FRAMING THE ISSUE
Scientists and engineers with PhD and other advanced degrees play a central and growing role in American industrial and commercial life. The traditional process of graduate education to the doctoral level, organized around an intensive research experience, has served as a world model for the advanced training of scientists and engineers.
Graduate education is basic to the achievement of national goals in two ways. First, our universities are responsible for producing the teachers and researchers of the futurethe independent investigators who will lay the groundwork for the paradigms and products of tomorrow and who will educate later generations of teachers and researchers. Second, graduate education contributes directly to the broader national goals of technological, economic, and cultural development. We increasingly depend on people with advanced scientific and technological knowledge in our collective efforts in developing new technologies and industries, reducing environmental pollution, combating disease and hunger, developing new sources of energy, and maintaining the competitiveness of industry. Our graduate schools of science and engineering are therefore important not only as sources of future leaders in science and engineering, but also as an indispensable underpinning of national strength and prosperitysustaining the creativity and intellectual vigor needed to address a growing range of social and economic concerns.
As we approach the 21st century, our graduate schools face challenges both within and outside the academic setting. Many disciplines of science and engineering are undergoing rapid and pervasive change, and many aspects of modern life are increasingly dependent on emerging technologies and the scientific frameworks from which they evolve. New national-security challenges, expanded economic competition, urgent public-health needs, and a growing global awareness of environmental deterioration bring new opportunities for varied careers in science
and engineering. We expect our graduate scientists and engineers to continue the expansion of fundamental knowledge and to make that knowledge useful in the world. A world of work that has become more interdisciplinary, collaborative, and global requires that we produce young people who are adaptable and flexible, as well as technically proficient.
A TIME OF CHANGE
The US system of graduate education in science and engineering is arguably the most effective system yet devised for advanced training in these fields. By carrying out graduate education in institutions where a large portion of the nation's best research is done, the universities have created a research and training system for scientists and engineers that is one of the nation's great strengths.
The present US system of graduate education evolved when the demand for research was either stable or rising. The national-security demands of the Cold War and domestic priorities, such as health, stimulated and supported a strong science and technology infrastructure, including graduate education. Our dominant economic and technological position in the world allowed us to exert clear international leadership and permitted us to influence both the progress of science and the rate of technology development and introduction.
That situation is now changing. The end of the Cold War, the rapid growth of international competition in technology-based industries, and a variety of constraints on research spending have altered our market for scientists and engineers. Furthermore, the United States has traditionally opened its doors to students from other countries. In recent years, the number of foreign science and engineering students enrolled in US graduate schools and the number receiving PhDs have risen unusually rapidly.
The demand for scientists and engineers has remained strong. However, there are indications that there is a slowdown in the growth of university positions and that we can expect a fundamental change in science and engineering employmenta reduction in the demand for traditional researchers in some fields. This employment situation has already contributed to a frustration of expectations among new PhDs. Major industrial sectors have also reassessed their needs and reshaped their research, development, and business strategies. And new research and development needs have arisen in emerging production, service, and information enterprises. The increasing rate of change suggests a need for scientists and engineers who can readily adapt to continuing changes.
Government laboratories and other facilities are also undergoing change. In some instances, research and development foci are shifting. In others, government and its contractor scientists and engineers are being challenged to build linkages with industry and universities. Some departments and agencies are reorganizing and shrinking. Moreover, government spending on research and development is expected to be constrained in the next few years. That places direct pressure on research and development performed by universities and government and indirect pressure on research and development performed by industry under government
Hence, the three areas of primary employment for PhD scientists and engineersuniversities and colleges, industry, and governmentare experiencing simultaneous change. The total effect is likely to be vastly more consequential for the employment of scientists and engineers than any previous period of transition has been. Some believe that the nation's teaching institutions are entering a period when the number of new PhDs should somehow be capped (we return to this point later). Although many recent graduates are frustrated by their inability to find basic-research positions, it appears that the growth in nonresearch and applied research and development positions is large enough to absorb most graduates. However, such employers complain that new PhDs are often too specialized for the range of tasks that they will confront and that they have a difficult time in adapting to the demands of nonacademic work.
A broader concern is that we have not, as a nation, paid adequate attention to the function of the graduate schools in meeting the country's varied needs for scientists and engineers. There is no clear human-resources policy for advanced scientists and engineers, so their education is largely a byproduct of policies that support research. The simplifying assumption has apparently been that the primary mission of graduate programs is to produce the next generation of academic researchers. In view of the broad range of ways in which scientists and engineers contribute to national needs, it is time to review how they are educated to do so.
The approach that is presented in this report is based on reshaping the current PhD experience and improving students' ability to make good career choices. Alternative approaches were examined during the study but were not endorsed. One would be to control graduate enrollments directly, presumably on the basis of expected employment needs. Among the problems with this approach are the questionable reliability of employment forecasts and the practical difficulty of implementing it. Another strategy would be to create a new type of degreea ''different doctorate," perhapsthat entails less intensive research experience and is intended to prepare students for nonresearch careers. Employers told us, however, that they value the requirement for original research that is a hallmark of the PhD, and we see little demand for a hybrid degree. Our approach, we believe, will make the current system self-adjusting at a time when change is certain but the nature of the change cannot be predicted.
SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS
The process of graduate education is highly effective in preparing students whose careers will focus on academic research. It must continue this excellence to maintain the strength of our national science and technology enterprise. But graduate education must also serve better the needs of those whose careers will not center on research. More than half of new graduates with PhDsand much more than half in some fields, such as chemistry and engineeringnow find work in nonacademic settings. This fraction has been growing steadily for 2 decades.
We recommend that the graduate-education enterpriseparticularly at the department
levelimplement several basic reforms to enhance the educational experience of future scientists and engineers who will work in either academic or nonacademic settings. If programs offer a wider variety of degree and curricular options that are valued by their faculty, students will be better served. In addition, we have an obligation to inform graduate students accurately and explicitly about career options so that they will be able to make better educational choices, formulate more realistic career expectations, and achieve greater satisfaction in their careers while contributing more effectively to fulfilling national goals.
In summary, the future PhD degree would be differentan improved version of the current degree. It would retain the existing strengthsespecially with regard to leading to careers in academic researchwhile substantially increasing the information available, the potential versatility of the students, and the career options afforded to them by their PhD education.
General Recommendation 1: Offer a Broader Range of Academic Options
To produce more versatile scientists and engineers, graduate programs should provide options that allow students to gain a wider variety of skills.
Greater versatility can be promoted on two levels. On the academic level, students should be discouraged from overspecializing. Those planning research careers should be grounded in the broad fundamentals of their fields and be familiar with several subfields. Such breadth might be much harder to gain after graduation.
On the level of career skills, there is value in experiences that supply skills desired by both academic and nonacademic employers, especially the ability to communicate complex ideas to nonspecialists and the ability to work well in teams. Off-campus internships in industry or government can lead to additional skills and exposure to authentic job situations.
To foster versatility, government and other agents of financial assistance for graduate students should adjust their support mechanisms to include new education/training grants to institutions and departments.
Most federal support for graduate students is currently provided through research assistantships. Research assistantships are included as parts of grants that are competitively awarded to individual faculty members to support their research. The grant funds are then used to provide stipends to the students in those faculty members' laboratories. Such assistantships offer educational benefit in the form of research skills to the students who work on the faculty members' projects. The needs of funded projects rather than the students' educational needs, however, have tended to be paramount in guiding the students' work.
We recommend an increased emphasis on education/training grants, an adaptation of the training grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. These grants
would be awarded competitively to institutions and departments. Evaluation criteria would include a proposer's plan to improve the versatility of students, both through curricular innovation and through more effective faculty mentoring to acquaint students with the full range of future employment options.
While urging that the nation's overall support for PhD students be maintained as a sound investment in our future, we recognize that a heightened emphasis on education/training grants could reduce the funds available for research assistantships.
In implementing changes to promote versatility, care must be taken not to compromise other important objectives.
Modifying graduate programs to enhance versatility will require care and imagination. Change should be compatible with
· Maintaining local initiative. We envision change that comes from local institutional initiatives and that shows considerable local variation. Each program should build on its own strengths and interests.
· Maintaining excellence in research. A continuing goal of graduate education is the preparation of students who will dedicate themselves to careers in research. The reforms suggested here are not intended to alter that goal. Instead, we envision complementary steps designed to reflect all employment opportunitiesin both the research and the nonresearch sectors. Nor do we espouse what some call "vocationalism"setting each student on a particular career track and "training" him or her in a narrow specialty. We need instead an educational system that prepares students for a central feature of contemporary life: continuous change.
