There's been a lot of discussion in the last few months about the number of PhDs we produce. You may recall JHU trying to get out in front of the issue, but it's still a hot button topic:
i am saying it is the responsibility of faculty associated with PHD 'training' to stop engaging in this exploitation racket @HopeJahren
— Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) January 2, 2014
The question of reducing the number of PhDs produced is a complex one and there's simply no chance that the overall numbers will be reduced evenly across the board. It seems inevitable that certain fields are going to dry up and blow away and I think this has direct bearing on how we consider training students.
In my own lab we do several things that can more or less be divided into two camps, one of which is more "classical" and the other more cutting edge. Importantly, I have NSF funding for both, so each can be considered a viable enterprise from a funding perspective. However, there is a wild skew in the job prospects for students with training in one vs. the other.
This leads to a significant dilemma. Obviously I feel that both types of work are important and both contribute significantly, but there are just no jobs to do the classical work. And I don't just mean no academic jobs. I mean that training in this particular field leaves you few options outside of an academic job, of which there are none. There is funding out there for this type of work, but it is not accessible if one can not find a faculty job to exploit it.
We've been trending this way for more than a decade. I see it from the labs I know training people in this field. I see it in our regional conference that is bimodally skewed to the old and the students. I see it in the job ads that circulate. Unless you have other significant skills or are willing to leave the counrty, it is excrutiatingly difficult get a job (academic or otherwise) utilizing a PhD in this classical field.
In stark contrast, everyone who spent most of their time in the other side of my lab has left and found desirable (to them) employment. They have skills that are more broadly transferable and that a wider range of potential employers are interested in. Therefore, I am left to wonder whether it is even ethical for me to accept PhD students into my lab to work on the classical stuff, or is it simple labor exploitation. Ironically, I get more applicants interested in this than the cutting edge stuff we do.
Is it time for me to back-burner the classical stuff? Do I need to begin to rethink all of these projects to bring in new techniques that might alleviate this issue (some are emerging, but they are not yet ready for prime time)? Should I be the one deciding or should the student applicant pool decide?