# "Alternate careers" is just the next exploitation strategy?

The recent Rock Talk posts on graduate student and postdoctoral training are putting data behind truths that many find self-evident. I am struck by the ensuing commentary threads which say the NIH must do better at tracking the fates of trainees.

The subtext seems to be that the NIH should 1) care about large numbers of people training for ten years for academic careers and not achieving those jobs and 2) do something about it.

There is a very good argument to be made that the NIH is quite happy with the status quo. It permits them to get their work done more cheaply. The labor force is persuaded to work hard for less money through the strategy of dangling a PI career on a stick ahead of postdocs.

The "trainees"/labor force are induced to voluntarily put up with exploitation now because they imagine they will be compensated later for their sacrifices.

Understanding of how the odds apply to themselves is, shall we say, incomplete and optimistic.

The interests of the NIH are best served by maintaining the value of the future reward as high as possible.

With this lens we should view any NIH
protestations about alternative careers for which someone trained by them is suited with a healthy suspicion. The NIH does not have any interest in the nature of the carrot they tie to the stick. They only care that it induces the donkey to keep walking.

• zb says:

"With this lens we should view any NIH
protestations about alternative careers for which someone trained by them is suited with a healthy suspicion."

Yes, but ultimately, the donkey has to decide for itself whether the carrot is worth it and how likely it is that they'll get it. The problem is that there's no other way to get the carrot, and as long as it's desirable enough, people will agree to be exploited. Add to that carrot the relative ease of immigrants entering the labor force, a group for whom the carrot might be even more valuable, and I see negligible possibility that anything will change.

Like much of the current economic system, the current design produces significant value through the exploitation of its labor force and the labor force is unlikely to balk and break the system.

• drugmonkey says:

This analysis also applies to self-identified "elite" graduate programs that insist that the odds don't apply to *their* grads.

• Yes, but ultimately, the donkey has to decide for itself whether the carrot is worth it and how likely it is that they'll get it.

It's really hard for the donkey though to decide how likely it is that they'll get the carrot and how long they are going to continue to pursue it...

• Grumble says:

Yah, here we go again. Paying post-docs $40k+ per year with health insurance benefits (at many colleges) plus access to reduced-price housing (at some colleges in expensive cities) is exploiting them? And don't forget that this applies to people who used to be grad students who, during their 6-7 years of being exploited victims, received a stipend to study, so that not a single one of them had to go into debt - unlike in just about any other academic field I know of. Cry me a fucking river. And what about the advantages to society of this supposedly cheap and supposedly exploited labor force? The more we pay post-docs, the fewer experiments NIH would be able to fund. The advantages of such a reduction are what, exactly? • Morgan Price says: Are you sure that training grad students to leave science is a good deal for the NIH? Grad students aren't paid much, but NIH also often pays their tuition. And most grad students aren't very productive in their first few years. Does the average grad student go on to spend enough years as a moderately-paid productive postdoc to make up for that? • Sxydocma1 says: "...received a stipend to study, so that not a single one of them had to go into debt..." Are you fucking kidding me Grumble? Not a single post-doc has any debt? Get real. • miko says: A few years of low compensation is not the problem, no career path is. I'll take that deal happily if I start at$40K + benefits, get standard raises and performance-based promotions that would roughly match those of other non-faculty highly-trained exempt employees in academia. Administrative bloat supported in part by grant overhead gives the lie to the idea that there is no room for a class of professional scientists who are not PIs in basic research. The middle aged failed attorney who stamps my MTAs (sometimes in under 2 weeks!) makes $85K and has a job for life. "Does the average grad student go on to spend enough years as a moderately-paid productive postdoc to make up for that? No. If value for money is the issue, NIH should be spending more on research done by scientists and less on students. • Grumble says: OK, Sxy, maybe I overstated that no post-doc went into debt during grad school. But what is true is that it's extremely common for grad students in biomedical research to receive a stipend and not pay tuition. Compare that to med school, law school, music school, business school, and just about any other post-graduate school you can think of. (And if they get into debt for other reasons, like wanting to drive a car they can't afford, that's hardly because they're being exploited by meanie professors like me.) • Alex says: "Are you sure that training grad students to leave science is a good deal for the NIH?" Leaving academic science is not the same as leaving science. "The middle aged failed attorney who stamps my MTAs (sometimes in under 2 weeks!) makes$85K and has a job for life."

$85k and lifelong security? Doesn't sound like failure to me. I'm a tenured associate professor making less than$85k.