· Controlling time to degree. The time to degree and, more important, the time to first employment are steadily lengthening and are already too long. We believe that it is possible to foster versatility without increasing the time that graduate students spend on campus. Although long times to degree are often decried, universities have not generally made the disciplined effort needed to shorten them. One important step toward shortening the time to degree is to ensure that educational needs of students remain paramount. The primary objective of graduate education is the education of students. The value of such activities as working as highly specialized research assistants on faculty research projects and as teaching assistants should be judged according to the extent to which they contribute to a student's education. A student's progress should be the responsibility of a department rather than of a single faculty member; a small supervisory group (including the student's adviser) should determine when enough work has been accomplished for the PhD degree. Each institution is urged to set its own standards for time to degree and to enforce them.
· Attracting women and minority-group members. It is essential to attract a fair share of the most talented students to each discipline in science and engineering, irrespective of their sex or ethnic backgrounds. Where it appears that the number of women and minority group members is low in particular fields, deliberate steps should be taken to deal with real and perceived barriers to full participation.
General Recommendation 2: Provide Better Information and Guidance
Graduate scientists and engineers and their advisers should receive more up-to-date and accurate information to help them make informed decisions about professional careers; broad electronic access to such information should be provided through a concerted nationwide effort.
The burden of learning about realistic career options should not be left to students themselves. We recommend the establishment of a national database of information on employment options and trends. This information, intended for use by both students and their advisers, should include, by field, data on career tracks, graduate programs (including financial aid), time to degree, and placement rates. Departments should track information on their studentsnot only those who go into universities and 4-year colleges, but those who go into industry, government, junior and precollege education, etc.
The rapid development of the Internet makes it possible to adhere to two important principles in regard to the database: the information can retain a more decentralized, "grassroots" character than information assembled in central compendiums, and up-to-date information would be readily available to the ultimate consumersdoctoral students, graduates, and faculty advisers.
The National Science Foundation should coordinate federal participation in the database. However, it is preferable to design and manage the database within the academic community itself so that it has accurate, timely, and credible information.
Academic departments should provide the information referred to above to prospective and current students in a timely manner and should also provide career advice to graduate students. Students should have access to information on the full range of employment possibilities.
Advice for students should be improved by a systematic tracking of the employment path of each department's graduates and by use of the national database recommended above.
In the past, when students expected to become professors, graduate school was usually seen as a step on a simple career ladder. We are concerned that this concept is still held in some places. Departments should help students to regard their progress through graduate school as a journey with branches that require decisions. One decision point is the application stage, when students need more information on job placement, salaries, and unemployment rates in various disciplines to decide whether and where to enter graduate school.
Students should be encouraged to consider three alternative pathways at the point when they have met their qualifying requirements.
At the beginning of the research phase, departmental advisers should help students to
choose among three distinct options: first, to stop with a master's degree, in light of their aspirations and projected employment demand; second, to proceed toward a PhD and a position in research; or third, for a student interested in working in nontraditional fields, to design a dissertation that meets high standards for originality but requires less time than would preparation for a career in academic research. We believe that the first option is typically undervalued and the third option often neglected.
The National Science Foundation should continue to improve the coverage, timeliness, and clarity of analysis of the data on the education and employment of scientists and engineers in order to support better national decision-making about human resources in science and technology.
In preparing this report, we discovered a lack of the timely and relevant information that students, advisers, and policy-makers should have. The National Science Foundation should seek to improve timeliness, increase detail on nonacademic employment (which now occupies most new scientists and engineers), and support extramural research on actual career patterns in science and engineering.
General Recommendation 3: Devise a National Human-Resource Policy for Advanced Scientists and Engineers
A national discussion groupincluding representatives of governments, universities, industries, and professional organizationsshould deliberately examine the goals, policies, conditions, and unresolved issues of graduate-level human resources.
In preparing our last report, Science, Technology, and the Federal Government (COSEPUP, 1993), we found that no coherent national policy guides the education of advanced scientists and engineers, even though the nation depends heavily on them. At present, there is neither the conceptual clarity nor the factual basis needed to support a coherent policy discussion. We are concerned that many prevailing views are obsolete or are quickly becoming so.
