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Is academia a scam?

by gravenewworld
Tags: academia, scam
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Vanadium 50
#19
Feb11-12, 12:10 PM
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Quote Quote by gravenewworld View Post
Maybe institutions should start enforcing mandatory retirement after the age of 60 to give other people the opportunity to find work.
First, that's illegal in the US.

Second, it doesn't solve your problem: it just slightly changes the exponent.

Third, how does the field as a whole benefit from this? It's a myth that there are no faculty jobs. There are maybe 150 new positions opening up in PhD-granting universities yearly. Your system would allow 50 people who wouldn't be able to get faculty positions under the old system to get positions. Why is this better? Why is it better to force someone who is 61 and still effective to retire in order to hire someone who wouldn't be able to get a faculty job if there were only 150 of them?
pi-r8
#20
Feb12-12, 01:03 AM
P: 146
I have to say I think the job statistics for science majors are a bit of a scam. Not that they're lying... they're just very, very deceptive.

For example, the BLS says that the median wage for physicists is $102,890. Wow, right??? Good money! But you have to look reaaaaally carefully to find this little nugget:
Physicists and astronomers held about 17,100 jobs in 2008. Physicists accounted for about 15,600 of these, while astronomers accounted for only about 1,500 jobs. In addition, there were about 15,500 physicists employed in faculty positions; these workers are covered in more detail in the statement on teachers—postsecondary elsewhere in the Handbook.
So they're not counting professors, post-docs, or graduate students as physicists, even though those people are the ones doing the vast majority of physics research. Heck, even Albert Einstein wouldn't count as a physicist according to that measure. They are taking data from a very narrow subsection of physicists, and reporting that as if it's representative.

Or perhaps we look at surveys from the AIP. They tell us that people with either a bachelor's degree or a PhD in physics have only a 4% unemployment rate, and that 71% of people with a bachelors degree get a job in a STEM field with a good salary. In this economy, that's fantastic! Economists would say that we're at full employment, so basically everyone who wants a job can find one quickly. There should not be any long-term unemployment except for very rare cases.

Except, again, we have to look at the fine print. Reading the survey methodology reveals that only 40% of new physics grads actually answered their survey. They do have data for 54% of new PhDs, but 31% of that came from their advisors rather than the PhDs themselves. Of course 40% is fine if this were a truly random sample... but it isn't. The people who voluntarily self-report will tend to be the people who have jobs that they can be proud of. I know that, for me, I didn't answer my university's career survey because I was too ashamed of being unemployed.

The best numbers I think come from Andrew Sum. He used US census data, which is important because it tracks everyone. He calculated that only 67.9% of new physical science grads are employed (!) 11.4% were employed in jobs that don't require any college degree at all. The median wage was only $14,607 or $20,687 depending on if you had a job that required a degree, which is frankly pathetic. Note that physical science majors earn less than almost all other fields of study, including humanities.

I know I wouldn't have bothered to work through a physics degree if I'd been told employment data like that. Should have just learned programming instead. But of course the schools want to make sure they have a plentiful supply of new graduate students available to do all the research and teaching work for a paltry salary...

Looking at these misleading statistics, I can't help but be reminded of what's happening at law schools. Law students take on an outrageous amount of debt, because they think that once they graduate they'll make a high salary as a lawyer. It turns out that the "official" statistics from law schools are utterly worthless. Some law school graduates end up swamped with debt that they are literally committing suicide. The law schools hide this with the same kind of basic methodology mistakes that the AIP does, like relying on self-reported data with a very low response rate. (Ironically, it's my training in science that teaches me to identify what a huge error that is! I wouldn't have understood when I was a freshman how important a random sample is.)

If you want to encourage students to study science, make sure you're giving them accurate and clear information that won't mislead them. If the only defense is "caveat emptor- they should have done better research before they commited to this!" well that's pretty much the universal defense of scammers.
Choppy
#21
Feb12-12, 02:50 PM
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An interesting post, Pi-r8.

