Why Science Ph.D. Graduates Are a Failure Of the American Education System

Try explaining this paradox: Everyone — from Republican Governor Rick Scott to Bill Gates — appears to agree that we need to encourage STEM education, but, if you want to find a Ph.D. in one of the natural sciences or engineering, the best place to look is probably the unemployment office. According to Walter Russell Mead, even humanities Ph.D.’s are doing slightly better than people with doctorates in the sciences.  This reflects how seriously academia has failed to question the way that it educates the students in whom it invests so much time and money.

There are probably a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is because there are more STEM Ph.D.’s in America than there are humanities doctors. STEM programs typically allow their students to finish in five years and, unlike in the humanities, the prestige of the university attended does not determine job prospects. (You can get a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Utah and end up teaching at Stanford if your research is good enough, but you probably can’t walk the same path if you have a Ph.D. in the humanities.)

Also, while those in the sciences have more specialized knowledge than their counterparts in the liberal arts or the business schools, they are more limited in their abilities to adapt. Chemistry and biology majors suffered after pharmaceutical manufacturers began moving their operations abroad and I remember several years ago, while working in the fundraising department of a Beltway non-profit, learning that the director of our business operations actually had master’s degree in lateral engineering. The market for tall buildings had dried up after September 11th.

The broad problem, though, is not really with what students in America are trained in. It is with the way that they are trained. In a speech at West Point a number of years ago, the literary critic and former Yale University Associate Professor William Deresiewicz said that, while teaching at Yale, the students that he saw around him — America’s finest — were “expert hoop jumpers”: “Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, ‘excellent sheep.’”

Judging by some of his other writings, Deresiewicz doesn’t fully understand the implications of this, but his speech contains a stern indictment of American education: American universities teach students to be conformists instead of individuals; employees instead of employers; followers instead of leaders; and bureaucrats instead of pioneers. For people who spend 10 or 12 years inside of a lab, this training can take its toll.

Imagine a student coming off of a Ph.D. in, say, physics. She may have been living on Top Ramen for most of the past decade (the exception was the year she got a second laboratory fellowship, where she got to buy Mac-n-Cheese instead). She did it all because she expected, at the end, to be able to find a decent job in academia, either as a professor or a researcher.

However, this is probably not the case. The current professors, having had their wings singed by the recession, aren’t going anywhere. So, what does she do? She can either take the hard slog through the private industry, where, in many cases, she will be competing against recent graduates with bachelor’s or master’s degrees, who are just as qualified for what the job requires, or she can choose to take a post-doctoral fellowship in the hopes that something  will open up at a university sometime soon.

Most people in her situation will look for a job, but an increasing number are opting for the post-doctoral option. What is worse: the post-doctoral option is almost becoming a second graduate school. I have known people working on their second post-doctoral fellowship while preparing paperwork for their third. For people who have invested deeply in the academic world, it can be addictive, and after a while, it begins to foster dependency.

What does this dependency look like in practice? Basically, the hoop jumping that Deresiewicz mentioned: A student goes to college and graduates summa cum laude; then maybe scores highly on the GRE; does sufficiently in graduate school to be awarded a Ph.D. by the late 20'stwenties (maybe even picking up some letters of recommendation along the way); gets a pretty decent tenure-track job at a state university; publishes a few articles or maybe a monograph, enough to confer tenure anyway; then does a bit more research and gets promoted to full professor and eventually has to put in his or her time as chair of the department.

This is the way that most aspirants to academia think about these issues anyway. The challenges may be considerable. Those hoops you have to jump through for your doctoral exams are really pretty high. But, regardless of whether they are humanities students or STEM students, the world has less need of people who can jump through the hoops than it has need of people who can learn what hoops to set up and where to set them.

It isn’t surprising that some of the world’s greatest scientific minds should come from patent offices and that its greatest technicians should be educated in their mother’s parlors. The problem, though, is that American educators have come to believe that only by teaching students all the right answers will we make any sort of economic progress. This isn’t true. The entrepreneurs who make the most significant contributions to society are the ones who, as Richard Branson has said, know what frustrates them about the world. As Steve Jobs proved, you don’t even need an associate’s degree for that.

Can we rely on universities to train people to be movers and shakers instead of squatters and maintainers? Probably not. If we academics were teeming with great ideas for how to improve the world, we probably wouldn’t be teaching in the first place. That isn’t the real problem. The real problem is, the more that STEM professors have trained their students to become like them, the more these students have become utterly unprepared to face the challenges and demands of the modern economy. Hopefully, people like Rick Scott, Bill Gates and the kind of people who attended this conference will begin to take a closer look at America’s STEM programs and ask what they are making their students into. Because I don’t think that the university’s STEM programs are going to be asking these tough questions any time soon.