Please hire. Desperate.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Back in grad school, we joked that PhD was an abbreviation for the sentiment expressed in the above title, but the joke was on lots of us. Around that time, articles like this one in Nature were all over the place. They covered folks with terminal degrees who took non-traditional career paths, for various reasons related to the fact that too many had trained for too few positions. This piece covers the surprising (to some) fact that often, it's not the low achievers who are crowded out, but the better prospects who decide to leave. Here is an excerpt from a section called, "From chemist to capitalist":

Image via Pixabay.
[Soroosh] Shambayati is among the hundreds of thousands of scientists who train in academia but then leave to follow a different career. According to the latest survey of doctorate recipients conducted by the US National Science Foundation, nearly one-fifth of employed people with science and engineering PhDs were no longer working in science in 2010. This is partly due to a lack of room at the top. In the United States, the number of PhDs entering the workforce has skyrocketed but the number of stable academic jobs has not. In 1973, nearly 90% of US PhDs working in academia held full-time faculty positions, compared with about 75% in 2010. [bold added]
It is interesting to contemplate several things in addition to the values each of the three subjects considered in making their decisions. Many cite their science training as factors in their success, but what if each had started his or her ultimate career earlier, either training in it or, in the case of the stay-at-home dad, being able to move on earlier? And on top of that, there is the fact that each studies science either at the wrong time or instead of something else. Much of the PhD glut is due to central "planning" in the form of government funding of training and research in the sciences. How many people have wasted time or effort due to such encouragement? This isn't just an insult added to the injury caused by taking the funds by force in the first place.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

My father, who had a PhD in Botany and did some of the original work in photo-periodism (biological clock for plants) had a different take:

"You know what BS is?
Well, MS is 'More of the Same'
and PhD means, Piled higher and Deeper'"

His other quip was that the process of education in Academia was that you "learned
more and more about less and less until finally you knew everything about nothing."

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Both are good, and I somehow managed never to hear the first.



Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "They covered folks with terminal degrees who took non-traditional career paths, for various reasons related to the fact that too many had trained for too few positions."

I know that I jumped at the chance to get a very well-paying job outside of academia just as I was starting my academic job search after my post-doc. Besides the hyper-politicized BS that's ruling and befouling the nest (which is not nearly as bad in linguistics as in most of the humanities, despite the presence of Chomsky, who while being a political crazy does not import his political craziness into his linguistic work--he keeps his politics and his linguistics mostly separate, never mind the fact that he's no lover of post-modernism), I was just sick of academia. More than that, the job would have allowed me to do a lot more fieldwork in my subject than being a professor would. But really, it was mostly being sick of academia, and especially the specter of having to produce reams of rushed tenure fodder. I hate BS; I have no desire to inflict it on others--the colleagues I didn't respect wouldn't deserve even the drudgework, and the ones I did respect I'd be embarrassed to show it to.

However, the great job I did get did require a terminal degree. In return, I was paid a princely sum to learn a choice profession, if in a very narrow market niche, alas. As I used to joke: It's great being overworked and overpaid--I highly recommend it to everyone.

On a more scholarly level, I find myself in agreement in this respect at least with Bryan Magee in his Confessions of a Philosopher. He went into TV with the BBC after earning his PhD in philosophy from Oxbridge and produced shows on philosophy. He wrote that by not having to focus on the minutiae of contemporary thinkers and their ever-more picayune doings and thinkings, he was able to focus on the eternal issues and the great thinkers. Certainly it's an interesting and eminently readable book, even where I disagree with him; the chapters on Kant and Schopenhauer are quite good, clear and concise expositions of their thought, as is his slash-and-burn yet eminently fair dissection of French pomo "thought."

This is somewhat true for me as well--I've had a great time in my spare time rereading all the books I read in grad school and beyond them to get my own independent view of my field. On the other hand, one of my two major specializations is acoustic phonetics, which is experiencing great scientific growth as we speak--new software to analyze stress, for example, which is surprisingly hard to study as a problem in physics, for the ear is a well-equipped and curious beast. In this respect, it is a loss not being part of the academic mainstream, but I keep up as best I can--the real benefit of being classified as a visiting researcher even though I never visit is full access to the latest journals. (I really need to go give a talk some day. They give me free email; it's the least I could do.)

Gus Van Horn said...


You remind me of an interesting Twitter thread I happened upon, in which someone offered thoughts on academic writing suffering due to it being done in a gift economy.

To his point of it being torture to write like that, I give a hearty amen, as someone who wakes up at zero dark thirty every day just to write...

That's hardly the whole problem, but he's onto something.