The Myth of Postgraduate Degrees
By Professor Norm Matloff
Sat, 7 Aug 2004 23:26:41 -0700
From: Norm Matloff <email@example.com>
To: Norm Matloff <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: H-1B/L-1/offshoring e-newsletter
The industry lobbyists have always emphasized
that one reason the nation
"needs" H-1Bs is a claimed "shortage" of workers with Master's and PhD
degrees (which I will refer to simply as "graduate degrees" below).
Currently the lobbyists are putting even greater focus on this claim,
and are pushing Congress to enact a bill now before it, which would
exempt from the H-1B cap those foreign nationals who have a greater
degree from a U.S. university. It is very clear that the lobbyists are
pushing hard on this one. There have persuaded about a dozen newspapers
to write editorials supporting the bill. All the editorials are nearly
identical, taken largely from the fancy and expensive press kits which
the lobbyists have been providing journalists.
Thus this issue has become a central
one to H-1B, no matter what one's
view is on the H-1B program. We are fortunate in that recently there
have been two excellent and timely articles on the topic of foreign
students in U.S. graduate programs, which I am enclosing below. The
two articles are rarities, in that in the vast majority of cases the
gullible press simply takes what the press tells them at face value.
These two articles take a much more probing look.
Again, this has become a central issue
in the H-1B dialog, so it
deserves an in-depth treatment. I thus ask for your patience in
reading this posting.
The first of the two articles chronologically
was in the Chronicle for
Higher Education (CHE). Again, given that so few articles ever do raise
questions about the issue of foreign graduate students--the press
usually just take the claims of academia at face value--and given the
rather conservative, don't-rock-the-boat nature of CHE, I was pleasantly
surprised to see the article. (Unfortunately, in the same issue, there
is also an article on a projected "shortage" of engineers.) Then an even
better article came out yesterday in CNet News. I'm enclosing both
Much has been written about an alleged
anti-intellectual streak in American
culture, and there is probably some grain of truth in that. American jokes
along these lines, e.g. that "PhD" stands for "piled high and deep," would not
bring much laughter, if any, in East Asia. Nevertheless, polls have shown
that the American people rank university professors as the most-admired
profession (tied with physicians). Accordingly, when universities say they
"need" foreign students to populate U.S. graduate programs in science and
engineering, the gullible public readily believes it. Indeed, some
subscribers of this e-newsletter have this attitude.
Unfortunately, that trust the public
has toward academia is misplaced. The
fact is that those academics making such claims are speaking only for their
own agenda, rather than the good of the nation. Here is what is really going
The core activity of PhD-granting universities
is research. I must say
that I fully agree that research should indeed be an integral part of a
professor's job, and it is something I very much enjoy. But the
original idea of research was to do it as scholars, not as empire
builders, the latter being what it has become.
Since it's baseball season now, let
me make a baseball analogy. Research
money and PhD production (which again is basically research) are to university
professors what batting average and ERA are to baseball players. A
professor's tenure and subsequent rise in the ranks will depend heavily on
bringing in federal and industrial research funding, and on producing PhDs.
And the production of PhDs costs money (they are paid a stipend), which brings
us back to research funding again. So, as always, it boils down to money (or
if you like, money and power).
And it's not just at the professor level.
The department chair will also be
judged on these same factors, totaled over the department as a whole. The
same will be true for the dean, and for the university president, who is the
"CEO," and who will be judged on bringing in funding just as much as a CEO is
judged by the company's stock price. And of course, the president also works
to bring in alumni donations too. Did you naively think the president's job
is to worry about curriculum, challenging young minds, etc.? No, the
president's job is to bring in money, money, money.
So of course people at all levels of
the university have to make nice with
industry, for instance. That is one of the reasons (there are other ones too,
all just as selfish) that academia has supported industry's claims of a tech
shortage, of a "need" for H-1Bs, etc. (See Sec. 2.2 of my updated
congressional testimony, http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/itaa.html)
But isn't research necessary for the
advances in technology, and thus vital to
our economy? Well, I can certainly say the answer is NO in my fields of
expertise--computer science, statistics and mathematics. My inclusion of
computer science in that list may surprise some readers, but the facts are
* Very little CS research ends up being used in practice.
* Most of the major advances in CS
have been initiated in industry,
not academia (though in some cases university research has later
refined what industry invented).
* Most of the major advances in CS
have been made by people who did
not have a PhD in the field.
So, at least in the fields of my expertise
(medicine, for example, may
be different), the public benefit from all that empire-building in
academia is pretty limited. And the negative impacts are serious:
* Swelling of the labor pool of scientists
and engineers, many
of whom suffer from chronic unemployment, and often permanent
lack of opportunity to work in their field.
* Federal government needlessly spending
of huge sums of money on
* As mentioned earlier, the industry
lobbyists use this "shortage
of PhDs" argument to get Congress to maintain and expand liberal
H-1B policies. As we speak, there is a bill to exempt foreign
students who get graduate degrees from U.S. universities from
the H-1B cap. (See http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/Archive/GradDegrees.txt
for my earlier posting on why this bill is unwarranted.)
Some of you will recall that the National
Reseach Council found that it just
doesn't pay for American students to pursue a PhD in the tech areas. By
foregoing an industry-level salary during the five years or so it takes to get
a PhD, an American student is incurring a financial loss that he/she will
never make up in a lifetime in the field (assuming that he/she can actually
stay in the field that long, which is unlikely). Foreign students hope to get
nonmonetary compensation in the form of fast track to a green card, so things
are different for them. Coupling the financial loss issue with the fact that
one does not need a PhD in order to be technologically capable of working in
the field, most American students--including the best ones--vote with their
feet, going into the industry after getting their Bachelor's, rather than
pursuing graduate study.
Thus the fact, often mentioned by industry
lobbyists, that a hefty percentage
of U.S. PhDs are granted to foreign students, does NOT show that there is
"something wrong" with American students, who are merely making a rational
decision. And it does NOT imply that we actually NEED all those foreign
graduate students, or so many domestic graduate students either. The only
entity which "needs" graduate students is the universities, not the nation.
