US Doctorates Awarded

April 29, 2020

One thing that I usual forget and Michael Hendricks has to remind me of is that you cannot explain the Boomer hegemony on the basis of the population size of the US Baby Boom relative to the GenX.

I was struck by this type of graph back a few years ago when the total number of births in the US, not the rate- the raw number, finally exceeded the peak year (1961 I believe) of the baby boom (this isn’t extending forward enough in this particular version but I posted it awhile ago so there you are). It makes it pretty clear why GenX always feels squeezed between the Boomers and their children, the Milennials, here termed Gen Y.

I used to think about this when I was grousing about the way GenX has been treated in academia, academic careers and grant funded science. But the issue is even worse because, as Professor Hendricks points out, GenX actually has MORE PhDs than do the Boomers. Not proportionally…total.

Roughly speaking the Boomers started exiting graduate school around 1972. They continued to be the majority of doctorates earned until the early 1990s when the first of the GenXers started to exit graduate school. You can see the year over year stability of doctorate production for the Boomers, followed by the acceleration in numbers when GenX hit their mid 20s. A smaller population of people, but more PhDs being generated, year after year.

Why? Well it’s complicated. Late 80s was still dicey economic times, prior to the Clinton era tech boom, and we earlier GenX were thinking grad school was a decent place to park ourselves for awhile. The doubling hit the NIH and more money was available for graduate stipends. There was the traditional loose talk about massive older faculty retirements, but this time coupled data! I.e., it was presented along with the anticipated need for higher education for the Boomer echo (aka their kids. aka the Milennials) that was already obvious to demographers. And, as mentioned in a prior post, everyone was either ignoring, or not realizing the impact of, the end of mandatory retirement policies. Apparently nobody realized the great investment in higher education during the 50s and 60s was not in fact merely temporary casualty of the Reagan “recover” strategy. They didn’t realize the tax payers weren’t going to come back to the table once economic times were better (and they were during the early 90s onward until Bush’s wars messed everything up). They didn’t realize the adjunctification of education would be the outcome of Reaganist policy.

So, as we know, the NIH doubling did not result in the funding of new labs for younger folks, the GenXers that were exiting grad school during the doubling. It resulted in the expansion of labs under one existing PI. It resulted, to lesser degree, in the expansion of funding to existing professors in institutions or departments that mayhap previously did not seek grants from the NIH as assiduously. It facilitated Deans who were responding to the gradual pull-back of public, State level funds from the Universities with a demand that their faculty secure more and more external funding. Which required…warm bodies.

The growing labs needed more graduate students to do the work. And then, of course, mid level management and higher skilled labor..enter the postdoc! It was a tremendous time for Boomer faculty (and pre-Boomer, let’s not let them off the hook). They were the ones that invented up reasons why graduate school now had to take 5, 6 or more years for their students to “be competitive”. (In an entirely made up game of scarcity directed to the benefit of…you guessed it). Then it was “oh but you definitely need some postdoctoral training to be competitive”. Never mind that they themselves barely did 2 years postdoc, if any, statistically speaking before they landed their jobs starting back in the early 1970s. But it was awesome! The NIH budget doubling meant it was easy to get and keep funding. Easy for the more energetic to get more and more funding and keep on growing their labs. More and more hands under each Professor’s direction and supervision. This is why nowadays when I ask people what they think of as a medium sized labs they settle on numbers around 7. “Medium”. Look at the “lab picture” page on your average faculty website these days. It coincides with this sort of interpretation of what people think of as “a lab” in academic, NIH grant funded biomedical science.

Anyway.

The main point is that GenX is not squeezed merely because we are fewer in (population) number relative to the Boomers. There are actually more of us with PhDs. We’ve just been kept away from the levers of power in disproportion to our PhD numbers.

3 Responses to “US Doctorates Awarded”


  1. But I want a lever of power. I promise I’ll be nice. Ish.

    In less jest, I think you are being overly kind. An alternative interpretation is that we are the sheep. The ones who believed leaders who lied to our faces, made promises of careers that were not as advertised and told to wait. We waited. Like sheep.

    I fear it is too late. I fear we are too few.

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  2. Jonathan Badger Says:

    The PhD number rubs it in, sure, but even just the population size isn’t as different as pop culture makes it out to be. Without knowing the numbers, I would have guessed that GenX was only 50% as big as the Boomers, but as you show in the graphs, it is basically just a small dip in births between the Boomers and Gen Y (or Millennials as I guess we decided to call them, even if we decided to return to Gen Z for the post 2000 births.

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  3. jmz4 Says:

    Scaling up without thinking about sustainability and then kicking down when scarcity happens is probably the most generalized description of the various problems caused by the Boomers.

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