science produces too many PhDs

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by telescoper

I came across a blog post this morning entitled Does Science Produce Too Many PhDs? I think the answer is an obvious “yes” but I’ll use the question as an excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing yearly career researchers in science are looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job in academia. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad, but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it. There is still a reasonable chance of getting a first postdoctoral position, but thereafter the odds are stacked against them.

The upshot of this is we have a field of understandably disgruntled young people with PhDs but no realistic prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it out with existing postdoctoral researchers for the meagre supply of suitable jobs. It’s a terrible situation.

Now the powers that be – in this case the Science and Technology Facilities Council – have consistently argued that the excess PhDs go out into the wider world and contribute to the economy with the skills they have learned. That may be true in a few cases. However, my argument is that the PhD is not the right way to do this because it is ridiculously inefficient.

What we should have is a system wherein we produce more and better trained Masters level students  and fewer PhDs. This is the system that exists throughout most of Europe, in fact, and the UK is actually committed to adopt it through the Bologna process.  Not that this commitment seems to mean anything, as precisely nothing has been done to harmonize UK higher education with the 3+2+3 Bachelors+Masters+Doctorate system Bologna advocates.

The training provided in a proper two-year Masters programme will improve the skills pool for the world outside academia, and also better prepare the minority of students who go on to take a PhD. The quality of the  PhD will also improve, as only the very best and most highly motivated researchers will take that path. This used to be what happened, of course, but I don’t think it is any longer the case.

The main problem with this suggestion is that it requires big changes to the way both research and teaching are funded. The research councils turned away from funding Masters training many years ago, so I doubt if they can be persuaded to to a U-turn now. Moreover, the Research Excellence Framework provides a strong incentive for departments to produce as many PhDs as they possibly can, as these are included in an algorithmic way as part of the score for “Research Environment”. The more PhDs a department produces, the higher it will climb in the league tables. One of my targets in my current position is to double the number of PhDs produced by my School over the period 2013-18. What happens to the people concerned seems not to be a matter worthy of consideration. They’re only “outputs”…

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The Astronomy Career Problem – it starts with the PhD

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2011 by telescoper

Just time for a quickie today, as I’ve got to run an examples class before dashing off on the train to London to attend the annual George Darwin Lecture which, this year, is to be given by Michael Turner with the title From Quarks to the Cosmos. I expect it to be very enjoyable and may well write a report at the weekend.

Yesterday evening there was a discussion on twitter (#astrojc) about the astronomy careers problem. I didn’t take part – in fact I didn’t realise it was happening – as I was slaving over the Private Eye crossword at the time.

Anyway, it gives me the excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing young postdoctoral researchers in astronomy are looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job in academia. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad, but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it. There is still a reasonable chance of getting a first postdoctoral position, but thereafter the odds are stacked against them.

The upshot of this is we have a field of understandably disgruntled young people with PhDs but no realistic prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it out with existing postdoctoral researchers for the meagre supply of suitable jobs. It’s a terrible situation.

Now the powers that be – in this case the Science and Technology Facilities Council – have consistently argued that the excess PhDs go out into the wider world and contribute to the economy with the skills they have learned. That may be true in a few cases. However, my argument is that the PhD is not the right way to do this because it is ridiculously inefficient.

What we should have is a system wherein we produce more and better trained Masters level students  and fewer PhDs. This is the system that exists throughout most of Europe, in fact, and the UK is actually committed to adopt it through the Bologna process.  Not that this commitment seems to mean anything, as precisely nothing has been done to harmonize UK higher education with the 3+2+3 Bachelors+Masters+Doctorate system Bologna advocates.

The training provided in a proper two-year Masters programme will improve the skills pool for the world outside academia, and also better prepare the minority of students who go on to take a PhD. The quality of the  PhD will also improve, as only the very best and most highly motivated researchers will take that path. This used to be what happened, of course, but I don’t think it is any longer the case.

The main problem with this suggestion is that it requires big changes to the way both research and teaching are funded. The research councils turned away from funding Masters training many years ago, so I doubt if they can be persuaded to to a U-turn now.

This won’t solve the existing careers crisis, of course, but in order to make things better you first have to stop them getting worse.

Education and Careers

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on March 16, 2010 by telescoper

The piece I posted a few days ago about the effect of recent cuts in Astronomy funding by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has generated quite a lot of comment so I thought I’d try to open up the debate by adding a few comments of my own. I’ve made some of them before and I know many of my colleagues disagree entirely with them, but I think they might prove useful in stimulating some further dialogue.