The academic lobbyists who claim a "shortage"
of PhD students do
so for their own reasons, as I said. The same is true for industry lobbyists,
who want to use the alleged "shortage" to buttress their demands that
Congress expand the H-1B program. The fact is that there are very few jobs in
industry which require a PhD. Intel's statements, e.g from the article below
But others, including computer industry
leaders, defend the use of
foreign talent and suggest the drop in doctoral degrees is a sign the
country's tech leadership may be in jeopardy. Intel CEO Craig Barrett has
weighed in on the issue to say that "the U.S. is basically
complacent" about education and research.
fly in the face of its behavior. Recall
my point, for instance, that on
October 13, 1999, a team of Intel engineers recruiting for new graduates
visiting my department at UC Davis. I mentioned that I had a couple of PhDs in
electrical engineering I could refer to them, one a new graduate and the other
a 1992 graduate. One of the recruiters replied, "No, Intel is not very
interested in PhDs." The other added that a PhD would not have enough to
challenge him or her at Intel, except in the rare case of very highly
specialized research areas.
in almost all cases PhDs in CS do work
which does not need a PhD.
Overproduction of computer science PhD's was a major theme in an
article by Professor Anthony Ralston of the State University of New
York at Buffalo in the Communications of the Association for Computing
Machinery (March 1996), the ACM's flagship professional journal.
[In the coming years] we are almost
certain to continue to produce
more - probably far more - PhDs in computer science than will be
able to find the kinds of research jobs which attracted them to
seek doctorates in the first place, and perhaps more than will be
able to find jobs at all. Many of us are, in fact, accepting
students under false pretenses...
Ralston went on the say that the PhDs
may still be hired for computing
jobs that do not need a PhD, but countered, "But does this justify
the cost - to taxpayers, to government, to the students themselves
- when the attainment of a PhD adds little to the abilities of
the candidates to do [these] jobs?"
The simplest way to counter the claims
that we have a "shortage" of
techies with graduate degrees is to put out how many people who DO have
those degrees can't get technical work.
I think a short case study is worth
inserting here. I recently heard by
e-mail from someone who got his PhD in our department about 10 years
ago. It so happens that he was a foreign student at the time, but that
really isn't very relevant now. In my opinion, he was one of our better
PhDs--very smart and industrious. So, what is he doing today with all
that high-powered PhD education? Doing R&D at a major firm, bringing the
firm a string of valuable patents? No! He's in the sales department.
And just a couple of weeks ago I ran into one of our better Master's
graduates (this one had been a domestic student). Turns out that he is
in marketing. I've seen this pattern again and again. Within a few
years of graduation, many are out of the technical area (or out of the
field entirely), and those who are in the technical area are not doing
work which makes use of their graduate study. In fact, most have never
done work which makes use of their graduate study.
Some of you will also recall that our
National Science Foundation, one of the
main federal agencies funding university research in technlogy, has been a
heavy promoter of the H-1B program and of the importation of foreign
scientists and engineers. And amazingly, the NSF--our own government!--has
stated that the reason for bringing in the foreign scientists and engineers is
to keep PhD salaries down. See the quotes of Eric Weinstein in the CNet
article enclosed below, and his paper, at
That same NSF document correctly noted
that one of the effects of implementing
the NSF's idea to bring in more foreign scientists and engineers and thus
reduce PhD salaries would be to discourage domestic students from pursuing
graduate study. Yet since that time the NSF has had the gall to complain that
not enough domestic students pursue graduate study!
As detailed in the enclosed CHE article,
and more so in a recent article
in the Washington Post which you can read at
the NSF was sharply rebuked by Congress
in the early 1990s for falsely
predicting an engineer shortage during the late 1980s. There were mass
layoffs of engineers by the time Congress called the NSF on the carpet.
Note by the way that even though we are in a similar situation
today--the industry claimed a shortage in the late 1990s, and now we
have mass layoffs--you will NOT see Congress holding an indignant
hearing on why it was deceived. Congress has been bought off by the
industry, as some of its members have admitted publicly.
As I've said many times, lobbyists know
well that it is easy to mesmerize the
public in any argument by Pushing the Education Button. At that point, those
listening or reading go into a trance, and lose all ability to conduct logical
reasoning. Look what is happening in this case here. The shortage shouters
say, "The number of PhDs produced each year has decreased. We need to do
something about this shortage!" But the hidden premise here is that the
original level of PhD production was the "appropriate" one, i.e. that we
needed all those PhDs, which is false. But the mesmerized public will never
notice that there is a hidden premise there.
The CNet article enclosed here is excellent
overall and quotes a couple of
sources which indicate that we don't have a shortage of PhDs. Yet even this
article still seems to buy into the notion that we "need" to produce a lot of
The United States has become more dependent
on foreigners for its
most-educated positions in science and engineering...
No. It's NOT the "United States"
that "depends" on those foreign students;
it's the universities, for their own selfish reasons.
Now, some comments on specific points in the articles:
[John] Miano was a programmer who tried
for years to get into computer
science doctoral programs. Despite earning a "B" average in college and
publishing two technical books, he never was accepted. So he took the law
school admission test and promptly won a full scholarship to Seton Hall.
The result: one less computer scientist, one more lawyer.
I'm not sure what happened in John's
case. I know that for schools like the
UCs, numerics such as GPA generally count much more than things like writing
technical books. (I have one of John's technical books, and it is excellent.)
Unfortunately, the "B average"
part of this example will be read by some as
meaning that American students just aren't qualified to go to graduate school.
As I said earlier, in my experience--I served as our department's graduate
admissions coordinator for a number of years--historically most of the better
students, as with most of the lesser ones, simply aren't interested in
graduate school. I say "historically," because in the last few years of the
really tough job market, a lot more domestic students have been applying to
graduate school; see "Dot-Com Dropouts Go Back to School," by Vanessa Hua, San
Francisco Chronicle, January 27, 2002.
I've heard some people claim that some
faculty prefer to work with foreign
students because of the latter's docility, in analogy to the fact that
employers like the de facto indentured servitude of H-1Bs. There may be some
truth to that, and there are a lot of foreign-born faculty who prefer to work
with students of the same nationality. But on the other hand I know of some
faculty who really prefer U.S. natives.
