Sunday, April 24, 2011

So you want to get a PhD?

... then here's some things to consider:

The recent issue of Nature has a News Report "The PhD factory - The world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop?" which summarizes the job prospects of PhDs in Japan, China, Singapore, USA, Poland, Germany, Egypt and India.
“In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand [...]”
The below graphic (from mentioned Nature News article), shows the distribution of academic post-doctorate jobs in science and engineering in the USA:
This shows the unfortunate trend towards more and more research done by scientists on temporary contracts that we talked about in my earlier post Short-term Thinking.
Germany by and large seems to be doing well as far as job prospects are concerned, though few PhDs remain in academia:
“[In Germany] just under 6% of PhD graduates in science eventually go into full-time academic positions, and most will find research jobs in industry [...] The relatively low income of german academic staff makes leaving the university after the PhD a good option.”
That agrees with my experience.

But back to the USA. One of the over-produced PhD-students from Illinois, Sergey Popov, has developed a model according to which top US universities have economic incentives to lower their standards, because the better their students' grades the better their students' job prospects and the better the university's reputation (and finances) in return. The Times Higher Education cheerfully titles Elite US students are securing top jobs 'despite being less gifted' and summarize Popov's model:
“Universities "choose [a] grading standard to maximise the total wages of [their] graduates". [Popov] said his theory suggested that grade inflation would be highest in top universities [...] the risk was that the process went so far that there were Harvard graduates in top jobs who would not have got an A at Illinois and who had fewer academic gifts and social skills than every Illinois A-student. This, he said, was not "socially optimal".”

Popov has his data online on a website called His model is interesting but there doesn't seem to be sufficient data to tell how well it actually describes reality. Anyway, I'm sure though it will leave some people chuckling. Did I see you grin? Did I?

Actually, the Scolarly Kitchen reports that the whole higher education thing might just be the next bubble to burst! That's at least according to Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal:
“Thiel’s belie[ves] that higher education is the next economic bubble into which we’ve moved the air expelled from Web 1.0 and housing.”

The cited data shows that College tuition fees have increased 375% since 1982-84 (3 year average).

And Scientific American has an editorial, Dr. No Money about the unpleasant duties of those PhDs who dare to remain in academia:
“Most scientists finance their laboratories (and often even their own salaries) by applying to government agencies and private foundations for grants. The process has become a major time sink. In 2007 a U.S. government study found that university faculty members spend about 40 percent of their research time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth, and the situation is no better in Europe. An experimental physicist at Columbia University says he once calculated that some grants he was seeking had a net negative value: they would not even pay for the time that applicants and peer reviewers spent on them.”

So you want to get a PhD...


  1. A future in which every child’s utterance bears the same weight as its adult oppressors' begins by destroying the hateful framework of individual worth. Social advocacy, a goddess universe, victimology, rule of the disempowered, diversity... are madness. "EVERYBODY GOES TO COLLEGE!" is crap. American Chemical Society's "Project SEED." Diversity is admission for reason of disqualification.

    There aren't nearly that many sufficiently intelligent and motivated people. The "elevated" majority end up being firemen on diesel locomotives. High school becomes public school, cacademic college becomes high school to continue the charade. Plunge the intelligent into unpayable undischargeable debt to permanently mute them.

    Let the world burn. Uncle Al has marshmallows and a sharp stick.

  2. The Ivy Leagues have actually gotten better at not inflating grades, they were pretty savage that way once. Look at Bush for example.

    Straight C's at Yale. 2-term Prez of the US. Skull and Bones membership a plus.

    Bush wouldn't cut it at Yale today. He'd have been bounced out after a year like Cheney was.

    I really truly hope M.I.T. and CalTech don't inflate grades. They're our 2 top schools.

    Not sure what the economic situation is in Germany, but here the States the Wall st. recovery hasn't translated into a Main St. one. It's actually getting tough to land a job with even a single college degree, let alone two, let alone a PhD. I know a guy with 2 PhD.'s He's screwed.

    And this conclude my happy thoughts for the day. We need bunny jokes!

