Jim Frankenfield - Science & Engineering Pages

Comments on the NAS Report on Science Careers

These are some comments on the National Academy of Sciences report titles "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers", from the now-defunct Young Scientist Network.

Subject: #6 SAME OLD, SAME OLD ???

Hey Now YSN,

I was straining to read through the executive summary of the diatribe " Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers". Does this seem to anyone else like the SAME OLD , SAME OLD ???

Other than the call for more detailed statistics on Ph.D. employment (to resolve the pressing question of whether Kevin Aysleworth is working for MIT or as a migrant farm laborer - a jobs a job Right?) I found very little to be pleased with.

The other great insight went something like "change the expectations of graduate students". I read this as something like, "Teach the maggots that they'll be working as migrant intellectual labor for 5 to 10 years before they have a shot at a research job", or maybe I heard them saying "with a Ph.D. you can do anything...like be an assistant manager at the GAP, or a musician in an alternative rock band".

Anyway, I'm annoyed. Is anyone else?

Jonathan Lightner, Ph.D.
(and I bought new shoes today so I'm really feeling "DOCTOR" ) ;)
CR+D DuPont(just visiting)

Date: Tue, 25 Apr 1995 20:43:53 -0400 >\
From: Jim Freericks
Subject: #6 Summary of the National Academy of Sciences report


On Thursday, April 20, 1995 the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine released its report on the Reshaping of Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers. After Phillip Griffiths gave his opening statement, he took questions from the audience. The room was full of (about 300?) policy-makers, professional society reps, reporters, people who study other scientists, a few reps from universities, and about 5 young scientists.


Myth number 1. "Most PhD's go on to careers in academe". Fact. More than half go on to other careers and this proportion has been increasing.

Myth number 2. "There is high unemployment among PhD's". Fact. Total unemployment of PhD's is under 2%. However, young researchers find it more difficult, and it takes longer to secure permanent full-time employment. Also good data that differentiates between postdocs and other temporary jobs and permanent jobs is simply not available. Furthermore the queue for tenure-track and other potentially permanent jobs is growing longer.

Recommendations for the PhD of the future:

(1) Graduate programs should be more flexible and provide more options for students. Greater versatility can be promoted on two levels. On the academic level, students should be discouraged from overspecializing. Those planning research careers should be grounded in the broad fundamentals of their fields and be familiar with several subfields. Such breadth is more difficult to achieve after graduation. On the level of career skills, there is value in experiences that supply skills desired by employers, especially the ability to communicate complex ideas to nonspecialists and the ability to work well in teams. Off campus internships in industry or government can lead to additional skills and exposure to authentic job situations.

(2) Students should receive better career information and guidance. The committee recommends the creation of a national database of information on employment options and trends. This information is intended for both students and advisors, and should include data on career paths as well as on such topics as graduate programs, financial aid, time to degree, and placement rates. Departments are urged to track the employment experiences of their own graduates.

(3) The time to a degree should be shortened. The average time for a PhD in the sciences is eight years. A two year increase from 1962. The concern is that students stay in school too long, and that faculty have not been disciplined enough to reduce this time.

(4) A new class of grants called education/training grants is recommended. These grants would be awarded competitively to institutions and departments that propose to improve the versatility of students, strengthen advisory systems, tighten curricula, etc. Another goal is to shift the extra work required for a career in basic research to the postdoctoral years.

Limits on the number of PhD's are not called for. The committee does not feel these limitations can be carried out effectively.

Summary of the Report:

The executive summary of the report is available at "http://www.nas.edu/0/nap/online/grad/index.html."


Discusses numbers for students granted a PhD from a US school. The numbers for US citizens has been flat at about 15K for the past 10 years. The numbers for foreign students has tripled to almost 8K in the same time period. This chapter also discusses how funding sources are beginning to dry up both from national agencies and from state governments.