Next, we see what has become the lobbyists'
favorite spin on the slowdown in
foreign applicants to U.S. graduate programs--post-9/11 visa tightening, and
aggressive courting of foreign students by other countries:
According to the National Science Board,
other countries are doing
more to attract the best brains to their universities. The board also
said increased security restrictions are partly behind a slower pace
of visas given to students and science and engineering workers since
Sept. 11, 2001.
And then my counter:
Norm Matloff, professor of computer
science at the University of
California at Davis, says students from abroad are less drawn to America
because the country's job opportunities in technology have withered.
"The overriding reason most foreign students in science and
engineering have come to U.S. graduate programs is not the education, but
rather the fact that that U.S. education would lead to a U.S. green
card, which in turn would lead to a good U.S. job and a nice material
living," Matloff said in an e-mail. "In other words, no tech job market, no
This is a key point, so let me amplify
on it. In particular, I will point to
a corroborating source (another article, this one on Tsinghua University in
China, which I will discuss later in this posting).
First, though, let's discuss the second
article enclosed below, from the
Chronicle of Higher Education. It begins with an example of a university
president making a trip to Taiwan for prospective graduate students. It
points out that in the 80s there were tons of graduate students from Taiwan in
the U.S., but not now, and it suggests that they would rather go to other
countries, and that this is due to things like increased U.S. screening of
student visa applicants. What that university president isn't telling you is
that decline in the number of Taiwanese graduate students going abroad for
study occurred in the mid 1990s--long before 9/11/2001. This was due to the
fact that the Taiwan economy had gotten much better.
In other words, paraphrasing the 1992
U.S. presidential election, "It's the
economy, stupid." Now that the economies in China and India are improving,
and the tech job market in the U.S. is awful, Chinese and India students
are staying home in much greater numbers than in the past.
Lots of articles have missed this point;
again, it's unfortunate that the
public and the press generally believe anything that academia claims. It's
nice that the CNet article enclosed below includes the above material
questioning that claim. Unfortunately, the CHE article, which is detailed and
obviously attempts to take a fresh look at the issues, did NOT question that
That failure in the CHE article is even
more disappointing in that another
article in THE SAME ISSUE ("A Chinese University, Elite Once More," by Jen
Lin-Liu, excerpted below) basically says what I said above, i.e. that the
reason fewer Chinese students are coming to the U.S. is that they perceive
opportunities in China to be as good as or better than those in the U.S. It's
not the U.S. visa issue (though it is mentioned as one of the factors) or
that other foreign countries are making better offers (they are mostly staying
in China); it is simply a change in economics.
Brain drain in tech's future?
By Ed Frauenheim
August 6, 2004, 4:00 AM PT
John Miano's career course is the sort
of thing to make tech industry
leaders wince and worry about their future work force.
Miano was a programmer who tried for
years to get into computer
science doctoral programs. Despite earning a "B" average in college
and publishing two technical books, he never was accepted. So he took
the law school admission test and promptly won a full scholarship to
Seton Hall. The result: one less computer scientist, one more lawyer.
Discussion about technology's future
in the United States often
centers on problems that eighth graders have in algebra. But there
also are concerns that the country's universities are churning out
fewer tech-related doctorates, and that the numbers may decline
further thanks to fewer foreign doctoral degree candidates--who earn a
large portion of science and engineering doctorates at U.S. schools.
Two years ago, 24,550 science and engineering
doctorates were earned
by students attending U.S. universities. That was down from slightly
more than 25,500 in 2001 and from a peak of 27,300 in 1998, according
to data from the National Science Foundation. More recently, a survey
by the Council of Graduate Schools found a 32 percent decrease in
applications from international students to U.S. graduate schools for
Analysts offer different explanations
for the drop, ranging from
declining interest in the sciences among Americans to a temporary
shift in the labor market and to financial disincentives to pursue
doctorates in science and engineering.
The trend doesn't worry everyone. Some
observers argue that the
country already has plenty of Ph.D.s and that a drop in foreign
doctorate students isn't cause for alarm. In fact, some view the
influx of foreigners as a source of trouble--such as low salaries for
scientists and fewer grad school openings for Americans.
But others, including computer industry
leaders, defend the use of
foreign talent and suggest the drop in doctoral degrees is a sign the
country's tech leadership may be in jeopardy. Intel CEO Craig Barrett
has weighed in on the issue to say that "the U.S. is basically
complacent" about education and research.
The National Science Board, an independent
body that advises Congress
and oversees the NSF, recently warned of a "troubling decline" in the
number of U.S. citizens studying to become scientists and engineers,
even as the number of jobs requiring science and engineering training
"These trends threaten the economic
welfare and security of our
country," the board concluded.
James Foley, chairman of the Computing
Research Association and a
professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's College of
Computing, sees the drop in doctorates as one of several red flags in
the U.S. research system. "We have potentially big problems ahead of
us if we don't pay attention," he said.
Not only is Foley concerned about doctoral
degree production, he wants
an increase in the amount of federal money spent on computer science
research. According to a recent analysis by the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, all research and development funding
agencies in the federal government apart from the Defense and Homeland
Security departments face flat funding overall for next year.
The idea that the United States isn't preparing enough tech-related
doctorates isn't new. In 1989, the NSF warned of a coming shortfall in
both Ph.D.s and bachelor's degrees in the natural sciences and
But critics have dismissed such forecasts
as off the mark. "Despite
recurring concerns about potential shortages of (scientific,
technical, engineering and mathematics) personnel in the U.S. work
force, particularly in engineering and information technology, we did
not find evidence that such shortages have existed at least since
1990, nor that they are on the horizon," concludes a recent report
from the Rand think tank.
Even so, no one disputes the NSF's latest
numbers about science and
engineering doctorates. Between 1998 and 2002, the number of science
and engineering doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens at U.S.
institutions fell 11.9 percent to 14,313, according to the Commission
on Professionals in Science and Technology, a nonprofit research
group. The number of doctoral degrees conferred in most other fields
remained roughly the same in 2002, and has hovered around 15,400
annually since 1998, the NSF said.
