Doc’d

I know what you’re thinking: I’m a big loser. How else could an American-trained scientist be so unemployable after a decade of continuous economic growth? The thing is, if I’m a loser, I’ve got a lot of company.

For years, we’ve been hearing dire reports in the media about how American universities aren’t producing enough Ph.D.s in hard sciences and engineering–so few, in fact, that we’ve had to import them from abroad. But the truth is that universities, in their desire to exploit cheap labor (i.e., graduate students) have created a surplus of doctorates, particularly in my field of engineering, leaving anywhere from a quarter to half of all engineering doctorate recipients to follow a career path much like mine.

When I first considered working on a doctorate at Purdue University, I was hesitant. If I had taken a job in private industry, I would have earned a respectable salary; staying in school would make me a grad assistant, doing research at a wage of $550 per month. (Unlike scholarship athletes, most grad assistants must pay their own room and board.) Helping sway my decision, though, were university administrators encouraging students to earn doctorates.

The administrators’ entreaties were reinforced by stories in the press promoting the idea that a doctorate was a ticket to job security. For instance, in 1983, the California State University system issued a report predicting that 83 percent of its faculty would retire by the year 2003, and that it would need to hire 11,000 new faculty members over the next 20 years. University administrators predicted an increase in job opportunities for all doctorates around the same time I would be finishing school.

So, with some reservation, in 1984, I entered one of the country’s top-ranked engineering doctorate programs. I wrote a thesis on “The Physics and Modeling of Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells.” The topic was interesting, but I discovered that much of the research work towards my degree consisted of debugging computer code, a very menial and noneducational task. My work was later used by Eastman Kodak in laser technology for commercial applications. My only compensation was the “training” I received from the university. Indeed, my job as a doctoral candidate seemed designated as “education” simply to justify its temporary status and lighter-than-air paycheck.

Entering my final year of school in 1987, I turned my attention to job hunting, using the university’s placement center, pursuing job ads, and employing headhunters. Newspaper reports at the time suggested job hunting should have been a cinch. In 1986, a New York Times headline had screamed “Colleges scrambling to avert a possible faculty shortage,” and the article ominously warned that by the turn of the century at least 100,000 of the nation’s 450,000 full-time professors would be retiring. Columbia University announced that it was starting aggressive recruiting for faculty, and it even set aside special funds to provide young scientists with start-up research support. College administrators expressed concern that they wouldn’t be able to compete with the higher salaries of the private sector.

My experience in the job market, however, proved vastly different. To my dismay, company recruiters showed little interest in hiring doctorates. Faculty openings, too, proved to be nearly nonexistent. After 10 years, I left school frustrated and jobless. I was not alone. All the hype in the mid-’80s about the dwindling number of American scientists had been effective in swelling the ranks of the doctorates with people like me–as well as vast numbers of foreign students taking advantage of American educational opportunities. By 1987, an astonishing 80 percent of engineering doctorates were foreign nationals on temporary visas.

Ironically, many of the “studies” claiming that the United States would be facing a massive shortage of trained scientists assumed that foreign students would return home when they finished their degrees. Of course, they didn’t; at least half of all foreign doctoral students remain in this country after graduation. That fact, though, didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the media. Despite droves of students pouring into American doctoral programs, university administrators were still making headlines warning of the coming shortage of Ph.D.s, especially in the hard sciences and engineering.

In February 1989, Richard Atkinson, the chancellor of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), warned that the United States needed to invest at least $300 million a year in additional scholarships for doctoral candidates to avoid critical shortages of high-level scientists in the coming years. He estimated that by the turn of the century, only 10,500 new doctorates in natural science and engineering would be available to fill an estimated 18,000 jobs. The National Science Foundation was predicting an astounding shortfall of 80,000 doctorates by 2006.

In 1990, the Association of American Universities released a study called “The Ph.D. Shortage: The Federal Role,” which claimed faculty shortages in engineering and other sciences would soon hamper the American economy and required federal intervention. The feds were already starting to oblige. The week before the report appeared, Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos made a national appeal to increase the number of college grads pursuing doctorates in hard sciences and engineering by 25 percent.

