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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Overproduction of Ph.Ds

The Economist has another article on the overproduction of Ph.Ds. There is no question that many students who enroll in graduate school would be better served pursuing other career paths. The Economist, however, minimizes and dismisses the passion that leads so many mathematicians and other scientists to gamble years of their lives on the wager that they will be the successful researchers who ultimately capture a tenured position. Most mathematicians I have known love mathematics. The Economist says that
"Academics tend to regard asking whether a Ph.D. is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world." This assertion does not ring true to me. To most passionate mathematicians, their love of mathematics is more important than any abstract notion of whether or not there is too much mathematics in the world. In order for an outsider to understand the mindset, imagine the budding mathematician as a close relative of the aspiring musician, athlete, writer, or actor. Each of these knows that only a small fraction of their number will become famous artists or athletes, etc.; yet their love of their craft (or their thirst for fame) drives them to risk years of their lives in pursuit of their dreams. Graduate students in the sciences face far better odds of success than the aspiring actresses and writers who bus tables while waiting for their big break. Moreover, their education buys graduate students an excellent insurance policy. Should they fail to secure a tenured position, many employers are happy to hire these highly educated, driven, and tenacious workers .

In my pretenure days I viewed the academic job market as a meat market. Departments blithely terminated the appointments of anyone whose research did not sufficiently advance the departments' reputations. Criteria for 'sufficiently' were strongly influenced by a department's view of how readily they could hire a better researcher on the open market. My comrades in graduate school all knew the cut throat market we faced, and we each believed (or hoped, depending on personality) that we would be the ones to succeed. Fewer than a quarter of us ended up as research mathematicians. Those who changed career paths included some who seemed to be extremely intellectually gifted, but their personalities or intellectual strengths were not compatible with a career as a mathematician.

As in athletics, the excess of strivers over available positions works to ensure the high quality of the resulting research community. I do not understand how economists and numerous conservative bloggers can understand the virtues of competition (and creative destruction) in business but yet be so appalled by its manifestations in science. I suspect, however, that one constributor to their cloudy vision is that they do not appreciate the sheer joy of doing mathematics and science. It is difficult to monetize joy, especially as this particular joy requires hours of effort incompatible with holding a more remunerative but nonscientific 8AM-6PM job. Conservatives and libertarians object to the intrusion of government into our lives, in part because most big government programs require the noxious implicit assumption that we all (should?) have the same values and priorities as our federal overseers. It ill behooves these same conservatives and libertarians to be distressed by individuals who are willing to make economic sacrifices in order to pursue goals more prized by them than by the staff of the Economist. Let's leave the worship of uniformity in the hands of statists where it belongs.

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