• icee says:

My husband and I have both been scientific trainees during the prime years of our life. Take your student stipends and toss children into the mix, and we qualified for welfare when we were both students. Yes, we had to go into debt. We had no other choice unless we wanted to live in my parents' basement (barf). I thought that taking loans was more responsible than living with my freaking parents. Yes, if we hadn't reproduced during those years we could have done it without debt. I'll be 34 when I get my PhD. Not exactly the BEST time to be starting to think about having babies.

• Dan says:

Does anyone have recent data on careers of folks who finished Ph.D.s in the last 10 years? I've struggled to find anything more than anecdotal.

I teach at an undergraduate college that sends lots of students on the grad school, and I'd love to give the donkeys the opportunity for informed consent.

• rs says:

The IT person in my children's school gets $80K + benefits + free after school care for her children to fix IT problems in classrooms and do a basic 8 hours of job without bringing it to her home in the evening. She has a better job security than most of the post-docs/RAPs etc etc and yes, she didn't go to any professional school to get in debt, just a basic undergraduate degree and some certificate courses in financing and computing. People is academia are not real, they only compare within themselves. They have no idea about life outside of university. • becca says: The trouble is, I can see it from both perspectives. I wouldn't say NIH is *less* entitled to a cheap labor force than private industry. The problems of exploited younger people making lower middle class incomes in unstable jobs are MUCH bigger and more systemic than grad students and postdocs. It's not like the bulk of people go into biomedical research because the carrot of a professor job is intrinsically so appealing. If it were, we would have the exact same glut that humanities have. In reality, we have a lot more people in biology. I think it's that people go into biomedical research because 1) they think it's interesting/useful and 2) they think they have a better chance at making a living at it than they would other things. If the odds of making a decent living at anything suck, any given population of workers will be highly vulnerable to exploitation. • DrugMonkey says: I'll be 34 when I get my PhD. Not exactly the BEST time to be starting to think about having babies. ok, whoa. We can talk about history and "prime of life" and "ideal reproductive age" but the bottom line is that things have changed from 60s and 70s. maybe we professional, upper middle class folks have always reproduced later but I don't think this is the explanation. In a convenient nutshell, 34 is the new 24. Expectation-wise, I don't think it is some tragedy that women are thinking about having kids at 30-34 (with 6-7 yr time to completion, 34 is kind of up there, isn't it?). Now once you get up to 38 or so, ok. this is where the medical establishment starts getting wiggy about the complication rate. Then we can talk. • miko says: @becca "...wouldn't say NIH is *less* entitled to a cheap labor force than private industry." Private industry doesn't get a cheap labor force of highly trained professionals (they do exploit the fuck out of the job market for college graduates with all this "internship" nonsense, but that's just kids with BAs in grade inflation). NIH/PIs are getting work very, very cheap. Industry jobs for postdoc-level skills pay double what a postdoc pay, with actual benefits. • bill says: Pregnancy and birth are really fucking hard on the body. Ceteris paribus, the younger a woman is when she has to cope with that physical stress, the better. It's *definitely* better to be 24 when you have your first baby than to be 34, physiologically speaking. The "medical establishment" has a very long history of treating women's bodies as odd instances of male bodies, and a very short history of trying to fix that oversight. I wouldn't take their view of complication rates to be indicative of anything but systematic ignorance. Disclaimer: no uterus *and* no children, so weigh my opinion accordingly. • DrugMonkey says: bill- while I appreciate your comments and do not disagree, life is full of compromises. what I am pointing out here is that this is an area where the academic training arc is not one bit out of step with the reproductive timing of our approximate socio-edu-economic peers. also that 34 to end graduate school is on the end of the distribution. so the BEST time to start reproducing is a fucking pipedream. Yes, I totally agree that it would've been nice to start my career in the early 70s when most PhDs with a pulse were in faculty jobs in the first year after defending, all were in hard money tenure track slots and we'll do the convenient feint where we pretend that modern sensibilities vis a vis women in the profession apply. So, you know, my spouse could be tenured at like 28 