Who are we to deny people their dreams?

Oct 31 2011 Published by under Academics, Postgraduate Training

In the Twittersation that accompanied my post suggesting a 20% reduction in graduate admissions for this cycle, @EugeneDay objected to the paternalism of it all.

Feels awfuly elitest. Do you have a motivation other than lowering the NIH funding line? More PhDs != Bad Science.

and

People get to try to follow their own aspirations! Sometimes they fail. That's sad, but doesn't warrant national policy.

This echos PhysioProf's usual comment that academic science is like elite sports, media entertainment and a number of other professions where a lot of people strive for the Major Leagues but never make it. While I agree with the analysis, I don't think we need to embrace it fully and enthusiastically. This aspect definitely makes me uncomfortable. As a disclaimer, there are probably several points of my career where I would have washed out under harsher (but probably reasonable) filter conditions. I happen to think I eventually made a contribution as a NIH funded PI so this makes me...sympathetic. To the notion that everyone deserves a chance at the NIH extramurally-funded Prof/PI prize.

But this is not just about making the competition for NIH grants better for me personally- these steps would only affect my chances, what, some 15 years from now? This about trying to restructure the labor market in our industry.

Getting back to the individual and their "rights", look, we most emphatically do not extend this chance to everyone, as admitted by @EugeneDay:

Of course not, but determined by program capacity, quality of applicant. Not fiats. RT @drugmonkeyblog Open admission?

and

Remember context: departments should restrict to high quality applicants, etc. Not advocating slinging PhDs out window to passersby.

Right? So obviously the principle is established. We already restrict graduate admissions below the level of "all who express desire for training". We do this at the elite, not so elite and (I presume) even the lowliest ranked programs. It didn't come up on the Twitters but we also wash people out after they have been admitted. The loss rate in the first year or two of most graduate programs that I am aware of is consistently nonzero. I'd say it is rarer for people to washout at the qualifying exam/dissertation proposal stage and rarer still on the doctoral defense. But it does happen now and again.

So how can we say that my proposal to reduce graduate training classes by 20% (or even 50%) is any different in principle? It is not. Unless we compare to some arbitrarily selected prior interval and argue that the success rate for seeking graduate training is lower. But that seems silly to me. Competition for various job sectors is always in flux. For that matter, "program capacity" is one of the things on the table in this discussion. The ability to pay stipends factors into "capacity", as does the amount of research funding to support the scientific efforts of graduate students, the amount of time the Profs have for "training" versus "getting the research done efficiently" and, one might argue, the ability of any given program to place their students in various occupations post-PhD.

Otherwise what? What would happen in a peachy, let-the-customer-decide grad school market?

I prefer to let people filter themselves. Other's decisions are not my business. RT @drugmonkeyblog: Where to put filter?

and they will filter themselves and all will be peachy right? Let the market correct?

Individuals should be informed by their advisors. I have nothing against programs contracting. Just no orders from on high.

and

Whoever pays them now. Each case is unique, right? I'm not advocating more, just in favor of case by case decisions.

So he's right back to having a filter...but he just has this pipedream that the market will correct itself. While emitting a suspicious indication that this is all about personal discomfort in telling people "no"..

Whose job is it to ruin an aspiring scientist's dreams? Only mine if I'm the advisor. Everything case by case.

No. A thousand times no. Our business leads to a lot of pain and wasted time for many precisely because we refuse to be engaged in the career aspects of the profession. We evince a hands-off approach that we do not need to be concerned about such tawdry concerns. "Just do great science, young Jedi and all will be well" we say. If all is not well for a given person, clearly they did not do good science and we don't want them anyway! They are not capable and therefore not deserving. Alternate careers? Not our problem? Too many PhDs being produced? Hey, who are we to restrict the entry point?

These go together. And it is just ever so convenient that for many of us we make out like bandits, professionally, by exploiting the desperation of graduate students. By exploiting the statistically unlikely hope of the eventual Professorial entry card to extract a lot of labor for relatively little compensation.

I think it is time for us, as a profession, to take more responsibility. To remember that our left-wing dominant socio-political orientations should apply to us as well.

We are the exploiters of graduate student labor and it is time for us to restructure our profession.

