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The PhD Job Market

There's been a lot of online attention lately about Brian Vastag's excellent Washington Post article on the crappy job market for PhDs, especially in the biomedical sciences and humanities. Also relevant is Derek Lowe's response to a strange Slate article clamoring for more mediocre scientists:

I hate to be the one to say it, but mediocre scientists are, in fact, in long supply. Access to them is not a rate-limiting step. Not all the unemployed science and technology folks out there are mediocre - not by a long shot (I've seen the CVs that come in) - but a lot of the mediocre ones are finding themselves unemployed, and they're searching an awful long time for new positions when that happens. Who, exactly, would be clamoring to hire a fresh horde of I-guess-they'll-do science graduates? Is that what we really need to put things over the top, technologically - more foot soldiers?

Anyway, it seems like there are two problems (at least in biology and biomedical science) that most people are focused on:

  1. There are too many PhDs being minted for traditional academic and science jobs to absorb.

  2. Some of the best minds of our day are leaving science because of the high opportunity costs of turning down a career in finance, law, or medicine to become low-wage, long-hour graduate students and postdocs.

This might seem a bit self-serving to say coming from a fifth year PhD student in biology who plans to leave science, but both problems seem to be because the salaries of graduate students and postdocs are too low. Lower salaries allow for more positions for the same amount of money, while at the same time driving away people whose smarts give them other career options. Sure, scientists don't go into science for the money, but a lot of talented people probably aren't willing to make so little money for a decade or more just for the sake of science.1

So maybe government funding agencies should raise the minimum pay for grad students and postdocs.2 Economics 101 says that raising minimum wages would lead to a lower supply of jobs, and a higher wage should encourage the best minds to stay in science instead of fleeing to other jobs that offer a better minimum standard of living. Supply and demand.

Would fewer, better paid (and hopefully higher quality) postdocs and grad students be better for society? I don't know; I haven't really seen anyone else mention it, but it seems worth considering if the two problems above really are the key issues.

  1. A two-postdocs family in 2012 would make about \$80,000 a year before tax. This certainly isn't dead poor, but compared to, say, a two-management-consultants family, which would make \$200,000 or more per year. That's a huge amount of money to give up, well above \$1 million over a typical ten year grad school and postdoc time span, not counting better health insurance, better benefits and retirement funds, and so on.

  2. Normally I'd be against the government mandating minimum wage increases in a time of high unemployment, but in this case, government agencies are subsidizing the existence of these jobs anyway through grants. It seems like attracting and retaining good quality of talent is an important thing to balance against having a good supply of scientists.