or something, too. Oh and let's harken back to the success rates at NIH from ...oh, the 80s where something like 45% of competing renewals got funded (and most of those grants made it to year 25 or so). But in the immortal words of Ice-T... "shit ain't like that." Yay! • Jeremy Berg says: First, I do not think it is appropriate to place the blame for this situation at the feet at NIH. NIH has relatively little control regarding the makeup of the biomedical research community. As the data in the recent report from the ACD working group show, large increases in the number of graduate students being trained has been driven by increases in the NIH research budget, not by changes in the training budget. The academic community has responded to increases in the research budget by increasing the sizes of graduate programs without any serious consideration for the longer term implications of such actions. In my opinion, this is related to the conflict of interest that faculty and institutions have between the desire for talented, relatively inexpensive, and relatively easy to recruit researchers as well as performance metrics that favor training large numbers of students and the responsibility for helping define sustainable career paths. The lack of clear tracking data by NIH has been problematic for the following reasons. Throughout my time at NIH, I tried to make the case that many graduate students went on to careers other than academic research careers, based on my direct experiences in academia including outcomes with my own students. However, since these observations were anecdotes rather than data, I had a difficult time making as compelling a case about this as I would have like to. This contributed to reactions such as those from Sally Rockey expressing surprise about the number of students pursuing non-academic careers that you noted in a recent post. Furthermore, the absence of solid data make the detection and documentation of trends more difficult. This has contributed to NIH's failure to take leadership positions about these issues over time. • Alex says: with 6-7 yr time to completion, 34 is kind of up there, isn't it? 1) Um, finishing a BA or BS in 4 years isn't exactly the default these days. 2) A lot of people work for a few years before getting a PhD. OTOH, to the extent that point 2 produces a noticeable upward shift in the age statistics, that would mean a population of people who experienced something outside the Ivory Tower before deciding to go for a PhD. Their choices are (hopefully) more informed, so it's a bit hard to have sympathy for them. • becca says: "Expectation-wise, I don't think it is some tragedy that women are thinking about having kids at 30-34 (with 6-7 yr time to completion, 34 is kind of up there, isn't it?). Now once you get up to 38 or so, ok. this is where the medical establishment starts getting wiggy about the complication rate. Then we can talk." DM, I'm shocked to hear you say this. There are *consequences* to 'waiting', and there are no guarantees in life. Ovaries come with expiration dates. Not "best by" dates. Expiration dates. The testicled among us would do well to remember that, and not lecture women to not worry their pretty little heads about waiting. But as far as "best by" dates... the Monthly Fecundity Rate at age 30 is 0.15 compared to 0.25 for 25 year olds, and 0.1 for 35. Waiting until 30 matters. Waiting until 35 really matters. And it's not just about "whether" you can have kids (or whether you get them as soon as you want). The Down's Syndrome rate is lowest in the 20-24 year old age range (1/1400). By 25-29, you're already elevated (1/1100); and by 30-31 it's 1/900 (rapidly increasing to 1/350 by 35). Women, collectively, waiting to be 30 instead of 25 has a societal cost. It may or may not be one that concerns you, but 34 will never be the new 24. Jeremy Berg- if NIH wanted to, they could mandate$80k/year for grad students funded on research grants. This would significantly reduce the number of students who could be supported. They could cut 40% off the R01 budgets and put it directly into portable trainee fellowships (like NSF) and then offer them only to under-represented minorities. Heck, they could simply stop funding any PIs that don't get their trainees into jobs the trainees are happy with. In short, they have more control over the makeup of the biomedical research force than anyone else. But if you can't even get people like Rockey to realize most trainees aren't ending up in academia I am not shocked that the political will isn't there for actually changing much of anything.
That said, I don't agree with any implicit criticism of keeping tabs on the numbers. There are a lot of utterly clueless PIs that could stand to hear these numbers. Though perhaps it's also true no amount of data will convince some flavors of 'elite' faculty at 'prestigious' institutions that great trainees get pushed out of academia. Good data on a problem is an insufficient condition to achieve change.

