Higher Education Losing its Value? Or Too Many Scientists?

Writing for The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann touches on a sad—kind of scary—situation facing PhD graduates:
First, the big picture. Here is the entire market for Ph.D.'s, including those graduating from humanities, science, education, and other programs. The blue line tracks students who have a job waiting for them after graduation. The green line tracks those signed up for a post-doctorate study program. The red line stands for the jobless (though a sliver of them are heading to another academic program).
The pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear -- fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more post-doc work -- especially in the sciences. A post doc essentially translates into toiling as a low-paid lab hand (emphasis on low-paid). Once it was just a one or two year rite of passage where budding scientists honed their research skills. Now it can stretch on for half a decade .
As the article makes clear, the charts aren't perfect and there are a lot of assumptions that went into the chart. Nevertheless, if we assume it paints a picture somewhat close to reality, it illustrates a potentially new trend.

The described situation—PhDs not getting jobs—is kind of sad for those pursuing higher education. Once upon a time, only some soft areas like humanities and arts graduates had difficulties finding jobs but now it looks like science and engineering is facing the same problem.
It's not clear to me if employers are starting to discount higher education (possibly due to too many degree-holders, who are not as skilled as several decades ago)... or if it is due to a skills mismatch (America graduating too many scientists). Leave your thoughts.


  1. Unfortunately, this trend is nothing new...

    Education in this country is broken, severely broken.

    What is VERY alarming is the amount of fraud that is going on. Two examples:

    A). The vast majority of "for profit" schools simply exist to funnel money from government coffers to the company. The students get crushed in the middle. They pay tens of thousands for a product that has NO value or very little...To add insult to injury, they are not allowed to bankrupt out of their situation.

    Please see the report "Subprime comes to education".

    B). "non-profit" education has problems too. The prime example is law school. For years law schools have enticed students to take out HUGE student loans, often WELL in excess of $100k. They do this by saying 98% of our grads are employed. The average wage is $80k. The truth is that 40% of graduates find legal work, and the average salary is closer to $45k.

    For evidence of this please see the recent lawsuits against numerous law schools. Also see the proliferation of the "scam blogs". The most prominent of which is the "Inside the Law School Scam" by Professor Campos.

    I also wonder about the proliferation of MBA programs. In my large city, there are AT LEAST a DOZEN of them...

    So I think that the quality of education has gone DOWN. The number of degree holders has gone UP. and the number of available jobs in the USA has gone DOWN. End result is a bad outcome/value for education!

  2. Yep. I think you nailed the major problems. I can second your observation about MBA programs. I never enrolled in one but I know some coworkers are pursuing them and there are so many now. The situation in Canada likely isn't as bad as the US but even then, MBAs were offered by a few business-oriented schools before; now, almost everyone is offering them, with some offering multiple versions (executive vs general vs technology-focused, etc).

    I already went through the school system (at least the undergrad) but I wonder what's going to happen to the younger generation. Some have said it is better to start a business than go to school but only a few have entrepreneurial skills.

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  4. The MBA the PHD have created class distinctions that did not exsist before. We now see the MBA or the PHD becoming the norm for great success in the business world. Extreme class divisions are bad for society period they create conflict in the end.

  5. I would posit that the reasons are fairly simple. A PhD in large part is designed for a career in academia (either teaching or doing research), and these two avenues of work are affected by demographics (the number of 18-23 year olds) and government research funding. Declines in these two factors, both of which are widely discussed and publicized, make it inevitable that PhDs have harder job choices. The more critical questions, I would think, are (1) why don't applicants to PhD programs respond to the bleak market forces (prestige?), and (2) why don't the PhD programs make their degree more broadly applicable?

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