46 responses so far

  • Pinko Punko says:

    The commenters noted above might equally support transparent educational scams. I do not think graduate school is yet a scam, but it would be irresponsible to let it get to the point of a full on scam, such as schools of massage therapy. Just how many elite resorts and cruise ships need masseuses/masseurs?

    There is a huge issue with for-profit educational schemes who promise possibilities that are highly unlikely or improbable- grad schools in the sciences shouldn't get to that point.

  • drugmonkey says:

    ouch.

  • One of the big problems I see in PhD programs in science isn't that the "restrictions" have little to do with quality of the applicant, number of publications, or past awards, but more to do on whether or not the applicant is a "fit" with a pre-existing lab or line of study. So where do novel ideas and novel approaches fit in? They don't. Perhaps this is part of what is stifling science and advancement?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Hmm, well this may be a distinction between programs that admit students ~directly into labs and those that have first-year rotations, Kate (aka Dorid). OTOH, for the latter, the ones that are over-impressed with prior training pedigree suffer a similar problem wrt diversity of thought.

  • Eugene Day says:

    You've characterized me basically fairly, and I appreciate that. But there's an enormous amount of context that twitter can't support.

    I fully agree that the entire educational system is predicated upon ideas that aren't bearing up to scrutiny (especially the corrupt student loan system). And I even fully agree that a 20% reduction in candidates might well be a good thing. Devoting more resources to fewer scientists will probably (evidence? not sure) result in a strong cohort of well trained and well mentored scientists, which I support strongly.

    My only problem with your position may not even be something you've actually advocated. My question is: who's in charge of this reduction in admissions? I'm a systems engineer. The consequences of such a decision would be long term, unpredictable, and widely dependant on field and program. I think making across the board cuts is absurd.

    Surely there are good programs which could stand to increase enrollment, capable of finding more in the way of high quality applicants. Many programs are decidedly over saturated. My issue is not with a basic reduction in the number of graduates, but with the hamfisted nature of your call for them. It lacks nuance and attention to individuals and particular circumstance. The primary place that student should be discouraged from graduate study, if they need to be, is at the undergraduate advisor level. Those advisors need to be very open about the difficulty of finding professorships and research positions. But it's also shortsighted to presume that that is the only place that PhD trained scientists want to go.

    Furthermore, if there's one area where you mischaracterize me, it's with regard to market forces. I don't believe I ever mentioned them. And I don't understand the economics of it enough to make any proclamations or predictions. I recognize that when more people than there are jobs for take a particular training course, graduates of that course will end up working other jobs, or none at all. But if people go into that training course understanding the intense competition and difficulty of finding work, and if they have been informed honestly of their prospects and abilities, then I don't see a problem. People try things and fail all the time. As an mentor, I see it as my job to be very straightforward with a student, and then let them make their own decisions. And unless I am involved in the pedagogy of a particular student, or on the faculty of a particular program, it simply isn't my business.

    I'm not sure if your first commentor was referring to me with regard to supporting "transparant educational scams". I generally think that for profit education probably has some sort of place in technical educations, but certainly not at the level of granting post-graduate degrees. But I've never really considered it, so I can't speak to the issue intelligently.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The reason for broad based calls is the tragedy of the commons. Or related anyway. Everyone is going to plead special circumstances for why their awesome program need not cut...and should expand with resources culled from those-loser-programs-over-there. I'm around several programs that think highly of themselves, trust me this will be the response.

  • Eugene Day says:

    So how would this be administered then? Who has the authority to order, say, the biology departments of all American universities to cut enrollment? Does there need to be some national body? What about those high performing departments flush with money? Shall we tell them they cannot support the graduate students they'd like to, and have support for, just because there are too many PhD's in the pipeline? Should they give the money back?

    I have a fundamental mistrust of people who think that their ideas need to be imposed on others from above.

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    And I've heard OK-but-not-awesome programs insist that they are important because they provide opportunities for students who aren't in awesome programs.

    In NSF terms, some grants are based primarily on Intellectual Merit, and some are based primarily on Broader Impact.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Nobody is forcing anything, nor could. This is a discussion of how I think we (all of us) should act.

