In 2011-12, there were about 67,200 new doctoral degree’s awarded by universities in the USA . Many of these are for studies in science, medicine, and engineering. In addition, there are numerous new foreign Ph.D.’s in science who come here to work on research. After finally getting an academic job, all new faculty scientists immediately seek to attract as many graduate students as possible to work in their new laboratory. This ongoing scenario thus is a Malthusian progression in the number of new doctoral scientists.
This dynamic immediately runs headlong into the several difficult practical problems involving imbalances of supply and demand. At the top of the list, there is not enough money available to support all the new research projects proposed by the ever-growing number of new research scientists in academia. This same shortage of funding actually impacts on all faculty scientists, whether new or senior. The end result is that this money problem gets worse every year (see earlier article on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”). Another large practical problem, the limited number of open science faculty positions in universities, also is made worse by the enlarging number of new doctoral scientists.
I have never heard of any official or unofficial discussions about the wisdom of constantly generating more and more new doctoral scientists than can be supported adequately by the pool of available tax-based research grant funds. In this essay, I will (1) describe the causes and consequences of increasing the number of new science Ph.D.’s, (2) explain how this is bad for science, and (3) then will lay out my view of what could be done to stop this ongoing problem, and discuss why nothing can be changed now.
Causes of this Malthusian problem
One must look closely at the never discussed reasons why this peculiar ongoing generation of more and more new science Ph.D.’s remains in operation, in order to recognize the actual causes of this problematic situation. The ultimate causes are the practices of universities. The graduate schools at universities had been under financial stress for several decades, and so sought to maximize their inflow from tuition payments by enlarging their enrollments. Since tuition can only be increased so much, the tactic utilized is to raise the number of enrollees paying tuition. This fits in nicely with nature of modern universities as businesses where money is everything (see earlier essay on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?”).
Consequences of this Malthusian problem
The direct consequences of the yearly production of more and more new science Ph.D.’s now are apparent, and indicate that these are having bad effects on science. The expanding enrollment in university graduate schools means that their standards for admission will continue to get lowered; to increase enrollments they must accept and later graduate more students regardless of their deficient qualifications. I myself have observed 2 graduate students utterly undeserving of a Ph.D. be awarded that hallmark of advanced education; one of them even had a crying spell in the midst of the oral presentation for her thesis defense. Modern university graduate schools feel they must do everything and anything to further increase their enrollment and awarding of degrees in order to help deal with the current financial realities. Pressures to further “modernize” standards for the doctoral degree will increase as the graduate student population continues to be enlarged. In addition, more teaching responsibilities will be shifted onto graduate students. The science faculty usually are reluctant to work in the very large introductory courses, and are happy to be able to reduce their teaching load. The consequences of this problem for university education are obvious.
As the number of unfunded or partially funded academic scientists grows larger every year, federal research granting agencies will need to obtain increased appropriations from the Congress. Generally, this means increased taxation. These agencies additionally will need to increase the size of their support programs for graduate education in science, thereby making the problem with finding support for research activities even worse. Both these needs add to the current negative impact of this Malthusian problem on science.
Are graduate students or scientists to blame for this ongoing problem?
We must note that the graduate students working to earn a Ph.D. in science are innocently entering a career path that is their choice. They mostly are unaware of being used as cash cows in a business, and so are blameless for the resultant problems. Faculty scientists become trapped within the university system for getting promoted and tenured. Foreign students and scientists will continue to move here despite whatever difficulties they encounter since the situations hindering and restricting the conduct of scientific research in their own countries are much greater than exist here. They cannot be blamed for making this choice. The important contributions of foreign professional researchers to the science enterprise in the USA are very widely recognized to be substantial. Blame for the Malthusian problem lies mainly with the universities.
What will result for science if the number of new science Ph.D.’s is decreased?
Directly, a reduced number of new Ph.D.’s in science will significantly decrease the number of applicants for new research grants. That result is equivalent to providing more tax-based dollars to support research investigations, and will be obtained miraculously without any increase in tax rates.
The ultimate results for science of stopping the problematic Malthusian progression will be dramatic, and will include several very good secondary effects. (1) The quality of the new incoming graduate students will be raised, since there will result a more rigorous selection of the capabilities and aptitude of applicants for admission into graduate training programs. (2) In turn, the better graduate students should lead to a general increase in the quality of scientists and of science. (3) The enlarged pool of funds available for research support will enable more good proposals and more scientists to be fully funded than is the case at present. These several positive effects will combine to produce an important derivative benefit: a general increase in the quality of scientific research.
How could this Malthusian cycle be stopped?
In theory, a single step could solve this problem! A reduction in enrollments of new graduate student candidates into Ph.D. programs will stop this Malthusian progression, since that will decrease the output of new science Ph.D.’s!
As one example of how this theoretical solution can be accomplished at graduate schools, each science training program currently accepting 20 new students every year will have a 10% reduction, so that only 18 new students will be accepted for the next (second) year. In the following (third) year, another 10% decrease will occur, so only 16 new students will be enrolled. These annual decreases will continue for at least 5 years, until the number of new students enrolling reaches a level of 50-60% of the original figure; this cutback will produce a corresponding decrease in the number of new doctoral degrees awarded. Use of incremental progressive decreases, rather than trying to do everything all at once, will prevent large disruptive effects and will allow sufficient time for each graduate school to make the needed adjustments to the new system. The graduate students already enrolled will simply continue their course of advanced education just as at present.
This change in size of enrollments in each program must be made for the total number of graduate students, since otherwise the present widespread practice will continue with accepting foreign applicants to officially or unofficially fill the absent places scheduled for occupancy by USA students. Thus, the 10% annual decreases in enrollment must apply to the total number of all students enrolled, and not just to those from the USA.
Can this proposed cure for the Malthusian cycle actually be installed?
The answer to this question seems to me to be “Never!”. Universities as businesses always are happy to obtain more profits, and so will never agree to decrease their number of new Ph.D.’s being graduated. In principle, the federal granting agencies could mandate such decreases based upon their provision of research grants and education grants to many universities. From what I have seen, these agencies like their growing budgets and increasing influence, and so are very unlikely to ever change their present operations. Thus, I am forced to view the problem of too many new science Ph.D.’s as being unsolvable.
The answer to the question proposed in the title clearly is “No!”. Dr. M considers it to be both sheer insanity and very wasteful to ordain more new doctoral research scientists than can be supported adequately during their subsequent careers in academia. The number of new Ph.D.’s in science .should be balanced with the amount of financial support for research. It now seems to be badly imbalanced. The current production of too many new Ph.D.’s is bad for graduate students, bad for science, and bad for research. It is time to put an end to this idiocy! Unfortunately, there appears to be no way at present to prevent this problem from continuing and becoming even worse.
Dr.M welcomes questions about this essay and other opinions about this controversial question, via the Comments!
 Council on Graduate Schools, 2013. U. S. graduate schools report slight growth in new students for Fall 2012. Available on the internet at:
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