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A pointless NSF report

According to a recent National Science Foundation report, in 2008 while the overall US unemployment rate was 6.6%, for Ph.D. degree holders in science, engineering and health fields it was only 1.7%. I find these results totally predictable and lacking any useful insight.

To obtain a Ph.D. degree holder in a technical field, among other things one must have:
1.) gone through 5-9 additional years of post-baccalaureate formal education,
2.) taken advanced classes in his or her major for at least a couple of years,
3.) passed a rigorous qualifying exam,
4.) shown initiative and ingenuity to identify a non-trivial thesis topic,
5.) demonstrated enormous perseverance to develop this topic into new knowledge,
6.) written and passed through a rigorous peer-review process several original technical publications,
7.) passed a rigorous oral defense,
8.) produced a substantial Ph.D. dissertation manuscript.

All in all, a Ph.D. degree holder is a highly educated individual, who possesses well-developed written and oral communication skills as well as wanton perseverance. Ph.D. holders had the audacity and determination to advance knowledge in their area of pursuit to be granted the highest educational degree possible. In essence, a Ph.D. degree holder has all the qualifications of the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree holders. The only issue is that someone with a Ph.D. may be deemed overqualified for certain jobs, but I just do not this as a serious issue in this economy. Why would anyone be surprised that these people would be unemployed in much smaller numbers than the general population?!

Unfortunately, I suspect that this NSF report will be used in the future to support a specious argument that goes as follows: “No, we are not overproducing Ph.D. level scientists! Haven’t you seen the report? Unemployment among Ph.D. degree holders is lower than in the general population.”

The problem is that the statistics presented in this report does not support this argument! The survey that was used to produce this report asked the question: “Are you gainfully employed?” The question that would have provided much more revealing information would be: “Are you gainfully employed at a job that does require you to hold a Ph.D.?” I believe that as a society we do need to start asking this question if we are to make wise decisions about our scientific policy.

I remember meeting several Computer Science Ph.D. holders who worked as regular programmers, a job that certainly does not require a Ph.D. Some of them were quite bitter about the time they spent getting a Ph.D. saying that it was a waste of time that prevented them from starting their programming careers earlier. If a Ph.D. degree holder works at a job that does not require a Ph.D. it is a waste of this person’s potential as well as the time and efforts expended on his or her training. Some Ph.D. holders may be doing this by choice, but I suspect that the majority choose that kinds of jobs because they could not find employment opportunities that were commensurate with their level of educational attainment.

I do not mind that much that this report is stating the obvious. What I am afraid of is that some irresponsible policy makers will use this report to support their self-serving agenda to the detriment of all of us.

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