    Of course, the NIH would have a big effect if they turned off the T/F training grant tap...but there is no "right" to these funds is there?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Utp@ness,

    Oh for sure. *everyone* will have a reason. service to our state population. Service to underrepresented groups. A unique facility or resource. Our awesome faculty group in subsubsubfieldX. Etc.

    That is why my call is for *everyone* to step up and cut their numbers.

  • Eugene Day says:

    There is no right to any funds, no. And when it comes to the funding argument, this problem is going to solve itself: The NIH, AHRQ, NSF, etc. are all going to have their budgets slashed wrt to current real dollars in the next 20 years. Along with everything else the government funds.

    So: if you have no idea for how to effect the change you want, and agree that there shouldn't be any body with authority to compel, how is your position different from any position of fantasy, that 'people ought do what's best'?

  • Dr Becca says:

    So how would this be administered then? Who has the authority to order, say, the biology departments of all American universities to cut enrollment?

    The NIH, of course. My understanding of the conversation as it's developed over the last few days is that DM is advocating a reduction in training grants (T and F). If grad programs have less money to bring in trainees, then there will be fewer trainees. Those potential trainees that get bumped from the wealthy/elite institution's acceptance list will likely make the cut at slightly less wealthy/elite institutions, and so on. I realize it's not that simple, but in theory, the bottom 20% of all currently-would-be-accepted PhD applicants end up not going to grad school, and don't spend the bulk of their 20s and early 30s preparing for a career that they probably weren't going to get in the first place. In theory.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Eugene,

    Cause I have a microphone and I'm not afraid to use it?

    Look, I may have *slightly* more appreciation for how politics works through some accidents of my development but this is not difficult stuff. The squeaky wheel might not get greased when it needs it, not sufficient grease when it does...but for certain sure the silent wheel gets nothing until it fails in a cloud of smoke.

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    What is the overlap between the 20% who aren't admitted and those who would have washed out in 1-2 years anyway? I doubt it's perfect (there are always people who blossom and people who fall far below expectations) but I doubt it's insignificant either. If so, then a 20% admissions cut does not mean a 20% cut in the number of graduating PhD students several years later. OTOH, if departments also adjust to the improved cohort by raising the rigor of courses and exams and whatnot, then there will still be a similar (though not identical) percentage leaving, so the final statistics several years later do reflect a more-or-less 20% cut. (And to whatever extent more rigorous courses have any effect on the final quality of the graduate, an admittedly dubious proposition, that smaller graduating class will be more rigorously-trained.)

  • Eugene Day says:

    I don't mind Becca's notion of attrition through lack of funding. As I've said all along, I'm not opposed to reduction in enrollment.

    My problem is with the exercise of force. I couldn't support a "cut enrollment by 20% or you are not eligible for funding." But I can totally get behind: "We've cut funding for training grants by 20%". Then, it's still up to individuals who want to try to compete for the rarer resources. Instead of some pater familias saying: "You don't get to try!", we have a situation like enrollment in the first place. Anyone with a BA/BS who wants can APPLY to grad school. But not all get in.

    My issue has never been with the idea of cutting numbers, but with the tyranny of ordering across the board cuts.

  • Eugene Day says:

    Of course, as long as we're looking for solutions to this problem, why aren't we looking for solutions in the other direction: larger faculties, and more high quality institutions, capable of supporting the increased numbers of graduates? Why are we so pessimistic about that? Why shouldn't we be aiming for an increase in infrastructure commensurate with out ability to produce PhDs?

    Let's look for a solution that serves the greatest interests of science, not one that serves our fears of an army of unemployed PIs. Let's grow, not shrink. How about we look for those solutions?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Those are external solutions. All well and good but it depends on politicians coughing up taxpayer money. My suggestion is actionable internally- we are the grad admission committees.

  • Eugene Day says:

    But we clearly need to become less dependant on taxpayer money (it's going to be scarcer!). That's not the only source of funds. Surely there are ways to grow departments that are not dependant upon the government trough.

  • Eugene Day says:

    And I don't understand how your solution is internal. It's either predicated on NIH funding cuts (or reorganizations), or on the creation of some body with the authority to order admissions being cut universally. Otherwise it's just begging individual departments to act in ways manifestly counter to their own interests.

    If you're truly proposing an internal (ie., limited to individual departments) solution which can be implemented nationally without an authoritarian body, I don't think we've heard it yet.

