The Cutting Edge / COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Blame Federal Grant System for America's 'Ph.D Glut'

In the weeks since this column described the plight of John, a young scientist with a doctorate in microbiology who is unable to find a permanent job in his field, I have had numerous letters from others who are victims of the "Ph.D glut."

These bright, energetic scholars are all facing the same problem: Our universities are turning out more scientists with advanced degrees than our culture can absorb. A Huntington Beach man who is about to receive his doctorate in physics from a major Midwestern university but has very few leads for jobs in his field, summed up the views of many:

"I feel like nobody's running the show," he said. He sees himself, rightly, as a victim of the modern university system, which has in recent years become a slave to the simple imperatives of institutional self-preservation.

Ironically, the research universities that are turning out too many Ph.Ds these days are the envy of the world. No country trains scientists and engineers as effectively as this nation. Yet times have changed, brought on by curtailed federal spending and a reduced commitment to basic research by industry, and the universities are unable to adjust to those changes.

The reasons strike at the heart of what has made the universities so successful.

Nearly half the funds supporting U.S. research universities come from federal grants. To continue receiving those funds, and thus maintain the strength of their programs, the universities need more people: The quantity of federal dollars is often linked to the number of students enrolled and the scale of the research program.

Despite since-repudiated claims by the National Science Foundation a few years ago that the nation was facing a severe shortage of scientists and engineers, many educators recognized they were beginning to turn out more doctorates than the country needed. But how do you cut back on the number of Ph.D candidates without undermining the financial structure of the university?

To solve this problem, universities turned more and more to filling their classes and research programs with foreign students, who continued to bring federal dollars to the campus. It was seen as an ideal solution, because the foreign students would return to their homes after completing their education, leaving a strong job market for U.S. citizens.

But it hasn't worked out that way. Today, nearly half the graduate students in the sciences in this country are foreign. In some universities, the number is as high as 90%, according to a study conducted by Brian B. Schwartz of the American Physical Society.

And, contrary to the way the system was supposed to work, more and more of those students--about half, according to one authoritative study--are remaining in the United States after completing their studies.

A study by the National Science Foundation indicated that the situation is getting worse. The Immigration Act of 1990, passed partly to lure scientists with knowledge of nuclear weapons away from the crumbling Soviet Union, has had a dramatic impact on the U.S. job market, the foundation concluded.

In 1991, the number of scientists and engineers admitted to the United States with permanent visas was 14,100. By 1992, that number had jumped to 22,879, an increase of 62% in just one year. More recent figures have not been released, but the trend continues.

At the same time, the number of newly minted Ph.Ds continues to climb. A record 39,754 doctorates were awarded in the United States in 1993, up 2.3% from the previous high in 1992.

Educators fear that cutting back on the number of graduate students would undermine the financial stability of research universities across the country. But to continue the status quo will swallow the hopes and dreams of thousands who study for years, only to find no need for their services at the end of the line.

Meanwhile, our friend John continues his unsuccessful quest for a lasting job. Two promising opportunities came and went recently. He was not even invited in for an interview for one of the positions. The other opening, at a New York university, was put on hold because of funding problems.

He is now considering leaving science for a post in computer programming, putting the seven years he spent earning his doctorate in microbiology behind him.

"I feel like a dinosaur facing the end of its line," he says.

Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at

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