Higher Education Strategy Associates

STEM, Shortages, and the Truth About Doctoral Education

Harvard’s Michael S. Teitelbaum came out with an interesting new book last month called, Falling Behind? Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent.  Though it’s a very US- focused book, it’s worth a read as a corrective to the occasional hysterics that people have in Canada about our alleged STEM crisis.

The book starts with a wonderful chapter called “No Shortage of Shortages”, which suggests that the current STEM-shortage panic is the sixth in the US since Sputnik.  He also eviscerates the various employer- and research university-led reports that precipitated the most recent crisis talk (Innovate America, Tapping America’s Potential, and Rising Above the Gathering Storm), and shows that the evidence backing up these claims for crisis  simply don’t hold up.  What does hold up are the structural incentives that exist for various groups to claim there is a crisis when there is none: universities get more money, professors get more grad students, and employers get more PhDs, or more H1-B visas to enable the hiring of foreigners.

An interesting question Teitelbaum raises is whether it might be possible to create a board or agency with the responsibility of declaring when certain occupations are indeed in shortage.  He correctly lists a whole bunch of structural reasons why it might be difficult to find a respected neutral body that interest groups wouldn’t immediately try to undermine, but he does raise the interesting example of the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee, which has the responsibility of advising government on when shortages in specific skilled professions has become sufficiently acute to merit changes in immigration law.  Certainly something to think about with respect to our own Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program.

But to my mind the most important chapter – one everyone in higher education should read – is the chapter on the U.S. Academic Production Process.  He makes the point that the production of doctoral students is a function of research grant availability, not of demand for services of doctorally-educated graduates (and certainly not of the needs of academic institutions for new faculty).  Universities want doctoral students (and increasingly, postdocs) because over time, they have become the go-to form of scholarly labour that university research labs require in order to work.  If they have more money – say, if the US government increases the NIH budget by 100% over five years – there will be a huge explosion in the demand for doctoral students, which is entirely unconnected to the labour market demand for doctoral graduates.

This is a simple and unarguable point, but it is rarely stated quite so bluntly.  Eventually, domestic students figure this out, and fewer go into doctoral studies.  But that doesn’t decrease the demand for this kind of labour – so institutions start reaching out more and more for foreign students, particularly from Asia.  For these students, grad student conditions (and those that come afterwards, even in a depressed labour market) still look pretty good compared to what they can get back home.  To his credit, Teitelbaum doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers to this one and, in the end, simply falls back on the idea of requiring institutions to do a better job informing prospective graduate students about the realities of the academic job market – in terms very similar to the ones I proposed back here.

Anyways – pick up Teitelbaum if you get a chance.  It’s a rewarding read.

This entry was posted in Books, doctoral education, labour market, Skills shortage, STEM. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to STEM, Shortages, and the Truth About Doctoral Education

  1. JRG says:

    It definitely sounds like an interesting read. On the skills shortage point, I wish we did have a way of helping to fill shortages with our own people in STEM areas. I recently encountered several new graduates from Engineering that have been looking for a new job for a couple of months and aren’t being hired because they don’t have the requisite 5 years of work experience the employer is asking for. This despite that some of them are at the top of their class and have done co-ops and internships. Yet I know single individuals that have immigrated here as engineers trained in their home countries, and they are already working because they have more years of experience. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. There may still be a shortage, but perhaps less than we think.

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