  • drugmonkey says:

    by your way of thinking, ED, there is apparently no point in anybody discussing any sort of behavioral change unless the persons discussing it have the personal power to instantiate change in other people or institutions by fiat? do I have your position right on this?

  • Eugene Day says:

    Of course you don't have it right. But if change is going to be effected, there needs to be some kind of plan other than hoping that people will work against their personal interests in order to advance societal interests. That's a losing proposition almost every time.

    I'm trying to say that I don't have any idea how you'd like to see change made, nor, I think, does anyone else reading this. It's obvious you support "change" but not any mechanism by which it could be achieved. In order to have positive change (and I'm not convinced limiting enrollment is - though I think the idea has some merit), there has to be some kind of plan for incentivising that change. To my knowledge, the only one promulgating such a plan is Doc Becca, and I've said I could get behind hers.

    As for having the power to institute change by fiat, I'm on record over and over as opposing such power. So I don't see how you could have gotten my position more wrong. I'm looking for some evidence of a plan that does not involve that.

    So how do you propose to incentivise a 20% cut in enrollment without sweeping authority or implausibly harmonious spontaneous action-in-concert?

    I totally believe in discussing how to bring about change! That's what we're doing! I'm intrigued by your idea and would like to know how we can make it happen without resorting to fiat.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ok, since I have to draw you a road map......

    Yo!!! Anyone who has anything to do with graduate student admissions or even knows anyone that has anything to do with graduate admissions! You, yes, YOU.

    Strike up the conversation in your local departments. Chat with your friends at meetings. Send someone an email saying "hey, we were wondering out here about grad enrollments, what are you guys doing..."

    Ask them "Are you reducing your intake?" why/why not.

    Launch the discussion. Ask questions, make statements.

    Ask Program staff if they are thinking about reeling back the training awards.

    Post comments over at Rockey's blog. or CHE when a relevant post comes up. Write a letter to Science, ffs.

  • Eugene Day says:

    Ok, so the discussion is the plan? No incentive? Just: "hey! Think about limiting enrollment!"?

    I'm not inspired. And I'd like to he. "Hey millionaires: send the government money!". It's not even remotely likely to cause change. Is there anything concrete you can offer to suggest that it might be in a department's interest to limit enrollment?

    You accuse me of having pipedreams in the post, but you seem to have nothing but pipedreams. You've successfully identified a problem, and seem to think that informing people that you'd like to see it solved will actually do something about it.

    That's a roadmap?

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    Dude, are you saying that unless somebody is in a position to implement an idea he should never even put it forward for discussion?

    I don't have the power to unilaterally change the curriculum in my department. That doesn't stop me from saying that it would be good if we changed X, Y, and Z in our curriculum. People can talk about it, or ignore it, or vote to implement it, or vote it down, or whatever. Nobody says "You aren't the VP for Curriculm [or whatever the admin is], why are you talking about this?"

  • gadlo says:

    Scientists are immensely dedicated and intelligent people. However, science as a career is losing its cachet because of dismal job prospects. The worst tragedy of this is not for the people who fail at science and don't make it, but rather, it is for the highly intelligent, devoted, a.k.a "the cream of the crop" that doesn't even attempt to go into science. Instead, they'll go off and be doctors, lawyers, bankers, business people, etc. because they've seen so many people flounder in science through the most creative years of their lives for not-so-good job prospects. The best and brightests scientists are not even attempting science as a career. That is the real tragedy.

  • A silly question, dearest Brother Drug, but what shall we do with the internal department money your 20% frees up when we have to pay 20% fewer TAships.

    You had better not say "send it back." That shit would not be cute.

  • Mordecai says:

    I've been trying to figure out what a genuinely market-based approach to this problem would be. I've little understanding of bio specifically (beyond that it's more capital intensive than math is these days) so caveat emptor, but if I've got this right, there are a couple of crazy-sounding solutions that are instructive in a "hey free market: put up or shut up" kind of way.

    The problem seems to be that
    a) grad students receive training but don't pay for it, but work at well below market rates, so multiple kinds of market failure are possible here;
    b) degrees and professorships are strong class signifiers in the modern US, so people have an incentive to seek degrees they can't fully use, seek long-shots at positions, or at least this partly prevents young people from thinking clearly about these things. This I'll ignore for now.

