Of course, some people will accuse me of an anti-intellectual bias.  Some will even be so cynical as to say “you got yours, now you want to deny others the same opportunity.  Neither of these charges has any merit.

It is an axiom that more education is better.  It is one truth that many people in academia and government believe should be accepted without question.  For there is nothing more despised in our world than ignorance.

Ask yourself “Who stands to benefit?”  While this may be seen as a cynical question to ask, it is always fair game to question the motivation of those pushing for any policy.  We hear from politicians all the time that for the US to maintain the technological competitive edge that makes us a world power, we need to stimulate more interest in science and engineering among our younger generation.

Another truism is: “That which is measured is done”.  To measure the effectiveness of any program, we need to measure the output and compare it to the output before the program was in place.  If the belief is that more science and engineering PhDs make us more competitive in the world marketplace, then we had better do something to increase the number of science and PhD graduates.

Companies also believe that they need a certain baseline number of PhDs, so the accountants figure out what that means, and ten set hiring targets.  Many times, we find PhD chemists doing simple analytical services that only a few years ago were handled by either technicians or BS-level chemists.

Then, the same accounting staff figures out that it is much less expensive to have the universities do the core research that the companies were doing.  This is because of the federal grants and the benefits that the companies are no longer responsible for.  Sure, they toss some research dollars to academia, but that is still far less costly than keeping the researchers on staff.  Or worse, they ship the jobs overseas as a recent C&EN article reports.  This is common in the more high tech areas, such as pharmaceuticals and electronic materials.  That these companies have decided to do the research in China with the resulting loss of any intellectual property rights is of little consequence.

Unfortunately, in recent years the PhD degree in science has rapidly become equivalent to the college football player – a resource for the school that gains them both money and glory (in the form of how many grants and papers are awarded to an institution).  As a matter of fact, the recent C&EN rankings of graduate Chemistry/Chemical Engineering programs strongly suggest that these 2 factors are at the top of the list when professors evaluate PhD programs.  When the usefulness runs out, the “graduate” is left to his own devices to find suitable employment, most recently with little success.

So colleges and universities need a steady stream of sweatshop workers to do the “grunt” work – of course they say “we need more”. They do not care if the graduate can actually find a job they trained for – they got their grant and papers published so they have no use for you.

Just about the only way in the current economic situation that one can find suitable employment is to work with an advisor who has many industry contacts and has funding from the industry. Get him to get you connected – or it’s a steady stream of post-docs that actually lead nowhere.  And there is a limit to a post-doc career path – many federal programs will not accept post docs more than 4 years after graduation.

Want to get into academia? Good luck with that. Do the math. Each professor has 2 or more grad students, and not every one of them can get a research (teaching) gig at a university. Someone is going to be left out in the cold.

And then you cannot just assume your professor will expend too much effort in hopes of getting you an industrial gig. This is especially if you lack the people skills. I have seen many professors give half (or less) effort on behalf of their “problem children”.

Of course, the foreign-born always have the potential to go back to their home countries. That is, if their home country is ready (economically AND culturally) for an influx of individuals who have maybe just become too Americanized – this can be a problem for many Asian cultures. 

A good third option is to create your own job – however, it is probably really only open to those who have substantial experience in the for-profit sector AND those who have the guts to try to make a go of it. But then again, if you are not the type who “plays well with others”, you fill find it a very difficult path.

So, do we need more PhDs? Probably, but not in the numbers we are producing now. More is not always better.  A large supply of unemployed PhDs does absolutely nothing to advance the competitiveness of the nation.

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