John Denning: Cornell

Topic: Graduate Education
Comments by John Denning
Cornell University

Proposed Actions

There are far too many science PhDs being trained. If you disagree with this statement or if you believe that a PhD provides a set of broadly applicable skills that appeal to employers of all types, you are delusional. The value of a PhD has been diluted because graduate students are now exploited foremost as cheap labor for the lab and the classroom. The granting of a PhD should be reserved for the very best scientific talent in this country and these students should, in turn, have their choice of jobs in academia and industry. They should not work under the constant fear that their innovative ideas will never get funded. They should not work as intellectual slaves under the false pretense of being trainees. They should be empowered to pursue risky projects that enrich the breadth and depth of innovation in this country. As it is, the bar for graduate school admissions is embarrassingly low – clearly, the best and brightest students are not collecting in biomedical science. They are in fields that pay better and offer job security. This should worry any person who cares about the United States’ competitive advantage.

I propose three actions to whittle down the number of PhDs to only the very best pool of future scientists. The overarching theme is to make it more costly to employ graduate students and to raise the standard for admission:

1. Couple any future increases of the NIH and NSF budgets to enforceable rules that stipulate nationally the number of science graduate students that can be admitted in a given year as well as minimum admission criteria, weighed primarily on numerical indicators of success (GRE score, publications as an undergraduate, math and science GPA and others).

2. Institute a cap on the number of total science doctorate students that a single institution can admit in a given year, allotted based on the institution’s rank as a meaningful research center (Harvard, for example, would get more slots than Jim Bob University). Any institution receiving NSF or NIH money would be required to comply with these caps.

3. Require a national minimum stipend of $32,000 per year (at the current level for NSF Graduate Research Fellows) for science graduate students, with yearly pay increases and cost of living supplements where necessary.