Nothing so rare as a PhD in computers

Those searching for them say they are the latest endangered species. Both university and industry leaders will tell you there is nothing quite so rare these days as a PhD in engineering or the computer sciences.

Demand is up in part because of the need for technological advances to meet new environmental and energy-related problems.

Yet industry, eager for employees with bachelor's as well as advanced degrees , is aggressively courting seniors (sometimes in the fall instead of waiting until spring) with tempting $20,000-$25,000 starting salaries. Each new graduate in these fields may have his pick of one or two dozen jobs. Although a new PhD generally basks in at least twice as many offers, starting salaries for doctorate holders often do not appear to be enough higher to make the wait worthwhile.

"It really does pay them to stay, but it's hard to convince them," says Robert Page, dean of engineering at Texas A & M University at College Station, which has the largest engineering enrollment of any university in the country. But, says Dr. Page, "most engineering students come from middle-class backgrounds, and the bachelor's degree starting salaries are tempting."

What particularly concerns university officials about this technical manpower shortage is its potential impact on their ability to expand their departments and on the future caliber of their faculties.

"All engineering schools are going to have great difficulty expanding unless they lower their standards for the faculty they hire or use them on a part-time basis," says Richard Cyert, president of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He predicts that some engineering schools -- "even the poor ones have many more applicants" -- will soon have no alternative but to hire faculty without doctorates. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of those earning PhDs has gone down 25 percent over the last decade. (Only about 200 people earned PhDs in computer science this year in the entire country.) One engineering school's recent ad for a professor of mechanical engineering drew no responses at all compared with 150 for a similar ad five years ago.

One specific hope for improvement is that the joint report from the National Science Foundation and the Secretary of Education handed the White House Aug. 15 may include strong recommendations for stepped-up federal funding for university fellowships and for campus purchases of technological equipment needed in research work. President Carter requested the report last February, citing concern as to whether US science and engineering education is "adequate" in quality and in numbers of graduates to preserve national strength.

More money isn't the only reason why universities have difficulty keeping engineering and computer science students for graduate study. "The discrepancy in salaries between the university and industry may not be as important an issue as difference in equipment available and the research possibilities," says Dr. Jerry Cox, chairman of the computer science department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Nonetheless, most university officials are convinced that more PhDs in the technical sciences can be developed with the right incentives.

Carnegie-Mellon, which has one of the nation's top engineering schools, is currently experimenting with a part-time PhD program in cooperation with corporations such as US Steel and Westinghouse. Company employees come to the campus for as much as six months of study at a time. They are encouraged to use a specific industry problem as a thesis subject.

"It's sort of a cooperative PhD program . . . and we think over time some of them will stay in academia," says Dr. Cyert.

Washington University's Dr. cox says he does not think industry yet understands the extent of the problem or has taken its fair share of responsibility. In his view more help from the business community in keeping university equipment in these fields up to date and allowing students to have access to unique industry equipment is "appropriate" and a "modest" step.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.