The United States has become more dependent
on foreigners for its
most-educated positions in science and engineering. Between 1990 and
2000, the proportion of foreign-born people with Ph.D.s in the science
and engineering labor force rose from 24 percent to 38 percent,
according to the NSF. However, the pipeline of foreign talent has been
shrinking. The U.S. State Department issued 20 percent fewer visas for
foreign students in 2001 than in 2000, and the rate fell further
between 2001 and 2002, according to the National Science Board.
According to the National Science Board,
other countries are doing
more to attract the best brains to their universities. The board also
said increased security restrictions are partly behind a slower pace
of visas given to students and science and engineering workers since
Sept. 11, 2001. Norm Matloff, professor of computer science at the
University of California at Davis, says students from abroad are less
drawn to America because the country's job opportunities in technology
"The overriding reason most foreign
students in science and
engineering have come to U.S. graduate programs is not the education,
but rather the fact that that U.S. education would lead to a U.S.
green card, which in turn would lead to a good U.S. job and a nice
material living," Matloff said in an e-mail. "In other words, no tech
job market, no foreign students."
Is it the money, smarty?
As for why U.S. students aren't going after doctorates as they used
to, one need merely follow the money, suggests Eric Weinstein, who has
analyzed the issue of high-tech labor for the National Bureau of
Economic Research. He says Americans are shunning technology-related
doctoral programs because of low wages and poor career prospects.
Graduate students in science and engineering can spend five to 10
years earning their doctorates, all the time scraping by on $15,000 to
$20,000 annually, he said. Many who earn their degree then end up in
postdoctorate research fellowships, which may mean a salary of
According to Weinstein, the NSF's own
data and analysis indicate that
wages for graduate students and doctoratal students have been kept
artificially low through immigration rules that allowed for a
deliberate "glutting" of the scientific labor force. He estimates that
a true market wage for graduate students who teach or do research
would be $40,000 to $60,000 per year, while many newly minted
doctorates should be earning as much as $100,000.
Weinstein isn't alone in suspecting
financial reasons behind
Americans' aversion to doctoratal programs. A 2000 study from the
nonprofit National Research Council found disincentives to pursuing
advanced degrees in computer science for U.S. students, at least in
the short term. The study concluded that someone taking five years to
earn a doctorate in computer science--without having to pay tuition or
fees--would need about 50 years to catch up in career earnings with
someone who goes to work immediately with a bachelor's degree in the
Not everyone agrees that Americans are
turning away from science to
snag more dough. People "don't go into science and engineering to make
a lot of money," said Eleanor Babco, executive director of the
Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. "They go in
because they love science and engineering."
Another school of thought holds that
overall U.S. doctoratal
production is related to swings in the economy. According to this
view, the recent drop in doctorates may stem from the economic boom of
the 1990s, with people choosing better-paying jobs in the private
sector over graduate study. Rand analyst Donna Fossum suggested the
downturn around 2000 may have prodded would-be workers back into
doctorate programs in a similar fashion.
Indeed, NSF data shows that graduate
enrollment in science and
engineering programs reached a record of nearly 455,400 students in
fall 2002, up 6 percent from 2001. Graduate enrollment includes both
master's and doctoratal students, but the statistic could signal that
doctoratal production is about to rise, Fossum said. "Were they people
that got laid off by AOL and decided to go back to school?"
What's up, docs?
There's also debate about how important those credentials are to the
Breakthroughs in computing lead to economic
growth, said Georgia
Tech's Foley. He noted that doctoratal students at Georgia Tech are
working on problems in information security and the interface between
humans and computers. "If we're not leading the charge or at least
creating innovation here, we're going to really be up the creek,"
Industry leaders also proclaim the importance
of the doctoratal
degree. Computer maker Hewlett-Packard, for example, runs a summer
intern program that includes about 50 doctorates and doctoral
students. The company continues to hire doctorates, especially in its
HP Labs research division, said Wayne Johnson, the company's executive
director of university relations.
Some critics, though, doubt the country
needs more PhDs. Much of the
important work in technology companies can be handled with people with
less training, the argument goes, and there are plenty of
still-unemployed techies in the U.S. work force. What's more, the
annual output of science and engineering bachelor's degrees rose
steadily from 303,800 in the mid-1970s to 398,600 in 2000, according
to NSF. "It's not clear to me that just looking at production of
Ph.D.s is a good way of assessing innovation," said Rochester
Institute of Technology public policy professor Ron Hira.
Not surprisingly, what to do about the
declining doctoratal numbers
depends on who's talking. The National Science Board, in its recent
report, called for making a priority of high-quality education in math
A number of organizations have called
for visa reforms to better
welcome foreign students, scientists and scholars. A coalition that
includes businesses and trade associations has asked Congress to
reform the H-1B visa program, arguing that foreign nationals who have
earned master's and doctorate degrees from U.S. universities should be
exempt from the program's annual cap.
Hira, though, says H-1B visas have fueled
the shift of technology work
overseas. He suspects anxiety over science and engineering doctorates
is a diversion from the offshoring trend of shifting work overseas.
"There's a perception we're in a competitive crisis," he said. "The
competitive and innovation (argument) has been introduced by companies
that want to take offshore outsourcing off the table."
has a radical idea for what to do
about computer science doctoratal programs: Limit the ability of
foreign students to attend programs in the first place. Miano, who
founded the Programmers Guild activist group, argues that no more than
5 percent of students in U.S. computer science doctoratal programs
ought to be foreigners.
"The universities are the creators
of this problem," Miano said. "They
have preferred foreign students over American students."
Georgia Tech's Foley, however, argued
that American students applying
to computer science graduate programs aren't making the grade.
"There's just not enough well-qualified U.S. students wanting to go to
graduate school (in computer science)," he said.
To Weinstein, the key to convincing
larger numbers of U.S. students to
pursue science and engineering doctorates rather than law or business
careers is better pay and career prospects. His own career follows
this logic. After earning a doctorate in mathematics from Harvard and
a fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he went on
to a more lucrative job as the director of quantitative research at a
financial services firm, Strativarius Capital Management.
