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Is academia a scam?

  1. Feb 10, 2012 #1
    If professor x graduates 5 students and those 5 students graduate 5 more, and so on and so forth won't we reach a point where there will be complete oversaturation? Professors don't retire fast enough to compete with exponential growth. Should faculty start telling more of their students to turn away from academia instead of pursuing post docs until they are 40?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 10, 2012 #2
    Yes to answer the post's title...but in my mind for entirely different reasons.
  4. Feb 10, 2012 #3
    So...every student that graduates from professor X tries to get back into academia? I think not. In my experience, a lot of undergraduates steer away from grad school as their bachelor's was hard enough.
  5. Feb 10, 2012 #4


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    I think we reached that point somewhere around 1972.

    I don't think it's a scam though. It is what it is. The shortfall lies in the assumption that the only thing a student with a PhD should be doing is trying to work as a purely academic professor. The world is better off with more educated people in it, in my opinion.

    The solution perhaps, lies in exploring ways in which schools can assist students (and students can assist themselves) into the transition out of academia.
  6. Feb 10, 2012 #5
    Of course not, but many professor xs graduate more than 5 students too. Why are there so many post docs these days that are in their late 30s?
  7. Feb 10, 2012 #6
    Yeah it's a scam. Not just because of the rate at which students get trained, but because professors know that if they were honest about job prospects, then they wouldn't have any postdocs to do their work.
  8. Feb 10, 2012 #7


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    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.
  9. Feb 10, 2012 #8
    It is no more a scam than anything else that reaches an economic peak.

    The real question is whether the education one receives in schools these days can truly make one a better, more productive person. And there is no easy answer to that question because it is too open ended. Certainly some educations are better at this than others.

    And though I'll admit a very strong bias on this issue, I tend to think that educations in Science and Engineering tend to do just that. Some educations such as those that include philosophy, and classic literature can also go a long way toward that goal. Beyond that, I think that schools should ask themselves why the feel that such degrees are relevant...
  10. Feb 10, 2012 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    I tell every postdoc applicant who the previous postdocs were, and where they are now. Furthermore, I don't understand how anyone can get a PhD and not be able to do gravenewworld's calculation.
  11. Feb 10, 2012 #10
    If you say philosophy and classic literature (you mean a broad literature course or one focused on Ancient Greece and Rome?) degrees are worthwhile, then I'd take that a mile further and say that most academic disciplines in the arts have some kind of "academic value". Even Women's Studies...although I definitely wouldn't be paying any of my $$$ to major in that!

    People just shouldn't expect that their university degree is a trade school diploma (as Vanadium 50 would say). There's a few degrees like physiotherapy (an undergraduate course in many countries), accounting, actuarial science or social work, that I just cannot understand the existence of. Those should be in trade schools. Heck, one doesn't even need an accounting/actuarial science degree to get that kind of job. Not sure about the US, but elsewhere, one needs to do take a set of exams by an external body, say the ACCA. The thing I'm not certain of is whether someone with a major in accounting can get an accounting gig without being certified by something like the ACCA. Likewise for an actuary.
  12. Feb 10, 2012 #11


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    Next thing you know, getting Microsoft's A+ certification will require a 2 year AS :biggrin:
  13. Feb 10, 2012 #12
    Yes, I'm speaking of a classical education in the arts. However, many courses in the arts take a post-modern approach without demonstrating why such an approach is required. The rigor of a classic education is important even if that rigor is not used for following studies. One should at least understand what assumptions their post-modern thinking comes from. Sadly, very few schools seem to be teaching that.

    I entirely agree. However, there is a stratification that I'm starting to see among many professional societies where they demand their specific club card of education. Heaven forbid that you should start with a degree in, say, Library Science, and move on to manage a zoo, or run a multi-billion dollar company.

    That said, there are also many fools who believe that they're good at anything. These are the morons who think that a good manager can manage anything. If that's true then why do we not see more coaches of figure skating managing basketball teams? If a good manager can manage anything than I guess a good coach can coach anyone on anything, right?

    We should seek a good education so that we can learn how to pursue the things we love to do. That is the point. If one can get there by attending classes in Women's Studies, so much the better. I tend to think, however, that more technical classes and more rigor in study are good things. We can always loosen up later; but if we don't start from the classics, very little that comes afterward will have a context against which one can understand it.
  14. Feb 11, 2012 #13
    Honestly, I was told over and over again up until maybe two years into my phd how good the career prospects were in science. I trusted the people advising me to know more than I did. The big surprise for me wasn't the poor prospects in academia- it was the poor prospects outside of academia. I got a phd in physics because I wanted a job that used some physics, and just sort of assumed that was normal for phds in physics.

    I later found out that my undergraduate research advisor purposely kept his postdocs from interacting with his undergrads because he thought it was scaring undergrads away from the field. Both my undergraduate and grad institutions provided very misleading numbers in their information packet for potential physics majors,etc.

    Do I think academia is a scam? Not fully, but I do think that there is a concerted effort to "sell" the major and the phd program, regardless of whether or not its a good idea for an individual. There is a huge moral hazard- every person in a position to offer advice to a student has an incentive to bring them into the program.

    BUT a phd is NOT a broad education. Its EXTREMELY narrow training in a specific discipline. In terms of the focus, its more like a trade school than a bachelors degree.
  15. Feb 11, 2012 #14
    Any 12 year old who hangs around physics forums for five minutes soon knows the score! If someone want to pursue post docs until they are 40 then then that's their choice. I've met some like that, they are happy with their lot..., or at least reconciled..., or at least no more angst ridden than they would be in any other walk of life...
  16. Feb 11, 2012 #15


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    There's a serious flaw with this assumption. It assumes that EVERY single person who goes through this process WANTS to go into academia. This is FALSE.

    Only about 10% of the students that go through the program that I'm apart of go into academia. The rest go into private sectors or national labs. This alone should sufficiently destroy that assumption.

  17. Feb 11, 2012 #16

    How competitive is permanent employment at a national lab?
  18. Feb 11, 2012 #17
    An interesting article to ponder:


    Maybe institutions should start enforcing mandatory retirement after the age of 60 to give other people the opportunity to find work.
  19. Feb 11, 2012 #18

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    Many labs have two tracks, with various names: staff/senior staff, physicist/applications physicist, etc. The fundamental difference is that the former usually gets to direct his or her own research, and the latter does not (although there are obviously shades of gray here). For the former, it's at least as competitive as a faculty position at a major research university, and possibly even more so. These are coveted positions: 100% of your time for research, and the full resources of a national lab behind you.

    For the latter, it's "easier" in the sense that the skill set is broader. For example, people who are highly skilled in particular technologies can get lab positions, but are likely to be seen as too narrow or too specialized for a university position. But they are still very competitive. If you are the best guy in the world at making niobium RF cavities, you can write your own ticket. If you are the third best guy in the world, you can get a job. If you are the 10th best guy in the world, you will have a hard time.
  20. Feb 11, 2012 #19

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    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?
  21. Feb 12, 2012 #20
    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:
    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.
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2012
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