NEW YORK, N.Y., June 20 -- Calling what some university professors are doing to their students "a prescription for obsolescence and betrayal," three experts in science education report in the July/August issue of The Sciences magazine that despite record unemployment rates for science-trained professionals, professors fail to encourage students to pursue career paths outside the lab.
The American Chemical Society has labeled the job market the "worst employment situation for chemists in the past 20 years." Writing in The Sciences, Sheila Tobias, Daryl E. Chubin, and Kevin Aylesworth note that jobs, particularly in the physical sciences, are brutally limited. "The number of scientists in the workforce has grown at three times the rate of the general labor supply...." Frustrated, many of these specialized workers eventually end up bouncing from one low-paying academic appointment to another, or completely underemployed in unrelated fields. So having completed between 8 and 10 years of coursework, these highly specialized professionals are left to face the stiffest competition for jobs in their fields since government funding for the Apollo space program was slashed in the early 1970s. Between 1990 and 1995, for instance, an average of 1,000 applicants vied for every opening in the mathematical sciences. More than 200 applied for each opening in physics or astronomy during the same span.
"In an unstable market for new Ph.D's, success in science must be redefined to include careers outside of the ivory tower...," The Sciences argues. Yet "professors still need to be convinced of their obligation to further the ambitions of students who do not want or realistically cannot expect to pursue academic careers."
And prospects for a sudden growth of science-oriented jobs during the post-cold war era similar to that experienced during "computer boom" of the 1980s is not yet in the foreseeable future. For example, at the height of the boom in 1987, unemployment of new Ph.D's was 4.9 percent. Just two years later, the National Science Foundation even predicted a shortage of roughly 685,000 bachelor of science and engineering degrees, along with a proportionate shortage of Ph.D's, by the year 2006. By 1995 however, the unemployment rate of new Ph.D's reached 21 percent.
What is to be done? John A. Armstrong, a retired IBM vice president for science and technology and a visiting lecturer in physics at MIT, says that doctoral students and postdocs impose limits on their own careers. "Most Ph.D.'s do not value the wide range of their capabilities because their professors seldom do either." To help change these attitudes, Armstrong suggests that graduate programs give students time off campus "in a setting where technical knowledge is actually used."