Weinstein would boost wages for graduate
students and scientists
funded by national research institutions such as the National
Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation--positions that
are likely to be protected from the shift of tech work overseas.
"Pay scientists the six-figure
salaries the market is demanding,"
Weinstein said, "and you will watch people come out of the woodwork in
The Chronicle of Higher Education
July 9, 2004
Is There a Science Crisis? Maybe Not
Leaders warn of a labor shortage in
the U.S., but indicators point to
By RICHARD MONASTERSKY
Last fall the president of the University
of Maryland found himself
doing something that none of his predecessors would have dreamed of
trying. While on a trip to Taiwan, C. Dan Mote Jr. spent part of his
time recruiting Taiwanese students to go to the United States for
"Can you imagine an American university
president doing that?" he
In 1988 Taiwan sent more students to
the United States than did any
other foreign country, primarily to study science and engineering. But
in the past decade, the flow of talented Taiwanese has started to dry
up, and graduate enrollment has declined by 25 percent. "This is a new
day we're experiencing," says Mr. Mote.
As a former professor of engineering,
he is particularly concerned
about what the drop portends for the health of science and engineering
inthe United States. "The circumstances for our decline are
definitely in place," he says, "and we need to do something about the
circumstances before this great decline does occur."
University presidents, government officials,
and heads of industry
have joined together in a chorus of concern over the state of science
and engineering in the United States. The danger signs are obvious,
they say. Fewer U.S. citizens are getting doctorates in those fields.
There is increasing competition from other countries for the foreign
graduate students who once flocked to the United States. And those
changes come when many argue that the United States needs more
technically trained people to power its economy. In a report in May,
the National Science Board reached the gloomy conclusion that "these
trends threaten the economic welfare and security of our country."
But such a lamentation has an all-too
familiar ring to some experts,
and it strikes them as off-key. In the mid-1980s, the National Science
Foundation warned that the nation would soon lack enough scientists
and engineers to fill the necessary posts in academe -- a forecast
that turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Instead, over the past
decade,thousands of frustrated researchers have labored in
postdoctoral positions at low wages because they could not find jobs
in academe or industry.
Current data suggest that the new predictions
may fare no better than
earlier ones. In fact, contrary to prevailing wisdom, which fixes
blame on poor training in science and mathematics from kindergarten
through the 12th grade, record numbers of Americans are earning
bachelor's degrees in science and engineering. And unemployment rates
in at least some sectors of science and engineering have topped the
"Despiterecurring concerns about
potential shortages of STEM
[scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematics] personnel in the
U.S.work force, particularly in engineering and information
technology, we did not find evidence that such shortages have existed
at least since 1990, nor that they are on the horizon," concluded the
RAND Corporation in a report this year.
"Projections about shortages are
a dangerous business," says Paula E.
Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University who has
tracked employment in science. The inaccuracy of past pronouncements,
she says, "creates a woof-woof problem. How many times can you say
this and the public will believe it?"
In fact, even as science leaders opined
about the alarming NSF report
from May, the agency announced last week that graduate-student
enrollment in science and engineering actually reached a new peak in
2002. Foreign enrollment set a record and so did first-time enrollment
for U.S. citizens. "Overall, the declines in total graduate S&E
enrollment from 1994 through 1998 have reversed with gains in
enrollment every year since 1999," according to the foundation.
Given the history of such flip-flops,
some observers turn the current
concerns on their head and ask whether American academic institutions
are training too many scientists and engineers. An editorial in
Science this year argued: "We've arranged to produce more knowledge
workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps
labor costs down and productivity high. Maybe we keep doing this
because in our heart of hearts, we really prefer it this way."
Even critics of the gloomy forecasts,
however, say that America's
science-and-engineering machine faces significant challenges in a
world much altered by global competition and increasing diversity at
home. The landscape has changed markedly from the days when a group of
technically trained white men put another group of white men on the
moon. As the number of those men entering science has declined,
national leaders have sought to bring more women and minorities into
the enterprise. At the same time, the United States has come to rely
on an increasing proportion of foreign talent -- a strategy that could
prove shortsighted if current restrictions on obtaining visas force
international students and researchers to go elsewhere.
And even if the visa difficulties fade,
leaders both inside and
outside academe say the education system in the United States must
reform itself to maintain the country's technological edge.
The real crisis may not be one of quantity
but of quality. "Academic
institutions need to change to educate students in a much broader
context than they do now," says Warren M. Washington, chair of the
National Science Board, which advises the president and Congress and
overseesthe National Science Foundation. "You'll be hearing
enlightened university presidents talking about this. But down at the
department level, there's this focusing only on the narrow sort of
discipline objectives. That's where it's going to be hard to make
Mr. Washington and his colleagues on
the board offered a stark vision
of the future in their May report, titled "An Emerging and Critical
Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force." The major sources
of their concern reside within a six-pound document called "Science
and Engineering Indicators, 2004," a report issued every two years by
the National Science Foundation. The board noted in particular a
rising reliance on foreign-born talent, a decline in homegrown
brainpower, increasing difficulty in attracting overseas scholars, and
a looming shortage of scientists and engineers.
According to the "Indicators"
report, the 2000 census showed a sharp
rise in the numbers of foreign-born scientists and engineers in the
United States. They accounted for 17 percent of bachelor's-degree
holders, 29 percent of master's-degree holders, and 38 percent of
doctorate holders. A decade earlier, just 24 percent of doctorate
holders were born outside the United States.
Although imported overseas talent has
long helped America, the report
raises concerns about the availability of such skilled people in the
future.Policy changes since September 11, 2001, coupled with
increasing competition for foreign students, make it less certain that
the nation will attract international brainpower, according to the
NSF. At the same time, the average age of the science-and-engineering
work force in America is rising, auguring a wave of job openings.
Compounding the situation, the U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
predicted in 2001 that the number of jobs in science and engineering
would grow at a rate three times that of all occupations, on average,
producing a 47-percent increase in science-and-engineering jobs by
2010. But the number of U.S.-born students getting doctorates in
science and engineering has declined in recent years.
