Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blowing Ourselves (another bubble)

I was amused a couple months ago by this comic from Jorge Cham at, which depicts a graph of changes in enrollment to grad studies over time superimposed over the unemployment figures. The correlation is incredible.

Being all in fun, you'd be excused for thinking the artist was just exploiting a quirk of statistics to get a laugh. But then you see Nature reporting exactly the same thing last week and realize that it's not funny, thousands of people think that getting a Ph.D. is worth money. Many people accept this as true, but I think you'd have a hard time convincing Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of that. Or me, for that matter.

For their sakes, I hope that a good portion of these thousands are working on M.B.A.s rather than Ph.D.s, particularly in science. Nature also had a feature last week about two very successful US scientists closing their labs because their funding has simply dried up. An editorial in the same issue points out that "The career crisis is especially stark in the biomedical fields, where the number of tenure-track and tenured positions has not increased in the past two decades even as universities have nearly doubled their production of biomedical doctorates. Those who do land jobs in academic research are struggling to keep them..."

All that to say professors doing academic research in their ivory towers are being as hard hit by the budget cuts, loss of endowment funds and general financial crisis as anyone else. And they don't get severance packages in the millions of dollars. Even still, I guess starting a doctorate is a bit like signing a 4-6 year contract at a meagre (but fairly secure) salary, and maybe some kind of health coverage, which is better than a lot of American citizens can say.

Maybe it is the smart move. Presumably, you set yourself up for a better job by working on an advanced degree during the recession, which will be a couple years long anyways. Good jobs should become available as we begin blowing ourselves another economic bubble to drive unsustainable expenditure - I predict some kind of -tech bubble, be it bio-, nano- or green-. Plus, it won't be long before some genius figures out a new way to create money out of nothing now that subprime mortgages are bust.

But bubbles always burst. That's why they're bubbles. When the economy crashes, it does so like a plane. It doesn't care if you're Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly; or how many fancy-pants letters there are after your name. There will be blood.

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