John Staddon writes for the Martin Center about the potential impact of an oversupply of credentialed scientists.

“The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle,” so begins a July 2016 article by respected New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata. It turns out that new PhDs in science have a hard time getting a job like their mentor’s: tenured faculty in a research university. Fifty years ago, in my own area of experimental psychology, things were very different. Postgraduates, after four years of college, were able to get their PhDs in four or five years. They usually got a tenure-track job at a reasonable university right after graduating.

Not now, though. An oversupply of nascent scientists has been the rule since at least 2010 and not just in the U.S. The Economist, in an article called “The Disposable Academic,” wrote that “universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour.”

The norm now, in biomedicine and other science fields, is for newly minted PhDs to take three or more one-year stints as postdoctoral fellows in other research labs before getting a tenure-track job. Depending on the discipline and their boss, they may have a chance to pursue some independent work without the distractions of teaching and administration that beset regular faculty. But, more likely, they will serve simply as low-paid help. In large, well-funded labs dealing in hot topics, postdocs and graduate students may be little more than over-specialized technicians. They no longer feel like students or academic colleagues. Many feel like exploited employees. Collegial culture has been eroded. A predictable result is the rise of adjunct-academic unions.