# Are universities reducing the number of Physics PhD students they take on?

• Schools

## Main Question or Discussion Point

I heard that at my university only three of twelve condensed matter professors are taking on new PhD students this year, and was told that it's similar in other departments, as well (this latter claim is unverified). This came as a surprise, especially after hearing at the beginning of the previous year that the university's research budget has increased, so that it's now amongst the very top in Canada. So if we're having problems like these, how is it with other universities, be it in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan or Uzbekistan. Have other PF posters experienced similar things at their universities?

Any feedback would be appreciated, I'm just trying to gauge the situation and see whether this is a bad year in general, bad year at my university, a normal situation or perhaps a general declining trend.

Depressing articles indeed.

I am interested to know the job growth compared to the number of granted PhD's in that same given time period. 1990-current. If the job-to-PhD ratio is about the same why would this be a problem at all?

Thanks for the links, I've already read all of those but one, but they don't really address the issue I'm asking about. I meant specifically for Physics PhD's and specifically for these last couple of years.

Andy Resnick
Any feedback would be appreciated, I'm just trying to gauge the situation and see whether this is a bad year in general, bad year at my university, a normal situation or perhaps a general declining trend.
My primary appointment is in a MS-granting physics department and I have a secondary appointment in a PhD-granting biology department (US state research university).

From my perspective, we are not seeing a decrease in the number of 'slots'- in fact, we are currently trying to increase graduate enrollment. The underlying issue is 'who pays tuition and stipend?'. The trend I have seen is that graduate tuition is increasingly paid by the Graduate school/Dean's office (that is, some centralized organization rather than individual departments), while the stipend is paid by the PI, through a research grant.

This sets up a situation where the Dean's office (for example) has authority over entering class sizes for the various departments. In theory, the class size is informed by the amount of research dollars generated by the different departments, since the costs of the entering students are then eventually passed to the particular department the student 'lives in'. The Dean also has a vested interest in making sure entering students can eventually reach the terminal degree by ensuring there are labs/advisors for students to enter.

Because graduate schools have over the past 20+ years become increasingly dependent on federal research grant dollars, as the competition for grant dollars has increased, schools may be compensating by restricting the number of entering students.

However, this effect could be smaller than an additional and unrelated factor- more students are trying to enter graduate school because the job market is so tight.

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
Individual universities attempt to throttle the number of students entering their programs to ensure that they don't have more students in the middle of their PhD's than they can support. This can mean lots of things from a changing department focus to lingering grad students.

I don't think you can tell anything from one point.

Yeah, good point, and exactly the reason why I wanted to hear from other people, as well.

Depressing articles indeed.
Overly depressing. IMHO. One thing that is interesting is that if you graph the number of Ph.D.'s admitted/graduated each year, since 1965 it's always been roughly between 1000-1500. There's nothing that I've heard that suggests that the admissions are outside that range.

I am interested to know the job growth compared to the number of granted PhD's in that same given time period. 1990-current. If the job-to-PhD ratio is about the same why would this be a problem at all?
see http://web.mit.edu/dikaiser/www/CWB.html

The problem is that the job/physics Ph.D. situation has been the same since the *1970's*. Honestly, I think the only thing that has changed since 1985 is that the internet makes it impossible for people to disappear, so that in 1990 you could publish job projections and not have a thousand people say "bogus" whereas in 2011, the internet won't let you do that.

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Overly depressing. IMHO. ...
The problem is that the job/physics Ph.D. situation has been the same since the *1970's*. Honestly, I think the only thing that has changed since 1985 is that the internet makes it impossible for people to disappear, so that in 1990 you could publish job projections and not have a thousand people say "bogus" whereas in 2011, the internet won't let you do that.
I have to disagree pretty strongly here. The difference is the kinds of jobs available to Ph.Ds. Starting in the 1970s the trend has been for Ph.D.s to become extended cheap labor with multiple post-docs, fellowships, and non-tenure-track positions. Faculty appointments are getting fewer-and-farther in between. For example, the number of postdocs in Particle Physics that Princeton *alone* is hiring this year exceeds the number of tenure-track faculty positions for Particle Physics in the whole USA. So I believe there really is an issue here.

For example, the number of postdocs in Particle Physics that Princeton *alone* is hiring this year exceeds the number of tenure-track faculty positions for Particle Physics in the whole USA. So I believe there really is an issue here.

