DISCUSSION OF MAJOR RELATED ISSUES
Three of the issues raised in Chapters 2 and 3 (whether the United States is producing too many science and engineering doctorates, the effect of enrollment of foreigners, and the long time from starting graduate study to first job) are closely related to the design of graduate-education programs for scientists and engineers. Those contemporary issues have been discussed extensively by the committee and by the witnesses and correspondents who have contributed to the content of this report. Each of these related topics deserves extended study and debate in its own right. We present the issues and their possible implications for graduate-education programs in this chapter.
4.1 THE "RIGHT" NUMBER OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING PHDS
Having read accounts of scarcity in academic research positions, some readers might expect this report to conclude that we are producing too many PhDs and should take immediate steps to cut back PhD programs in science and engineering. We are aware of the reports of unemployment and underemployment among new doctorate recipients, and survey data indicate that recent PhDs are finding it harder to make the transition from graduate school and postdoctoral study to career positions (see Chapter 2). The current situation probably results in part from the increase in annual PhD production to 25,000 in 1993 from the 18,000-19,000 per year in 1976-1986. In response, some graduate programs have begun to accept fewer new students. But forecasting demand for science and engineering PhDs is difficult, and, because it takes a long time for changes in graduate enrollment to manifest themselves in PhDs, past efforts either to increase production in response to perceived shortages (in the 1960s and 1980s) or to reduce production (in the 1970s) ended up not having beneficial effects, in that graduate
students and programs had already made substantial adjustments. Because of the lag times between policy action and changes in the system and for reasons enumerated below, we do not think it possible to determine appropriate production targets. A better way to keep supply and demand in balance appears in the next chapter.
The Current Unemployment Situation
The committee is not convinced that the current low and stable unemployment rates among science and engineering PhDs, even new ones, that are documented in Chapter 2 prove that the system is working as well as it should. It is true that science and engineering PhDs have prospered in an increasingly diverse labor market. But as we illustrated in Chapter 2, there are indications of employment difficulties, especially for recent graduates. For example, the percentage of scientists and engineers looking for jobs in the first months after PhD receipt has risen dramatically in some fields, and there is evidence that an increasing percentage of those counted as "employed PhDs" have taken temporary positions in either postdoctoral fellowships or short-term jobs. The unemployment rate as of 1993 (the last year for which there were national data) was still low at 1.6% but was increased from the roughly 1.0% of the 1980s and 1.4% in 1991 (Figure 2-3). Unemployment among new science and engineering PhDs reached 2% in 1993, compared with the roughly 1.5% of the 1980s.
Nor do the available employment data take into account the nature of jobs held by recent PhD recipients. Statistically, a PhD physicist working in a job outside science and engineering is counted equally with a physicist on the staff of AT&T Bell Laboratories or a tenure-track assistant professor at a research university. Moreover, some PhDs who are finding good jobs in nontraditional fields might be doing so regardless of their PhD training, not because of it. The predominant view of the employers that we heard from during the course of our study was that PhD work, including original research, made students more effective employees. However, these graduates might be attractive to some employers simply because they are members of a highly qualified, hard-working, and carefully selected group of people. The time spent in or the content of a PhD program might not be well matched to some science and engineering graduates' jobs.
The committee cannot measure employment difficulties precisely, but the evidence received from witnesses and other contributors is persuasive that problems exist in at least some sectors. Some recent PhDs have indicated that they regretted having spent time and money on doctoral work that turned out not to be useful in their permanent jobs. Some even reported "hiding" their doctorates so as not to appear overqualified, unbusinesslike, or too theoretical in their approach to work.
We believe that the slow but steady shift1 in demand for doctoral scientists and engineers over the last 2 decades away from academe and toward a greater variety of employment has
1 This shift seems dramatic to many observers, but employment data portray slow change over the last 20 years.
accelerated somewhat in the early 1990s at the same time that the number of new graduates (many of them foreign students) has increased rapidly. For a variety of reasons, the number of academic positions and traditional industrial research positions is steady or shrinking, in accord with anecdotal reports that an unusually high number of new PhDs had to change career plans on graduating or after several years in postdoctoral positions.
To some extent, the science and engineering employment situation is cyclical, and it might already be adjusting. The recent recession ended slowly, but economic growth has resumed, and the demand for skilled people is increasing even in some industries that have undergone substantial reduction and restructuring. In addition, the high rate of increase in the number of PhDs awarded to foreign citizens in the United States, which averaged more than 12% per year in the late 1980s, began to fall after 1990 and was 0.3% in 1993 (calculated from Table 3 in NSF, 1994f). The number of doctorates awarded to foreign citizens with temporary visas fell slightly in physics/astronomy, chemistry, environmental sciences, and computer sciences from 1992 to 1993 (NRC, 1995: Appendix Table A-2).
