The dwindling American science majors

stem educationAccording to the New York Times (Why Science Majors Change Their Minds), the decline in the number of science majors in the United States has come about in part because the subject matter is too difficult. If this explanation is true, then we have not properly prepared these students in grades K-12. I also believe that the poor state of funding of American science is an important factor. My Columbia University colleague Stuart Firestein expressed this idea in his letter to the Times:

Why do science majors change their mind? They wise up.

Your article makes it sound as if American science students are stupid or lazy, unlike their workaholic Chinese and Indian counterparts. This is glib and insulting.

It is in their second year that students typically join laboratories and see firsthand that their dreams of a scientific career include low-paying and highly competitive professorial jobs, that getting grants for scientific research is increasingly difficult and unpredictable, that they are facing many years of postgraduate work at ridiculously low salaries and that they would have a hard time supporting a family.

Compare this future with that of the economics major (lots of math) who goes to business school and can look forward to million-dollar yearly bonuses.

American students change their majors because they recognize that this country has stopped providing a reasonable future for scientists, with slashed budgets for the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and National Institutes of Health.

For Chinese and Indian students, science remains a way out of poverty. For American students, it’s becoming the path into it.

Cliff Mintz at BioJobBlog adds the problem of outsourcing:

…it is important to note that outsourcing and consolidation in the life sciences industry that has occurred over the past decade has all but eliminated the option of industry jobs for those who were unable to secure academic positions. Put simply, there are no longer enough jobs in the US to support the numbers of sciences students that we annually train.

I also agree with Cliff’s idea of eliminating tenure in American universities as a way of infusing new ideas and enthusiasm into the system. The notion of a guaranteed position seems untenable in 2011 and beyond.

16 thoughts on “The dwindling American science majors”

  1. The reason we have more PhDs than jobs for them is that we’ve structured our educational and science funding systems to produce exactly that result. A typical principal investigator at a research university trains a dozen or more PhDs in the course of a career, but on retirement leaves behind only a single job opening. Scientists, in other words, can reproduce themselves by at least an order of magnitude per generation. The science-bashing and budget slashing that have dominated Washington’s research agenda for the past decade have simply accelerated a crisis that’s been brewing for a long time.

    Outsourcing isn’t the problem. For every industry R&D job that’s been eliminated, another has popped up at a contract research organization (CRO). The work still has to be done, it’s just being done by CROs instead of in-house.

    The “too hard” argument is definitely a crock, though. Engineering enrollments are either steady or rising at most schools. Engineering coursework is at least as hard as pure science coursework, but offers a much higher probability of being able to pay off one’s student loans and earn a decent living after graduation. Students are just making rational choices about their futures.

  2. I agree with your assessment of the PhD training issue. The problem is, what to do about it? Should every PI train only one PhD student in his/her career? At that rate they would never get enough results to get their grants funded, and the lab would end. Students want to work with good mentors, to learn the craft from the best. So the 1:1 ratio doesn’t work. We haven’t even mentioned the problem of postdoctoral fellows. Most of us know the ‘postdoc factories’ that churn out data but also churn out unemployed, though highly skilled, scientists. On the other hand, not all PhD students need to become academic scientists. Of the 22 PhD students that I have trained, 6 have academic positions, while the others work in a variety of other positions (such as the science writer Alan Dove).  

  3. hoping to be a pre-doc

    Currently I am applying to PhD. programs in Microbiology.  I graduated from undergrad in 08 and I am about to complete a Medical Technologist post-bac program .  I chose to do a post-bac because of an overly broad undergrad biology program left me unprepared in my first lab tech job.  It may be a unique experience but I would have preferred a more specific undergrad degree focusing on one main topic in biology.  Maybe better pre-college planning would have helped.   

    I listen to TWIV, I read widely, and I am aware of a potential lack of funds for science in the near future.   I still want and desire a career in basic research.Maybe I am naive, at least the work will be interesting.

  4. Don’t underestimate the cost of education.

    I stopped after my B.S. in Biology, because I was afraid the difference in pay between earning the BS and the MS would not cover the difference in the amount of loans I took out. I’ve been out of school now for 5 years and just finished off paying back my student loans. My wife obtained her MS in Education and it’ll be years still before it’s payed back (partly because she went to a private school).

    I’m not so sure, now, that was a great decision. I’m actually looking for a graduate progarm to apply to…but when I was 20 years old, those extra loans seemed VERY scary.

  5. I think Alan Dove has got it right. I don’t know how things are in the US, but here in France, there are definitely far more PhD students than positions available in academia or industry. I have come to the cynical conclusion that things are this way because it allows research employers to pay minimum wage to qualified specialists who work very hard for three or four years, then replace them with another person with the same level of training and commitment. One outcome of this situation is that it effectively becomes impossible to not award a PhD to a student, no matter how poor their thesis or viva may be. Everyone is so embarrassed that the candidate has worked for 3-4 years for low wages, that they feel that at least the student should get a diploma at the end of it as some form of compensation.

