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Math Math Ph.D. bubble?

  1. Oct 31, 2009 #1
    I'm curious, is there a "Ph.D. bubble" in math that is similar to the one in physics? Specifically, what percentage of graduating math Ph.D.s end up getting tenure?
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  3. Oct 31, 2009 #2
    What do you mean by "bubble"?
  4. Oct 31, 2009 #3
    I think the OP might be referring to there being more people being awarded with Ph.D's every year than there are jobs opening.
  5. Oct 31, 2009 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    Yes, but that's hardly a "bubble". A model where every faculty member has 5-10 students who then all graduate to become faculty members with 5-10 students is clearly unsustainable. It's simply not realistic to expect that a PhD means a faculty job at a research university. Most PhD's move on to industry - which, IMO, is a healthy sign: it means that a PhD has value to other parts of society.

    Saying there is a bubble in physics is like saying there's a bubble in major league baseball players. Not everyone gets to be one, but that's not the same thing.
  6. Oct 31, 2009 #5
    I can't agree with that. The whole point of getting a PhD is to do research for a living. There's no law that says that every professor in a research university must teach 5 students during his lifetime. Does Grigory Perelman read lectures and train postgrad students? How many postgrad students could call Albert Einstein their primary advisor?

    There's no immediate reason to conclude that a PhD in physics or math has any value whatsoever outside academia. If you have a system that produces 100,000 virtuoso violin players a year, but only 20,000 of them find jobs playing violin for a living, and others move on to unrelated jobs in industry - is that healthy, and does that indicate that violin mastery has value to other parts of society?
  7. Oct 31, 2009 #6


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    That is simply not correct. One of the main reasons why governments are willing to fund the training of so many PhDs (via funding agencies) is because they are needed in industry. Where I did my PhD the vast majority of the PhD students had no intention of ever going into academia. Most of them ended up working in the telecom industry, some went into finance etc.
    Even if you do your PhD working in an "exotic" field you still pick up a lot of useful skills. One large company which had an R&D facility near my university were actively recruiting PhD students that had worked in string theory, not because they were interested in Branes etc but because they had found that they were really good at calculating various properties of radar systems.
  8. Oct 31, 2009 #7

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    No way! The whole point of getting a PhD is to open doors to interesting, challenging, rewarding, and stable jobs.

    That governments and industry provide the funding needed to make it possible to produce many times more PhDs than are needed by academia belies your claim.
  9. Oct 31, 2009 #8
    I see this as a big problem. This is like training lots of people to play violin, because the ones that succeed will be proven to have agile fingers and keen sense of hearing and thus could be retrained to do jobs that require either (or both), even if they don't touch the violin for the rest of their natural lives. It makes no sense to study string theory and then go calculate properties of radar systems for a living - it's better to get a 6 month course on radiolocation followed by hands-on training. It makes no sense to study condensed matter and then end up working quant in an investment bank - it's better to get a B.S. in finance, once again followed by hands-on training.

    If you invest 5 years into a Ph.D. and perhaps 4 more years into a post-doc, you should spend that on knowledge and skills that you will need for the 30 years that follow.

    My question is, is the same in math as it is in physics.

    Governments provide non-directed science funding that is available to all qualified applicants to spend more or less as they please. NSF budget is X, the share of this budget that is allocated to physics is Y, and X and Y are determined by the state of national economy, by the whims of politicians, and by historical trends. Unlike, say, in medicine, where all med students are pretty much guaranteed employment in their primary field of study (because there's a centralized cartel called AMA that keeps a tight leash on the number of spots in med schools nationwide), no one ever bothers to count PhD's or tenured professors.

    A further proof is that physics students have to be paid to work on their PhD's. if PhD had significant weight in the industry, we'd have people piling up into physics programs and taking on sizable student debt, like they do in medicine and law. Instead we have to provide free tuition, pay stipend, and even so we end up filling half the slots in physics grad programs with Chinese nationals (for whom the PhD carries an added non-monetary benefit - path towards US citizenship).
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2009
  10. Nov 1, 2009 #9


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    The difference is that when you work as a PhD student you learn how to do research which is a skill in itself. Moreover, you also learn (and demonstrate the ability) how to plan your time etc for a long-term project; something you are usually unable to do in industry if you work as e.g. an engineer since R&D projects are usually much shorter then that.
    Also, if one were to follow your line of reasoning to its logical conclucsion everyone that does a PhD in a certain field should then continue in that field. It is not at all unusual for people to move to a complettely different field of reseach after a PhD even if they stay in academia. In the research group I belong to there are people who did PhDs working neutron scattering, astrophysics, theoretical optics, semiconductor physics etc. I even used to have a collegue who had PhD in chemistry (who was orignally hired as a chemist, but "drifted" over to physics by working on carbon nanotubes).
    We all work more or less on the same things. Some of them also work in two very different fields at the same time; e.g. our in-house expert on STM also works on optical experiments (frequency references).

    This is not always true. The systems differ from country to country, but when you write a grant applications you usually have to specificy if you plan to hire a PhD student.
    It is also not uncommon for governements to direct money specifically to the training of PhDs. This is what happened in my case, there were a lot of PhD students starting at the roughly same time as me; the reason being that the funding for students had gone up that year as the result of the telecom companies complaining about the lack of PhDs.

