The deprofessionalization of computer science

Source: The Economist

I don’t mean by the title that computer scientists are behaving less professionally.  Rather, I mean that the jobs available for people with advanced degrees in computer science have much lower professional standing than they did even five years ago, to say nothing of 25.  This happened to social workers in the 1970s, and to physicists in the 1980s.  A convenient slogan to explain this situation is that there are “too many PhD’s” in those fields.  The connotation to such a phrase is, “Well, aren’t you stupid for going into a career that has no future, it’s your fault you’re facing problems now, stop whining.”  However, if we step back from the slogan, and question its context, we can see a larger picture.  There are too many PhDs for a society that does not value research enough to provide jobs for those qualified to perform it.

The most viral science video on Youtube right now is a parody of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” called “Bad Project.”  It’s great.  It’s also uplifting, showing the strength of human beings: how people can dance and sing and makes jokes about years of poverty, toiling for an uncertain future.  A much darker video is this one, which (un)humorously lays out statistics about graduate students studying theoretical computer science.  The “rise in the postdoc culture” — translation: the disappearance of stable, permanent jobs — has been discussed recently on theory blogs (Lance, Suresh).  However, the most thorough discussion I have seen over the last couple months is from this article in The Economist from December 2010.  This post’s lead image is from that article, and so is the following quote:

In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.

For a much more academic treatment of this subject, see this blog entry, which contains about fifty kajillion references, and concludes:

Consider this stat – out of the entire US S&E [science and engineering] workforce, only 1.3% are FT TT [full time tenure track] S&E academic faculty. (27:1).

Returning to the article in The Economist, things barely improve if you consider all possible jobs for a PhD, not just academic jobs.

The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

Frankly, a prospective graduate student needs to recognize that spending 5 (6, 7, 8…) years in a STEM field is not too much better than getting a PhD in the Humanities.  A friend of mine once told me — and he was being dead serious, not cracking a joke — “Aaron, my PhD in Comparative Literature qualifies me to work as a waiter at any restaurant in the world.”  He was working in a 3-star restaurant in Berkeley, California, at the time.  More recently, another friend, an ABD in Medieval History, told me, “With my PhD I will be qualified to work at Borders.”  As before, she wasn’t joking.  Except, of course, Borders has declared bankruptcy and is not hiring.

My personal take on the “computer science postdoc question” is that it is the wrong question to ask.  We need to deal with the underlying issue, which is the devaluation of higher education.  If five years of your life isn’t enough to get you a job you enjoy, and it’s not enough to get you a job that pays well, then… ????  Education may be its own reward, but, let me tell you, if I had children I would not be doing what I’m doing right now.  Even the “permanent,” “tenure-track” jobs in the United States are not what they claim to be.  I consider an assistant professorship in (for example) California or Arizona to be a five-year postdoctoral position, because department chairs at public universities in those states have no power to guarantee tenure even for someone with a stellar record.

So I would encourage the CRA and others in positions of “computing authority” to look far beyond the question of “more postdocs yes-or-no,” and call for the much more fundamental need to create societally beneficial research positions that can be populated by those who are trained to perform them.  It’s a tall order, I realize, but I don’t see how anything less will achieve results.


4 responses to “The deprofessionalization of computer science

  1. Pingback: The deprofessionalization of computer science | Nanoexplanations | To Share

  2. The final sentence of this post might with equal justification have read:

    Let us call upon all academic disciplines (including computer science) to better address the fundamental need to create dignified family-supporting jobs for non-PhDs.

    Hmmmm … but that’s not easy, is it?

    However, there is a substantial (and intellectually challenging) literature on this topic.

  3. I have long decided head-on to the goal of becoming an academic, but I am still an undergraduate. Although your post is correct and states reasonable facts instead of trying to impress, there is a lot of scare talk out there about getting a PHD. This can range from the parody-unintended (e.g. phdcomics) to stories of horror that would make lovecraft jealous (usually in the economy sections of newspapers).

    One of the great points of your article is “devaluation of higher education”. I don’t think that the media would be useful in reversing this trend, since I believe it has great value of them (the lone researcher, resembling the alchemist of the medieval ages, mumbling over arcane symbols he only understands etc.). Perhaps it is time for researches to go out in the public and show what is the final purpose of research: to better the lives of every human, one way or another. Sure, it may be hard to explain to the layman how a faster algorithm on an obscure problem betters his life, but I guess we have to try.

    Due to my expertise in TCS (my department is more software engineering oriented) I act as a TA, even if I am months away from my degree. Since almost everyone in the audience is not considering a career in theory, I try to explain why the given concept is important to them. Although it’s not everything, I believe this is a start: to explain theory to the other CS people.

  4. Pingback: Update on HBGary Federal and Anonymous | Nanoexplanations

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