Quoting from that first Nature article above:

The proportion of people with science PhDs who get tenured academic positions in the sciences has been dropping steadily and industry has not fully absorbed the slack...

Figures suggest that more doctorates are taking jobs that do not require a PhD. "It's a waste of resources," says Stephan. "We're spending a lot of money training these students and then they go out and get jobs that they're not well matched for."

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
But what makes you think things were different in the past? Apart from the rare spurts of growth (really only two - post-WW2 and post-Sputnik) it has always been difficult to get a faculty job.

The other thing to remember is back in the 60's and 70's, assistant professors were essentially postdocs. Postdoc duties, postdoc wages, and postdoc job security.

I understand why people think that entering the faculty market is difficult today. I don't understand why people think that entering the faculty market was easier 20 years ago.

But what makes you think things were different in the past? Apart from the rare spurts of growth (really only two - post-WW2 and post-Sputnik) it has always been difficult to get a faculty job.

The other thing to remember is back in the 60's and 70's, assistant professors were essentially postdocs. Postdoc duties, postdoc wages, and postdoc job security.

I understand why people think that entering the faculty market is difficult today. I don't understand why people think that entering the faculty market was easier 20 years ago.
That is still true of an assistant professor. The difference is new professors today are dealing with the postdoc duties, postdoc wages, and postdoc job security at 35 instead of at 28. I disagree somewhat with the part about "postdoc duties". New professors were expected to initiate new research programs (in general). That is rarely the case for postdocs today.

I agree with you that the faculty market wasn't any easier 20 years ago. However, I still maintain it *was* easier in the 1960s. The academic-industrial complex was in strong growth mode then. Today it is not (we are in agreement there). Easier doesn't mean easy, of course. But there are more really good candidates for each opening today than there were in the 1960s or 1970s, and that is a fact.

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
The 60's, especially the early 60's, were the post Sputnik period. One of the exceptions I mentioned. But holy smokes - it was 50 years ago. What I don't understand is the perception that somehow that is what's normal and we're somehow in the middle of a 50 year aberration.

What I also don't understand is how 25 years ago, it was understood that getting a faculty job after a PhD was the exception and not the rule, but somehow people seem surprised by that today.

I also suggest you take a look at assistant professor salaries today. They are much better than a postdoc's. State schools often publish their salaries online so you can see. (And remember to multiply by 11/9ths)

The 60's, especially the early 60's, were the post Sputnik period. One of the exceptions I mentioned. But holy smokes - it was 50 years ago. What I don't understand is the perception that somehow that is what's normal and we're somehow in the middle of a 50 year aberration.

What I also don't understand is how 25 years ago, it was understood that getting a faculty job after a PhD was the exception and not the rule, but somehow people seem surprised by that today.

I also suggest you take a look at assistant professor salaries today. They are much better than a postdoc's. State schools often publish their salaries online so you can see. (And remember to multiply by 11/9ths)
I don't disagree with you. The issue for me is that the whole academic system is constructed to manufacture more professors, and there isn't enough spaces for them. Not even close. I think you're misstating my position if you think I believe that the 1960s were normal. I think today is normal, but the message is not getting out to college students.

You're correct about assistant professor salaries. My point is people are just getting started on the faculty ladder when they were be pushing mid-career in most fields.

Sure, getting a faculty job was always the exception, but most people don't realize how much of an exception it really is.

I heard that at my university only three of twelve condensed matter professors are taking on new PhD students this year, and was told that it's similar in other departments, as well (this latter claim is unverified). This came as a surprise, especially after hearing at the beginning of the previous year that the university's research budget has increased, so that it's now amongst the very top in Canada. So if we're having problems like these, how is it with other universities, be it in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan or Uzbekistan. Have other PF posters experienced similar things at their universities?

Any feedback would be appreciated, I'm just trying to gauge the situation and see whether this is a bad year in general, bad year at my university, a normal situation or perhaps a general declining trend.
Here's a quote from a Canadian material sciences professor (left as a comment for one of those Nature articles linked above):

The problem is not that there are too many PhD. The problem is that there are much less jobs outside academia, in North America specifically, that require a PhD degree. In the past many bright PhD went not to academia but to research divisions of big corporations, where they contributed to development of novel innovative products and made good science at the same time. In my area lots of fundamental work was done by people from places like IBM, RCA, etc. And where is RCA now?

Now corporations do not do R&D. They watch the bottom line and move production to China and other countries. Little wonder there is such a demand in China, the R&D jobs follow the production facilities. It makes little sense to keep an R&D department 10,000 miles from the production. So these jobs disappeared.