The science foundation also pointed
to other signs that America's
technicaledge is growing dull. For example, the number of
science-and-engineering articles published by authors based in the
United States remained flat throughout the 1990s, while authors in
other nations significantly increased their output. (See article on
Recent events have only exacerbated
other concerns over America's
scientific future. In March a survey of 113 U.S. graduate schools by
the Council of Graduate Schools showed a 32-percent drop in the number
of foreign applications coming into those schools, particularly from
China.This sudden decrease sent a chill through university
administrations and faculties across the country.
"We are seeing a very significant
decline in our ability to get people
here who want to come here," says G. Wayne Clough, president of the
Georgia Institute of Technology. "We are seeing a decline, we believe,
in the number of people who even want to come here, because high-tech
economies are showing strength in India and China, as examples, and in
other places. We're also seeing a significant increase in the number
of talented young people who came from China and Taiwan and India who
say they're going back."
"We've got an odd set of currents,"
says Mr. Clough, "that merged at
this particular point, and it should concern us all."
The Once and Future Shortage
Many experts have resisted the urge
to jump on the bleakness
bandwagon, however. They say they have seen it circle through their
neighborhoods in years past, blaring what turned out to be a false
In 1986 Erich Bloch, director of the
National Science Foundation,
warned, "We are not training enough young scientists and engineers."
Four years later he wrote, "At the end of the pipeline, too few new
Ph.D.'s are being produced, and an increasing fraction -- over 50
percent in engineering and mathematics -- are foreign students." He
also noted that "the demand for engineers, scientists, and technicians
is growing about twice as fast as supply and will exceed supply by 35
percent in the year 2000."
But it soon became clear that those
predictions were about as accurate
as long-term weather forecasts. As the 1990s progressed, the lack of
science jobs forced increasing numbers of graduate students to
continue their training after getting doctorates, sometimes moving
from one fellowship to another before landing a more secure position.
For example, in 1973 only 27 percent of the people earning biomedical
Ph.D.'s went into postdoctoral positions. By 1995 the proportion had
jumped to 63 percent.
In recent years scientists and engineers
in certain sectors have found
positions scarce, and jobless rates have sometimes exceeded those in
the general population. For the first quarter of 2004, unemployment
for computer scientists and systems analysts hit 6.7 percent, a record
high. Last year the American Chemical Society concluded that "times
arebecoming very tough for the chemical profession," with
unemployment rates at an all-time high. With job announcements growing
ever scarcer in journals, the proportion of new Ph.D. chemists
entering postdoctoral positions jumped by 10 percent from 2002 to
The Bureau of Labor Statistics audited
its own success in predicting
job needs and found major errors in projections for technical fields.
In1990, for example, the bureau forecast that employment in
electrical and electronics engineering would grow by 40 percent by the
year 2000 -- but the number of jobs actually decreased by 16 percent.
Agricultural and food science had 14 percent fewer positions by 2000,
even though the bureau projected an increase of 21 percent.
Eleanor Babco, executive director of
the Commission on Professionals
in Science and Technology, a nonprofit organization concerned with
work-force issues, pays close attention to such data. But she once
learned a personal lesson about the perils of predicting employment
needs. In 1982 she advised her son to go into petroleum engineering, a
field in which the job market was particularly hot. "It was just at
the height," she says. "Well, when he came out, it was starting to go
down so bad that Exxon hired just one person. We found out the hard
Past errors make some leaders wary about
new claims of a looming
shortage, especially of foreign-born scientists. "I'm old enough now
that I've heard the crisis before," says Sally Mason, provost of
Purdue University who is also a biologist. "I'm just going to wait and
see what the data tell us."
Purdue, which has the most foreign students
of any American public
university, has seen a decline in the number of applications to its
graduate school this year. Part of the cause, Ms. Mason says, may be
the university's decision to impose an application fee, which could
have discouraged less-qualified students from applying.
The university still receives far more
international applicants than
the number of available slots, and the application fee has had an
added benefit. "We're getting a much more serious group of students
who are applying for our graduate programs than in the past," Ms.
Mason says. "Next fall I don't think our class of international
graduate students will be much smaller, if at all."
Claudia I. Mitchell-Kernan, dean of
the graduate division of the
University of California at Los Angeles, says her institution is
awaiting new enrollment figures. Last year fewer foreign students
applied to the graduate school, but the number who enrolled increased.
"As a matter of fact, our numbers have been going up for a decade,"
For now, the school has far more foreign
applicants than it can
accept, so enrollments have not dropped. But if the trend continues
for several more years, UCLA could see fewer foreign graduate students
entering its science and engineering departments, she says.
The number of international graduate
students enrolling in science and
engineering at the University of Texas at Austin fell in 2003,
although not because of a supply problem. More foreigners had applied
to Texas in 2003 than the year before, but the university chose to
admit fewer of them. And even though a quarter fewer foreign students
applied to the university this year, it will still turn away nearly
4,000aspiring science-and-engineering graduate students from
overseas. Among the nation's public universities, Texas has the
second-largest number of foreign students.
Oneof the factors keeping international
students out of the
university is a state budget crunch, which has reduced the graduate
school's ability to offset the costs of educating students, says
Victoria E. Rodríguez, dean of graduate studies. The budget problems
affected American applicants, too. The university saw an increase in
the number of domestic applications for graduate programs this year
but admitted slightly fewer of them.
At some universities, foreign students
in science and engineering end
up costing more than domestic students do. Thus, in times of budget
shortfalls, universities get more selective. The cost differential is
a big factor in California, where the university or departments must
pay a portion of the approximately $22,000 out-of-state tuition and
feescharged to international students. Through the wondrous
complexity of the California system's budget, the tuition money does
not go back to each campus in full, so universities end up losing
money on foreign graduate students. (U.S. citizens not from California
usually qualify as in-state students after their first year and pay
"When it comes down to a foreign
student costing two to three times
what an American student costs, we're very choosy," says Marvin L.