Of course the backdrop to this discussion is the decision by STFC to impose heavy cuts on the funding it sets aside for the “exploitation” of astronomical facilities. This funding, primarily in the form of research grants awarded to University groups, is used among other things to support early career researchers as postdoctoral research assistants on short-term contracts. Although its own advisory panels were unanimous in placing such funding the highest priority in the recent consultation exercise, STFC Executive  nevertheless decided to impose additional cuts this year. This decision, made very late in the cycle of grant awards, has led to many groups having their budgets slashed from 1st April 2010. Many young researchers facing a very uncertain future, with many of them facing redundancy in a few months.

The fallout from STFC’s financial collapse  has brought to a head a crisis that has been brewing for several years, but in my view it is symptomatic of wider problems within UK science as a whole. There are many problems, but I think the biggest problem with astronomy in particular is that we drastically overproduce PhDs. Even in times of plenty there were too many people competing for too few postdoctoral positions. Now that STFC has decided it wants to cut the number of working astronomers by more than 25% this looming problem has become a full-scale disaster. Many of the most talented scientists in the UK are certain to leave for greener pastures and few will ever return.

The argument I’ve heard over and over again is that training so many people to the level of a PhD in astronomy is good because the skills acquired will benefit the wider economy as those that fail to find a job as a postdoctoral researcher move into other areas, such as finance or industry.

I am not convinced by this argument. I think what we’re doing is producing large number of highly intelligent yet extremely disgruntled scientists who feel – quite rightly – that they’ve been duped into taking on a PhD when they are unlikely to be able to make use of it in their future careers unless they go abroad.

What we’re also doing is deluding ourselves about the quality of a PhD. The UK system produces too many PhDs who are not sufficiently experienced or skilled to take the next step onto a postdoctoral position. Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking we produce too many PhDs too few of whom have any realistic chance of making a career in science research. The reason for this is that despite the introduction of 4-year degrees in subjects like physics, the UK undergraduate degree is not fit for the purpose of training a scientific researcher.

You may find that harsh, and maybe it is, but I think it’s true.

What I think the UK economy does require is more science graduates (including more physicists) rather than more science post-graduates. I believe we need a radical overhaul in the entire system of science education from undergraduate  through to postdoctoral level.

I have said it before and I’ll no doubt say again that I think we need something similar to what the Bologna process is designed to achieve. This essentially means a 3-year Bachelors degree, followed (for some) by a two-year Masters, then for a subset of them a 3 year PhD.

I think the structure of funding for university courses needs to change in order that we produce more graduates with BSc degrees. Passage from that qualification to a MSc should be highly selective, so fewer such degrees would be awarded. The final selection to a PhD should be more selective still. I’m sure the influx of MSc graduates this system would generate into the wider economy would produce a greater benefit to society as large than the current system, and at a lesser cost.

I’d suggest that in the particular case of astronomy we should be producing about half the PhDs nationally that we do at present.

What about the next step, the postdoctoral research assistantship or fellowship? I hope that STFC can be persuaded to reverse its recent savage cuts in the budget that supports such positions but the government and STFC Executive are showing no inclination to change their position. The current situation for PDRAs is grim. The number of positions available is small and funding for these is insecure.

My first suggestion will probably lead in time to a reduction in the number of  people competing for postdoctoral positions but will not in itself make a career in science seem more attractive.

I think the government also needs to guarantee the stability of  research grant funding over a longer timescale than the current 3-year cycle. Rolling grants used to do this, to some extent anyway, but these have for all practical purposes been abandoned by STFC. I think we need ring-fenced protection for grant funding to be installed at a high level of the Research Council structure to prevent individual research councils playing God with the careers of junior scientists.

I don’t in fact have a problem with the principle that scientists should serve apprenticeships in the form of fixed-term contracts as postdoctoral researchers. What is wrong is that the instability of current funding makes survival in the current system a lottery.

And finally, though it doesn’t really fit with my other comments, I have some advice for young scientists. Your best chance of securing a permanent job in the long run is by being good, not by being shy. Put yourself about. Get involved in teaching – you’ll almost certainly need to do it in a future career, so embrace it. Do outreach work. Work hard at your research. Believe in yourself.

If you don’t, nobody else will.