Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Decline of Post-Graduate STEM Education

The decline of higher education in America is a subject that has been pontificated upon for quite a while now.  The loss in value of a bachelor's degree and the higher education bubble are subjects that have become mainstream now, with numerous books and articles being written about them.  Analysis of the failures of the educational system have expanded beyond higher education to incorporate our K-12 system as well.

Post-graduate education has had its share of criticisms and exposes as well, but these have largely focused on specific subjects and programs.  The declining value of law school, an MBA, or a humanities Ph.D. has been talked about, but everyone seems to believe the STEM fields are thriving and valuable.  My experiences have told me these fields are experiencing a decline as well, although it does not appear to be as pronounced as of now.

The decline in the standards of the STEM fields was apparent to me when I first started graduate school over a decade ago.  During my first year, the head of our program proposed a publication requirement for graduation, because we had so many students graduating with zero publications.  We discussed this requirement in our first year survey class, and I was extremely disappointed when my fellow classmates adamantly argued against it.   For me, the entire point of scientific research, even as a graduate student, is to obtain results, make discoveries, solve problems, and publish the results so the rest of the world can build on what you found.  Too many of my fellow students seemed to feel all you needed were a few things to present when you applied for a job out of grad school.  They didn't strike me as having the attitude that a Ph.D. was something you really had to EARN.  Thankfully, the head of our program ignored their advice and started requiring at least one first author publication for graduation.

The declining job market for STEM Ph.D. graduates is another subject that has received almost no attention. When I was graduating a little over a decade ago, it was common for students to have their post-docs lined up a year or two in advance.  Over the years, the job market narrowed so that students didn't have a job lined up until right before they graduated.  Now, the graduating students around me can't find anything.

In this blog I hope to explore issues surrounding STEM education, such as the ones I raised above.

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