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Scientists know all of this, in principle. I knew all of it myself. But I didn’t know the full extent until I became editor in chief of a peer-reviewed journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science, in 2015. I should never have gotten the job: I was young, barely tenured, and a bit rebellious. But the gatekeepers took a chance on me, and, as obstreperous as I was, I knew this job was a big responsibility and I had to fulfill my duties according to professional norms and ethics. I took this to mean that I should evaluate the scientific merits of each manuscript submitted to the journal, and decide whether to publish it based only on considerations of quality. In fact, I chose to hide the authors’ names from myself as much as possible (sometimes called “triple-blind” review), so that I wouldn’t be swayed or intimidated by how famous they were.
A few months later, this got me into trouble. Apparently I had upset some Very Important People by “desk-rejecting” their papers, which means I turned them down on the basis of serious methodological flaws before sending out the work to other reviewers. (This practice historically accounted for about 30 percent of the rejections at this journal.) My bosses—the committee that hires the editor in chief and sets journal policy—sent me a warning via email. After expressing concern about “toes being stepped on,” especially the toes of “visible … scholars whose disdain will have a greater impact on the journal’s reputation,” they forwarded a message from someone whom they called “a senior, highly respected, award-winning social psychologist.” That psychologist had written them to say that my decision to reject a certain manuscript was “distasteful.” I asked for a discussion of the scientific merits of that editorial decision and others, but got nowhere.
In the end, no one backed down. I kept doing what I was doing, and they stood by their concerns about how I was damaging the journal’s reputation. It’s not hard to imagine how things might have gone differently, though. Without the persistent support of the associate editors and the colleagues I called on for advice during this episode, I very likely would have caved and just agreed to keep the famous people happy.
This is the seedy underbelly of peer-reviewed journals. Award-winning scientists are so used to getting their way that they can email the editor’s boss and complain that they find rejection “distasteful.” Then the editor is pressured to be nicer to the award-winning scientists.
The growth shows no sign of slowing: most countries are building up their higher-education systems because they see educated workers as a key to economic growth (see ‘The rise of doctorates’). But in much of the world, science PhD graduates may never get a chance to take full advantage of their qualifications.
In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack.
Supply has outstripped demand and, although few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, a high-school teacher.
Of all the countries in which to graduate with a science PhD, Japan is arguably one of the worst. In the 1990s, the government set a policy to triple the number of postdocs to 10,000, and stepped up PhD recruitment to meet that goal. The policy was meant to bring Japan’s science capacity up to match that of the West — but is now much criticized because, although it quickly succeeded, it gave little thought to where all those postdocs were going to end up.
Academia doesn’t want them: the number of 18-year-olds entering higher education has been dropping, so universities don’t need the staff. Neither does Japanese industry, which has traditionally preferred young, fresh bachelor’s graduates who can be trained on the job. The science and education ministry couldn’t even sell them off when, in 2009, it started offering companies around ¥4 million (US$47,000) each to take on some of the country’s 18,000 unemployed postdoctoral students (one of several initiatives that have been introduced to improve the situation).
The number of PhD holders in China is going through the roof, with some 50,000 people graduating with doctorates across all disciplines in 2009 — and by some counts it now surpasses all other countries. The main problem is the low quality of many graduates.
To Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies PhD trends, it is “scandalous” that US politicians continue to speak of a PhD shortage. The United States is second only to China in awarding science doctorates — it produced an estimated 19,733 in the life sciences and physical sciences in 2009 — and production is going up.
The proportion of people with science PhDs who get tenured academic positions in the sciences has been dropping steadily and industry has not fully absorbed the slack. The problem is most acute in the life sciences, in which the pace of PhD growth is biggest, yet pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have been drastically downsizing in recent years.
Few PhDs are trained elsewhere in the Middle East — less than 50 a year in Lebanon, for example.
Students “don’t think of PhDs now, not even master’s — a bachelor’s is good enough to get a job”, says Amit Patra, an engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur.