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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.


(...) those not finding jobs in research will mostly make other important contributions to society.

May be true, but what kind of contributions are you thinking of? I'm not sure there is such a huge job market for people coming from evolutionary ecology academia.

The situation seems globally the same throughout western societies, but opportunity for 'outsiding' academia vary greatly among them.

This issue is of great importance to me, since I am becoming an unemployed outsider next week, with only microscopic odds for a come back into the science arena, and I am heading back to a country where I am already too old to reach anything from industry.


I'm sorry that your job prospects are discouraging, given your qualifications.

It's a widespread problem with no easy answer. Doubling research funding would help us find answers to various problems. But it would only help individual PhDs in the short term, in the same sense that food aid helps overpopulated countries in the short term. Soon we would have twice as many PhDs competing for twice as many positions, making life just as difficult for individual PhDs as it is today.

One colleague with a PhD in microbiology worked sporadically for years -- as in my current adjunct position, salary was more sporadic than work was -- before taking a job with an air pollution control agency. Not her specialty, but she had demonstrated mastery of the scientific approach to problem solving, which is what they wanted. A former student with an MS in ecology is managing environmental aspects of various projects for Toyota. The market could probably support a few more scientifically literate writers like Barbara Kingsolver. There is a massive shortage of qualified high school science teachers.

All of these careers make major contributions to society, which is a sound reason for society (via NSF, for example) to support training grad students. But these jobs may not be what many people entering grad school envision for themselves. That's why I suggested in an earlier post that it doesn't make sense to go to grad school unless you expect grad school itself (long hours for low pay, but having an opportunity to do research you may find exciting) to be enjoyable and worthwhile. Those who see grad school as an unpleasant hoop to be jumped through to get to their dream job are likely to be disappointed.

This is why there's a so great potential in the USA.

In France, teaching is not the next move, because nearly 11000 positions will be suppressed by the state next year (they may do so for research positions though the gov pretends not). On the other hand, industry is particularly reluctant to hire PhDs, especially after they turned 30 (they consider us unexperienced and prefer younger engineers they can hire at a 'lower' cost).

I can't see this as a tragedy of the commons issue. In the tragedy of the commons a common resource is overwhelmed and made useless to everyone by individuals pursuing self interest in an unregulated way (overgrazing, overfishing, overpolluting...).

This might be a case where people pursuing their personal interests fail to predict the consequences of many others doing the same thing and ruining the market. I am not convinced it is but if it were it would be a market prediction problem.

A whole bunch of companies deciding the prices today make it appealing to sell chairs. They all invest in doing so and then there is all sorts of extra capacity to produce chairs so the prices fall and the investment turns out not to provide such a great payoff.

Examples in Hardin's original paper on the Tragedy of the Commons included free parking, not limiting number of visitors to parks, pollution, and especially reproduction. Making a limited supply of parking free doesn't degrade any resource, it just increases the number of people competing for a scarce resource. Similarly, making it easier to get a PhD increases the number of people competing for scarce faculty positions.

If each discipline (economics and ecology, for example) uses different names for similar problems, no wonder it's so hard to communicate.


As a somewhat newly-minted Ph.D. from one of Ford's former institutions, I can understand the large numbers of Ph.Ds in Ecology and Evolution as a potential problem.

Unfortunately, I agree that there are not nearly enough R1 jobs to accomodate everyone finishing at places like UC-Davis or Cornell.

BUT, I went to Ph.D. school so that I could both teach and perform research at a smaller school, which, happily, is exactly what I am doing now. I hope that grad students these days realize that there are 100s of academic jobs available at smaller schools around the country. No, these jobs are certainly not as "prestigious" in the eyes of many faculty advisors, but so what?! They are extremely biased, naturally.

It's my feeling from talking to many students at ESA meetings and beyond that positions at smaller schools are becoming more and more attractive, perhaps because of the increased competition at the R1 institutions, but also perhaps these students may want to enjoy a different lifestyle than a typical R1 Assistant Professor's.

So, there are still definitely many opportunities out there, even in Academia!


What could be more prestigious than a faculty position at Denison University?

As budget deficits squeeze federal research budgets, research universities may find they have more professors and buildings than they can support with tuition money alone. Colleges that emphasize teaching (often with undergrad research that is less dependent on big grants) may survive better.

Even including smaller schools, there aren't enough openings in academia to provide employment for all the PhDs produced each year. That was the point of the article. Still, most PhDs end up doing something worthwhile and rewarding.


True enough. 100s of jobs does not translate into a balance for the defecit of 1000s, for sure.

And yes, undergrads are sure cheaper, but, of course, they are a bit less skilled, ha ha.

May we all live in interesting times!


I agree that the opportunities are still around if you are willing to look. Smaller schools definitely seem to be the way to go though

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