As a starting point, the agenda for national discussion might include national goals and policy objectives, the relationship between the process of graduate education and employment trends, and difficult current issues (such as time to degree and sources of new students) on which opinions diverge.
MAJOR RELATED ISSUES
Two other issues were discussed at some length by the committee and committee witnesses: the relationship between supply of and demand for PhDs in science and engineering and the impact of current high enrollments of foreign citizens. We do not offer recommendations on either issue, but we discuss both in Chapter 4. We present here a brief summary of the discussions.
Is There an Oversupply of PhDs?
The committee is not convinced that the current low and stable unemployment rates among scientists and engineers mean that the system is working as well as it should. In fact, there are indications of employment difficulties, especially among recent graduates. During the course of our study, we often heard concerns that we are producing too many PhDs. Reliable information is scarce, and conditions vary greatly with field, but we report three summary observations:
· There seem to be far more seekers of jobs as professors in academe and as basic researchers1than there are available positions. This situation is the basis of the frustrated expectations of new PhDs.
· Overall unemployment rates for recent PhDs have remained very low (although the 1994 survey showed a small rise). That implies that steady expansion in applied-research and nonresearch employment has ultimately provided jobs for most of the still-growing cohort of PhD graduates.
· There are some worrisome indicators of weakness in the market, such as substantially longer delays in initial placement of new graduates, the fact that some graduates are employed in positions that do not require a PhD, and the possibility that they are taking postdoctoral assignments only in hopes of better positions when employment conditions in research are brighter.
Nevertheless, we see no basis for recommending across-the-board limits on enrollment, for three reasons. First, conditions differ greatly by field and subfield. Second, we believe that an extensive, disciplined research experience provides valuable preparation for a wide variety
1 However, this situation does not mean that graduate scientists and engineers can no longer do research. In terms of primary work activity, the share of positions in applied research and development is increasing. It is just that the share of people going into management of research and teaching is declining.
of nontraditional careers for which scientific and technical expertise is relevant. Third, limiting actions would have little immediate aggregate impact even if they could be orchestrated effectively. Instead, we believe that our recommendations of greatly improved career information and guidance will enhance the ability of the system to balance supply and demand. When the employment situation is poor, better-informed students will be able to pursue options other than a PhD; when the market is expanding, students will be able to move more flexibly and rapidly in the direction of employment demand.
The numbers of science and engineering students and PhDs who are foreign citizens are rising rapidly. The views we encountered about that situation are mixed. Some view it positively, arguing that universities benefit by having foreign graduate students help with research and teaching, that employers benefit by finding the most highly qualified PhDs, and that to compete in a global economy US universities and industries must be able to recruit the best talent available. Others are calling for limits on the numbers of foreign students, arguing that large numbers of foreign citizens compete with US citizens for jobs (which might explain part of the employment problems of recent years); that foreign citizens who return home might work for our economic competitors; that cultural and language difficulties make foreign students ineffective in the classroom as teaching assistants and limit their ability to succeed in the labor market; and that their presence in large numbers depresses salaries and thereby generates a discouraging market signal for potential American students.
As we argue in Chapter 4, the committee does not recommend limiting the number of foreign students, for several reasons. First, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that the most outstanding foreign PhDs tend to find employment in the United States and make major contributions to our nation. Second, the sharp increase in number of foreign-citizen graduate students seems to have been caused in part by a set of political events that are unlikely to recur as well as by changes in US immigration laws. Third, one cause of the presence of many foreign students is that their home nations have lacked adequate opportunities in both education and employment; the wealth of these nations is now growing, and there is already evidence that some foreign students are finding attractive employment opportunities at home.
To the extent that there is a limit on the number of departmental "slots" for graduate students, of more fundamental importance than the presence of foreign citizens is the fact that the number of American students entering science and engineering has grown only slightly in recent years and is a declining percentage of the total number of PhDs. We suggest that the most appropriate responses to the relatively flat enrollment of American students are to implement the measures advocated in this report (which should improve the responsiveness of the PhD labor market) and to continue efforts to strengthen the teaching of precollege science. Those measures, we believe, would make graduate education more attractive, more effective, and accessible to a larger group of qualified American applicants.
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