Magazine article Insight on the News

Ph.D.S Flood Marketplace; Schools Refocus Programs

Magazine article Insight on the News

Ph.D.S Flood Marketplace; Schools Refocus Programs

Article excerpt

Specialized training has created a glut of unemployed and under-employed scientists. Broadening the focus of graduate study may make future Ph.D.s more attractive to the private sector.

Seven years ago, the National Science Foundation, or NSF, announced that the United States faced a drastic shortfall of scientists that threatened to destroy the nation's leadership in many fields. But a number of recent reports from leading science organizations have come to the opposite conclusion: American universities are producing too many scientists; jobless and underemployed, Ph.D.s won't likely find meaningful work until graduate education conforms to the changing marketplace. Consider:

* In November, the American Chemical Society, or ACS, announced that 17 percent of graduate students receiving doctorates in chemistry remained unemployed, held temporary jobs or held positions unrelated to their training, compared with 2 percent unemployment among scientists in recent years.

* Earlier this year, William F. Massey of Stanford University A. Goldman of the Rand Corp. found that the number of doctorates in science exceeds job openings by 22 percent.

* In 1994, Richard McIntosh, president of the American Society for Cell Biology, warned in his organization's newsletter about the "Malthusian crisis" in science education. (Thomas Malthus, a 19th-century Anglican clergyman, predicted that world population would outpace the Earth's resources.) Science magazine, America's premier journal for scientists in all fields, recently published a series of articles outlining the crisis and suggesting reforms.

By 1993, the nation's graduate schools were producing 25,000 doctorates in science annually, up from 19,000 per year in 1985. Another 26,000 budding scientists are languishing in low-paying, postdoctoral programs, up 60 percent from the previous decade. Why the glut? Part of the reason undoubtedly is government largess: Congress has provided billions of dollars to university laboratories. (Federal funding may dry up considerably if the 104th Congress succeeds in slashing science appropriations by one-third.)

But another and perhaps more serious problem can be traced to the marketplace. The private sector has had a change of heart. "Less research is wanted by industry," says Ned Heindel, a professor of chemistry at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and a past president of the ACS. "Its emphasis now is on development and short-term problem solving." Companies are far more likely to smile in the direction of scientists who have had added training in patent law or industrial management, for example, than those who have spent years looking at one problem, however profoundly they may have mastered their specialty.

Academia has too narrow a focus, say critics of science education. Celebrated professors are saying to their students, "Produce for me the kind of science that will make me [a member of the National al Academy of Sciences]," Heindel tells Insight. Doctors of science must be more flexible, able to say, "Yes, I can do that," when an employer makes an unexpected demand. Interestingly, Heindel predicts that smaller, less well-known graduate programs will survive the crisis more easily than prominent schools such as Yale or Stanford, in part because research universities have grown dependent on the largest government grants.

The crisis has caused science professors to wonder about the ethics of offering specialized graduate training to eager and capable students who spend five to seven years earning degrees -- only to find themselves unemployable. …

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