    The way out is to reduce the number of PhD grants available, but pay more. This will make it more competitive to get onto graduate programs, but it’s really just making an earlier decision on which students really have the potential to be good scientists. The manpower shortfall should be made up by more lab-manager/supertech positions.


  6. The core of the problem is not in sciences. It is economic. To understand properly what I will say, you should at least watch “Inside Job” the documentary. Our malaise in the economy is because a gang of literal coke-heads have taken over the financial system. They deliberately created bad loans, conned people into buying them (lying) in order to bet the bundled loan securities would fail by buying insurance policies on securities they had sold. Our president has done nothing but protect them. And these guys are continuing to steal from us hand over fist. We are, collectively, too ignorant to understand. Even scientists are guilty of this.

    This is not in the past. All we hear is that there is no money, we must cut, cut cut.  And yet, the NY Times on July 14, 2011 reported that a total of $2.5 trillion had been given to these banks. (Remember that their CEOs and all those econ majors committed massive criminal fraud.)  An article a couple days ago said that $7.7 trillion was given to the banks in 2008 by Hank Paulson, who hid it even from  Federal Reserve directors. But if we ignore that, we have been giving $1 trillion a year to these banks because they committed the largest financial crime in history.

    The president said that he was giving TARP money to the banks because that was the best way to get the banking money multiplier to work.

    You might think, “Well, the banks had losses, so it makes sense to give it to them.”

    But here’s the thing. No matter how the federal government puts out money – it always goes into the banks. If the federal government spent $1 trillion, all that spending goes into banks as deposits. 

    You might think, “Well, those deposits aren’t available in the same way as capital to loan.” That’s just not true. In a reserve banking system, roughly 95% of all deposits are available to loan.

    In addition, you need to understand three more things.
    First – Banking is demand driven. Government spending (on things that produce value) creates creditworthy borrowers. Without creditworthy borrowers, banks can’t make loans. Without loans, there is no banking multiplier. That’s why proper government spending is important. (NSF.NIH has an ROI of 2x to 3x.)

    Second – If we had spent $2 trillion more dollars, the banking multiplier in a 5% reserve system would have created a total of at least $20 trillion. (I’ll post some links in a follow-on. Most capitalist citizens have absolutely no idea of how banking works.)  That would have created at least $2 trillion in jobs, roughly 20 million of them.

    Third – If we had spent that money instead of forking it over directly to the criminal banks, the depositors would have put the money where they thought it was safest. That would have probably resulted in the breakup and sell-off of the criminal banks. Do you see how that works? We have a situation where the people who created the debacle have advised the president to use his authority to keep them in power and out of jail. That’s only human, but we can’t let it continue.


    Citation for NY Times figures Adding up the Government’s Total Bailout Tab (Post crisis.)
    Fed lent banks nearly $8 trillion during crisis, report shows ($7.7 trillion)
    -Suggested reading:
    Bill Black – “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One”
    Steve Keen – “Debunking Economics”

  8. ChicagoJournalist

    Hey! Don’t diss the journalists and then use journalists’ number-crunching stories to back your ideas. Warmly, a journalist

  9. Pingback: Links 11/30/11 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  10. Matthew Lalonde

    IMHO, the problem is that demand for PhDs (and many other degrees) is not connected to the mechanisms which create PhDs.

    What PhD program funding was paid for entirely by philanthropy? In general, alumni contribute to programs from which they themselves have benefited. So, if prospects for PhDs are bleak, funding for PhD programs simply won’t be there since would-be donors are struggling themselves. If prospects are good, alumni from the program would be more able to afford to give to the PhD program fund (there would be an individual one for each department) and more PhDs would be granted. Under such a system, public grant money could not be used to train students.

    This might make education less of an academic pursuit and more purpose-driven real world training. However, I think that the days of undergraduates following their muse are quickly coming to an end as students realize that an education isn’t always a good investment.

    It reminds me of a recent article in the WSJ describing a similar phenomenon in China:

  11. I do agree that we are producing too many PhDs. One solution is to cut back funding for these positions, and make PhD programs more competitive. This will cause many scientists to complain because as you say, the PhD students do a lot of the work.

  12. If you have the desire to get a PhD, a true, deep-seated desire, and are willing to work hard, you should do it. But there are many decisions to be made that are crucial for your success. You have to pick an outstanding mentor in whose lab you can do great science. Then you have to do a postdoc in another superb lab, and work on a project that can lead to an independent program. Here’s an example. We have a new faculty member who did her Ph.D. with Ralph Steinman, working on dendritic cells. Then she did a postdoc with Michel Nussenzweig, in whose lab she discovered a new set of dendritic cells in the brain. Two outstanding labs, and an excellent project with which to start her own lab. That’s what you have to do – it’s not easy but you  have to make crucial choices.

  13. Vince,
    The following summary is not to be aired. It is background data for you and your intimates.
    Warm regards,
    Robin Ballantyne M.D. 

