Whats old is new again

Inspired by this article.
Back in the dim and distant past, when I started graduate school … no before that … I had something of an … naive … world and economic view. This view had me believing that newly minted physics Ph.D. types would be able to find a nice tenure track relatively easily after a short postdoc. From there to professional career bliss. Do research, write grants, publish, teach. Rinse and repeat.
Amazingly naive worldview in retrospect, but, hey, I was a young naive undergraduate at the time, with (very) little conception or experience of how an economy actually worked. I got to understand more … er … practical economics, by living with a group of rich mouchers in one of the dorms. These people would get drunk starting on Thursday, and eat all my food in my fridge and that I had stored. I wasn’t rich. I landed in that group by accident.
I learned I had to make decisions that were in my own best interests, that they (that group) did not like. These were economic decisions. Driven by moucher rich kids sent away by their wealthy families to eek out a degree of some sort. Who ate all my food, didn’t repay me, or offer to repay me.
When you are poor and someone steals from you, that which you’ve worked very hard for … doesn’t apologize, and then demands more … yeah … you kinda learn how the economy works. Your decisions about when to go shopping, what food to buy, where to place your food, and when to move to another location are driven by the need for self preservation. You have to act in your own best interests. You have to be aware of the reality of the state of affairs, the state of markets, among many other things.
I had to work throughout college in order to pay for food, clothing, gas, etc. I had to go to an inexpensive school (at the time) because I could not afford the higher cost schools, even with the nice scholarships I was offered.
Economic realities cause decisions to be made. The rich kids scarfing all my food were wrong to do so. Had I not moved out, they would have continued to do so. I made a change based upon their behavior, their choice that they wished to pay effectively zero for the food that I bought, that I had no money to replace and they offered no money for.
Its crap like that which opens your eyes. You learn. You acknowledge. You make decisions. Ones with economic impact. Ones with consequences. Its your life. You have to.
In grad school, I was less naive. More focused on what comes after finishing up. Postdocs. Ok, talk to a few. This is 1989-1994 time period. This is pre-WWW. Gopher and ftp were the protocols du jour. People were writing grants to set up WAIS. And YSN was telling their stories on email lists. More specific to my situation, the American Physical Society was noting in the Physics Today and other locations of massive numbers of applicants for single tenure tracks. 1000 applications in some cases, for a single position.
So here I am, finishing up my research, helping to train my replacements. Looking at postdocs. Hearing that I’ll need 2 or 3 in order to keep research going while I looked for that all elusive tenure track.
The Soviet Union had collapsed. Seems like a very odd segue, but its relevant. Into a lousy, terrible market, streamed thousands of very senior physicists, some with great reputations, lots of publications. All willing to come over and, darn it, take those low paying postdoc jobs. You know, the postdoc jobs where they advertised for something between $15-22k USD/year. If you were lucky. With no health insurance, no benefits. Nothing.
I had a decision to make. So I made it.
In retrospect, I don’t regret that decision. It was the right one. Several of my classmates have only recently been promoted to associate prof. And I am very rapidly approaching my 5th decade of life.
Economies are about choice, at the most fundamental level. You have options, and costs for pursuing these options. These costs are economic, personal, etc. The invisible hand of the economy works its magic in mysterious ways … usually through a cost benefit analysis.
For the former Soviet’s, staying in the Federation states represented more risk than moving several thousand miles to take low paying positions. Something was better than nothing.
For the newly minted Ph.D.s, they had to take a long hard look at what they wanted to do in life, and decide if the cost (years spent at low wages, and all the impacts upon their lives) was worth the benefit.
For the departments that gleefully offered these low wage postdocs, and minted metric butt-loads of new Ph.D.s, they had to weigh the cost-benefit analysis of low cost labor (lets not beat around the bush here, graduate student life is all about indentured servitude, or if you prefer, welfare for middle class kids) versus an uncertain future where the problems of massive oversupply would come back and haunt them hard.
Remember, supply and demand is always in force, even in socialist/communist regimes. Its always there. Just because you don’t like capitalistic economies doesn’t mean you can ever really turn them off. You can do your best to destroy them, by removing incentives to succeed … nee … by erecting barriers and penalties for success. France, with their newly elected government, is a textbook case of this. The damage that is being done to the productive classes there may take decades to undo.
Because, in part, the productive people can do a cost benefit analysis. When the going gets tough, the people whom are successful … the tough ones, get going. Somewhere else. And that loss of competitive edge, of brain power, of creativity … thats really hard to reverse.
But the point of this is that people have a choice. They don’t have to sit back and accept the crap that is foisted upon them by others.
In the article, I get a sense of, I am sorry to say this so bluntly, but … naivete.
When I read this

