Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Law school:predatory lending ?=science training:pyramid scheme?

The New York Times profiles some unemployed, debt-encumbered lawyers and discusses how law schools report the status of their graduates in a misleading way. These reports promote the perception that going to law school is a good investment.

Catchy quote:
“Enron-type accounting standards have become the norm...Every time I look at this data, I feel dirty.” - law school professor William Henderson of Indiana University
The article reminds me of several recent articles pointing out the crummy conditions for people with science PhDs and how there too the interests of the educating institutions are at odds with those of the applicants and trainees. In the case of science, this is the result of how our academic science research and training is organized: a structure not infrequently called a pyramid scheme.

A faculty person who leads a lab is high on the pyramid, and the majority of the work is done by trainees (postdocs and graduate students) who are lower on the pyramid and mostly want to eventually lead their own lab. This structure was better suited to the expansive early days of civilian science (mid-1900s to 1970ish), because the the whole pyramid was growing, and trainees were relatively more likely to be able to move up the pyramid. When academic research expansion slowed, there were fewer new jobs created. For existing labs to continue, they needed a steady supply of trainees, but there was less demand for those people after they were trained.

What is the outcome? Between 1973 and 1996, the percent of scientists NOT working in permanent, full-time positions rose from 7% to 21%. This measurement was made among scientists who earned their PhDs 9-10 years previously, the assumption being they should no longer be in short-term training positions like a postdoctoral fellow positions.

(This statistic is based on figure 3.12 "Fraction of US life-science PhDs not holding permanent full-time jobs in science or engineering, 1973, 1985, and 1995" in Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists. National Research Council (US) Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implications of Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1998.)

While this seems like an unsustainable system, at least PhD scientists usually don't accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars in graduate school debt . Faint praise indeed.


ml said...

did you see the economist article?

Manduca said...

I did! Depressing.