The employment figures summarized here are not that great because the data collectors did not ask all of the interesting questions that one would like to have answered. The report used only existing data, and was therefore stuck with the difficulty of not being able to draw the best conclusions from it. The main points touched upon are that most PhD's end up in careers outside of basic research, so that even the name nontraditional careers is a misnomer-- it is the academic scientists who are really in the nontraditional careers. The length of time between getting a degree and finding a permanent position are steadily increasing. The number of postdocs grew from 15K in 1982 to 24K in 1992 and is increasing at a rate of over 1K per year. There is an interesting discussion about PhD's going to work as high school teachers. New Jersey, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania have programs specifically designed to ease the transition of PhD's into the high school markets. The claim is that starting nine-month salaries of 35.8K are close to the college-level average of 36.6K. There are also claims that the government will be hiring in environmental fields, and that most new job creations will be in business and industry. The comments from industry say that they value hiring PhD's for their problem solving abilities, but that they look more for those students with excellent communication skills and those that have multidisciplinary backgrounds. They also stress the ability to work in teams. (Our own Barry Hardy has a blurb describing his career and his recommendations for how to ease the employment situation). There is also a section that mentions the Young Scientists Network and how many young graduates are jaded about what they were told while in school, even if they have found satisfying jobs in nonacademic fields. One interesting sidelight for those trying to enter the financial fields. Banker's Trust looks for people who are described as "smart, intense, driven, problem solver, entrepreneur, quixotic, a little abrasive" and they search for hobbies that include "bridge, chess, crossword puzzles, trading of baseball cards or stamps, linguistics and music".


This chapter discusses statistics for the number of students, average time to degree, etc. The research grant is identified as being a powerful influence on graduate education, and the committee fears that the advisors needs are catered to more often than the students' educational needs. Surprising figures are that only 2/3 of the graduate students will be RA's and only half will be TA's during their years at school. The committee remarks that most schools do not provide adequate career advice. It discusses how total numbers of women and minorities are increasing, but the percentages are still much smaller than represented by the population. The number of foreign students has risen much more rapidly than the number of America students. The postdoctoral population has increased the fastest of any group.


This chapter begins by asking what is the right number of PhD's in science and engineering? It feels that supply and demand economics is better at controlling the graduate student population than any other mechanism, but that rapidly accessible information is necessary for students to make rational decisions and for this model to work. They do not recommend reducing the numbers of foreign students, because they feel the rapid increases were due to political causes that are unlikely to be repeated and that as foreign economies improve, more students will want to return to their homelands after receiving a degree.


GREATER VERSATILITY: The committee recommends that students be given the freedom to take courses in other departments (they like to stress engineering minors for physical science students) including humanities courses such as writing or speech.
EDUCATION/TRAINING GRANTS: By providing support directly to the student (similar to the NSF predoctoral fellowships), students would have the freedom to pursue multidisciplinary research and not be as tied down to the research grants of their advisors.
TIME TO DEGREE: These extra courses should not lengthen the time to degree, rather the time should be shortened. The belief is that the extra research time now included in the PhD degree should rather be incorporated into the postdoc, and those not going on to basic research can then graduate with their PhD earlier. CAREER INFORMATION AND GUIDANCE: Students and faculty must have accurate timely data on the job situation, and it must be readily available to the students. The report calls for the NSF to set up such an electronic database.


The following are my best effort to describe some of the questions (and answers):

A former assistant to the secretary of labor:

What are the incentives for changing the current labor pool? What is the role of the foreign-born? Is the $22K/year postdoc salary really considered employment for a PhD? (No answer, except that this report focuses on _graduate education_ only.) What is the effect of retirement policies [later versus earlier retirement]? (I didn't catch the answer to this) Do you think that there might be some hidden unemployment? (The frustration and anger felt by young scientists may be due to their expectations not being met; we need to change expectations during grad school. [In the report they talk a lot about making training more diverse, with more choice points, and applicable to more jobs.])