It is no secret that postdoctoral training in the academic life sciences is now lasting longer than it was just a decade ago. Indeed, a typical postdoc is now estimated to be greater than 3 years with some lasting as long as 7 to 10 years, while the position used to average just 1 to 2 years. This increased duration has been attributed to a number of factors, including a surplus of qualified PhDs, the scarcity of federal research dollars, and a decrease in faculty appointments and positions in industry. While extended postdoctoral training does offer an opportunity to advance a personal research program so as to be more competitive in securing future independent funding, it comes at a cost?the incredible financial challenges that accompany life as a postdoctoral fellow.

I thought … hey, they caught up with physics finally. I am not trying to make light of a bad situation. But you need to go into grad school with eyes wide open. Which means that you need to be aware that most of you will not get tenure track.
This is, in part, due to the massive oversupply of trained Ph.D. scientists out there. This oversupply is in part from decisions of various departments and professors that they need large numbers of cheap scientific laborers to pursue their research goals. And in part from a, well … a profoundly dishonest discussion with students about their potential careers after completing a Ph.D. I mean, if you told them the truth, exactly how many would pursue this? Compare 6 years slaving over a Ph.D, then 8 years in a postdoc with no benefits. So now you are 35, and have finally landed a permanent position … really a tenure track position. And if things work out, you’ll get tenure in 5 years.
Opportunity cost is the value of the alternative choice(s) you could have made. Once those values are larger than the choice you made, changing your mind, if possible, makes economic sense.
Its that darned invisible hand of the market again. It directly impacts peoples quality of life, their decisions. So they use that in their calculus of life … do they really … REALLY … want to go through the trials and tribulations, just to get a remote shot at a non-permanent position that may lead to a permanent position …
Sure, when you put it that way, it kinda sucks. The supply of graduate students, and postdocs vastly outnumbers the positions to place them into. So economics tells us that a) the price people are willing to pay for a grad student/post doc is low (because the alternative choice of another person costs them very little if they find another naive someone willing to work for those rates) and b) the supply will dwindle once the information makes its way back up the supply pipeline.
It used to be mostly in physics. Seeing the text here decry the 8:1 oversupply is … well … entertaining. Reminds me of that Monty Python skit. We had 100:1 oversupply as typical. Imagine 1000 new PhDs all vying for 10 jobs … ok, lets be more honest about this. Imagine this years 1000, last years 1000, … all vying for 10 jobs.
Thats the world I left. I made my choices, based upon the economics of the situation.
Would I do anything different now that I know what I do? Yeah, probably. CS PhDs finished FAR faster than Physics PhDs and got better jobs. Still do. Better postdocs. Had I been smarter, I’d have paid attention to the market forces at an earlier age.
But I wouldn’t do anything about the market forces. Its an illusion to think you can. You cannot control the invisible hand. You cannot restrain it. It shows massive naivete to suggest that we should do something about it.
So comments like this:

It is clear that something must be done but changes in a system that has been in place for so long and has trained many successful scientists will take time. It is important that these issues continue to be raised by postdoctoral organizations and presented to government agencies as well as the general public to inform them of the value of our training and the current deficiencies of the existing system. What attracts us most a career in science is the passion for experimentation and the pursuit of truth. With the same rigor, we should continue discuss these issues publically, and we will see positive results.