Even as all the world seemed to be warning of the coming shortage of doctorates, I was becoming exasperated by the lack of job prospects for a doctorate holder. I was trained as a research scientist and wished to pursue work in the lab, but with reluctance, I began teaching part-time at Richland Community College, hoping to eventually seize a full-time position when one became available. After several years, I quit, disillusioned. Full-time teaching positions were scarce, and no college would even grant me an interview.

After fruitless attempts at finding a job in my field and an unsuccessful attempt at screenwriting, I developed an eye condition which prevents me from working at a computer terminal, making me even more unemployable. Today, I’m bitter, depressed, and unemployed, the product of a university system that espouses academics but has research business at its core.

Again, though, (except for the eye condition) my experience is not unique, particularly among doctorate holders seeking full-time academic jobs. While many of the earlier predictions about massive retirements of tenured professors have indeed started to come true, university administrators have seen the retirements as an opportunity, not a crisis. In a world where labor costs account for 70 percent of their budgets, universities have simply replaced tenured faculty with “adjunct” professors and other cheaper alternatives, including graduate students. Between 1975 and 1995, the number of full-time faculty positions in American universities declined, while the use of part-time faculty more than doubled, according to the American Association of University Professors.

The competition for those few jobs was fierce, too. Between 1991 and 1995, the number of scientists and engineers in post-doctorate jobs–a kind of holding pen for future scientists and professors–almost doubled, to 16,000. Combined with the number of folks with full-time academic appointments but no faculty rank–teaching associates and those in administrative jobs–there are nearly 40,000 people with doctorates in science and engineering scraping by in poorly paid, dead-end jobs in academia.

Finally, someone in academia recognized that universities had gone a little overboard producing doctorates. In 1995, Stanford University released a study that found only 25 to 50 percent of all engineering doctorates ever get jobs in their field, and that the country had churned out 25 percent more engineering doctorates than the economy could absorb. Unlike previous studies, the Stanford researchers actually included foreign students in their estimates, assuming at least half would remain in the country.

William F. Massy, the Stanford professor who conducted the study, admitted that graduate students were an inexpensive labor pool for universities. “Faculty tend to be more focused on their needs and their department’s needs for doctorates than on the job market,” he said.

Despite the Stanford findings, armies of newly minted doctorates continue to enter a slim job market. The number of new doctorates in science and engineering remains high, with 26,823 conferred in 1999 compared with only 18,799 in 1975.

Why so many doctorates? U.S. universities were initially developed with teaching in mind and the traditional view of universities as ivory towers remained relatively unchanged until World War II, when professors were recruited to work on military projects–the development of the atomic bomb, radar, et al. Those professors discovered cutting-edge research was more intellectually appealing than classroom instruction. What followed was a Research Arms Race, which only escalated in 1980, when Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, allowing universities to patent federally funded research and license their discoveries to industry.

Additional research laboratories were built and grad students were “hired,” all in an effort to achieve prestige, attract research grants, and make money on the patented results. Greater emphasis on research did not mean professors were doing the research, however. Gradually, they transformed themselves into supervisors guiding grad students. (My professors, when they weren’t supervising the lab, usually taught one course a semester–three hours a week of class time–and played a lot of racquetball.)

Because professors are handsomely rewarded for pulling in research dollars, they employ throngs of doctoral students. But government support for university research has fallen steadily over the past decade. To make up the gap, universities have turned increasingly to the private sector, which provided more than $2 billion in 1999 to universities, according to the National Science Foundation. My alma mater, Purdue, sports a $255 million research budget today, with $35 million coming from the private sector.

Private industry has found that it’s cheaper to fund a university lab than to set up its own. Last year, Novartis, the pharmaceutical giant, gave the University of California at Berkeley $25 million for basic research–a pot of money that made up nearly the entire research budget of an entire department.

While now allowed to keep the first rights to licenses on much of Berkeley’s scientific discoveries, Novartis also gets generous tax write-offs for its grant to the nonprofit university. Plus, it can employ the services of low-paid grad students, rather than company scientists who might demand such things as minimum wage, health insurance, and pension plans. Such a system only works, however, if there are enough students to do cheaply the menial lab work as well as pick up the teaching load for the full-time professors otherwise distracted with making money from their research.