    Q. How are rabbits like calculators?

    A. They both multiply really fast.

  3. Hi Bee,

    In Canada, where the overflow of PhD degree holders is not as severe, 80% of postdoctoral research fellows end up earning less than or equal to the average construction worker (roughly $38,000 a year)”


    Well if I did leaving the country would need to be my first consideration. Fortunately however it’s true in my case what Yoda said to Luke being “you’re too old to begin the training “:-)

    More seriously I think rather than drastically diminish the numbers of PhD’s, they should create more designations which has better defined what it is they’ve learned and what they might be best suited for. That be since few become more rounded in any broad subject, that is over what’s been attained with a masters degree,

    Also like as many professional designations, such as Chartered Accountants, it should decided each year how many will be passed and failed, in accordance with their employment prospects and the salary they’d like to be maintained. This might sound a little callous perhaps, yet if we want a PhD to stand for something and attempt to avoid the level of pain the mindless cruelty the invisible hand most often inflicts I see few alternatives.



    P.S. Frohe Ostern Hase Tag für Sie und alle

  4. related to it:

  5. Got my own take on this PhD Factory here!

  6. I don't see how grades affect one's job prospects, at least not directly. Very few employers even bother verifying that one has the degrees one claims, let alone checking one's grade transcript. Do German companies ask for one's grade point average?

    Granted, students likely to get better grades tend to take harder majors, so one's choice of major can serve as a grade proxy.

  7. You also have to take financial aid into account. Harvard provides full scholarships for poor people. I think the cutoff is a family income of $80,000 a year. A lot of other schools provide a fair bit of aid. I know MIT used to be part of a scholarship pool in which a group of top colleges had standards for financial aid, at least until it was ruled in violation of anti-trust laws.

  8. Hi Steven:

    "The Ivy Leagues have actually gotten better at not inflating grades,"

    I recommend you look at some of the figures on the website I mentioned, for example this one showing the long term grade inflation by institution. Best,


  9. The Flynn effect has raw IQ test scores rising by almost a standard deviation per generation. College GPAs should follow suit :)

  10. In September 1973, 40,000 undergrad Michigan State University's first term majors organic had 1200+ enrollment, including Uncle Al. 15 of them graduated BS/Chem, including Uncle Al. 2008 input and output were the same. Moo U chemistry is a blood sport.

    40,000 enrollment UCLA graduated 238 BS/Chem in 2008. Some 200 of those BS/Chem were assuredly empirical garbage, and unneeded either way.

    The world is as it was designed to be - rubbish. "Best efforts will not substitute for knowledge," W. Edwards Deming.

  11. I've heard it's really rough for PhD physics grads in the US, and most places too I expect. Elsewhere? Maybe some developing nations need them, but I suppose "help us develop nuclear weapons" is a possible if not likely occupational hazard.


    Official Truth burns hot today! Everybody is equally intelligent, epecially those who are not.

    "Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, argued that differences in IQ scores largely disappear when researchers control for social and economic factors."

    The University of Michigan has more than 90 diversity programs and not one Gifted program. Are motivated privileged minorities any smarter? Intelligence requires constant feeding. Stupidity is its own engine of creation.

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  14. Al - since we're both Mensa members, and I'm a Mensa test proctor, we'd like to believe we've got something special for real (even if rather modest and in line with the crowd coming here.) I don't blame you for skepticism about those claims of IQ mushiness, but you realize that they can't be just brushed off either. You'd need to look at the credibility of the claims, the research, etc and not just gut sense of validity as it were. Also, we need to distinguish between the part of claim involving individual differences, with the claims that averaged group comparisons are not what they seem.

    BTW folks, don't just paste in the URL string, since it can get truncated on the page. (However, my email copy has the whole URL.) Please use HTML coding. Al's second link was:

  15. Richard Feynman's measured IQ was 125. I hate to bust anyone's self gratification bubble but IQ is not the end all and be all in assessing intelligence. In many ways IQ tests are best at identifying how far one is on the autistic characteristic spectrum without being actually autistic. I know this is true just from observing social interactions on Bee's blog. I would say that it is often a real handicap to have an IQ over 125 to 140 and that there is a big area of diminishing returns, both in life and in career success, above that.

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  17. Eric, thanks for reminder about Feynman (who told Mensa - top 2%tile or IQ req. 132 on a common scale) ~ "sorry, I don't meet your requirements.") You have a point. But e.g. most physicists would score top 1%tile or better, I would be amazed if Bee, Sean Carroll, Peter Woit, Ed Witten, et al didn't score at least that high. Furthermore, it sure must help hashing out the higher math. They can speak for themselves how aspergery they are or not. Heh, Lumo? (REM Asperger and As****e syndromes not always the same ...)