• Jeremy Berg says:

becca: NIH does not have the authority to mandate salaries on research grants for grad students or for anyone else. They could transfer funds from research budgets to training for fellowships but this could easily have unintended consequences. They could not offer such fellowships only to under-represented minorities. NIH does not the authority to consider training outcomes in making funding decisions for research grants. NIH's legal authorities are actually much more limited that most people realize. However, this does not mean that NIH staff and, particularly, NIH leadership should not be well informed about the realities in the extramural world. NIH should engage with the academic community to help define a more sensible and sustainable workforce model. I agree with you that having the data is not sufficient, but it is very helpful in convincing skeptics that there are real issues to be addressed.

• Busy says:

It is the NIHs money so they can place any number of restrictions they want, as in fact they currently do. E.g. you cannot spend your grant paying down your mortgage.

Unless the Congress appropriation of funds explicitly bars the setting of salary minimums, the NIH can definitely demand a minimum salary, and that it be paid all in twenties if they so wish.

• Alex says:

I have seen undergraduate research programs that are NIH-funded and are only open to minority students.

• Busy says:

From the NIH web site:

Minority Biomedical Research Support Grants support research that enriches the biomedical research environment at undergraduate institutions. Moreover, these grants strengthen the research training capabilities of minority faculty and students.

• Jeremy Berg says:

Busy: Yes, I am sure. Funds for a research grant have to be spent on appropriate research-related items (salaries for individuals involved with the research, supplies, equipment, etc.) but not on unrelated items. The NIH authorities are defined in laws (e.g. the Public Health Service Act, the National Research Service Act (NRSA)). NIH only has authorities that have been explicitly granted by Congress. They can set stipends on training awards as this is explicitly authorized in the NRSA but cannot set salary minima on research grants. Salary maxima are set by Congress.

Alex: Some programs that are funded by NIH are intended to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce, but they should not be limited to under-represented minorities although this is race/ethnicity is one factor that can be taken into account based on current law. Some grantees have not understood this well and have been more restrictive about eligibility.

• WS says:

"First, I do not think it is appropriate to place the blame for this situation at the feet at NIH."
Well, to get back to my original point, the university from which I received my Ph.D. received money from the NIH for graduate student training grants. Let's face it the NIH funds the overwhelming amount of biomedical research in the U.S. When the NIH sent some representatives to our university to check on their "trainees," many of us expressed concern about the prospect of finding work when we graduated. Those NIH representatives then expressed their own concern to the leaders of our department that they should take steps to squelch our "misconception" about the job market. Clearly the NIH knew and has known for a long time that we are producing far more Ph.D.s than the job market can absorb, but if that information got out, their supply of cheap labor would rapidly disappear. There costs have already gone up dramatically since the 1990s, so they must be having difficulty keeping the reality secret.

• drugmonkey says:

Becca- again, I am not debating these realities. I am pointing out that academics are not special in this regard. Other people who aspire to, or reach, similar socio-edu-economic class likewise make compromises related to child bearing and rearing. This appears to me to be yet another case of academics fantasizing that they are "worth" more money than society currently let's them obtain.

• drugmonkey says:

JB- no offense but...nonsense. What you mean is that, first, when it comes to hard line official-like stuff the NIH has not sought to have Congress let them do certain things. Second, you are being disingenuous about the large number of less-official ways the NIH can sway grantee behavior. "Program priorities" for the grey zone can cover a lot of ground. One easy example is the % effort. PI of ginormous lab is at 5, maybe 10% as a "PI". One or more incredibly senior "postdocs" are not only listed but bragged on extensively in the Justification. Program sez "this is BS, we know the co-I is really running the show, and we're not picking up your payline+2% unless you switch the PI on this". Unofficially, *of course*. Or the PO could be more passive aggressive and simply observe the limitations that sadly will not support a pickup for that award....

• rs says:

Agree with Jeremy here that its not in NIH's hand to competely control the situation legally. The problem is bigger than the NIH. The way, Europe (specially Germany) has worked out this is that every graduate student and post-doc (except when on some fellowships such as Max-Planck fellowships) are employment with pension and health benefit, and once someone works at the university for five years, according to labor laws, it is university's responsibility to provide a long term emplyment to the person. This has controlled situation quite nicely, with PhDs finishing in 3-4 years and post-docs in 2-3 years. I have worked in a German university for three years, had I stayed for another two years, I had a right for emplyment at the university. Not saying that this is the way to go, but a point to consider. Since currently, universities don't take any responsibilities, there is no way, you can solve the problem at NIH level.

• Alex says:

Another common fantasy of academics is that their field is unique. Biomed is hardly unique in having an oversupply of PhDs who have made huge sacrifices in their prime years in exchange for a credential that does not bring the job security and compensation that they hoped for. Sure, some fields and subfields have it better than others, but it's hardly a unique problem. There's just more biomed folks, or at least there's more of them blogging relative to other STEM fields, so we hear from them more.

I mean, even STEM isn't unique. Just look at humanities. Anybody want to be a PhD in English in this job market? And their working conditions in grad school (teaching multiple sections, usually of freshman comp, the whole way through because they don't generally have advisors with grants) make ours (paid for research, fairly light teaching duties in most programs) look downright plush.

