Sunday, March 8, 2009

Academia: A Ponzi scheme?

An article in the NYT today talks about PhD scholars, typically in the humanities, not expecting a good faculty and even postdoc job market.  Important factors include:
1. The rough economy reducing funding for academic hires (this is true, from personal experience.)
2. With 401k values tanking with the stock market, older faculty members putting off retirement.
3. Reduced funding in general, and difficulty of raising external funding for certain fields such as the humanities.
An associate professor of English at Hope College, William Pannapacker, actually counsels students not to pursure graduate education in the humanities, unless they are independently wealthy or well-connected.  [Hey, I'd agree with that!]

A thought occurred to me - could academia be a ponzi scheme?  Each professor has 3-4 graduate students at any given time, getting a PhD.  Not all of them want faculty positions - seeing the workload of, particularly, tenure-track faculty has scared quite a few people off that idea.  I don't know what the fraction of the group does want a faculty position, either (if I did a little research, maybe I could find out... But this is a blog, not an education journal article!)  But if each existing faculty member in a research university graduates a faculty job-seeking PhD every 3-4 years, then there will be far more applicants than jobs.  After all, there are only so many universities with so many students - that need only a set number of faculty members.

This is something we see every day - 80-100 applicants or more for each opening; chemistry PhDs putting out 30 applications or more in hopes of getting 2-3 interviews and *maybe* one offer.

Even PhDs who don't want a faculty position will likely face a stagnant job market - there are only so many research labs.  Further, with a surplus supply and a reduced demand, wages will not be what PhDs might consider appropriate. [Even lower than "just" engineers?  Yes.]

And of course, the advisors don't reduce their graduate student intake - how could they, since they want to get research done?

When supply keeps outstripping demand, and the disparity only grows with time - does that resemble a ponzi scheme?  Admittedly, that is just the latest Madoff-inspired buzzword, but at the very least, it looks like a pyramid scheme.  Am I wrong?  Or did I just have another epiphany?

[This could just be sour grapes, of course.]
Update, 7/14/2016: Of course, someone has done the research (link), and come up with the metric "Ro", which is the number of PhDs each faculty member graduates. Ro=1 means that adviser will be replaced by her/his student. For environmental engineering, Ro = 19, though "Civil/Environmental Engineering" clocks in much lower at 2.5. Mechanical Engineering is 5.5.
Note that Ro = 1 means that either the graduate waits till his/her adviser retires before becoming faculty. So it would be best if the student graduated close to when the adviser retires. Obviously, this does not make sense for the adviser's research career.
Besides, other universities often expand their own research, so Ro = 1 is not sustainable, either. But maybe 19 is too damn high.

1 comment:

umantcat5 said...

Interesting post and the main argument is well supported with evidence through the hundreds of thousands of disgruntled PhDs who are either unemployed or often worse underemployed in meaningless roles. I can speak from experience as a US born engineering graduate from top tier schools, including an ivy. Although I'm well off vs my peers in a suitable role, I agree that Academia dangles the bait for thousands of lost souls who pursue it relentlessly, only to find it pulled away or taken by an equal or lesser competitor.

Academia is the world's best masked business, offering knowledge to the world in exchange for large sums of subsidized money, cheap labor, and public perks.

One can sit here and label just about any industry a Ponzi scheme, however in light of this people still freely choose to enter PhD programs. Lesson is people need to research industries before investing years of their lives only to be disilluisioned, such is life!