Most of the time when people challenge the statistics they come up with some pretty lame arguments that aren't supported by anything more than anecdotal evidence. Here you have presented something a little more concrete.

Of course you have to be just as suspiscious with the census data. For example, does it consider someone who is currently in graduate school or professional school unemployed?

There is also the implication that being employed in a position where a degree is not necessary equates to underemployment. It doesn't require a degree to be an entrepreneur, or to be a programmer or to work in network admimistration, for example. For a while I really wanted to be a cop before I started my PhD. If that would have worked out, I wouldn't have considered myself underemployed even though I had a master's degree because that education would have been useful in gaining promotions. I'm not saying that underemployment doesn't exist though. I knew one guy with a physics MSc who was driving cabs.

And then there's the theory that self-reporting is skewed because only people who are proud of their jobs report. One, admittedly anecdotal piece of evidence against this is that if you spend a fair amount of time reading the posts on these boards it would seem that the people who aren't happy with their job prospects after a physics degree are quite vocal about it. Further, what about a skew the other way - that people who are busy with fullfilling jobs don't have time to fill out surveys?

What is interesting is that the data you've provided seems to be a little more recent than the numbers I've seen from the AIP, ie. we're comparing pre- and post-recession data.
pi-r8
#22
Feb12-12, 04:40 PM
P: 146
To be honest, Choppy, the main reason I distrust the official statistics is simply that they don't match up with my own anecdotal experiences. Just judging by people I've talked to, it seems hard to believe that we're really in a 4% unemployment labor market. But I know that anecdotal evidence isn't very convincing, and I've spent a long time thinking about how to find real evidence.

According to the BLS, "people are considered employed if they did any work at all for pay or profit during the survey week." and "Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work."

To be honest, I'm not sure how grad students would fit into that definition, and I can't find any details that address grad students specifically. It might be up to the individual to decide how they choose to report themselves to the census taker.

You're right that it's hard to neatly classify all jobs as "college" or "not-college" but the news article says they decided based on if the job "typically requires a college degree" which should be good enough for a general picture. I would assume that programmer and network administration are considered college jobs, in that report.

There's definitely a lot of different possibilities for skew, which is why self-reported data is so unreliable. But if you read any surveys of the psychological affects of unemployment, they all agree that it tends to make people become depressed, lose energy, and lose their normal connections to society. Especially when people have internalized the idea that they should have succeeded because "everyone else in my field has a good job", but something was wrong with them. Again I think the law schools scamblog movement is interesting in this respect, because it seems like so many students were being silently ashamed of themselves until they made contact through the internet and realized that many others were in the same situation- that's when they finally began to speak out.
twofish-quant
#23
Feb12-12, 10:20 PM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by pi-r8 View Post
I have to say I think the job statistics for science majors are a bit of a scam. Not that they're lying... they're just very, very deceptive.
It's also because the reality is complicated. One problem with statistics is that people have this idea that one number will tell you everything, when in fact it won't.

themselves. Of course 40% is fine if this were a truly random sample... but it isn't. The people who voluntarily self-report will tend to be the people who have jobs that they can be proud of. I know that, for me, I didn't answer my university's career survey because I was too ashamed of being unemployed.
On the other hand, that number "makes sense" to me. Among the physics Ph.D.'s that I know of, I don't know of anyone that is unemployed, and since I know 20-30 personally, that's consistent with an unemployment rate of about 5%.

He calculated that only 67.9% of new physical science grads are employed (!) 11.4% were employed in jobs that don't require any college degree at all. The median wage was only $14,607 or $20,687 depending on if you had a job that required a degree, which is frankly pathetic.
That's also mixing apples and oranges. If you count physics bachelors, you are likely to see a huge number of people in graduate school which pulls down salary figures.

I know I wouldn't have bothered to work through a physics degree if I'd been told employment data like that. Should have just learned programming instead.
I did both.