    Heh, this is cute, from Wikipedia:
    "For example, a person with AS may engage in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener's feelings or reactions, such as a need for privacy or haste to leave.[7]"
    Well, sometimes guilty as charged - but now that I know how to think about it, I do it even less.

  18. @Neil Bates. (ISPE too - boring people). Sarah Palin is functionally stupid. Stupid stupids are sludge. Neither class should be subsidized or regarded.

    Personnel hires drinking buddies. Mentioning Mensa is a quick exit (no jury duty!). Roland Berrill, Lancelot Ware, and Cyril Burt organized Mensa to breed the smart against regression toward the mean. The US idiocracy supresses reproduction of the smart. The crap level remains the same, but the bottom drops ever deeper.

    Intelligence creates in effective, novel, beautiful ways. Stupidity monotonically consumes. The bell curve's far right is socially unpleasant and selectively dysfunctional. For all that, an idiot is not half-way to being an idiot-savant. Filling the world with graduate degrees is a managerial metric not an accomplishment. It is process not product.

    Physics refuses to test the Equivalence Principle with chemically and macroscopically identical, enantiomorphic single crystals absent precedent - nobody has ever done it! How smart is that when all the clever bets shot craps to 5x10^(-14) sensitivity? Cowards. Personnel offices.

    Bee and Stefan cast their vote against the idiocracy: assassins' double tap!

  19. Hi Neil & Al,

    All this talk about I.Q. and idiocracy forgets that is having more to do with the C.Q. (curiosity quotient), as it relates to the acceptance of mediocrity. That is to be able to recognize how curious people are in terms of measurement and how this can be maintained through education as a bare minimum and grown most preferably. It’s been noted here Feynman having an I.Q. of 125, yet I wonder what his C.Q. would have scored, if there had been some way to have it measured and what percentile grouping he shared from this perspective.

    This is simply to ask, who are better able to create quality than the ones which by their very natures strive to recognize it for what, how and why it is. That is I agree metrics can be useful at times, yet first we much recognize which being the most important things to be measured. that is before we decide how it can be maintained, let alone improved.

    “Out of the cradle onto the dry land
    Here it is standing
    Atoms with consciousness, matter with curiosity
    Stands at the sea, wonders at wondering”

    -Richard P. Feynman “I, a universe of atoms an atom in the universe”

    “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

    “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

    -Albert Einstein


  20. Good observation, Phil.

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

    - Albert Einstein
    [Full quote.]

    Well, my own experiences tell me that most scientists do not want to hear critical challenges to what they want to believe, even if what's being challenged is itself an upstart against a previous orthodoxy.

  21. Bee wrote:
    Hi Steven:
    "The Ivy Leagues have actually gotten better at not inflating grades,"
    I recommend you look at some of the figures on the website I mentioned, for example this one showing the long term grade inflation by institution. Best,

    I did, and I stand by my words. I speak only of the Ivy League schools. This was a BIG deal about 10 years ago, and in response, they've cleaned up their act, somewhat. No more "Gentleman's C" for an F, just because your daddy paid off the university to build a building, in his name. Well, maybe in Political "Science", although it's arguable there's any "Science" in Politics, but that's a debate for another time.

    Personal experience time. I have visited Harvard's campus only once, but the year was crucial: 1983.

    Why is 1983 important? It's important because it was the dawn of the personal computer age. The dorms were chock full of PC's, way ahead of other places I visited around that time.

    But here is THE kicker. The dorms and campus were full of Chinese and South Asian Indians. WHY did Harvard do that? Why enroll "foreigners", because believe me, those were the only Chinese and Indians I saw anywhere back then, as opposed to today, where they are everywhere, and welcome aboard, mates! America has constantly refreshed itself with fresh immigrants, and this time is their time. But it started back then.

    My point? Having enumerated the US Census this past summer, I find them to be TOTAL CLASS ACTS, very intelligent, and most importantly, VERY hard-working, compared to the general population. So even if they do go to "grade-inflating" schools, my "general" experience with them, is they deserve each and every grade they get, and it's a shame they don't hand out A+'s, because they would rule there too, I'm sure of it.

    Dragon Mom philosophy in action? I think so. Another example: My high school senior daughter did 3 years of advanced placement in high school, in fact advanced-advanced, top 17 students out of 800 in her class. So I asked her, cheekily, "Honey, are you the ONLY person of European ancestry in the 17?" And she said "NO, Daddy!" at such an outrageous question. "Oh really?" I said, "How many non-Chinese non-Indian are there besides yourself?"