Roman Czujko from American Institute of Physics:

Corrected some of the unemployment stats presented on physicists (but I don't know whether I understood his corrections correctly): 1993 grads had 11% unemployment (for the first few months after graduation, I think) 1994 grads had 13% unemployment 3% unemployment in first 1-2 years [But note that post-doc fellowships are considered jobs, and there is no follow-up after post-doc fellowship. This is a serious flaw in most of the employment data used for this report.]

Someone from US Dept of Education:

About the post-doc labor market: What kind of jobs are available to a scientist before the PhD? Versus after PhD? Data are known for biologists: a PhD has a negative impact on earning capacity. He applauded the institution of a national database to track PhD S and E employment information. Is a post-doc fellowship considered employment or UNDERemployment? Salary data to be included in database? Who and how will it be implemented, because Census, Labor, NSF, and Ed-stats could all contribute and gain? (a post-doc is considered employment; salary info is difficult to get because people will not necessarily tell us what they earn, salaries are not important to the problem, and no plan to include salaries in national database; yes, multiple US agencies should work on it.) He also said that in 1993 a longitudinal study of 16,000 baccalaureates was begun, and will be very important for tracking +-PhD career impacts.

Someone from Math Association of America (MAA):

She thinks that Math PhDs have a harder time than other PhDs, and Griffiths agrees; (did not cite data)

Dan Greenberg (do not know affiliation):

Why were there no young scientists on the committee? (They participated by submitting comments, by comments solicited over ysn, or by attending a meeting) Apparently NAS rules say only NAS members may be on committees and since no young scientists are in the National academy ... Why not limit numbers of scientists in training? (The report discusses this at length; basically they think that central control mechanisms will not balance supply and demand that well anyway, and they did not want to deny opportunities to people. They recommend changing the character of PhD education. The new ed should emphasize communication skills, problem-solving, flexibility, etc)

Claudio Sanchez (NPR):

What is the role of affirmative action in keeping women and minorities in the science pipeline? How do you encourage under-represented groups to remain in science? (Panel addressed this in report) Do current educational policies directly or indirectly encourage PhDs not to teach? (communication and teaching are emphasized in this report).

Finley Austin (AAAS Diplomacy Fellow working at USAID, a young scientist):

Restated that a fellowship is not a job, has no security, no insurance, no benefits; that is why it is called a fellowship, and not called a job. What is planned to help young scientists who are currently underemployed now? (We focused on _graduate education_, those other folks....) In other words, this is something to be studied in a later report...

Lorraine Soisson (AAAS Diplomacy Fellow working at USAID, a young scientist):

Many of these recommendations require changing faculty attitudes; how does the NSF propose to do so? (Information getting into the right hands will do it)

Eliene Augenbraun (former CoPresident, JHSOM Postdoctoral Association, will be AAAS Diplomacy Fellow 1995-1996)

Supported the notion that post-doc fellowship is not a job. Recommended including salary data in national database. Discussed the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (JHSOM) data currently being collected on salaries and benefits for fellows; initial survey showed that some fellows are paid less than $15K/year; new data showing that about half of the postdocs are making less than the NIH recommended salaries and benefits: 1st year fellows should make $19K + health insurance; 2nd year $20K, 3rd year $25K. Urged including grad students and post docs in the WRITING of NAS reports on young scientists, because it is good for them and good for the report. Effect of admissions criteria on the population of scientists (excluding people we ought to include because they do not measure up to the traditional metrics (grades, etc))? (Said that it is worth looking at; they had not considered it.)

Susan Duby, Program director, graduate research fellowships, NSF

Young professors often do not participate in multi-disciplinary scientific efforts because tenure decisions do not favor such studies; anything being done to change tenure criteria? (I did not write down an answer)

Alvin Lazen, NRC, an author of "The funding of young investigators in the biological and biomedical sciences," 1994

Announced that he is trying to follow-up his last study with respect to biology post-docs, focusing on early career outcomes (the current young scientists)

Someone from Kansas State

Could info on salary levels be included in the database? (business schools do it, but we really did not think about it)

Main Science & Engineering Page Home Mail to:

Validate html