    The naive approach would be to make students pay their PIs for their training (and get paid a market rate for the work they do) but this is absurd for a thousand reasons.

    So here's a related solution that's less absurd, but still rather crazy, that may be instructive to consider.

    Imagine a firm that "invests" in the careers of young people; they pay for them to attend grad school, and collect some fraction of their future pay. Let's make it a bit progressive; perhaps nothing until 40k, then 20% until 80k, then higher; perhaps this share depends on whether or not they get a job that uses their degree; perhaps they have some role in helping to find a job and have to play unemployment if it doesn't pan out.

    They put a PhD candidate through a series of tests to get some idea of their potential, then offer to pay X thousand dollars per year to support their training, better candidates getting higher Xs. Better departments have grad student slots worth a higher X per year, since presumably the associated training is better. Admissions involve a negotiation between grad departments and talent firms; the firm pays the department X, the department pays the student a market rate for the work they do, and eventually the student gets a job and pays that fraction of their income to the firm.

    The job of the firm is to make sure good young people get good training; the job of the department is to hire grad students and train them, but not to filter, except inasmuch as any employer does. Beyond the negotiation of X, the matching between departments and students is (in theory) much like that of any other job.

    This is roughly what a market based solution would have to look like. Do we really want to do this? If not, we can't very well appeal to the market to solve our problems, when training is free but students work for cheap with externalities in all directions.

    And if we don't want to do this, can we jury-rig anything similar? What if a coalition of degree-granting universities came together and agreed to do something analogous; people would apply once to a central administration, get a rating, shop that rating (and themselves) around to participating universities, then 1) get a market wage for their work during grad school, 2) pay the coalition a progressive share of their salary if they can find work that uses their degree? That's at least possible.

    Does this solve our original problem? Well, it addresses the first at the cost of a lot of extra administration and potential for fraud and abuse. Perhaps it'll be worth it regardless. The second point it addresses only by making the system more transparent, but perhaps that'll be worth it. Still, if you want to use market based arguments, something like this is necessary. Otherwise, not only is some kind of market failure possible, but virtually inevitable, and we should take some action to correct for that.

  • Eugene Day says:

    How on earth are people getting the idea that I want to stifle discussion?! I've said over and over and over that I support it. We are discussing it right now!!! Just because I don't think that those supporting the enrollment cuts have advanced any useful propositions yet doesn't mean I want them to shut up. I want to hear, you know, IDEAS.

    But flapping our gums about it with no actual plan besides flapping our gums is totally useless. Doc Becca had something like a plan, and I said I could get behind it. I'd specifically like to hear ideas about improving infrastructure rather than cutting enrollment. I'm 100% in favor of discussion.

    But productive discussion.

  • Mordecai says:

    My summary of drugmonkey vs. Eugene Day:

    drugmonkey: "Complaining out loud is political speech, and it doesn't need to specify every detail to be effective."

    Eugene Day: "I'm interested in the details; without including them I don't see the difference between this and just whining. Also I don't trust authority in the abstract, so don't include any of that in your details."

    Frankly I side with drugmonkey.

  • Eugene Day says:

    Mordecai, I suppose that's not too far from the truth. I have no problem with authorities and recognized expert panels, etc.. I don't mistrust democratically elected authority with transparancy and accountability.

    But I think it would be nice if we had ANY specifics. If we want to change things, we do need, eventually, to have actual ideas, not just hope.

  • Eugene Day says:

    I doubt we're going to get any further on this topic in this forum (though I reserve the right to respond), I also don't think it's quite fair to characterize this as a "drugmonkey vs. eugene day" thing. I've said I don't oppose his idea. I'm skeptical, but willing to be persuaded. I'd just like to hear how it can be done without resorting to tyranny.

    I have no more desire than anyone else to graduate an unemployable student. If that means cutting enrollment and stricter standards and more competition, I'm in favor of that (at least until we can find ways to improve the job market).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It seems to me that funding agencies are going to indirectly enforce this through cuts to their constituency, much like Dr. Becca states above. If there is less money to go arouns there will be fewer grad positions. Even the deep pocketed schools won't want to continue subsidizing RAs forever. Also, as labs dry up there will be fewer labs for those RAs to be in, further reducing the numbers. There won't be an Thou Shalt Reduce Admissions statement, because there won't need to be.