    "Two others" was her answer. Q.E.D.

    So welcome to America, China and India! ;)

  22. Phil, very well spoken. I couldn't have said it better myself. And Neil, you got at the exact problem with why Intelligence is necessary for achievement but is not sufficient. Equally important is intellectual flexibility. Far too many people in the former category are sorely lacking in the second category. Too busy patting themselves on the back to look at the other guys viewpoint, I suppose.

  23. On MENSA, two thoughts;

    1) I was invited to join MENSA, and went to see if I liked the people there, so I went and I didn't. Too many people debating the size of their intellectual penises, and praising Richard Feynman for his expert use of the real one, assuming morals go out the door. I have since invoked Groucho Marx's attitude re same, that being "I would never join any organization that would have ME as a member."

    2) Bureaucratic screw-ups, they happen. Here's my favorite example, which I'm sure you've read if you remember reading Steve Martin's novel "The Pleasure of My Company." Paraphrasing: "I once took an IQ test and sent it in to MENSA for grading. They were great! I got a really quick response. But they seemed to make one wee little mistake, which is fine because everyone makes them, even MENSA.
    I looked at my score, and the mistake was obvious. Where was the missing digit '1' in front of the 92? "

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  25. Well then, in keeping with interest in showing what "ordinary people" can do as counter to mass-PhDeeing (sorry), I offer Citizen scientists making incredible discoveries. The discovery of the greenish-looking "Voorwerp" etc. is fascinating, but I wonder how natural that color is.

    Steven, sorry about Mensa. I have lots of fun, and just "get it over with" through the URL of my blog ... Fascinating, I did 2010 Census Enumeration too. I worked the lower-income, black downtown section (that people warned was dangerous concrete jungle etc.) yet found the people very friendly and cooperative. We weren't supposed to, but I hung out in one guy's apartment to watch Jim Hendrix videos.

  26. I'm not surprised, Neil. This whole Black/White crap is overdone in America. Proof: I was once a counter manager at an equipment rental store, to whit:

    Half the faces I looked at across the counter every day were white, half were black. They were all good, with one exception:

    Older. Teenage. Boys.

    They're pretty terrible, regardless of ethnicity.

    "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, ..."

    Those are the opening words of what I consider to be the greatest novel ever written, being Charles' Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." It was about The French Revolution.

    But IMO, it does double work in describing everyone's teenage years.

    Well, nobody ever said the transition from child to adult was easy. I'm glad those times are long past for me.

  27. Hi Neil,

    I’m glad you agree that curiosity being the key, yet you transpose this to having an imagination. I would concur and yet the two are not the same; that is if taken as nouns (things), the former being defined as a desire and the latter as a place (a dimension or degree of freedom if you prefer). This of course begs the question, if both being fundamental or if one being emergent of the other? That is as Feynman reminded there is even reason to wonder about wondering.

    “Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.”

    -George Scialabba



  28. Hi Eric,

    As I’ve had it defined, the flexibility you speak of is to be found in the act of the curiosity realizing the possibilities contained in space which has been provided. Thus this would have intelligence as being the hybrid of the two. None the less, for me, it’s always being difficult to have imagined as to how a computational machine, although having a space in which to consider, how it ever came to having the desire.

    “ Desire, to know why, and how, CURIOSITY; such as is in no living creature but Man; so that Man is distinguished, not only by his Reason; but also by this singular Passion from other Animals; in whom the appetite of food, and other pleasures of Sense, by predominance, take away the care of knowing causes; which is a Lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of Knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnal Pleasure.”

    -Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan”, point 1, chapter 6 (1651)



  29. The chart presented in this post does not show a "trend towards more and more research done by scientists on temporary contracts." It simply shows that postdoc'ing takes up those who can't find a tenure-track job professor'ing when times are hard. If anything this chart shows the academic job market is in equilibrium and uses the postdoc appointment to keep gainfully employed a fixed number of people in its ranks (at all the levels indicated on the chart).

    And how can it be any other way ? Last I looked pretty much all PhD granting institutions have been around for more than 30 years.

  30. "It simply shows that postdoc'ing takes up those who can't find a tenure-track job professor'ing when times are hard."

    That's what I'm saying. Show me one postdoc who's not on a temporary contract.


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