Now the new breakthrough research is supposedly being done in universities, by people like me (I am a mid-career prof in Canada, materials research). However, I am forced to work with graduate students and (very rarely) postdocs because I do not have sufficient funding. This is partially a Canadian problem where an average grant size is slightly over $30,000 per year. Well, most of us have more than one grant, so we survive, but there is no way we could create permanent scientist positions, there are neither sufficient funds nor indeed room in the university structure to accommodate such kinds of jobs. Our main granting agency in sciences and engineering in fact specifically forbids funding of a pdf position for more than two years from its funds (!). This lowers dramatically the productivity of my research. Having experienced stuff scientist positions available at the universities would enable me to increase the efficiency of my research (and investments into my group by the granting agencies). This would also solve, at least in part, the problem of having not enough academia jobs for all recent PhDs. Now I have to take new students because I need people to work on my projects, but as soon as I have trained them, I have to kick them out and start all over again, while they are hard pressed to find good jobs. I, or my colleagues, do need them, we would have taken them, and our research would benefit enormously, but we have no way to do so. We would also then take less graduate students thus reducing the glut of PhD graduates we have to produce to keep our funding and increasing the overall PhD level, which indeed becomes somewhat low in recent years. There are a few professors in my Department who are somehow able to support stuff scientists, but only because they have long-term industrial funding. However, these are really exceptions. There have been comments on another thread about a professor who was doing the same and having hard time justifying her budgets for grant agencies. The university system in North America is not equipped for this. And this may be a bad thing because the current level of complexity of the cutting edge research requires more, not less qualified people to develop novel breakthrough technologies. So the fault is not with how we train PhDs, the fault is how we fail to use them properly. That is still true of an assistant professor. The difference is new professors today are dealing with the postdoc duties, postdoc wages, and postdoc job security at 35 instead of at 28. I disagree somewhat with the part about "postdoc duties". New professors were expected to initiate new research programs (in general). That is rarely the case for postdocs today. True. At 28, I didn't have a kid; at 35 I will. At 28, I wasn't concerned about trying to buy a house; at 35, I'm frustrated that I have$60K to put towards the purchase of a house but that still doesn't come close to the 20% down payment we need to buy a place here in California. However, the option to leave California doesn't really exist: we'd have to find some other place where the two of us could both get decent--ideally, academic--jobs. My spouse has an non-tenure track academic job now, though the full salary comes from grants and not the university (though health insurance other benefits come from the university). And when academic jobs are so few and far between, you can't really be choosy. So, our family really is stuck here, unable to move forward as adults. Our rent is twice what our siblings pay as a mortgage for any of their nice houses (in other states, obviously).

Finally, in the 1950s, 1960s, and most of the 1970s, one income, even a post doc one, was sufficient to support a family; now it's not. I have plenty of post doc friends earning just $35-$40K/year as post doc; how do you support a family on that here in California?

I agree with you that the faculty market wasn't any easier 20 years ago. However, I still maintain it *was* easier in the 1960s. The academic-industrial complex was in strong growth mode then. Today it is not (we are in agreement there). Easier doesn't mean easy, of course. But there are more really good candidates for each opening today than there were in the 1960s or 1970s, and that is a fact.
Agreed. Before, you could join IBM, AT&T, or any other number of private labs; now most of those labs are gone.

Andy Resnick
This thread has drifted somewhat- that's fine, but it should be remarked that a (real or) perceived decrease in the number of PhD slots is (or should be) a different issue than the decrease in number of tenure-track slots.

The majority of PhDs are employed outside of academia and have been for quite some time. As twofish said (quite well)- to act as if we are in the middle of a 50-year old employment aberration, or that it's a surprise to anyone that obtaining a tenure-track faculty appointment is extremely difficult, reflects the poster's cluelessness.

I'm frustrated that I have $60K to put towards the purchase of a house but that still doesn't come close to the 20% down payment we need to buy a place here in California. You can't find a house for less than$300,000 in California?

I don't know where in California you live, but I just did a search on realtor.com for Los Angeles, CA, price range 200k to 280k, and came up with 1128 hits.

San Francisco came up with 77 hits.

Sacramento came up with with 515 hits.

San Jose came up with 527 hits.

I'd imagine the areas further out from the big cities will be even cheaper. Whinging about how you only have 60k in the bank will probably have the opposite effect of what you intended. Sounds to me like you're living the good life.