Cohen, a professor of physics at the University of California at
Berkeley and president-elect of the American Physical Society.
Recent visa restrictions and budget
crunches in the United States have
made Australia, Canada, and Europe far more enticing to top students
around the world, he says: "Right now we're losing students and
postdoctoral students of very high abilities to other countries."
Leaders in government, academe, and
business also worry about a
related problem: the growing competition from developing nations, like
China and South Korea, that have built up their own research
capabilities and are trying to lure their native sons and daughters
back home after they train in the United States.
But the data contradict the rhetoric.
The National Science Foundation
reports that 76 percent of international students getting Ph.D.'s
intend to stay in the United States now, up from 63 percent a decade
Mr. Cohen argues that the United States
should not look at those who
do return to their own countries as a loss. "If they finish their
Ph.D.'s and go back to their home country, then we have a friend for
life," he says. "It's a win situation." That's true even in the case
of China, he says: "We certainly are in some sort of a competition
with China economically. But the people we train that go back, go back
with many of our values."
Those ideals extend beyond the obvious
concepts of democracy into
scientific principles, such as "the idea of open collaboration, and
sharing, and giving other people a chance to look at your data because
you haven't figured it out."
Still, the current international problems
have hit close to home for
Mr. Cohen. One of Mr. Cohen's students went home to China last year to
introduce his fiancée to his parents but couldn't get back into the
United States for several months because of a visa snafu. So when Mr.
Cohen was preparing for a physics conference in Montreal in March, he
made calculated decisions about who should attend. Unmarried students
and postdocs could go, but married foreign students stayed home, so
they would not be separated from their families if visa problems
prevented their return.
Such troubles have taken their toll,
but they may be temporary. Mr.
Cohen discussed the issue with President Bush when the physicist
received the National Medal of Science in 2001, and the administration
recently pledged to resolve student-visa difficulties. What's more,
financial pressures in some states have begun to lighten.
"Part of the problem is that a
lot of these numbers do change quickly"
for international students, says B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy
studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at
Georgetown University. "If they changed quickly down, they can indeed
change quickly up. So it's always a little risky to be making
prognoses about phenomena that are 15 to 20 years out. And we've been
there before so many times."
The Magnetic Pull of Physics
A report issued by the National Science
Foundation last week supports
Mr. Lowell's concerns. Although the agency warned in May of the
declining number of graduate degrees granted to American students,
more recent data point to an opposite trend: Increasing numbers of
U.S. citizens are now entering graduate school in engineering and
every field of science. Enrollment climbed 6.7 percent from 2000 to
2002 for domestic students.
Several graduate schools contacted by
The Chronicle echoed that
conclusion by reporting increasing numbers of U.S. citizens applying
for openings in science and engineering. At UCLA, for example,
domestic enrollment in those areas has climbed from 1,771 in 1993 to
2,208 in 2003.
To a certain extent, universities have
expected the numbers to go up
slightlybecause of the sluggish U.S. economy. Graduate-school
enrollments often spike when jobs disappear. But the trends have
exceeded expectations in certain areas. The number of American
citizens enrolling in physics graduate programs, for example, surged
by 45 percent in the past five years.
Roman Czujko, director of the statistical-research
center at the
American Institute of Physics, says numbers tell only part of the
story. Department chairs, he says, talk of a strong increase in the
quality of U.S. citizens applying, "so they found themselves admitting
quite a few U.S. students." Although the NSF's report shows a
declining number of physics doctorates awarded to American citizens in
recent years, those numbers should soon climb, says Mr. Czujko.
The magnetic pull of physics also has
drawn increasing numbers of
undergraduates. "Among the things we're excited about is that the
undergraduates have gone up 25 percent in five years," he says.
The physics trend illustrates a fact
not well advertised by the
science foundation: While the number of doctorates awarded in science
and engineering declined slightly from its peak, in 1998, the number
of bachelor's degrees in science and engineering has climbed over the
past decade, both in total numbers and for U.S. citizens.
"At NSF, I think, they have a perverse
focus on doctorates," says Mr.
Lowell."Doctorates are not the only ones that run our R&D
In fact, over the past decade, a slowly
growing percentage of
bachelor's-degree holders in science and engineering got jobs in those
fieldswithout first earning advanced degrees. In engineering,
especially, higher-level degrees are not required. According to data
collected by the NSF in 2001, 70 percent of engineers entered
science-and-engineering jobs with bachelor's degrees.
The growing number of undergraduates
studying technical fields also
contradicts prevailing notions about why more American students do not
"The place where the science establishment
misreads what's going on is
that it implies it's always an education problem: Somehow Americans
are not getting good schooling" in elementary and secondary schools,
says Richard Freeman, a professor of economics at Harvard University.
"That's just nonsensical at one level. We have lots and lots of very
bright people who could go into science and engineering who don't."
Mr. Freeman, like other economists,
looks to dollars to make sense of
the trends among graduate students. "They're not studying science," he
says, "because they look and say, 'Do I want to be a postdoc paid
$35,000 or $40,000 at age 35, with extreme uncertainty working in
somebody else's lab, and maybe getting credit for my work and maybe
not getting full credit? Or would I rather be an M.B.A. and making
$150,000 and hiring Ph.D.'s?'"
So Many Grad Students
Economists and others who track the
job market raise a heretical
question: Is the United States educating too many scientists and
engineers? The surprising answer coming from some quarters is an
An article published this spring in
Today's Engineer stated, "Many
practicing engineers disagree with the recommendation to increase the
number of U.S. citizens pursuing science and engineering studies and
With wages stagnant and too few jobs
for engineers, adding to the work
force will only make those careers less attractive, says one of the
authors, George F. McClure, a retired aerospace engineer who studies
employment issues for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers. "The problem is that everybody has focused on the supply
side, and very few have focused on the demand side," he says. "People
in colleges and universities are concerned with maintaining the
pipeline and throughput."
In a case study, Ms. Stephan, the Georgia
State economist, has
analyzed the growth of the bioinformatics field, generally regarded as
one of the hottest areas in science. The number of degree programs
blossomed from 21 in 1999 to 74 in 2003.
