Pursuing science in and out of the Ivory Towers

In talking with Andy Revkin of NYT (Views on Fueling an Energy Quest), I threw out an informal statistic that has been talked about on our campus regarding the number of doctoral students in science and engineering who take jobs in academia versus industry, and questioned whether their graduate training gives them the right skills to generate scientific findings that address (or can feasibily be applied to) real world problems.

Fig03-33 So how many of the 30,000 graduating PhDs in Science and Engineering each year are going into academia?

According to a survey by the NSF, approximately 26% have secured tenure-track appointments 4-6 years after graduation.  This number is skewed by the high number of social scientists included,  If we look at engineering and the life sciences, those numbers drop, respectively, to 16% and 21%.  Approximately the same number are holding postdoctoral and research staff appointments in universities.

Assuming a reasonably steady-state situation, that would suggest that somewhere between 60-70% of graduating PhDs in the life sciences and engineering are going into jobs outside of academia.  This number jibes with a survey of graduating UC doctoral students conducted by  Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden (UC Doctoral Student Career Life Survey, 2006) that found only 36% of male and 27% of female doctoral students wanted university research positions.

Essentially, the majority of graduating PhDs in life science and engineering are pursuing jobs outside of university research labs. Their training, however, comes from those who remained.

One of the big challenges for universities over the next several decades is to prove their value in a world that has fewer resources to devote to greater social and environmental crises.

A century ago, the federal government established the land grant universities with an explicit mission of helping address real and pressing problems.  Researchers worked closely practioners (mostly farmers, as the economy was dominated by agriculture) to ensure best practices were identified and shared, and new technologies diffused rapidly where they would help.  In the time since, federally-funded research has made such industry interactions unnecessary. Research funding (and overhead) came to depend on the peer-reviewed grant process, in which scientists evaluated the value of their colleagues’s work and helped allocate research dollars across the field.

The links between the needs of society and of science weakened, and the need to train scientists to understand and work effectively with others outside the academe went away.  So here we are, with pressing social and environmental problems, and a system that has undermined science’s ability to lead in the changes we desparately need.


One thought on “Pursuing science in and out of the Ivory Towers

  1. Andrew, this is such an important point and yet somehow, I think that it is a total elephant in the room for academics because that elephant is and has been paying the paychecks of academics for so long!
    I’m married to an engineer and he always says that his best professors at Georgia Tech were those who had ongoing interactions with various businesses. Now, some see this as creating natural conflicts of interest, however, I see it as an honesty check.
    One thing about many educational technology “experts” is that they have never been in the classroom! They are teaching teachers how to teach and yet couldn’t hold a classroom of teens if they tried! Although you don’t have to do it to teach it, certainly being a part of what you’re teaching about makes you much more relevant, connected, and real!
    These are excellent points!
    (BTW – are you related to Steve Hargadon- my good friend from Classroom 2.0 and now, elluminate?)

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