    I think the main reason for this is that the starting salaries for people with PhDs when they go into industry is usually not that much higher than for someone with an MSc. But having a PhD can certainly "pay off" later on in you career, most of the people I meet who e.g. manage R&D projects in industry are PhDs. But yes, it is true that for you as an individual it might not make financial sense to do a PhD, but that does not change the fact that society as a whole (not to mention companies) can benefit.
  11. Nov 1, 2009 #10


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    I guess I should address this point more specifially. I don't know exactly what these guys are working on (military radar, most of it is classified) but I am quite sure it is something that involves a LOT of that math. There is no way someone with just a BS would be able to do their job. Presumably the same place also hire people with e.g. a PhD in math, although I imagine some knowledge of electromagnetics and physics in general might come in handy in this case.

    I think the same thing applies to quants. The reason why people with PhDs in physics or math end up in that job is that we are the only ones that know enough about math and modelling. There is no way somone who has only graduated from busines school have learned enough math.
  12. Nov 2, 2009 #11
    Yes there is. If you don't have teaching and research assistants, you don't get funding. If you don't get funding then your salary doesn't get paid. Both the people that you mention (Einstein and Perelman) are funded by systems that are very, very different from the system that most university professors get funded.

    I wouldn't say it's a "bubble" as much as a "ponzi scheme."

    But there *is*. One reason I think that Ph.D.'s need to be encouraged to look at life outside the university is that the world becomes a much nicer place, once you realize that academia is not the only option.
  13. Nov 2, 2009 #12
    No it's not. People with bachelors in finance just don't have the mathematical or research skills to do quant work. One thing that makes the Ph.D. different from the bachelors is that you are *creating* knowledge. I have no clue what mathematical techniques are going to be used in finance next year, neither does anyone else. Ph.D.'s are used to situation where there isn't a textbook. Most people with bachelors are not.

    The fun thing about working in an investment bank is that it's like graduate school. Only with more money.

    Which is why jobs in investment banks or medical imaging or whatever are perfect. I'm basically writing the same sorts of programs that I am in Wall Street that I did in graduate school. Only with more money.
  14. Nov 2, 2009 #13
    The situation with philosophy PhDs can shed some light on this I think. Philosophy programs graduate PhDs in proportions similar to those of physics programs. Of the 50% who don't drop out, most never get jobs in academia. If they get jobs in academia the pay is equivalent to undergrad engineering pay. If they don't get jobs in academia the degree itself is worthless.

    There is an institutional problem in academia that is causing an oversupply of PhDs. PhD students are basically free labor. Schools want as many as possible. Professors are relatively expensive labor. Schools want as few as possible. The demand for graduate degrees is inflated for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that students' advisors for the most part have only ever known academia and going that route worked out for them. The supply of graduate positions is driven by how cost effective they are for the institution. Notice at no point has the good of society or the student been mentioned. It's simple economics and it's uniform across specializations that are and are not useful in the work force.
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2009
  15. Nov 2, 2009 #14
    Also the fields aren't quite is different as they might seem. There are only so many ways of writing a parabolic partial differential equation, so if you get good at simulating parabolic PDE
    s with neutrino diffusion, and a bank needs someone to simulate a parabolic PDE involving stock option pricing......
  16. Nov 2, 2009 #15
  17. Nov 2, 2009 #16
    I really don't think that society has an oversupply of Ph.D.'s. There is a huge problem in that Ph.D.'s are being taught that the "normal" thing for a Ph.D. to do is to get a job in academia, but that's something different.

    If you look at unemployment rates for Ph.D.'s. I don't know of any physics/math Ph.D. that has had any problem looking for a job, once they looked outside the academy.

    The problem is that if the solution is "make society less educated" its probably not going to cause good things to happen. The only real solution I can see is to make Ph.D. students and their advisors more aware of life outside the academia.

    What I think is going to be really interesting is that if you have more Ph.D.'s outside the academia than inside, this will likely change the power structures within the academia.
  18. Nov 2, 2009 #17
    It's a relative thing. Only a few hundred people even apply to philosophy phd programs each year, so you don't have a ton of unemployed philosophers wandering around everywhere. I was just pointing out that the same factors that are driving the definite oversupply in philosophy are driving the numbers in other majors. It's an institutional business decision that is only in the interest of the school. In many majors this works out for the students too, but not in all.

    There is no different path for philosophy phds. It's academia or trying to write a novel. Yet state branch college X that placed one student in a community college in the past decade isn't going to scrap their program because they are underfunded and desperate for TAs and status. The reason I blame the schools and not the students in these cases is the wholly inadequate advising of undergraduates when it comes to choice of major or career path.
  19. Nov 2, 2009 #18
    It's also interesting to take a look at a non-academic focused environment - med school. In academia you have an oversupply of cheap labor keeping salaries low and competition high. In the medical profession where students aren't that valuable to the school and training them is expensive, you have an artificial undersupply of graduates that keeps salaries and employment high.

    Even looking at business school, assistant professors of accounting make over twice the salary that new philosophy professors make. Students actually realize that they have other options when they are considering business school and you don't get the oversupply that you do in other fields. What students going to top philosophy programs, for example, don't realize, is that on average they are just as competitive on the job market as students applying to business schools - even more so if you go by GPA and GRE scores.

    Edit: For the record I'm not a bitter philosophy grad student or anything, but I considered it and did my research :smile:. I'm not as familiar with other concentrations. I know philosophy and physics are similar in many ways, so I think it works.
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2009
  20. Nov 2, 2009 #19
    As a philosophy major with plans on graduate school and no desire to enter the business world this thread makes me very uneasy.
  21. Nov 2, 2009 #20
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