However, we have already cited some indications of basic structural changes that lower demand, including cuts in defense spending, industrial restructuring, and reductions in growth of federal R&D spending. There is no evidence that these trends of the last several years will end soon. Thus, even if PhD production does fall in the near term, science and engineering graduate students might do well to prepare themselves for an increasingly diverse set of career paths.
Limitations of Supply-Demand Models for Forecasting Science and Engineering Personnel Needs
Supply-demand models are not now adequate for predicting whether there will be an undersupply or oversupply of trained scientists and engineers (Fechter, 1990; Leslie and Oaxaca, 1990; NSB, 1993; Vetter, 1993). That conclusion was also expressed by the panel on estimation procedures of the Committee on National Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Personnel, which found that previous supply-demand models for basic biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research scientists had not proved accurate (NRC, 1994b).
At least two types of limitations of such models severely reduce their reliability, especially over the 5- to 10-year periods needed to carry out graduate-education plans. Internally, they are not based on an adequate understanding of the behavior of the students, faculty, and other people whose collective decisions affect the supply of new scientists and engineers; externally, they cannot always predict the impact of major changes in key variables outside the graduate system itself that affect demand for scientists and engineers.
For example, predictions of a huge oversupply of scientists and engineers in the early 1970s did not come true, because as a result of the predictions the students changed plans, administrators reduced programs, and graduates found new ways to use their trainingall behavioral changes that were not included in the models. More recent studies have forecast
shortages of college and university faculty, beginning in the middle 1990s. These shortages have not occurred. The forecasters could not anticipate the behavioral effects of recession and tight government budgets: fewer faculty have elected to retire, and universities and colleges have begun to fill faculty openings temporarily or leave them unfilled.
As an example of unanticipated external events affecting science and engineering employment, the buildup of physical scientists and engineers in the late 1980s stimulated by increased defense spending earlier in the decade was followed by the end of the Cold War, which reduced demand for scientists and engineers; similarly, no one could predict the immigration of experienced scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The intensified pressures of international economic competition have also had unexpected effects, which have led some large high-technology companies to reduce their research staffs and redirect those who remain toward more-applied research with near-term payoffs.
With current techniques, it is not possible to forecast the future demand for or supply of scientists and engineers. We can tell with some confidence whether there are immediate mismatches between supply and demand; but in the absence of reliable long-range models, we do not know whether a situation is temporary and self-correcting or whether stronger action is required. In other words, there is little basis for trying to control the production of new science and engineering PhDs by limiting enrollments nationally through some central control mechanism.
There are ways to improve the likelihood of a balance between supply and demand that do not involve central planning and all the information requirements on which such planning depends. We believe that a combination of greater breadth and flexibility in graduate curriculums, better information and guidance, and financial support mechanisms whose primary purpose is education will provide scientists and engineers who can move more flexibly toward employment demand. Our recommendations are presented in greater detail in Chapter 5.
Meanwhile, efforts should continue to improve the collection and analysis of employmentrelated information by the National Science Foundation (NSF), other agencies, and the scientific societies and associations. Understanding the dynamics of and trends in career paths of scientists and engineers with advanced degrees in the various employment sectors is especially important. The results should be disseminated to prospective graduate students, to graduate students, to postdoctoral fellows, and to the faculty who advise them. Better supply-demand modeling of PhD labor markets is also important. We offer specific recommendations in Chapter 5.
4.2 THE ISSUE OF FOREIGN STUDENTS
As noted in Chapter 3, foreign-citizen students accounted for most of the increase in the numbers of science and engineering graduate students and numbers of PhDs since about 1986. In 1992, for example, foreign citizens were nearly one-third of graduate students in science and engineering, up from less than one-fourth in 1982. By 1993, 57% of the PhDs in engineering and more than one-third in physics, computer science, and mathematics were awarded to foreign-born scientists and engineers (Table 3 in NSF, 1994f). All together, the increase in foreign graduate students with temporary visas accounted for 65.5 % of the net increase in annual science and engineering PhD awards 1986 to 1993, and an increase in the number of foreign-citizen PhDs with permanent visas contributed almost another 11% to the increase. Foreign citizens achieved a majority of science and engineering postdoctoral appointments in the United States in 1991.
