September 22, 1997
Volume 50, No. 5
They call the convention facility in St. Louis "America's Center." Anything near the Mississippi River counts, I suppose, as lying near the middle of the country. When I stepped outside the Center during a break in the American Physical Society meeting in March of 1996, I felt myself occupying a different centerpoint, a midpoint in time. Directly across the street stood the boarded-up remains of the old Statler-Hilton Hotel, a site that lives in my personal scrapbook. I presented my first scientific paper there in March 1963 as a graduate student attending the same annual meeting. While I mused on my past, the present and the future were being spelled out inside the Center-a present and future that look less inviting than they once did for physics and for all science.
Things have changed since 1963, when memories of the 1957 Soviet Sputnik launch and the 1961 space ride by Yuri Gagarin were fresh. Science was a national priority, and young scientists and engineers felt favored. That motivated them in the long slog toward a degree for they could confidently expect to earn a living while doing what they loved. The dream of rewarding scientific employment has had its ups and downs since, as national needs changed and funding for science changed with them-but projections always showed that the economy needed scientifically trained people.
Now the projections are upset; now it is unclear how much science, and how many scientists, society really needs. In physics, we produce annually twice as many new PhDs-about 1,400-as there are openings. Tenure-track positions are lacking; technically oriented firms are downsizing; funding for government laboratories is reduced and may even be withheld.
Facing these dwindling options, young scientists radiate anxiety and poor esprit, as I heard in St. Louis. Some express resignation. One woman with a new doctorate told me that she and her peers have given up searching for permanent research jobs. The goal has narrowed down to this: Get out of graduate school quickly and seek whatever industrial job you can find.
The reality behind these responses became apparent as I considered the evolution of the March meeting. In 1963, its program was entirely about science. In 1996, its scientific presentations were studded with special sessions about jobs, which showed how to write a resume and behave in an interview, and pointed out opportunities in nontraditional areas like financial services. Coupled with a placement service, such responses represent the best the physics professional society can do.
The problems of oversupply and overtraining require more than amelioration, for they may be structural in nature, arising from deep-rooted changes in national goals and in the economy. As one speaker in St. Louis noted, the last 40 years have been a unique golden age in American science. Attitudes that worked then no longer suffice.
One outdated attitude is the belief that science is so essential to society that it deserves unquestioning support. But the new reality is that there is no entitlement. Science is under close scrutiny, as is any activity that requires dollars and resources. Institutions that cannot respond well to such analysis will not fare well. And a convincing response requires a change in another attitude, the feeling that pure academic research is the most worthy career, inherently more valuable than other uses of scientific training. One young scientist in St. Louis rightfully questioned the use of the dismissive phrase "alternate career" for professional pursuits other than academic research. The startling truth is that academic employment is the "alternate career." It is and always has been a minority user of doctorates in physics compared to employment in industry and government, only part of which can be called "pure" research.
And yet, belief in the primacy of academic research colors how we educate scientists. It makes the doctorate the key degree and tends to focus undergraduate curricula on preparation for graduate work. And if research is central, teaching is necessarily secondary; as a result, we thoroughly train students in laboratories as expert researchers but hardly educate them in classrooms as skilled teachers. Yet if the value of a doctorate is declining, should we not consider revamping the degree and do a better job of educating terminal bachelor's and master's students? Should we not broaden chances for employment and enhance general education by teaching students to teach and to communicate well in speech and writing?
Some of my academic colleagues view these ideas as revolutionary, but the students in the trenches have clear images of what makes them employable, as they expressed in St. Louis. Some ask for so-called "professional" master's degrees; less research-oriented and narrower in compass than a doctorate, they provide excellent preparation for nonacademic jobs. These would replace the master's degree that many universities routinely award as a consolation prize to those who fail to earn a doctorate.
Other students plead to be trained in teamwork; they understand that industrial science operates with multidisciplinary groups, not through the solo breakthroughs of an Albert Einstein or an Edwin Hubble, motivating as these are for the truly innovative researcher.
If science faculty can honestly face new realities alongside our students and challenge them to become good scientists who are also useful to society, we are fulfilling our deepest obligations as teachers. My department some time ago added a BS in applied physics to its offerings. After careful thought, we concluded we could best serve some students by replacing advanced theory with course and laboratory work in optics and electronics-a trade-off we have never regretted, for the degree prepares students for careers other than PhD researcher and is now chosen by most of our majors.
Other requisite changes need leadership from deans and provosts. I believe that students are correct when they call for multidisciplinary education, even beyond the mixing of scientific disciplines, to the mixing of scientific training with work in the humanities or the social sciences. Only the next level of university governance can overcome departmental barriers and make such education possible-a difficult task where I have yet to see much progress.
For that young scientist who pragmatically accepted that an industrial position would be her best option, I have nothing but applause. But I want to give her more, the sense that her decision is not a second-rate one, not a poor substitute for another kind of career, but a choice that has its own benefits as well as drawbacks and that need not apologize to any outmoded definition of "good science." Like any of us, she can be a good scientist in many different ways-but only if students, faculty and administrators work together to make it possible.
Sidney Perkowitz is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics. This
essay was first published in American Scientist, September/October
1996, and is used with permission.
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