Research Grants: We Need Yet More PhD’s

Recently-minted PhD Thoreau discusses the difference between research grants offered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and those backed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) thusly:

NSF wants to see more Americans in grad school, because they believe that the only way to maintain America’s competitive edge is to continue to over-produce Ph.D.’s. If I do a research project with a student who develops skills and goes into industry to do something useful and earn more money than me without spending 11 years in school, as far as NSF is concerned that’s a failure to retain talent.  […]  The only difference between NSF and NIH is that NSF might be appeased if the student becomes a high school teacher or works in a science museum or does something else related to education and outreach.

Thoreau considers this “insane” but he ignores the obvious cause.  Hint:  Both begin with N.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Education, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He's a widower and father of two young daughers. He earned his PhD from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Much as technocrats might like it otherwise, it’s the market that determines what jobs will be created and what it will pay. We could produce 20 million PhD’s in art history per year and it wouldn’t create a single job in art history that would pay the cost of getting the degree.

    The emphasis in most administrations has been on education rather than on creating jobs that educated people might hold (other than in government itself, of course). Wrongly, in my view.


  2. odograph says:

    I think it’s impossible to judge in the overview. We want important fields to be sufficiently funded, without being over-funded. We don’t want to fund things we (personally or as a society) consider unimportant.

    I think Unqualified Offerings’ previous piece (Physics vs. Biology: Career Edition) captures that from the student-view.

    Working on the assumption that our market economy does reward the “important” …

    I’ve said before that public institutions would do a great service if they’d just survey their past graduates for income. If physics majors are all making $200K, even if they aren’t in physics anymore, it’s probably worth keeping a big program. If theatre arts majors are making $12K a year, maybe that’s the one to cut.

    (My perspective as a Chem BS, who got out of chemistry, into computers, and did ok.)


  3. Eneils Bailey says:

    Mr. Schuler,

    We could produce 20 million PhD’s in art history per year and it wouldn’t create a single job in art history that would pay the cost of getting the degree.

    You are right.

    Don’t get me wrong, no education, spending time at an endeavor that you aspire to is wasted. It’s just that some talents are more in demand than others, and will therefore, pay more.

    I remember sitting at my son’s graduation at UNC-Chapel Hill, back in May,2005. There were more students graduating from the School of Journalism than all other schools combined. My son graduated with a degree in Information Technology.
    The thought crossed my mind, if this is typical in higher education, I could spend sixteen hours a day, sitting on the porcelain throne and never read and digest all the thoughts thrown at me. Most of it, just recycled crap, with different adjectives, adverbs, and nouns to describe the people and groups they were taught to dislike.

    But, I am always in the hunt for newer and better computer software and hardware.