  • Untenured professor at a non-elite state school says:

    The relevant issue is not whether there are fewer research assistant positions for grad students. The relevant issue is the ratio of graduates per year to faculty jobs. If schools respond to funding cuts by scaling back the number of grad students admitted in the same proportion as the number of faculty hired, the ratio of grad students to faculty job openings does not change. The competition does not change much. 200 people competing for 20 openings is basically the same as 400 people competing for 40 openings.

    Now, obviously the number of PhD students graduated each year will and should be bigger than the number of faculty openings each year, since plenty of those PhD students want to do other things and should do other things. But faculty jobs are (even now) desirable jobs for many grad students. If a large chunk of those graduating are seeking after a small pool of jobs, that's an indication that too many are graduating, or at least too many graduates have been preparing for too few jobs, instead of preparing for other jobs.

    However many or few students you have, either you do a better job of preparing a larger portion of them for something else, or you train fewer students per lab (on average, and operate the labs in whatever mode keeps the research going while training fewer grad students), or you accept the brutal hyper-competition. Simply doing the same on a smaller scale merely replicates the same problem on a smaller scale.

    And this is true for just about every corner of the academy, not just biomedical science, since the exponential growth problem is similar everywhere. (Just look at how many people with doctorates in English are eking out a living teaching 5 sections of freshman comp in part-time positions at 3 different schools.)

  • DJMH says:

    Again, limiting each PI to 2 R01s (or similar) would de facto limit the number of trainees each PI puts out.

  • Untenured professor at a non-elite state school says:

    Hasn't DM repeatedly shown data indicating that the vast majority of labs have 1-2 R01 grants and that the mean is between 1 and 2? If so, capping the number will not reduce averages. It will probably mean that some labs with 1 now have 2, and some labs with 0 (headed for tenure denial) now have 1 (tenure! woo-hoo!). The right tail of the distribution will go away, but so will the left tail, and the mean won't change much.

    Besides, if the same aggregate number of grants is awarded, and if we assume that the number of students funded per grant is more-or-less the same, then the number of students trained will be more-or-less the same. The number of faculty positions won't budge much. So the number of students per faculty job doesn't change much.

  • Untenured professor at a non-elite state school says:

    If a discipline wants to do research with the same amount of money (or more) but not produce a massive over-supply of graduates seeking scarce jobs, you either do the research with fewer students (replace their labor with techs, or staff scientists, or whatever other role you wish) or you do more to train those students to do something other than replace their professors. These are mathematical facts.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    If a discipline wants to do research with the same amount of money (or more) but not produce a massive over-supply of graduates seeking scarce jobs, you either do the research with fewer students (replace their labor with techs, or staff scientists, or whatever other role you wish) or you do more to train those students to do something other than replace their professors. These are mathematical facts.

    Exactly.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Again, limiting each PI to 2 R01s (or similar) would de facto limit the number of trainees each PI puts out.

    I'd support limiting the number of years that a trainee could hold an NIH-funded postdoctoral fellowship before I supported this idea.

  • whimple says:

    JS: I'd support limiting the number of years that a trainee could hold an NIH-funded postdoctoral fellowship before I supported this idea.

    Um... so that when the NIH cuts off the funding for these postdocs they can be replaced with... more grad students?

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Eli will take a little bit of credit for starting this train of thought by here and there (SC and SC) pointing out the need for professional birth control. But bucky, it ain't just the students, it's all those research professor positions and the 80% NIH supported tenured faculty. To reach equilibrium those have to come down by quite a lot. The market can't support a bunch of free lancers fighting over a shrinking pie.

    There are also things you just ain't gonna like about how this has to be done. The overwhelming number of new PhDs comes from the megagroups at the megaschools. They need this oversupply to support the profs with five R1 grants and a center or two. You could close down the bottom third of the programs in any field and not have any effect. OTOH, close the University of California and the problem is solved.

    And, oh yes, everyone might enjoy the shit storm Paul Campos has started by pointing out that law school is a scam

    http://insidethelawschoolscam.blogspot.com/

  • Untenured professor at a non-elite state school says:

    OTOH, close the University of California and the problem is solved.