• Virgil says:

I'm with DM 100% on this one, the NIH could not give a hoot about the fate of grad' students, and neither could the grad' programs or universities. The critical piece of information is that grad' students are NOT PAYING CUSTOMERS! Unlike undergrad' (where, if you run a course that leads to dead end job prospects, word gets out and the "product" loses value), there is no payment for grad' school in biomedsci. Biomedsci grad' schools could enforce a mandatory 100 hour work week and pay the stipend in gruel, and there'd still be people lining up to get in. As Grumble alludes to, things have to get a lot worse for grad' schools in the US to be truly "guilty" of exploitation.

Sure, biomedsci grad'school is a gamble, but the odds of success (albeit crappy) versus the pain involved, are still waaaaaay better than the alternatives...

- Throw your B.Sc. in the garbage and go wait tables, no guarantee of a career.
- Go back to school (pay for it) to train for something different (law, teaching etc.), with no guarantee of a career. Realize that you wasted 4 years vs. the rest of your classmates by doing the "wrong" bachelor's degree. Accumulate more debt.
- Go work in industry and change companies every 1-3 years because the FDA has its head up its ass. Get fired at a week's notice. Spend your paycheck faster than an academic, because your circle of friends is a live-fast crowd (less of an issue in academia).

Compared to these, being paid to hang out in a lab, while still learning, and deferring student loans, with a 1 in 4 chance of a solid rewarding career at the end of it, looks like a pretty cushy number.

Oh, and commenters, THEIR and THERE are not interchangeable. FFS buy a copy of Strunk and White.

• whimple says:

JB: They could transfer funds from research budgets to training for fellowships but this could easily have unintended consequences.

Did you have something specific in mind? What happened last time the NIH raised the NRSA pay scale?

• miko says:

Virgil, that "1-in-4" (if you're basing it on the claimed 23% from the NIH) includes anyone with a faculty job, including teaching-only, PUIs, etc. I'm not saying those are bad or unworthy jobs, but they are not what the vast majority of biomed PhDs/postdocs are trained for or aspire to. I would not count teaching 6 sections of Bio 101 a year at a community college as a win for my 10 years of research training, but apparently the NIH would.

Also, I have no idea how the fuck we're supposed to believe career path numbers from a report that estimates the number of biomedical postdocs in the US as somewhere between 38,000-67,000 (!!!).

I don't think postdocs need to be paid more, but the training period needs to be shorter and there needs to be a path. This means fewer grad students and postdocs, which the NIH could easily do by limiting how many could be supported by grants. It could also mean more transition awards -- they don't all have to be as big as the K99. I'm not saying all PhDs/postdocs "deserve" these careers, but obviously we are at historical shittiness, and the talent waste is immense.

All solutions are against the interests of current PIs and institutions, though, and will thus never ever happen.

• Hermitage says:

Interesting, in my n00b mind, the person who hands out the $$has the more control than just about anybody. If they don't have the 'power' to do anything about the situation, who does? • DJMH says: This has contributed to NIH's failure to take leadership positions about these issues over time. It's not that they've failed to take leadership positions, it's that they took the WRONG positions. I've heard a PO come chat with grad students and postdocs at my (elite) grad institution and assert that none of us should be concerned about grants, that's not a topic that should cloud our picture of our futures. DrugMonkey--everything becca said is right, and everything you said is wrong. 34 is never going to be the new 24. Enjoy your health care premiums when we all start IVF, and have to take eight months off of work because of twins. Oh, but that's more efficient than having them one at a time, right? • Grumble says: "All solutions are against the interests of current PIs and institutions, though, and will thus never ever happen." I'm not so convinced that PIs interests are necessarily opposed to those of society in general. What PIs and institutions do is provide a place where smart, talented young (and young-ish) people can follow their own interests, while at the same time learning how to plan and execute a coherent research project. People trained in this way are useful to many types of employers. If the US is to maintain its edge in advanced technology, it needs a workforce trained in exactly this way. So I'm not sure what exactly it is that you want to solve. Yes, post-doc periods are very long, but that's a function of too few faculty positions. There is nothing NIH can do to change that; only Congress can do so by budgeting more money for NIH. NIH could decide to fund fewer graduate and postdoctoral fellows, but, as I said above, a large number of well-trained scientists is a good thing for society - and, I would argue, for the trained scientists themselves, even if they don't end up landing an academic job. I do agree, though, that we need more and better data on where biomedical grad students and post-docs are ending up. It's always baffled me that the NIH, an agency run by and for scientists, has so little interest in (or ability to) research the consequences of its own policies and actions. • Grumble says: "Interesting, in my n00b mind, the person who hands out the$$$has the more control than just about anybody. If they don't have the 'power' to do anything about the situation, who does?" Re-read what Jeremy Berg posted. He was the director of NIGMS until recently, so I think he might know a thing or two about what the NIH legally can and can't do. The "person who hands out the$" is ultimately Congress, which hands the $out through the NIH. This doesn't mean NIH has no leeway to implement some changes, but ultimately it's Congress' call. Of course, the NIH has its collective head up its ass in that is has no idea, and perhaps very little interest in, what happens to the people whose training was paid for by NIH funds. That really should change. Congress could tell them to study the issue, but there is no institution on earth with its head farther up its ass than Congress. • Virgil says: @miko, the "1-in-4" was actually off a bit. The more realistic number (according to Science careers site) is 37% ending up in tenure track, and another 15% non-tenured. This is still less than the # who want such jobs, so there's still a problem, but it's not as bad as 23%. Here's the link... http://bit.ly/MFgXeW • Jeremy Berg says: WS: You are certainly correct that NIH funds most biomedical research in the United States, but academia (universities, research institutes, etc.) actually conducts most of the research and defines many of the "business practices". I realize that many talented scientists are not able to find jobs in academia (or in industry at this point) and your experience is far from unique. I do not know what was said between the site visitors and the leaders of your training program but, based on my experience, it was likely to be more nuanced that urging them to correct "misconceptions" about career prospects. Furthermore, it sounds like your completed your Ph.D. close to the beginning of the NIH budget "doubling" and almost everyone was optimistic that the biomedical research enterprise would expand with continued support from Congress. Instead, the NIH appropriation increase has been below inflation for each year for nearly a decade. I am not trying to say that NIH is blameless in contributing to the present circumstances, but rather that academic institutions (who, in my opinion, have a much clearer conflict of interest between their research productivity and the future job prospects of their trainees) have contributed at least as much. Moving forward, NIH and academia must work together to imagine, define, and work toward a more sustainable future. drugmonkey: I agree that NIH has not gone to Congress aggressively to try to obtain additional authorities that might be helpful. However, getting Congress involved in such issues can be treacherous. Some of my biggest frustrations at NIH related to the fact that NIH research grants cannot (under present law) acknowledge training components. This leads to issues such as the fact that two postdocs in the same lab, one paid by an NIH fellowship and one paid of a research grant, are treated quite differently from an employment perspective. I pushed from time to time to try to work to rationalize the situation, but there were legitimate concerns that Congress or OMB would start making other "adjustments" that would not be in the interest of anyone (institutions, trainees, etc.) involved with biomedical research. With regard to "less official" was of influencing PI or institutional behavior, you are correct with the example that you cite. However, with regard to training on research grants, it is much more difficult. Applicants do not provide relevant information (and NIH cannot request it) making it difficult to take such factors into consideration, particularly in a fair and uniform manner. NIGMS struggled with this in the Training Strategic Plan where NIGMS "strongly encouraged" various behaviors (such as individual developmennt plans for graduate students and postdocs) without having any mechanism for using compliance to such requests in making funding decisions. I considered this a potential evolutionary step