It’s no surprise that former UCSD Chancellor Richard Atkinson, who was crying wolf about the lack of doctoral students entering the system 10 years ago, is now leading the charge to bring academia more private research money. Since Atkinson took over as president of the California University System in 1995, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, industry-sponsored research at UC has grown by 77 percent.

California Gov. Gray Davis also plans to build three Institutes for Science and Innovation at several UC campuses. Davis hopes these biotech and telecom research centers will stimulate the state economy. The centers will cost the taxpayers $300 million, and will be supplemented with industry funds. Naturally, they will be staffed by hordes of aspiring doctoral students who will be directed towards research that financially benefits both the university and its industry funders.

Doctoral students are easily exploited for such projects, in part because they are held hostage by faculty advisors who dictate much of their work. Unlike the predetermined schedule of courses leading to a bachelor’s degree, doctoral students conduct a research project marked by no clear finish. Faculty advisors almost arbitrarily decide what constitutes a body of research deserving of a Ph.D. This places doctoral candidates in precarious positions. If their research output doesn’t satisfy their advisors, they can be locked into graduate school for many years. And quitting midway is not a viable option; from the perspective of a future employer, a partial doctorate equals no doctorate at all.

It’s evident that by awarding doctorates, administrators feel justified in operating a research business. The next stage in the evolution of U.S. universities is expansion into new industries. What’s stopping them, say, from entering the fast food business? They could build restaurants on campus, employ food-science undergrads to flip hamburgers, pay less than minimum wage, call it “education,” and then plead for tax-exempt status. McDonald’s would protest.

U.S. universities have already conquered one industry unrelated to academics–intercollegiate athletics. The parallels between doctoral candidates and athletes abound. Underpaid student-employees are hired to operate a research and sports business while supervisors–faculty and coaches–are compensated with minuscule teaching loads and hefty salaries. The analogy extends to outside income for supervisors. Through corporate funding, professors act as entrepreneurs, pocketing outside earnings for research sometimes conducted by their grad students. Martin Kenny, author of Biotechnology: The University-Industrial Complex, explains: “In some cases mentors are guiding students toward commercial research and in other cases their ideas and research topics are being transferred to companies without compensation for the students.”

Likewise, basketball coaches are lavished with lucrative shoe endorsement deals while the players–the true endorsers–actually wear the shoes. It gets worse. Consider the coursework. Most doctorate-level classes have little practical value, either because the course content is overly theoretical, or too removed from the student’s area of specialization. Analogously, to keep athletes eligible, coaches steer them into frivolous courses that hardly prepare them for mainstream jobs.

In each case, campus jocks and doctoral students sit in classrooms, sweating out aimless lectures, not because it’s worthwhile, but because it provides the outward appearance that an educational mission is being fulfilled.

College sports aside, it was the campus research business that led me and thousands of other unsuspecting folks who share my love of science to pursue unmarketable degrees. So what’s the remedy for this unfortunate situation? U.S. universities should exit the research business, disassociate the labs from the school, terminate doctorate degrees, and focus on classroom instruction. Professors should be hired to teach, and researchers should be hired to research. When a student earns a master’s degree, she will have the option of taking a job as a junior researcher (if one is available) and working side-by-side with a senior scientist. Because research positions are so rare, most master’s-degree graduates will land non-research positions or take jobs as university teachers. That way nobody will be overtrained.

Students, if not universities, seem to be getting the message. In 1999, the number of doctoral degrees conferred dropped for the first time in 14 years, according to the National Science Foundation, with the biggest declines coming in engineering and physical sciences. It was the second-largest drop in 40 years. Naturally, the news set off a wave of hysteria from university administrators and other scientific groups.

The headline in a February Washington Times story read, “Dip in doctoral degrees seen as threat to science, defense.” Stephen Director, dean of the engineering program at the University of Michigan, claimed that engineering faculties were already feeling the pinch of too few qualified professors, and that private industry was struggling to find research staff. I can only hope that students won’t take the bait.

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