Too Many Scientists?

Readers of Minding the Campus are familiar with the argument that universities produce far too many graduates in “impractical” humanities majors. This point applies especially to graduate education in the liberal arts, where today’s students are welcomed into a leftist fellowship with poor job prospects.

Jordan Weissmann of the Atlantic claims to upend this narrative by showing that graduate students in the science face increasing dim employment opportunities, too. Biology, physics, and chemistry PhDs are more likely to be unemployed than employed upon graduation, and engineering PhDs are only slightly more likely to be employed. This indicates to him that the United States has a “scientist surplus,” contrary to the lamentations of politicians and industry who decry Americans’ lack of practical scientific skills

His analysis, however, is somewhat incomplete. He does not draw our attention to the data in his own graphs showing that most biology, physics, and chemistry PhDs enroll in post-doctoral positions rather than start work after graduation. Since post-doctoral appointments are often a prerequisite to later advancement–and, in some cases, tenure-track positions–there is little reason to believe that the bulk of science PhDs take these positions because they have no other options. If we consider graduates who obtain post-docs upon graduation “successful,” then the figure of “unsuccessful” PhDs becomes less impressive.         

Regardless, we still find that the percentages of unemployed life sciences and physical sciences PhDs at graduation are around 37 and 31 percent, respectively. Weissmann is therefore correct to point out that the job outlook for science graduate students is not as rosy as many make it out to be. However, he does not carry his argument to its logical extension. Indeed, if prospects for scientists are as bad as he makes it, perhaps are our universities are graduating too many science PhDs. If this conclusion is accurate, we’ll need to consider ways to make federal spending on scientific training more effective. 


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