Looking at these misleading statistics, I can't help but be reminded of what's happening at law schools.
Yes, and one thing that I think that you'll find is that the statistics for physicists are *less* fudged than statistics for most other fields. That's an important thing to keep in mind when choose major and buying used cars. Yes, the salesman is probably lying to you, but the question is whether or not they are lying to you more or less than the person across the street.

If you have to choose people physics and law, and you "unfudge" physics stats but don't "unfudge" law stats, then you looks bad, but if you "unfudge" both, physics starts looking good again.

It's fine to be cynical, but you have to be even handed.

If you want to encourage students to study science, make sure you're giving them accurate and clear information that won't mislead them.
Sure, but the person getting that information has to realize that accurate information is more complicated than just one number.

One big problem with salary data, is that what you really want to know is median salary in 2016, and *no one* has that information.
twofish-quant
#24
Feb12-12, 10:28 PM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by pi-r8 View Post
To be honest, Choppy, the main reason I distrust the official statistics is simply that they don't match up with my own anecdotal experiences. Just judging by people I've talked to, it seems hard to believe that we're really in a 4% unemployment labor market.
For physics Ph.D.'s it matches my experience. Note that most Ph.D.'s I know are in their 30's, and I don't know the current situation for people fresh out of school. But the unemployment rate for Ph.D.s is substantially lower than people without Ph.D.'s.

But I know that anecdotal evidence isn't very convincing, and I've spent a long time thinking about how to find real evidence.
We can compare anecdotes. If you know large numbers of unemployed physics Ph.D.'s, I'd be interested in knowing more. We can compare notes to see what is going on.

Again I think the law schools scamblog movement is interesting in this respect, because it seems like so many students were being silently ashamed of themselves until they made contact through the internet and realized that many others were in the same situation- that's when they finally began to speak out.
On the other hand seeing the agony that law students are going through now makes me thank my stars that I went into science and engineering.
twofish-quant
#25
Feb12-12, 10:32 PM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by Vanadium 50 View Post
First, that's illegal in the US.

Second, it doesn't solve your problem: it just slightly changes the exponent.
It also kills my career plans. One thing that gives me a lot of hope is that I've seen productive physicists in their 80's and 90's, so my "worst case scenario" is that I work until I'm 59 1/2, at which point my 401(k) and IRA's open up, and then I spend the rest of my life doing astrophysics.
Pyrrhus
#26
Feb12-12, 10:50 PM
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One important difference is typically no debt after grad school for Science and Engineering graduates. Also, for some social science graduates like Econ.
pi-r8
#27
Feb12-12, 11:48 PM
P: 146
Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
On the other hand, that number "makes sense" to me. Among the physics Ph.D.'s that I know of, I don't know of anyone that is unemployed, and since I know 20-30 personally, that's consistent with an unemployment rate of about 5%.
Bear in mind that statistic is only for people who got their degree in the previous year. Do you really know 20-30 people that got a physics PhD last year?

Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
That's also mixing apples and oranges. If you count physics bachelors, you are likely to see a huge number of people in graduate school which pulls down salary figures.
Well that data is basically just for new bachelors degrees (including all physical sciences, not just physics). There's so many more bachelors compared to PhDs that they get swamped. And I guess I should mention that I only have a physics bachelors myself, so that's mostly what I'm concerned about. Besides... I know that having a BS in physics is nothing special on this website, but to most people it is. Everyone says like "wow that must have been really hard! You must have been so smart!" And hey, it was really hard. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that most people who get a physics BS (or any kind of science BS really) should be able to quickly find a decent job once they're done.

Anyway, since the reported salary is actually lower than what most grad students get as a stipend, wouldn't they actually be pulling the salary figures up?


Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
I did both.
That's probably what everyone should do. It just feels like such a kick in the pants to hear that all the core classes you take to get a physics degree are almost totally unrelated to any kind of job. It's like "Oh we forgot to tell you that if you want any money you need to teach yourself programming in your spare time."

Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
Yes, and one thing that I think that you'll find is that the statistics for physicists are *less* fudged than statistics for most other fields. That's an important thing to keep in mind when choose major and buying used cars. Yes, the salesman is probably lying to you, but the question is whether or not they are lying to you more or less than the person across the street.
True. I'm annoyed at the AIP for not having better data, but I have to admit that they are far better in this respect than almost any other major. Most departments just give the exact same spiel "we teach you critical thinking that will prepare you for absolutely any job. And even if the job numbers are tough right now, don't worry, because any minute now a whole bunch of baby boomers are about to retire and then you'll find a great job in our field easily."

Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
For physics Ph.D.'s it matches my experience. Note that most Ph.D.'s I know are in their 30's, and I don't know the current situation for people fresh out of school. But the unemployment rate for Ph.D.s is substantially lower than people without Ph.D.'s.
Well again, their data is only for people with a fresh PhD, and they don't have much data for post-recession. Also, they don't track what happens after the post-doc, which seems like a major problem. Right now the main career path in physics seems to be:

Bachelors -> PhD -> postdoc -> ?????

Being a postdoc is fine, but you can't stay a postdoc forever. At some point you have to transition to a permanent job, and that's the really hard part.

Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
We can compare anecdotes. If you know large numbers of unemployed physics Ph.D.'s, I'd be interested in knowing more. We can compare notes to see what is going on.
I'm too young- pretty much everyone I know is still in grad school (geez, academia is slow!). What really worries me is that grad school just seemed like the default choice for every physics student who had halfway decent grades. I went for a while, but quit after I realized I had lost interest in it.

Of the 13 people that I can think of who graduated in my class, eight are in grad school, three of us were unemployed for a long time before finding (not very good) jobs, one is still unemployed, and one is a ski instructor (admittedly that sounds like a lot of fun).

Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
On the other hand seeing the agony that law students are going through now makes me thank my stars that I went into science and engineering.
Ain't that the truth. Apparently there's such a "critical shortage" of scientists that the government was willing to pay for my studies so I could graduate debt-free. I'm only now starting to realize how amazingly lucky I was in that respect. It just seems bizarre that they'll pay for people to learn science, but not to actually [i]do[i/] science.

On a personal note, twofish, I've read a lot of your other posts in this forum and I think they're gold. Thanks a lot for some very insightful advice. I don't always agree with you but it's still very helpful.
pi-r8
#28
Feb12-12, 11:57 PM
P: 146
Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
It also kills my career plans. One thing that gives me a lot of hope is that I've seen productive physicists in their 80's and 90's, so my "worst case scenario" is that I work until I'm 59 1/2, at which point my 401(k) and IRA's open up, and then I spend the rest of my life doing astrophysics.
One possibility (for everyone) would be to just work a part-time job to pay the bills and work on science research the rest of the time. I know that people who try to submit physics research from outside academia are usually cranks- especially the ones for theoretical astrophysics- but this really might be feasible in the future. If you've got a PhD you've got all the training you need, the internet lets you collaborate with everyone else in the field, and a theorist won't need much equipment. Is there anything impossible with that plan?
twofish-quant
#29
Feb13-12, 12:42 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by pi-r8 View Post
Bear in mind that statistic is only for people who got their degree in the previous year. Do you really know 20-30 people that got a physics PhD last year?
No, but there is a professor in my department that keeps track of these things. A 4% unemployment rate among Ph.D. seems reasonable, and I don't see any reason to question that number.

Besides... I know that having a BS in physics is nothing special on this website, but to most people it is. Everyone says like "wow that must have been really hard! You must have been so smart!" And hey, it was really hard. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that most people who get a physics BS (or any kind of science BS really) should be able to quickly find a decent job once they're done.
It's not unreasonable, but you happen to have had the misfortunate of graduating into the aftermath of the worst economic calamity in the last eighty years. You are screwed. The question is "how screwed are you" and I think that you are less screwed with a physics bachelors than with most other degrees.

