PhD population control: the same old excuses ...

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There's another discussion going on over at DrugMonkey about professors training more than their "replacement number" of graduate students. I'm personally not sure that replacement (as in, each professor trains one grad student over the course of their entire career) should be the goal, but I do that the PhD glut needs to be addressed, and in a meaningful way. Here are some of the arguments I hear against "academic birth control", and my thoughts on them:

1. Even if they don't go the academic route, PhDs generally end up in good jobs anyway. I've blogged about this before, and the tl;dr version is that it forgets to measure opportunity cost. Getting into a good grad school requires well-above average grades, and therefore the people in these programs are positioned to do well with or without the PhD. There's a second, more sinister level which is that - compared to our contemporaries in medicine and law - people entering PhD programs are disproportionately white and middle-class. A few years ago this actually spurred the NIH to actively demand that more minorities be recruited into graduate programs (if anyone has a link for this please comment; I remember it being a huge issue around 2006-2009). As Dr. Becca puts it:

most people you talk to in scientific careers have a comparatively large amount of social and financial capital in their lives. Basically, scientists disproportionately are the sort of people who are likely to see many options other than grocer because of their peer groups, because they have an economic cushion, and sometimes directly because of their family/social connections. ... I suspect it's also a reason that things have actually gotten very bad indeed in scientific careers, without people hardly noticing for a surprisingly long time. Enough people who got chewed up and spit out by the academic science racket landed on their feet that people thought it had something to do with Majickal SuperUnicornSmartnessSnowflake TransferableSkills we all develop, instead of the aristocracy looking after it's own.

2. Encouraging people into science is the right thing to do for society. This used to give me pause until I thought about it in a very specific way: let's suppose that human capital, that having the best, smartest, most driven people would really advance basic science (and no, I don't think this is a given. To start, it presupposes that there isn't some other limiting resource ...). Wouldn't the scientific mission be better served by trying to keep the people it does have rather than recruit a new crop every 6-10 years? Sure they might cost a little more in terms of annual salary (but not much, when you consider the tuition money-laundering scheme most universities in the US have set up), but they're already trained.

3. No promises were made. We aren't press ganging students into service. Fair enough. I suppose it comes down to a question of personal ethics. The law profession has a similar problem, in which the number of graduates far outstrips the number of jobs, but schools are ill-served by being honest about this because they would then lose enrolment and tuition. PhD programs aren't taking anyone's money, they are just taking some years and earning potential. I believe that this is wrong, but I recognize that it's more of a grey area. Americans in particular are fond of the whole "personal responsibility" argument, even to an extreme (as in: it's your fault went into that program/bought a house you couldn't afford/didn't read the fine print on the waiver).

4. Grad school is a good way to learn how to think for yourself. This should be the function of undergraduate programs, as opposed to teaching legions of students how to fill out scantron forms.