Jobless with a Ph.D

June 27, 1995|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A big fight going on in education circles concerns what to do about the unemployables who are pouring out of the Ph.D. mills of academe. Shrink the intake, some say. Don't touch it, say others.

Now, a new study concludes that doctoral production in science and engineering averages about 25 percent above employment opportunities -- far higher than any official count or estimate.

Worse than that, in terms of remedies, the study suggests that the university training system is helplessly in the grip of a corollary of Parkinson's Law, and just grinds on, oblivious to a job market that has no place for many of its expensively trained graduates.

With the sterling imprint of Stanford University and the Rand Corporation, the study conflicts with federal policies for propping up graduate training and with academe's reluctance to shrink prestigious graduate departments.

Parkinson's Law, ''Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,'' was based on a study which found that as the number of ships in the Royal Navy sharply declined after World War I, the number of office and dockyard employees sharply increased. The ''law'' derived from this observation, published in 1955, produced international renown for its previously obscure author, the late C. Northcote Parkinson, then the Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya.

Now comes a study of the Ph.D. economy which states a Parkinson-like Law: ''Doctoral production depends more on academic production needs than on the job market for Ph.D.s.'' Or, as explained by a co-author of the new study, William Massy of Stanford University, graduate schools need and therefore admit students, regardless of ups and downs in the quality of applicants and the job market that awaits them when they graduate.

Professor Massy, who conducted the study with Charles Goldman of Rand, says graduate departments need students to serve as teaching and research assistants and to provide intellectual stimulation for professors. At his own Stanford School of Education, he observed, ''there is a sense that this is what we are entitled to as faculty. It's part of our intellectual culture.''

As graduates come out of the Ph.D. pipeline and find appropriate jobs unavailable, shouts have arisen for more federal money for research in universities. Wouldn't that mop up the joblessness and get the system onto a healthy footing?

No, says the study, it would make things worse by providing jobs for more professors who, in turn, would produce more Ph.D.s. After all, that's the purpose of research in universities.

The Ph.D.-production system is so obviously out of whack with the needs of the economy that even its ardent defenders concede the need for some change, though many of them insist that it should be kept to a minimum. The official unemployment figures for scientists and engineers are low -- 1 to 2 percent, compared with 5.7 for all workers -- thus suggesting, they say, that the unemployment problems are exaggerated.

Several professional societies of scientists counter that the official figures ignore Ph.D.s who, in desperation, are underemployed as technicians or who have become migratory workers, moving from one low-paying fellowship to another. Because of the dispersion and often short-term nature of such employment, reliable numbers are difficult to collect, and debate rages on about the true extent of Ph.D. unemployment.

But even the strongest supporters of the present system concede that there's a problem out there, though they tend to downsize it. The chairman of a recent study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, Phillip Griffiths, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton, offers an Orwellian formulation of the job problem. Rather than a lack of jobs, he explains, the ''high unemployment rates of Ph.D.s upon graduation is due instead to delays in employment rather than true unemployment.''

Along with many others in the science establishment, he argues against shrinking or changing the basic nature of Ph.D. training. Keep the system as it is, he recommends, but provide additional training in business, education and other fields so that graduates can work in areas outside of their core specialty. And, noting that foreign students account for a large proportion of graduate enrollments, he and his colleagues urge better science education so that even more Americans will be drawn to Ph.D. training.

The university system has never been particularly permeable to logic. In the downsizing workplace, financial distress has repealed Parkinson's Law of expansionism. The university version will expire when the money runs down.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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