Your demand are not unreasonable, but sometimes reality turns out to be unreasonable.

Anyway, since the reported salary is actually lower than what most grad students get as a stipend, wouldn't they actually be pulling the salary figures up?
I don't think it is lower.

That's probably what everyone should do. It just feels like such a kick in the pants to hear that all the core classes you take to get a physics degree are almost totally unrelated to any kind of job. It's like "Oh we forgot to tell you that if you want any money you need to teach yourself programming in your spare time."
Not just programming, but there are about a thousand other skills that you have to teach yourself. School is just part of your education. Now if you thought that a degree was just a meal ticket, in which you do what you are told, and then at the end there is a nice job waiting for you. That's not the way that it works.

One of the things that I very strongly tell people is to take humanities very seriously. Learn history and economics and philosophy and art. The reason for that is that those also give you about a dozen skills that you need for the workplace.

Something that you have to realize is that sometimes no one has the answers. We are in an economic mess and no one knows the way out, but the point of a college education is to give you enough background so that you can figure out what to do next.

True. I'm annoyed at the AIP for not having better data, but I have to admit that they are far better in this respect than almost any other major. Most departments just give the exact same spiel "we teach you critical thinking that will prepare you for absolutely any job.
Which is more or less true. Now we have the problem that the jobs aren't there, and no one seems to know what to do about it. *That's* when the critical thinking skills really need to kick in.

Well again, their data is only for people with a fresh PhD, and they don't have much data for post-recession. Also, they don't track what happens after the post-doc, which seems like a major problem. Right now the main career path in physics seems to be:

Bachelors -> PhD -> postdoc -> ?????
I know people that have done tracking. One thing that I think is cool about physics is that there *ISN'T* a main career path. I've figured out something that seems to work for me. It probably won't work for you.

Once you get to the level of Ph.D.'s, everyone is different. Also one thing that you learn when you do Ph.D. tracking over a long period of time is that the path changes from decade to decade. If you are starting graduate school right now, I haven't the foggiest clue what your career path will look like. So you better be prepared for anything, either good or bad.

Being a postdoc is fine, but you can't stay a postdoc forever. At some point you have to transition to a permanent job, and that's the really hard part.
No you don't. You never have a permanent job. I've switched fields every five years or so. There is no such thing as a permanent job. I hear rumors that they existed once before, but that was before my time. I've never had a permanent job. My current job pays well, but I could be out the door tomorrow.

It just seems bizarre that they'll pay for people to learn science, but not to actually [i]do[i/] science.
It depends on how broadly you define science.
twofish-quant
#30
Feb13-12, 12:52 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by pi-r8 View Post
One possibility (for everyone) would be to just work a part-time job to pay the bills and work on science research the rest of the time.
Thought of that myself. It doesn't work.

The problem is that high paying jobs are invariably not part-time, and jobs that are part-time don't pay enough to allow any surplus. If this were viable, I'd be doing it.

I know that people who try to submit physics research from outside academia are usually cranks- especially the ones for theoretical astrophysics- but this really might be feasible in the future. If you've got a PhD you've got all the training you need, the internet lets you collaborate with everyone else in the field, and a theorist won't need much equipment. Is there anything impossible with that plan?
I haven't gotten this to work, because:

1) the key thing to do science to to have professional networks, Those are very hard to build up, and it's being physically outside of a university makes things difficult.
2) library/books are a problem. In astrophysics the journal articles are online, but some of the major books are not
3) the basic unit of research is a paper, and in order to write a paper you need to have several months free, and you can't carve that out easily when you are working full time

All of these are "engineering" problems and there is no law of physics that keeps people from restructuring the system to make it more friendly to part-time physicists, except that there isn't any political or economic incentive to do so. Right now there is a "glut" of scientists. Making it easier to do science will just increase the "glut" with no economic or political benefit that I can see.