Support of Foreign Graduate Students
Immigration laws have been changed to place some restrictions on foreign citizens with temporary student visas who are enrolled in US graduate science and engineering programs. They are required to be full-time students, and they and their dependents are prohibited from taking jobs. They are prohibited from taking most fellowships and traineeships or applying for federally guaranteed loans and other forms of direct federal assistance. They can be employed as research assistants on federally funded research projects. Many foreigners receive support for the first year of their graduate study from their home countries, but the universities usually support them after that, generally with research assistantships and teaching assistantships (much of the support comes from federal research grants) (CRS, 1992).
As a result, universities provide a greater degree of financial support to foreign students than to US citizens. In 1992, for example, universities provided support to 87% of the graduate students in the physical sciences with temporary visas, 84% of those with permanent visas, and 72% of those who were US citizens. In engineering, university support went to 76%, 73 %, and 61%, respectively. The pattern was similar in the life and social sciences.
Where Do Foreign-Citizen PhDs Go?
It has been generally possible under the immigration laws for new PhDs of foreign citizenship to find entry-level positions in the US labor force (NSF, 1990b). Historically, about
half the foreign citizens with American doctorates in science and engineering have left the United States after getting their PhDs or later postdoctoral appointments (CRS, 1992).2
What Are the Effects?
Opinions about the effects of an increasing number and percentage of foreigners in American graduate science and engineering programs have been mixed (see CRS, 1992, for review and citations). Some people say that the United States benefits from high graduate enrollments of foreign students because they help with research and teaching, counter the declining interest of American students in science and engineering, and fill the employment needs of industrial laboratories. They argue that in a global economy, US universities and industries should be able to recruit the best talent available.3Some value the contribution of foreign students to a multicultural educational environment. Others point out that US companies later hire foreign students to help open new markets in their country of origin.
Other people have begun to argue that the numbers of foreign students should be limited, on several grounds. They charge that increasing numbers of foreigners with US PhDs who remain in this country (many of whom become US citizens) are competing with American graduates for jobs; that might explain some part of the employment problems that recent PhDs have complained of in the last several years. Meanwhile, some return home and work for our economic competitors. Critics of increased graduate enrollment of foreigners also have charged that cultural and language differences make many of them ineffective in the classroom and limit their ability to succeed in the labor market, that their graduate training has been unfairly subsidized by American taxpayers, that they depress salaries and thus interfere with an important market signal that would attract more American students, and that their presence discourages defense-related research in industry and on campus (CRS, 1992). A bill was introduced in 1992
2 In addition, an unknown number of foreign citizens come to work in the United States after receiving their PhDs from foreign institutions. They are a subset of the immigrant scientists and engineers of all degree levels reported by the US Department of State to NSF. In 1992, that number jumped to nearly 23,000, compared with 11,000-12,000 a year during the 1980s (NSB, 1993:82). More than half were from East Asia, and two-thirds to three-fourths have been engineers. The increase probably resulted from the Immigration Act of 1990, which was passed in response to predictions by NSF and others in the late 1980s that a shortage of scientists and engineers was impending.
3 It is interesting to note, for example, that approximately 20% of the individuals elected to National Academy of Sciences membership each year since World War II have been foreign-born US citizens.
in the second session of the 102nd Congress requiring universities to give preference to US students in filling federally sponsored research positions.4
The sharp jump in number of foreign-citizen graduate students in recent years, as described in Chapter 3, has probably been caused in part by a set of political events that are unlikely to recur, as well as changes in US immigration laws. And many foreign students are in the United States because their home nations lack adequate educational infrastructures. As the wealth of developing nations grows, so will these infrastructures, providing more attractive employment opportunities at home. Already, the aggregate of undergraduate science and engineering enrollments in six economically important Asian nations exceeds undergraduate science and engineering enrollment in the United States (NSF, 1993c).
The number of American students entering science and engineering graduate schools is not rising. There is no evidence that this situation would be changed by limiting foreigners. In fact, artificial limits could have the detrimental effect of disrupting the supply of scientists and engineers in key fields.
To the extent that there is a limit on the number of departmental "slots" for graduate students, we are inclined to believe that the real issue is the lack of US students, rather than the increasing presence of foreign students in our graduate science and engineering programs, but it is difficult to assess the claim that the easy access to foreign students has prevented an adequate response of the system to declining US student interest. If graduate programs are filled with foreigners, the programs do not have to make adjustments in enrollments or in content to make them more relevant to US students. Nor do businesses have to increase salaries to increase their supply of American students.