In a word, no. It is clear that the system is working. It is also clear that expectations are not being set correctly … no … thats not correct …
Its clear that there is an imbalance of information. Tremendous imbalance of information. All favoring those who need/want cheap labor. I.E. you. You are being bought and sold, for a distant promise of what could be. You are their cheap labor, and they have been, they are, and will continue to exploit you.
If you are naive, you keep believing this Utopian dream. If you eventually achieve the goals, hey, you never have to adjust your worldview. But most wont achieve their goals, and so they are going to have a reality check at some point.
Don’t mess with the market. It corrects itself. It has been doing this since the first barter. Attempting to fix a market now simply leads to prolonged pain in the future. This oversupply will be corrected for. Unfortunately, the longer you push off a correction, the more pain you cause. You cannot escape your medicine. And making us wait to take it only makes the disease worse.
Market forces work. One of the side effects of the unethical claims by some at the NSF in the mid eighties that we faced an unprecedented shortage of scientists (any of this sound familiar?) It was bullshit back then, and its bullshit every single time they’ve predicted it … again and again and again.
Personally, I’d like the NSF to apologize, to me, personally, for deliberately providing me with over-exaggerated visions of an economic future based upon predictions of a flawed report, and helping to hide from me the critical information I needed to assess my future path choices. Had I known, I may have pursued a different path. And that would have reduced the size of the cheap labor workforce. Have enough people like me that do this, and it alters the economics of finding grad students. And then postdocs. Over time, the supply drops, and you either need to shop for new sources of grad students, say, overseas, or you need to pay them more. Same with postdocs.
Guess what is happening.
Unfortunately, the people doing this are the same ones who got lucky in that lottery, so their world view is often at right angles to reality. And they have no problems exploiting that asymmetric information gap to their advantage. So they continue to overproduce Ph.D.s with no hope for tenure tracks.
Every time the invisible hand starts removing supply of raw material from this process (e.g. reducing graduate admissions), someone hauls out another claim of massive risk from underproduction of scientists and engineers. They are attempting to manipulate the market.
For every choice, there is a cost. For every set of poor choices, repeated endlessly over a long duration, there is an incredible cost. I am not quite sure that they fathom this. Doesn’t make it any less real.
We need fewer Ph.D. level people. If we needed more, there’d be enough demand for them to prevent the sort of situations from occurring that this person wrote of. And the demand would drive up the pipeline to create the supply.
On the other side, if we have too many, information of the massive oversupply gradually makes its way back to the feedstock. Who make alternative choices.
Can’t have that now. /sarc
No, the market is doing the right thing. Those who think they are getting low cost benefit now, are going to have a huge cost to pay in the future.
Economics 101.
Understand what you are getting into, what your chances are, and whats going to happen. Its not going to be pretty, its going to be brutal, and the choices that you make are going to stay with you for a long time.
Market forces will eventually, and quite fully, correct for the supply and demand imbalance. You mess with a market, you pay the price. Create supply bubbles, and you depress prices, which causes suppliers of the cheap labor … er … people … to rethink their options. Enough of that happens over a long enough interval, and you can do tremendous, and permanent irrecoverable damage to your ability to entice smart people into the fields.
There is no conceivable reason why you would ever want this. Yet, by flooding the market with cheap labor, you invite this to happen.
Cheap steel from overseas killed the US steel producers markets … something one of the candidates for president is being accused of now … Destroy the other producers, and then you get to set the prices when they are gone. Sorta like a specific HPC vendor and HPC clusters. Suck all the oxygen out of the room, and when the rest die off, you have the market to yourself. Which allows you to set any price you want. All handed to you on a silver platter, courtesy of well defined behavior of purchasing agents. Same damned issue, same damned impact.