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Is it just me, or are things getting kind of quiet around here? For several years now, a complaint has been heard in the hallways of our top universities: where have all the graduate students gone? Every year, there seem to be fewer and fewer qualified students applying for positions in science and engineering doctoral programs.
The problem is far from anecdotal. Now, with statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation, professional science organizations, and the federal government, it's official. Prospective students are turning away from careers in science. Since a peak in the early 1990s, the number of science and engineering students has tanked. In some fields, the decrease has been as much as 5% per year, according to an NSF study. In electrical engineering, enrollments have dropped nearly 30% in the last 10 years. Overall, the number of Ph.D. students in science and engineering is at a 40-year low, and there is little sign of a turnaround.
This trend has sent academic departments and education experts scurrying. Graduate students are the lifeblood of research universities, working in the trenches to produce the discoveries that lead to publications, as well as shouldering much of the teaching load. The top dozen or so American universities may have to admit students they don't feel are up to their standards, but for other universities, the problem is far more acute.
Many physics and engineering departments are coming under increasing pressure from their university management. How do you justify having a PhD-granting physics department, when there are no students to grant the degrees to? Some departments may be forced to disband, or combine their resources with other departments. Outside of traditional academia, even businesses and government agencies are getting a little nervous. At a recent NASA education meeting, Dr. Edward Weiler, assistant administrator of NASA, sounded an alarm in his keynote address. Who, he asked, will be the next generation of NASA scientists and engineers, if students continue to turn away from science?
As with most problems, there isn't just one reason for the dearth of young scientists. And some components of the problem are even encouraging, when viewed from a more global perspective. One interesting note is that the enrollment of "traditional" science students (white males) has been declining for a long time, much longer than the last 10 years, according to the NSF study. But the overall number of graduate students remained unchanged, due to increased numbers of both female and foreign students.
Enrollment of foreign students, in particular, ballooned in the '80s and '90s. Many of these students ended up settling permanently in the US, but statistically, about half returned to their home countries. These top-ranked scientists then set up university departments of their own, and continued collaborating with their US colleagues. Now, for the first time in decades, foreign enrollment in American science programs is actually declining. That's probably good for global well-being, but it also means that an important source of science students (as well as American-immigrant scientists) is drying up.
What else is influencing the decline in science students? When I put the question to my colleagues, they were quick to blame the changing job environment. A few generations ago, being a professor or an engineer was a much more lucrative career choice. That isn't the case anymore. Scientists are paid well, but hardly opulently. And there's an increasing under-class of scientists that are paid appallingly. After graduate school, most scientists enter a post-doctoral research fellowship. This sort of fellowship allows them to do research at a university for a limited amount of time, usually three to five years.
Post-docs have some advantages. There are minimal teaching and administrative duties. That allows for lots of research time, a perfect way to publish papers, pad the resume, and get on the path to a permanent job. But there are far more post-docs working at universities than there are permanent jobs for them to move into. When one post-doc is up, it's much easier to find another post-doc position than a professorship. That means you need to pick up and move to another university, something that gets increasingly difficult as people settle down and start families. You also have to put up with getting paid a pittance, not all that much more than a graduate students stipend. After a few rounds of this, many young scientists start to get bitter.
In the last few generations, everyone has had to deal with downsizing their career expectations. Scientists are no worse off than any other group, and realistically, being a scientist is still a comparatively low-stress, high-pay career. And a big part of the problem is that so few American students know that. It's time to face the fact that we, the scientific community, have a lot to answer for. Who's discouraging the students from choosing science? We are.
Of course science can be difficult. It may take years to learn quantum mechanics, but it also takes years to become proficient at speaking French. And yes, becoming a world-class physics professor is highly competitive, and usually involves a lot of nasty politics. But there are hundreds of other good science jobs to be had that are more collegial and better suited to different personalities. I'm not one of those rabidly competitive, top-ranked scientists, but I have a good job that pays well and gives me plenty of professional fulfillment. And somehow this view of science is getting lost.
It's time to stop weeding out good prospective scientists. The world of science is much broader and diverse than traditional academia will admit, and a career in science is more attractive than most people suspect. And we, as scientists, could be a bit more encouraging about it.
Michelle Thaller is a Caltech astronomer with a special involvement in education and public outreach. This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on July 15, 2002. Reprinted with permission.
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