"There's been a tremendous increase
in the number of students in these
programs," she says. But, she adds, "we also track job announcements
in bioinformatics, and they've been declining."
She sees parallels to other leading
fields. "Everybody is talking
right now that there'll be lots and lots of jobs in nanotechnology,"
she says. "I've not seen a convincing case that that is happening, or
that it will happen."
Yet graduate schools have an incentive
to train ever-increasing
numbers of students and postdoctoral fellows because they perform the
work on research grants that bring money into universities, Ms.
Stephan says. "Academe has a big vested interest here."
Even the National Academy of Sciences,
one of the cornerstones of the
establishment, has acknowledged the conflicts of interest involved in
this issue. "These forecasts of undersupply that did not materialize
have led policy makers for graduate training and research support to
behighly skeptical of any forecasts and to worry about the
self-interest of the forecasters," concluded the academy in a 2000
Harvard's Mr. Freeman argues that academe
and the government need to
revamp the system. Students and postdocs, especially from foreign
countries, make up a corps of "cheap labor," he says. "It runs the
system, and it runs it very efficiently, in terms of the taxpayer." He
advocates increasing wages for graduate students and postdocs in order
to make careers in science and engineering more attractive to domestic
Universities as Culprits
Mr. Washington, chair of the National
Science Board, agrees that
universities could be doing a disservice to graduate students.
"There's some kind of personal responsibility that professors and
departments should have," he says. "They do have a responsibility to
ask the question: Are they generating too many students? Or are they
are generating students who haven't got the skills to apply for the
jobs that are out there?"
He and others are urging universities
to change the way they educate
doctoral students. Jobs in academe are scarce, says Mr. Washington,
and as graduate students in science grow ever more specialized, the
trend does not prepare them well for the job market.
"If someone has a good combination
of skills and did a Ph.D. or
master's," he says, "they can probably have a much easier time finding
a job in industry or government, whereas someone who is a real narrow
specialist can't get a job unless they get a job in an academic
department. Even then they're not the ideal teacher, because they'll
just be creating clones of themselves."
Leaders in engineering have reached
a similar conclusion. A committee
of the National Academy of Engineering recently concluded that an
engineer in 2020 will have to range far wider than in the past and
will be solving problems in fields as diverse as biotechnology and
business. Sharon L. Nunes, vice president for emerging business and
research at IBM, who served on the committee, notes that her company
has shifted strongly in recent years into the service industry. She
sees parallels for engineers in general.
"This is really going to open the
doors and encourage a lot more young
people to consider this as a career," she says, "especially if you
think about women and underrepresented minorities, who may now think
about engineering as problem solving, not just as the pure technical
profession that portrays the geeky engineer that most people think
The appeal to women and minorities has
been a constant refrain of the
science bureaucracy for the past 20 years. And while increasing
numbers of female, black, and Hispanic students have been heading
toward science-and-engineering graduate schools, the nation still has
far to go, says Ms. Mitchell-Kernan, of UCLA's graduate division.
"There are still substantial gaps between the white, Latino, and
The demographics of higher education
are shifting in California, as
they are all across America, and will soon be dominated by minorities
that have traditionally steered away from math and science. That is
the challenge that higher education, from universities to two-year
colleges, must meet. And although no one can predict how many
scientists and engineers the nation will need in 20 years, everyone
agrees that the faces of those technical leaders will be far more
diverse than those of generations past, and that American universities
will scour the world for the best minds.
THE SCIENTIFIC WORK FORCE: IS THE BEAKER HALF FULL OR HALF EMPTY?
Some experts worry that the United States
will face a shortage of
scientists and engineers because American institutions are producing
fewer doctorates in those fields. In the past, foreign citizens have
helped fill the gap, but visa restrictions since September 11, 2001,
have stemmed the flow of foreign students and postdoctoral researchers
into the United States.
Earned doctorates in science and engineering fields
Projected shortages, however, do not
take recent trends into account.
For example, enrollment in science and engineering graduate programs
is rising. And job growth in many fields has not been as strong as
anticipated. Record numbers of chemists are currently out of work.
Unemployment rate for chemists*
* As of March 1 each year
SOURCES: National Science Foundation;
American Chemical Society
Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 50, Issue 44, Page A10
Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle of Higher Education: Research
>From the issue dated July 9, 2004
A Chinese University, Elite Once More
Tsinghua U., once stripped of its science programs, now competes with
America for graduate students
By JEN LIN-LIU
As a result, a graduate degree from
an American college is not the grand
prize that it once was among science students at the university [Tsinghua in
China] who now take a more nuanced view toward the opportunity to go abroad.
"A lot of students would prefer to remain at Tsinghua rather than go to a
lesser-known university in America," says Zhang Quyong, a professor in
applied mathematics at Tsinghua.
A decade ago, Mr. Wen points out, 60
percent to 70 percent of students in
Tsinghua's science departments chose to go to the United States to earn
master's degrees or Ph.D.'s in the sciences. This year only about 20 percent
of students graduating from his department have opted to do that, while more
than half will remain in China for their education. That group includes the
department's top two students.
Students used to have a "herd mentality"
when it came to studying in the
United States, says Liang Heng, a Ph.D. student in applied mathematics
at Tsinghua. But now he and his classmates no longer think of doing so as
"always the key to success," he says. "There's a lot of educational
opportunities here. It's more about making an individual choice."
Several factors have influenced this
reversal. According to policy at
Chinese universities, students cannot apply to graduate programs here
and in the United States at the same time. Before the admissions
process begins, they must choose one path or the other. As the United
States has tightened visa procedures in recent years, more Chinese
students have decided to enroll in domestic graduate schools rather
than risk having their visa applications denied. A survey conducted by
the U.S.-based Council of Graduate Schools this year found that
applications to American universities by Chinese students dropped 76
percent for the fall of 2004 from the previous year.
Students are also less inclined to leave
as China's standard of living
improves. They have "a more balanced idea of what the United States
is," says Li Jin, an applied-mathematics professor at Tsinghua. "China
is becoming more democratic, human rights are valued more, and the
economy is good."