When you are an undergraduate, you are money-poor but time-rich, once you get to age 40, you have more than enough money, but no time. I'm hoping things will change when I hit 50 or 60.
Mépris
#31
Feb13-12, 12:59 AM
P: 830
^
If a reasonable number of physicists work together outside of universities, build their own internet community - an online department, if you will - and everybody meets on a fixed date and time, would problem 1) not be fixed?
twofish-quant
#32
Feb13-12, 12:59 AM
P: 6,863
Also the fact that everyone can talk to everyone on the internet doesn't solve things. The problem with having everyone talk to everyone is that it results in a many shallow personal networks, whereas science research depends on having a few *deep* relationships. The other thing is that sometimes in order to have a conversation, you have to keep people out of the conversation.

Again, this is an "social engineering" problem, but it's not a trivial one to solve.
twofish-quant
#33
Feb13-12, 01:05 AM
P: 6,863
Quote Quote by Mépris View Post
^
If a reasonable number of physicists work together outside of universities, build their own internet community - an online department, if you will - and everybody meets on a fixed date and time, would problem 1) not be fixed?
Easier said then done. One problem is that if you have two professors from different universities swap ideas on their latest research online, this is considered good, and all non-trivial scientific collaborations go between different universities. If you have two people from competing companies do that, they'll get fired, assuming the regulators don't investigate you for anti-trust violations.

In order to have a department you need money and staff. And what's the point? It's not incredibly difficult to get an adjunct position once you have some status and reputation.
Biosyn
#34
Feb13-12, 02:04 AM
Biosyn's Avatar
P: 112
Quote Quote by Pengwuino View Post
How is it a scam? At what point during a BS or PhD are students told they have to go into academia and become professors? A scam, by definition, must tell its targets of an attainable position/result when in fact, that position/result is impossible or nearly impossible to reach.

Thus, it is not a scam, despite some people deciding on their own that the only job they should be going for is a professorship.
Exactly what I was thinking.
Why would it be a scam? Students should do their due diligence. It's their choice. I don't think it's a scam.
pi-r8
#35
Feb13-12, 02:14 AM
P: 146
Quote Quote by twofish-quant View Post
Also the fact that everyone can talk to everyone on the internet doesn't solve things. The problem with having everyone talk to everyone is that it results in a many shallow personal networks, whereas science research depends on having a few *deep* relationships. The other thing is that sometimes in order to have a conversation, you have to keep people out of the conversation.

Again, this is an "social engineering" problem, but it's not a trivial one to solve.
That doesn't sound so hard to me. I've personally worked on several different kinds of projects with people that I've met through internet sites (it's a millenial thing- you old folks wouldn't understand :P). And after reading forums for a while, I start to get a feel for who is worth paying attention to and who I can safely ignore. You even have that special medal image to give you special recognition on this forum! I honestly think the only reason that nobody does "serious" science outside of academia is cultural inertia. We've internalized the idea that the only people outside academia who write science articles are cranks, and therefore the only people who do that tend to actually be cranks, which justifies our belief in ignoring those people.
pi-r8
#36
Feb13-12, 02:20 AM
P: 146
Quote Quote by Biosyn View Post
Exactly what I was thinking.
Why would it be a scam? Students should do their due diligence. It's their choice. I don't think it's a scam.
"You should have done your due diligence" is not a valid justification of anything. Especially not when students are getting their heads filled with romantic advice like "follow your dreams", "trust your gut", and "just do what you love and don't worry about the money". I still say that it's unreasonably difficult for science students to get a realistic understanding of what a career path through academia is like.

One interesting thing I read recently is that higher education is in sort of a bizarre legal situation. They can't directly say that a college degree will help you get a job, because that would open them up to lawsuits if it doesn't. They also can't say that it won't help you get a job, because that's the main reason most people go to college. So instead they have to do sort of a "wink wink, nudge nudge" and let 3rd parties make the case that a college degree will get you a job.


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