    If the same number of grants get funded, and the projects described in those grants are performed with grad student labor, but at schools other than UC, then the other schools will up their admissions and the same number of PhD students will be produced. However, now they're competing for even fewer faculty jobs because UC is gone. Or the other schools up their hiring because grants are more plentiful, so the situation is no worse, but also no better.

    As long as science is done in a mode with a certain ratio of PhD students to grant dollars, and as long as universities make faculty hiring plans based on the amount of grant funding available out there, the ratio of PhD graduates to faculty openings will be relatively constant. We can shift that money around, but that fact still applies. Capping the number of grants per faculty member might, on the margin, make grants a bit easier to get (but not by much, as DM has repeatedly pointed out) and, on the margin, increase faculty hiring slightly (without reducing the number of students produced, if student production is primarily driven by the number grant dollars available), but it will be a small effect.

    If you want to solve this problem, you either hire more faculty and have all of them mentor fewer students and get fewer grants (so more faculty slots per student graduated) or you hire the same number of faculty but have them use more techs, or postdocs, or permadocs, or staff scientists, or whatever other folks who aren't PhD students.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Um... so that when the NIH cuts off the funding for these postdocs they can be replaced with... more grad students?

    One reason why postdocs are relatively easy positions to get is because people can postdoc indefinitely. "We'll just shuttle all these excess PhD's into postdocs" will cease to be an option when the number of available postdoc positions is no longer theoretically infinite.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Post-docing indefinitely is not to be wished on anyone. My lab has a relatively capable very senior post-doc with an above average productivity record, but the more senior he/she is, the more expensive the salary, thus when funding is tight, this makes the position less stable. So this individual has been in a number of labs and has had to move a number of times. This does not seem an optimal lifestyle.

  • becca says:

    Simplest solution: NIH funds 20% fewer training grants, and uses the money to up the stipends on existing grad students, which becomes new minimum- and a truly enforced minimum (e.g. you don't pay grad students $25k, you are ineligible for NIH funds).

    Easy to implement, less guilt about as many students 'wasting' the best years of their lives, and less slavelabor feel of the labor force.

  • MudraFinger says:

    NIH OER recently solicited suggestions for input to a recently formed Taskforce "Advisory Committee to the Director" charged with developing a "sustainable" model for the future biomedical workforce in the US. http://acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.asp

    One of my suggestions to them was that the "labor" and "training" functions of graduate students needs to be seriously separated. One way to move in this direction would be to prohibit graduate students from being funded directly on their PI's R01s, and allowing them to submit their own ideas for funding. I'm not the first to suggest this, but see the shitstorm that resulted when someone a whole lot smarter than me (Nobel Laureate, Roald Hoffman) made a similar suggestion a couple of years back. Boiled down: Don't pull on that thread, our whole world will come unraveled!

    Another of my suggestions was to call for a two part financial incentive system to reconnect the University graduate training function with some semblance of a supply/demand model. The first part would be to give universities a financial incentive to train sufficient numbers of PhDs in fields where a majority of the science community would agree we need more people working. The incentive might be something like a bump in their indirect rate for the next negotiation period, the size of which would be pegged to the number of PhDs produced in selected fields in the preceeding negotiation period. The second part would be to levy a financial penalty on each university, perhaps through a decrement to their indirect rate, or perhaps as a levy on all NIH grants awarded, the size of which would be pegged to the percent of PhDs minted by that institution, say, five years prior who are currently unemployed, demonstrably underemployed (e.g. still doing the post-doc shuffle), or demonstrably working outside of their field of training (how many PhD chemists does it take to run a computer lab?).

    Admittedly, the devil's in the details, and enacting such an incentive system would be challenging and potentially subject to gaming (show me a system that's not), but it avoids a singular "across the board" cutting of the production of PhDs, while encouraging university leaders to decide how many graduate students to admit to their training programs on grounds that strike me as being more in the ultimate service of good science than how much cheap labor their PIs need. The other thing going for this strategy is that it relies on levers of influence that are largely within the purview of NIH, and it doesn't rely on any single university disarming unilaterally, which just isn't going to happen.

  • Carl Frog says:

    tsss... Americans!

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