How will fewer Ph.D. students affect university research?
P U B L I S H E R ' S C O R N E R
By EDUARDO R. MACAGNO
IN OVER 25 years of teaching science to undergraduates, I have found that most who go into a Ph.D. program have acquired a deep love for scholarship; few do it to get a plum job in a top university. To pursue the Ph.D. is often an idealistic decision; the pleasure of creating something new, whether in the laboratory or the library, tempers the potential negatives of committing five or more years to an uncertain endeavor, with little assurance of a permanent job at the end. In the current climate of uncertainty about jobs and research funding, however, fewer are willing to take the chance.
Numerous recent articles have cited a gloomy job outlook for young scientists. Although Ph.D. scientists as a group still enjoy relatively low unemployment, in some disciplines it has risen to above 10 percent. Moreover, a high level of "underemployment" is said to exist, described as undesirable work outside one's field, or as a state of suspended animation in a postdoctoral position while one hopes for an academic job to materialize.
In this environment, many have criticized Ph.D. programs for focusing almost exclusively on generating candidates for scarce faculty jobs rather than more broadly trained individuals better equipped for the job market outside academe. Should we train as many graduate students, considering forecasts that many will be jobless?
Training fewer Ph.D.s and changing some curricular goals are the two most common suggestions. These changes could profoundly affect the way we carry out scientific research in U.S. universities.
Training fewer Ph.D.s
THIS "BIRTH CONTROL" solution is complicated: it is not easy to predict future needs for highly trained personnel or to coordinate the admissions targets of universities. Apparently moribund areas may quickly become hot on the basis of new findings. Certainly the overly optimistic projections of the need for science faculty in the 1990s created a false sense of opportunity, while the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider, the end of the Cold War, the end of mandatory faculty retirement, and the downsizing of government and industrial research labs have contributed to an actual loss of jobs. In any case, some reductions in Ph.D. candidates may be under way. Domestic undergraduates have not ignored the poor academic science job market: They have largely stopped entering doctoral studies in some areas. If not for the compensatory increase in the influx of foreign students, some university labs would be devoid of graduate students altogether. In the past year, however, even the foreign-student tide has begun to ebb, so Ph.D. production will inevitably decrease. Some fields are also taking their professional societies' advice and reducing graduate research positions.
How will faculty conduct their projects with fewer graduate research assistants (GRAs)? Replacement of GRAs by postdocs and research scientists might maintain the level of research for which funding is available as well as create jobs for Ph.D.s. For this to be a viable proposal, however, faculty, university administrators, and funding agencies must stop regarding long-term postdoctoral and research associate positions as underemployment. We must enhance the attractiveness and status of these jobs by improving salaries, benefits, and stability, as well as providing the opportunity to apply for independent grants. Moreover, faculty bias against holders of long-term research positions as candidates for junior faculty openings must disappear. These changes are critical if we wish to continue to attract outstanding undergraduates to research careers.
Broadening doctoral education
A PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE to excessive birth control is to refocus Ph.D. training. Much has been written about the pluses and minuses of altering Ph.D. training to widen the range of job opportunities. This idea includes some inherent contradictions. Proposals include requiring courses in a different area and requiring internships in industrial or government labs. However, pressure to reduce the time to degree (and hence costs, monetary and human) has been enormous. Increasing breadth without sacrificing depth of training will necessarily increase time to degree-and require resources. To decrease pressure on students to avoid any broadening experiences that take them out of the principal investigator's lab, some have proposed moving graduate student support from individual faculty research grants to individual fellowships or training grants. This mechanism could provide needed resources, provided federal agencies do not unduly reduce or eliminate tuition from these student-oriented awards.
Improved training in teaching is essential. Serious teaching and lecturing experience can both enhance students' interpersonal skills and widen their employment opportunities. Such training, however, will require the creation and staffing of teaching resource centers. It will also be necessary to reverse the trend toward reducing the teaching requirements of Ph.D. degrees in the natural sciences, caused by the pressure to reduce time to degree and the emphasis on research at the expense of teaching as the principal source of faculty recognition.
A change that would also reduce the number of Ph.D.s is to increase the level of training associated with master's degrees, particularly by including a serious but limited research component. This would enhance the status of these new M.A.s to the degree appropriate for non-academic employment, while keeping the Ph.D. as the appropriate preparation for faculty at research universities. This proposal has certain clear advantages; for example, time to degree would be shorter. Moreover, the new M.A.s could be designed to substitute training experience outside academe for some of the depth requirements of the Ph.D.
The job situation for new Ph.D.s has been less than rosy before. I recall the awful job market of 1968, when I finished my Ph.D. in the Columbia physics department. Few of my fellow graduates whose careers I am aware of stayed in physics. Most either switched fields to stay in academe or left for greener pastures. Two of us became neurobiologists, one went into medicine, others into urban planning or computer design; several started consulting companies or went to Wall Street; some took temporary academic positions, then left academe. Some of us ended up in long postdocs in order to retread, but I don't remember anyone ever saying we were underemployed, although we certainly complained about the academic job market. The Vietnam war soured some of us on the possibility of government or defense work. But some did get good academic jobs, and we recognized that the system was selecting, in a Darwinian way, those best fitted for these jobs through their good ideas, intelligence, or sheer perseverance.
Nevertheless, for many of us who switched careers, doctoral training in physics was a great preparation for other endeavors-something to keep in mind as we contemplate changes in the way we train the researchers of the future. Doctoral education, after all, is still the best education we have.
EDUARDO R. MACAGNO, Ph.D., is professor of biological sciences and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.