I have to disagree pretty strongly here. The difference is the kinds of jobs available to Ph.Ds. Starting in the 1970s the trend has been for Ph.D.s to become extended cheap labor with multiple post-docs, fellowships, and non-tenure-track positions. Faculty appointments are getting fewer-and-farther in between
She's dead Jim. She's been dead for forty years. Looking at the data, and this seriously surprised me when I actually looked at the data, I don't think it's harder for someone to get a faculty position today than in 1975.

What I don't know (and I would love someone to tell me) is what happened to the "typical Ph.D. in 1975".

For example, the number of postdocs in Particle Physics that Princeton *alone* is hiring this year exceeds the number of tenure-track faculty positions for Particle Physics in the whole USA.
And that's been true since 1970.

So I believe there really is an issue here.
Yes, I think there really is an issue, but I think it's mostly an expectations issue. One problem is that unless you fundamentally change the way physics Ph.D.'s are funded then increasing or decreasing the number of faculty positions doesn't change the outcome. If you triple the number of faculty, then you end up tripling the number of graduate students/post-docs and you end up with the Malthusian problem at a higher level.

I don't disagree with you. The issue for me is that the whole academic system is constructed to manufacture more professors, and there isn't enough spaces for them.
So you have to push people out of academia and into the "real world."

I think today is normal, but the message is not getting out to college students.
I think that conversations like these are useful for getting the message out. However, the message might be too pessimistic. No one that I personally know with a physics Ph.D. is unemployed, and everyone has been able to get some decent job that puts them in the upper middle class. That's pretty good.

Sure, getting a faculty job was always the exception, but most people don't realize how much of an exception it really is.
Sure, but you have to also point out that there is a world outside of academia.

However, the option to leave California doesn't really exist: we'd have to find some other place where the two of us could both get decent--ideally, academic--jobs.
There are decent jobs in Texas, Washington state, and New York. House prices in Texas are decent. House prices in Washington state are less insane. House prices in NYC are totally insane, but so are salaries.

And if you are really adventurous the are lots of jobs in Asia.

And when academic jobs are so few and far between, you can't really be choosy. So, our family really is stuck here, unable to move forward as adults.
This is the market telling you that you should get out of academia. One of the nice things about leaving academia is that suddenly a lot of hand cuffs get removed. Something that you really, really need ask yourself as why is academia so important that you are willing to make your life miserable to stay in it.

Most of the people that leave academia (including myself) are so relieved by it, that we wonder why we were so insane for trying to stay in the system.

Finally, in the 1950s, 1960s, and most of the 1970s, one income, even a post doc one, was sufficient to support a family; now it's not. I have plenty of post doc friends earning just $35-$40K/year as post doc; how do you support a family on that here in California?
You can't. That's why I'm glad that I went to school in Texas.

Agreed. Before, you could join IBM, AT&T, or any other number of private labs; now most of those labs are gone.
They aren't. They've just moved. As the US economy has moved from manufacturing to services and finance, basic research has also moved from manufacturing to services and finance. The 2011 equivalent of Bell Labs exists largely in the major investment banks.

Finally, in the 1950s, 1960s, and most of the 1970s, one income, even a post doc one, was sufficient to support a family; now it's not. I have plenty of post doc friends earning just $35-$40K/year as post doc; how do you support a family on that here in California?
Isn't "supporting a family" a bit of an outdated notion, in the sense that you can't expect to find a lot of families with the traditional stay-at-home mums or dads? The figures you quoted are low for a position that requires a PhD in Physics, though, and I agree that perhaps they should be high enough to do what you suggest, that is, support a family on that income alone.

jbunniii
You can't find a house for less than $300,000 in California? I don't know where in California you live, but I just did a search on realtor.com for Los Angeles, CA, price range 200k to 280k, and came up with 1128 hits. San Francisco came up with 77 hits. Sacramento came up with with 515 hits. San Jose came up with 527 hits. I'd imagine the areas further out from the big cities will be even cheaper. Whinging about how you only have 60k in the bank will probably have the opposite effect of what you intended. Sounds to me like you're living the good life. I don't guess you've ever actually been to the neighborhoods in these cities where you could get a house for under$300k? If you want anything marginally livable, try doubling that, even after the price declines of the past few years. If you think \$60k in the bank will get you very far housingwise in Silicon Valley or LA, you really do not know what you are talking about.