    By Stephen Lendman

    Excerpted from:  War Is A Crime 

    “On November 28, the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) opened its 16th session in The Hague, Netherlands. CWC mandates non-complying nations be referred to the Security Council for action against them, but America’s veto power precludes efforts to deter its lawlessness.

    CWC prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. It mandates their destruction. Earlier it called on all member states to do so by April 29, 2007. Currently, 188 State Parties are signatories, including Russia and China. Israel signed on in 1993.  America requested a delay until April 2012. Washington now wants the delay extended through 2020. The U.S. has no intention of destroying illegal weapons. America maintains huge chemical, biological, nuclear stockpiles. Below is a synopsis of chemical/biological weapons:

    1675, France and Germany agreed to prohibit poison bullets.

    1874, the Brussels Convention on the Law and Customs of War prohibited poison and  weaponized poison in munitions

    1899, a Hague International Peace Conference prohibited poison gas projectiles.

    1907 Hague Convention banned chemical weapons.

    1928, the Geneva Protocol prohibited gas and bacteriological warfare.

    1931, Dr. Cornelius Rhoads infected human subjects with cancer cells – under the auspices of the Rockefeller Institute. Rhoads later conducted radiation exposure experiments on American soldiers and civilian hospital patients.

    1932, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study began on 200 black men, used as human guinea pigs to follow their disease symptoms and progression.

    1940, 400 Chicago prisoners are infected with malaria to study the effects of  experimental drugs.

    1941, the U.S. implemented bioweapons, using controversial testing methods. 

    1942, America’s Chemical Warfare Services began mustard gas experiments on 4,000 servicemen.

    1943, biological weapons research at Fort Detrick, MD began.

    1945, German war-crime offenders got immunity under U.S. Project Paperclip. 

    1946, VA hospital patients become guinea pigs for medical experiments.

    1947, Truman withdrew the 1928 Geneva Protocol, regarding germ warfare, from Senate consideration.

    1947, the AEC’s Colonel EE Kirkpatrick issued secret document #07075001. It said the agency would begin administering intravenous doses of radioactive substances to human subjects.

    1947, the CIA was established. It began LSD experiments on civilian and military subjects with and without their knowledge. 

    1949, the US Army released biological agents in US cities to learn the effects of a germ warfare attack. Tests have continued secretly for years. 

    1951, African-Americans were exposed to potentially fatal stimulants as part of a fungal-weapon test in Virginia.

    1953, the US military released zinc cadium sulfide gas over Winnipeg, Canada, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Fort Wayne, the Monocacy River Valley in Maryland, and Leesburg, VA to determine how effectively chemical agents can be dispersed.

    1953, Army-Navy-CIA experiments were conducted in New York and San Francisco. Tens of thousands of people were exposed to Serratia marcescens and Bacillus glogigii.

    1953, the CIA began Project MKULTRA to  test drugs and biological agents to be used for mind control and behavior modification on unwitting subjects.

    1955, the CIA released bacteria from the Army’s Tampa, FL biological warfare arsenal to test its ability to infect human populations.

    1955, the Army Chemical Corps began LSD research on over 1,000 subjects to study its effect as an incapacitating agent.

    1956, the US military released mosquitoes infected with Yellow Fever over Savannah, GA and Avon Park, FL to test the health effects on victims.

    1956, Army Field Manual 27-10 said biochemical warfare wasn’t banned.

    1960, the Army Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence authorized LSD field testing in Europe and Asia.

    1961, the Kennedy administration authorized Project 112. It ran secretly until  more than ten years to test biological and chemical weapons effects on thousands of unwitting US servicemen. Project SHAD was a related project in which subjects were exposed to VX, tabun, sarin and soman nerve gases plus other toxic agents.

    1966, New York subway passengers were subjected to secret germ warfare experiments.

    1969, nerve gas agents killed thousands of sheep in Utah. For decades since the 1960s, Washington used biological agents against Cuba. 

    1970, US forces conducted Operation Tailwind. Lethal sarin nerve gas was used in Laos. 

    1975, the Senate Church Committee confirmed that bioweapons are stockpiled at Fort Detrick, MD.

    1980s, Washington supplied Iraq with toxic biological and chemical agents. 

    1985, Washington resumed open-air biological agents testing. 

    1987, Congress authorized resumption of chemical weapons production. . .”

    2001, the Bush administration rejected the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). . .”

  14. I switched to IT once I graduated and figured out my salary with a B.S. in Biology. What Biology students don’t realize until too late is that other majors pay much more with just a Bachelors. We usually don’t care since we are looking at more tertiary education anyways. I think college Freshmen do need to be more exposed to their choices. At my school, by the time I graduated, many more students were gravitating to a mix of practical scientific and IT major than a strict Science degree. I didn’t know I liked IT and business until I graduated from college. However, I went back to Biology for the challenges. It is good to weigh the benefits vs. the costs. 

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