Monday, February 22, 2010

SciAm asks "Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?"

Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?

American science education lags behind that of many other nations, right? So why does it produce so many talented young researchers who cannot find a job in their chosen field of study?

Headline of a lengthy online article at Scientific American.

I've reproduced my comment (slightly edited to fix some minor grammatical errors) below:
A poor title for the article. A better one would be "Are there enough scientific careers for scientists in the US?"

Within astrophysics there certainly is a massive demographic imbalance between the number of talented and committed PhD students continuing in academia as postdocs and soft-money researchers, and the number of tenured and tenure-equivalent jobs. Everyone knows this, at least when they're doing the PhD. They just make the mistake of thinking that if they're talented and love research that they'll get the job they're qualified for.

The problem is not that there is a career pyramid with significant losses of personal at each level compared to the old days of a few postdoc positions that fed directly into a similar number of tenured positions.

The problems are that (a) progression or success is more lottery than meritocracy (for a number of annoying reasons, but shear numbers of job candidates is one), and (b) there is no real career track for those who aren't lucky enough to land a classic tenure-track job.

University administrations and tenured faculty have little inclination to change this: the postdocs do much of the research, and are expendable as they're easily replaceable (by similarly talented and eager applicants). Soft money scientists bring in large amounts of overhead to the Universities, and even if many leave when their patience or grants run out their ranks are always easily filled by former postdocs desperate to carry on doing what they love.
And that "dskan" commenter - what alternate Universe did they come from?

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