toward deeper involvement in such issues. whimple: I did not have anything specific in mind, although one possibility is that the distribution of resources among institutions and laboratories could shift if individuals with fellowships tended to go to larger laboratories (which I believe, but do not know for certain, that they do). The impact of NRSA stipend level increases differs from predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees. For many predoctoral programs, NIH stipends are supplemented with institutional funds in order to be competitive with other institutions. For postdoctoral programs, many but not all institutions, use the NIH levels as guidelines for others. Since grant sizes have not been keeping up with inflation, this tends to put stresses on research programs in that they cannot support both their personnel and other costs. I do not know of any data that demonstrate any impact on the number of students or postdocs that are hired. • AcademicLurker says: Yes, post-doc periods are very long, but that's a function of too few faculty positions. There is nothing NIH can do to change that; only Congress can do so by budgeting more money for NIH. I doubt congress budgeting more $$for NIH would help at all. Medical Schools and research institutes would immediately create more soft money positions to soak up the additional funds and we would be back where we started. I'm pretty sure that DrugMonkey will disagree with me on this, but I think that if NIH made it clear that they will take a dim view of institutions that continue down the "more soft money!!Eleventy!!" road, that would be a step in the right direction. • miko says: @Virgil I'm not sure which is worse to believe: A. What appears to be a voluntary online poll of "former postdocs" (any field, not just biomedical) by a magazine (which audience is more accessible or likely to respond to a request to be polled by Science Careers? Those with a science career or those without?). or, B. The NIH, which, again, displays a a fairly astounding level of ignorance about how many postdocs there actually are. Without a divisor it's hard to get a percentage. • Busy says: Re-read what Jeremy Berg posted. He was the director of NIGMS until recently, so I think he might know a thing or two about what the NIH legally can and can't do. I am very much aware of Jeremy's extensive experience @NIH. Problem is that quite often when people say "impossible" all they mean is "not doable in the simplest and most straightforward way possible". For example, every year there is a budget justification approved by Congress. It might be the case that all NIH needs to do is insert floors in the compensation scale and congress would approve it. Alternatively, the NIH could stop funding PDF salaries from general grants and have people apply to NSRA fellowships (which *do* have a set payscale) with the fellowships tenable at other institutions. Let me put it this way: if the future of science funding depended on setting salary minimums, I'm sure they could could they find a way. • @DrugMonkey: Re: your comment that this analysis still applies to the graduates of "elite" programs: I think the major differences between gradutes of "elite" vs. non-elite programs are that those who leave academia after completing the PhD do so for different reasons, and they have much better options when they leave (due to the "brand name" of their university). I left because, early in my postdoc, I was headhunted into a private sector job that pays double what some of my assistant professor friends make. Quite a few of my classmates who had C/N/S publications as grad students (I most certainly did not) chose to leave for high-paying private sector jobs. Those classmates of mine who left academia had, on average, more impressive CVs/pubs than those who went on to do postdocs (with one notable exception, and she is now an Asst Prof at one of the best universities in the world at age 30). Sorry, but unless I'm missing your point, I just don't buy your analysis -- if you're graduating with a PhD from a really prestigious university, it's not hard to leverage that degree into a great career, whether or not it's on the tenure track. • becca says: Jeremy Berg- I appreciate your responses. My understanding is that NIH is allowed to consider how to "construct and support the scientific infrastructure" in allocating funding... I guess my philosophical/legal theory question is why isn't the workforce considered part of this infrastructure? It seems like if the workforce were explicitly acknowledged as part of the infrastructure, it would then be clearly part of NIH's job to look after it for the long haul, and they'd have the right to e.g. require institutions to keep data on trainee outcomes. NIH might or might not want such a charge, and I suppose they might not do optimal things with it, but it would decrease the "wait, so nobody's in charge here?!!!" sense that trainees can get from conversations like these. I know there is an Office for Science Education under the Office of the Director. Would it take an act of congress to get them to consider higher ed and workforce competitiveness? Or could the Director appoint that task to them? I see why NIH *couldn't* do some of the things I suggested, but in the grand scheme of things it should only take fairly minor tweaks to get them the power to do so... it's just that I'm beginning to sense that a 'fairly minor tweak' (like asking congress to set both min and max salaries) could have rippling consequences, or at least that the fear of such consequences leads to political intransigence (aka congress and the location of their heads). Drugmonkey- it's not like other countries don't have maternity leave. I never made the claim people in biomedical career paths are uniquely screwed over compared to the general US population (indeed, my other statements are decidedly in opposition to such a view). But there is no doubt there ARE systematic ways of making it easier for women to have children earlier than age 34 and that this would be a wise long-term investment from the perspective of ever-elevating healthcare dollars. I don't think grad students/postdocs need paid maternity leave, I think EVERYBODY needs paid parental leave. It's not that I think all women should be afraid to wait until 34, but I think nobody should require it of them by saying "you chose this socio-edu-economic* path, now you live with