The committee suggests that the most appropriate response to flat or declining graduate enrollments of American students is to implement the measures advocated in this report, which should improve the functioning of the PhD labor market, and to continue efforts to strengthen the teaching of precollege and undergraduate science. Those measures, we believe, would make graduate education in science and engineering more attractive, more effective, and accessible to a larger group of qualified American applicants.
4 The American Math and Science Student Support Bill, HR 4595, was introduced on March 26, 1992. It did not pass, but neither did a bill (S 44) to allow any foreign citizens earning degrees in the natural sciences, engineering, or computer science from US institutions to obtain permanent resident visas.
4.3 TIME TO EMPLOYMENT
For a variety of reasons that are not well understood, it has been taking longer for PhDs in science and engineering to begin their careers with "potentially permanent" jobsi.e., post-PhD jobs that are not postdoctoral fellowships and are not temporary. According to an NSF analysis of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients, the median age of PhD recipients entering their first permanent positions increased in all fields from 1971 to 1991by more than a year for PhDs in engineering (from age 30 to 31), by 2 years in the physical and mathematical sciences (from 30 to 32), by 3 years in the life sciences (from 30 to 33), and by nearly 4 years in the social and behavioral sciences (from 30 to 34).
The committee is concerned about the longer time to first permanent job. The prospect of many years of graduate study might discourage qualified candidates from attempting a PhD. Also, extending the years of schooling burdens PhDs who enter nonacademic employment with a disadvantage compared with their contemporaries, who are years ahead in workplace experience and seniority. Finally, long times to degree (TTDs) and more postdoctoral study increase the time required for the supply of PhDs to respond to shifts in market demand; this has both social and individual costs.
There are many possible reasons for the lengthening of time to first regular position, some of them positive (e.g., time spent working between college and graduate school, which adds experience and maturity), some negative (e.g., discouragement of graduation by faculty who need research assistants or teaching assistants and an oversupply of PhDs relative to demand for academic positions), and some unavoidable (more time devoted to child-care responsibilities and a greater amount of material to learn in graduate school and in postdoctoral appointments). Increasing TTDs of all types (registered, elapsed, and total time) have been defined and documented in Chapter 3, and entering graduate students on the average are probably older to begin with. The median age of new PhDs has increased in all fields since 1971by 1 year in physics and astronomy, by 1.5 years in engineering and chemistry, by 2 years in biology, by 2.5 years in mathematics, and by more than 3 years in the social sciences (Table 4 in NSF, 1993b). A growing proportion of graduate students come from groups that take longer to finishwomen, underrepresented minorities, and foreign citizens (Stricker, 1994:570).
The committee discussed the issue of longer time to first permanent position, the possible causes, and the significance. We are concerned about the costs of increased time to first permanent position and the role of increased TTD in it, but we hesitate to recommend a particular time limit for completion of the PhD or a particular length of postdoctoral study, partly in recognition of the great diversity of graduate students, disciplinary requirements, and educational institutions missions. Instead, we believe that clearly understood quantitative guidelines for PhD completion times should be set by individual institutions after discussions among students, faculty, and professional societies.5
5 Institutional policies should include criteria for exceptions to standards. For example, students who work or have children should be allowed to negotiate reasonable schedules without prejudice to their standing.
The committee notes that many institutions already have guidelines intended to limit time to degree. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, chemical engineers are expected to complete a PhD in 4 years, and flexibility is granted as appropriate. Other institutions allow students to receive teaching assistantships for only 4 years; still others limit the time that a student can work on a single research project.
Whatever the institutional guidelines are, they must be implemented, monitored, and enforced to ensure that graduate students are never used to provide inexpensive labor on research projects or in teaching. As the report of the Association of American Universities/Association of Graduate Schools puts it, "policy changes alone are insufficient; the commitment to implement them is crucial" (AAU, 1990). Each institution should adopt standards appropriate to its mission and student body and should charge graduate schools and their deans with oversight. That could be done at the departmental or program level. Departmental rules should be developed with the active participation of the faculty who carry out graduate education, and they must be clearly communicated to students, faculty advisers, and dissertation committees.
4.4 INFORMATION AND ANALYSIS NEEDS
It is characteristic of the issues described in this chapter, particularly time to employment or first permanent job, that more information on and better understanding of them is needed, despite the problems and sensitivities involved in addressing the issues of employment, foreign students, and institutional policies concerning time to degree. Accordingly, appropriate recommendations aimed at NSF, which has the lead responsibility for gathering and analyzing information about the science and engineering enterprise, are included in the next chapter.
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