Elizabeth Weise, a USA Today journalist, posted a story titled “Journals: USA, others need to re-tool their science programs” on April 22, 2011 (link). The premise of the article is that the journal Nature is reporting that there are not enough academic positions available for the number of PhD graduates, and that non-academic industries are unable to absorb all of these highly trained scientists.
While training under Dr. David E. Smith (webpage), I repeatedly heard that “I was being trained to think scientifically.” Many times the solution to the problem was less of a concern for Dr. Smith than the method I used to arrive at the solution. This is why I think the comments by Weise may not reflect the reality of the situation. The key feature of a well-trained PhD is the ability to evaluate a problem for which no solution exists. Then the PhD scientist will develop an approach to discover a solution. The expertise is in building the approach to finding the solution rather than the solution. The quality PhD scientist will implement the proper scientific approach of developing a hypothesis, designing experiments to test the hypothesis, and evaluating the results to confirm or refute the hypothesis.
Thus, instead of saying that there are too many PhD scientists, perhaps we should be asking if the PhD scientists are being taught the scientific approach to solving problems. If not, perhaps we have people that receive the degree, but don’t have the capacity or expertise necessary to perform at that level.
What do you think? Are there too many PhDs in the sciences? Are we teaching PhDs the correct things? I would love to hear from you.