Wednesday, February 22, 2006

all is well...

NSF science and engineering 2004 enrollment in higher education report is out...

And, Robert Samuelson at the WaPo tells us all is well, because, well - per capita the US graduates as many engineers as China - which is 1/4 as many as China, which has a smaller and weaker economy and a population with much more restricted access to higher education.
All is well, because US total engineering graduates as at about the 1990 level, which unfortunately is right when the sharp decline (about 20% from peak) in engineers leveled off,

All is well, because computer science degrees have doubled from their 1990 low - how many of these are glorifed graphic artists rather than actual computer engineers or scientists is a separate issue.

All is well, because if you're really smart and don't care about intellectual satisfaction you will be a lawyer or a stockbroker, and those are much more important that scientists and engineers anyway. If we need those we'll just get some more foreigners.

But, what Samuelson doesn't address is what the figures hide.
Science and engineering enrollment is up - with comps sci and engineering rebounding.
But, the bulk of the students are biologists.
Physical sciences (which includes chemistry, materials science and geophysics) is still very low, the number of physics BScs produced is ridicilously small, as is the number of mathematicians.
And physicists and mathematicians are not interchangable with biologists and engineers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You seem to think, or at least imply, that there is demand for more scientists and engineers, especially in the physical sciences, than the numbers currently being trained.

Are you kidding?

3:30 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

There are several issues here, one of which is demographics - the 60s bulge of hiring is going to catch up with the US soon.
Secondly, the lack of physical scientists and engineers is real - it is satisfied by hiring and training foreigners. Like me. Look at H-1 visa issue rates. A side issue here is that for classified R&D you need citizens, which sucks out a disproportionate fraction of the the few US citizens in physica/math/engineering.
Thirdly, there is pressure on salaries at the entry level; at the research level there is a factor which confuses the larger picture, which is the uncertainty in the science and engineering funding - with priorities changing every year and research funding sloshing back and forth, and a lot of it quite frankly wasted on trendy crap; there is a disincentive for smart people with quantitative skills to hang in there and do science or research. Better off becoming professional if career or income is a primary issue.

Finally, I think that US society as a whole would be better off if the population were much more numerate and a significantly higher fraction of the university educated populace had training in the physical sciences. Not because I think all these people will do research, some will, including some now lost early in the pipeline.
But, I think physics/math, and to a lesser extent engineering, at the BSc level are a liberal education, not a professional training scheme, and as a physicist I think it is important for a lot of people to be educated in this area and be informed about what is going on.
The last item is a matter of opinion, much as people feel educated citizenry aware of history, art, music or literature is an intrinsic diffuse good. There may be economic arguments for it, but my opinion on the issue is somewhat orthogonal to any economic issues.

3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'nuff said.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

No, not really.
Postdoctoral research opening by sub-field are somewhat orthogonal and poorly matched to graduating students, and neither is well matched to faculty and staff positions, in part because of the time lag, in part because things are changing very rapidly, particularly at the federal level.

Both are somewhat orthogonal to the demand for BSc educated physicists.
Number of professors of literature is not what drives the supply of BA grads in English Lit.

A BSc is not a professional degree and comes with no guarantee of employment in the field.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In short, you're agreeing that the job market for holder of higher sci/tech degrees sucks, but finding solace in the fact that mere B.Sc. holders have no sci/tech job market at all, since theirs "is not a professional degree".

Impressive logic - if money is no object and you can afford spending college tuition and wasting four years to get a degree of no economic value.

P.S. Actually, contrary to your claim, number of professors of literature is very much what drives the supply of BA grads in English Lit, just as number of professors of physics is what drives the supply of B.Sc. (and M.Sc. and Ph.D.) grads in physics. Without those poor suckers spending years to get useless degrees, there would be no cushy jobs for said professors.

None of it news, either...

6:25 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

No, I am arguing that pointing to a usenet group is not evidence for anything...
Except maybe very high demand for "quants", if they're reduced to advertising on s.c.r

The job market for graduate degree holders is quite good right now - I think some sub-fields are about to tank, I wouldn't like to be looking for a postdoc in some areas of astrophysics next year, but the particle physics and nanophysics market will be excellent. This is one of the things I noted - fads for research areas are changing on 1-2 year time scales but it takes 5-10 years for the supply pipeline to respond. Mismatched time constants.
In fact one of the s.c.r articles is about how good job prospects are reducing supply of graduate school applicants. A phenomenon that has in fact been noted.

For what is worth, the number of Lit Profs and Physics Profs is almost completely immune to the number of majors in those fields, for most universities the number of FTEs supported is determined by the demand for "service courses" in professional degrees - general education requirements university wide for english, intro physics for engineers and biologists for physics profs.

Graduates with a BSc in physics have among the highest starting salaries entering the job market of any plain BA/BSc recipient group, and a first degree from a university is statistically the best bet for increasing mean lifetime income.
To maximise income you want to go on to a professional degree (MBA, MD or LLD), a PhD will cost you net lifetime earnings on average, though the very highest salaried positions tend to be occupied by PhDs. If you want to stay in a science field but maximise income do a 1-2 year MSc and/or an MBA and then stop.
A PhD is very specific trainging in curiousity driven independent research, and specialiasation in a very narrow sub-field, opportunity costs are high, and PhDs are heavily subsidised to attract people into them.

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if we're interchangable with biologists and engineers, but apparently we are capable of doing hostile takeovers of other fields just fine.

Bring on the grant money!

2:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pointers to Usenet groups are not evidence of anything? All right then, how about these instead?

12:14 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Pointer to usenet groups (or in fact blogs) are not evidence of anything. They are anecdotes.

Some of pointers you put up show evidence for a mismatch between PhD production and the number of faculty positions at research universities. This is true, has been known for a long time and is inevitable at the factor of 3-10 level.
If all PhDs became research faculty at universities, then each professor would have almost exactly one graduate student ever, (you'd have to allow about 10% to have 2 students to make up for early deaths, ascendancy to administration etc).
This would lead to the average department admitting 0-1 students per year for graduate study.

70-90% of PhDs do not become research faculty. Some become teaching faculty at non-research universities, some do research in industry or government labs and some do journalism, or stockbroking, or corporate management, or administration, or poetry.
The universities like this, they want to have a pool of excess applicants from which they can select using partially fair, partially pseudorandom measures that sound objective.

Having been through this system, many faculty are acutely conscious of it, some, not so much, admittedly.

All of which is orthogonal to the issue of the number of bachelors that are desireable for the US to produce in physical sciences, mathematics and engineering.
You want there to be at least enough of those to supply the graduate students wanted.
Ideally the universities want to overproduce by a factor of 10-100 the number of BScs and then choose the subset for graduate school competitively, again using semi-rational choosing mechanisms.
This overproduction is closer to 3:1 right now, which is marginal for the purposes of graduate schools wanting a full pipeline of applicants, and in my personal opinion far too few in terms of having a scientifically numerate general public.

And, I repeat, a BSc is a liberal arts degree, NOT a professional degree. It gives people a channel to aim for working in science research if they want to, but it comes with no guarantees.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Physicists and engineers are interchangable to some extent (cf Dirac!)
Famously, physicists have switched into biology and made major contributions. There are currently incentive schemes to train PhD physicists in quantitative biology techniques.
I don't know of a biologist who switched to physics.

On the other hand, one of the top physicists around was an English major. So there.

12:38 PM  

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