Reaching saturation: Our ongoing glut of Ph.D. educated talent

Achieving a Ph.D. is one of the highest academic goals one can set. You work insanely hard, you sacrifice income, starting a family, and many other things, in the pursuit of this (in most cases). And when you finish, you are, theoretically, in an upper strata of accomplishment.

Many (including myself) entered into this path, decades ago, based upon (now known to be either overtly falsified, or completely incompetently analyzed) data which suggested a dearth of scientists needed to staff the ever growing colleges and universities departments, and the massively growing industrial scientific community, as a solid rationale for pursuing such a difficult course. You could do something you liked AND get a nice job at the end.

In retrospect, 16 years post Ph.D., I have to tell you that the people promulgating this analysis were either overtly dishonest, or completely incompetent. I am leaning towards dishonest. I have my reasons for arguing this point.

It boils down to simple economics. It always does.

Massively increase the supply of workers, and your price per worker on average remains low. Even if the market as a whole has cost per worker rising. Because individual workers are (effectively) interchangeable, so there is very little negotiating power for an individual. One might argue for unions at this point, but on the contrary, unions usually make things worse for the workers as a whole, not better. Again, this is basic economics. Its also related to the prisoners dilemma game solutions.

I wrote this last year, and this 5 years ago about the issues. In other writing I fretted that the market would eventually solve the problem in a way that the policy makers would not like.

There is a cost to market manipulation. Eventually you saturate a market. In this case, a job market. You do it by encouraging many more applicants into the system than there are waiting/accepting states at the end of the process. And what happens is, over time, you fill up not simply the primary market, but also the secondary markets. And once that happens, you are no longer really in control of what you have manipulated. The invisible hand of the market will solve the problem for you, and do so in a manner you … well … will probably not like.

In The Atlantic, there is an article on the “Ph.D. Bust” with all sorts of charts and other analysis bits.

The first chart on the page basically shows the onset of saturation effects in the market. Postdoc positions are holding patterns … they were originally designed to provide a Ph.D. with a bit more polish and expand a scientist’s horizons before taking a tenure track position somewhere. But they have become a secondary storage for Ph.D. workers. And with declining budgets, and no new (actually fewer) places for them to go after the postdoc, the prospects they face are stark.

On one hand, a scientist should be smart enough and realistic enough to have a good grasp of the trends, so they shouldn’t be surprised. They should be able to read proverbial tea leaves well enough to make informed choices. No one is guaranteed anything, and there are no nice jobs waiting at the end of the process.

But on the front end of the process, brazen manipulation and overt and IMO culpable misrepresentation of the realities of the market for skills and knowledge that you work, in some cases, more than a decade, to obtain, in order to massively increase the supply of workers, thus to suppress the cost per worker … yeah, there are consequences to this.

The market will eventually always correct for these imbalances. It always does. And it does in a way that will likely make the people who did this misrepresentation very … very … unhappy.

Supply and demand. Massive oversupply relative to demand. Your feedstock (people) go elsewhere, until the massive oversupply gets fixed by the market, typically 10-20 years or so. Massive oversupply coupled with cheerleaders for that oversupply, that have consistently and repeatedly misrepresented reality? The market will correct, your feedstock will go elsewhere, and you may actually get the effect that the cheerleaders were claiming to fear, as no one will believe them anymore, will know that they are either liars or incompetents, and will make alternate informed selections. Have that occur long enough, and you’ll get a swing towards undersupply, as only the highly motivated for this area would be interested in pursuing something that they may not be able to get a job in. Then, the folks pushing the undersupply meme would have to pay far more for them, thanks to supply and demand.

Karma’s a bitch.

I am happy I went through my process. I am not working in physics, and haven’t done much in the way of basic research in a long time. I occasionally pull out some cool math problems (ask me about my playing with Goldbach’s conjecture some time), and follow my own self funded curiosity driven science. My life has been enriched by going through this process, and I am endebted to a wonderful thesis adviser and department for allowing me the experience. But in 1994, looking at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and all the FSU physicists flooding the market for physics types, I knew then that my goal of finding a nice little professorship somewhere wasn’t likely to occur. The competition would be intense, and I would be at a disadvantage relative to veterans with 20+ years and many published papers, vying for the same jobs, and willing to take less money.

Economics 101.

So I made my decision to go into industry, and the rest, as they say, is history.

17 years post and I am not regretting this, though every now and then I get pangs of wanting to teach or do research. It was fun as a full time job.

Such is life. The cost to the market of one scientist leaving is negligible. The cost to the market of the feedstock going elsewhere, enmasse, is potentially large. Even worse, when they realize that the organizations that are supposed to be devoted to research, education, etc. of the future groups of scientists has been … well … lying … about the demand, in such an overt way, there is absolutely no way you can trust these people to report reality. Which means that the feedstock might go away for several generations until this class of … people … leave their posts. That might be 20-40 years.

Saturation sucks. You have to allow the existing folks their time, and the extra storage needs to drop dramatically over time before more can be let in.

Yeah, karma’s a bitch.

You reap what you sow.

Its a diffusion equation BTW. Not that hard to model. Along with a forcing term.

Imagine if postdocs in physics were actually paid above poverty level wages. For years when I was looking in 93-94, this was not the case. Soon, they will have to pay competitive wages. Go figure.

Economics 101.

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