Scientist glut as a tragedy of the commons
Lots of discussion on Pharyngula today on a Nature story on the PhD glut. 7000 new biomedical PhDs per year and only 20,000 tenured positions. I remember looking at all the grad students and postdocs at the Ecology meetings and thinking "there aren't nearly enough job openings for this many ecologists", at least not at major research universities. Comstock commented
I see the universities as eager players, ready to get their share of the grant money, and not worrying that much of it relies on the labor of a servant class who will never be made master of the house.I tend to see tragedies of the commons everywhere, but is this one?
In a tragedy of the commons, individuals rationally pursuing self-interest have a collective impact (e.g., overgrazing) that harms them all. Professors making decisions that harm students may be evil, but it isn't necessarily a tragedy of the commons. Professors and students are two different groups, so we need to consider them separately.
The more students do PhDs, the tougher competition will be for PhD jobs. This hurts PhD recipients, so "too many students pursuing PhDs" could be considered a tragedy of the commons, if getting a PhD is rational for individuals -- this isn't clear -- but collectively harmful.
From the standpoint of professors, the more students that earn PhDs in our labs, the tougher competition will be for PhD jobs. Does this hurt professors? As word gets out about the PhD glut, it gets harder for us to recruit new students. Plus, many of us like our students and want them to have satisfying careers. So we face a tragedy of the commons also.
Personally, I will not accept a student for a PhD unless I am reasonably confident that he or she has the potential (with enough hard work) to be competitive for the type of job sought, even if this means fewer papers coming out of my lab. But I'm motivated by concern for the welfare of individual students, and the hassles of working with less-qualified ones, not my own small contribution to the PhD glut. Some professors seem to take all the students they can get, while investing less in each one.
NSF could reduce the PhD glut. They could insist on funding technicians and MS students rather than PhD students (with some exceptions, such as their highly competitive PhD fellowships), thereby providing jobs for some PhDs and encouraging other students to do an MS instead.
But NSF's mission is to promote the national interest, not the interests of PhD students or professors. Is a PhD glut, perhaps, in the national interest? Universities and research labs get to choose from a large pool of highly qualified applicants (like the farmers in Grapes of Wrath), and those not finding jobs in research will mostly make other important contributions to society. There could be an opportunity cost to society as highly intelligent people delay their entry into the workforce, but that neglects the substantial contribution of grad students to research and teaching.
If you are a potential or actual PhD student and more interested in your own self-interest -- who should be, if you're not? -- than in the national interest, see my earlier posts.