it!" It's A) particularly cruel to infertile couples B) anti-feminist C) anti-family and D) probably counter productive from a wholistic societal-costs analysis. *Also, to be blunt- "socio-edu-economic" abominable conglomeration notwithstanding, people shouldn't have to sacrifice for a PhD and a 40k/year job. We aren't being paid like specialty doctors, and 40k is not the new 400k just because the former is the "real" doctor according to people in silly hats and robes. • Jeremy Berg says: Grumble: NIH did just study this (see http://acd.od.nih.gov/Biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf ). Considerable data, analysis and some recommendations are on the table. The challenge now is for the scientific community to work with NIH to refine these recommendations and take appropriation actions. • Jeremy Berg says: becca: NIH has been working on developing a robust tracking system for a number of years (the system is called xTrain, see http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-10-072.html for some information). Again, a major challenge is that xTrain (at this point) covers those supported by training mechanisms but not on research grants. Through institutional training grant mechanisms, NIH does collect outcomes data, but has generally been in paper format and is not longitudinal, that is, the data show where predocs who graduated went on to do postdocs, but then the tracking stops. If more data are needed, I think a consortium of institutions might be a better way to go than depending on NIH for a number of reasons. Contrary to what many have stated, I believe that many at NIH (certainly many at NIGMS) are deeply concerned about these issues although they have not done a good job in getting a handle on them. However, these challenges are hard, both conceptually and politically and require long-term strategies (not either NIH's or academia strength). Elias Zerhouni (the previous NIH Director) was quite concerned about the plight of early stage investigators with positions trying to get funded and implemented some changes that raised the visibility of such issues and made some real changes (despite some pushback both within and outside NIH). He frequently said this is an issue that kept him awake at night (actually what he often said what that "he slept like a baby...he woke up every few hours screaming). • miko says: Thanks for the link Jeremy. Funny, the NIH is making many of the same arguments and recommendations as the postdocs around here. The same ones grouchy PIs characterize as pathetic, entitled whining. • Jonathan says: I'm sorry, but laying the blame for all of this at the feet of NIH is completely off-base. NIH has no authority to tell universities and research institutes how much their PIs should pay postdocs on soft money (70% of the postdocs out there), and in lots of cases universities and research institutes can barely dictate to their PIs how much they should be paying their staff - I know at Scripps the floor was set by CA state law (2.5x the minimum wage to avoid having to pay overtime) and in KY there was no regulation at all. As long as it's in the interest of the employers to continue getting cheap disposable labor, the situation will be very hard to correct. If you're a postdoc and you're pissed off about this and you've not gotten involved with the NPA to help fix it, you're part of the problem. • drugmonkey says: Why would I disagree AL? I certainly don't like the soft money deal and would be delighted if Universities went back to all hard money. I just don't believe in Magical Unicorn Fairy money that will pay for this. • Hermitage says: "Re-read what Jeremy Berg posted. He was the director of NIGMS until recently, so I think he might know a thing or two about what the NIH legally can and can't do." I have full reading comprehension and know who Jeremy Burg is. I'm just saying, at the end of the day, NIH is holding the .' Then again, it also makes no sense to me how the NIH is unable to solidify itself as integral to the US economy and social good, when other departments, such as the DoD, have no such issue. • Hermitage says: *Sigh* Jeremy Berg. Sorry. WTB latte. • AcademicLurker says: DM, Of course, medical schools across the country(at least the basic science components) would collapse if they had to switch to all hard money. But we could at least try to put the breaks on the trend of expanding every time the NIH budget goes up. As long as that trend continues, there's really no hope for much improvement. I harp on the hard/soft money distinction because my strong impression - having been a TT or T faculty member at both a medical school (soft money) and a college of A&S (hard money) - is that much more thought goes into the decision to create a new TT faculty line when it's on hard money. • Grumble says: "As long as it's in the interest of the employers to continue getting cheap disposable labor, the situation will be very hard to correct. " That might be true for some institutions, but it's not universal. My college, for instance, is like many others in that the minimum pay for post-docs is dictated by the NIH's stipend levels for NRSA fellows. I think this policy should be set nationwide by NIH (i.e., if you use federal to pay a post-doc, you have to pay them a minimum of X). I'm not sure if NIH could do this unilaterally, or if Congress would have to approve it. • Alex says: "I can't imagine the DoD saying 'well, there's we can't force contractors to do anything, we just hand out the .'" Judging from some of the waste in DoD contracts, I wouldn't be so sure about that... • Jeremy Berg says: Hermitage: I agree that NIH has an important role to play both in terms of requirements and the bully pulpit, but I did feel that it was important that NIH does not have infinite legal authority and flexibility. Also, grants and contracts are quite distinct from one another. With contracts, an agency has much more ability to specify what is to be done and how it is to be done. However, I do not think biomedical research would benefit from shifting the balance substantially from grants to contracts. • Dave says: Lots of good posts!!! Like many have said already, the relationship between NIH and the institutions is probably what matters most. As a soft-money guy myself in a medical school, it is hard to see how any hard money is coming my way internally, even with a track record of grants/funding etc. It just wont happen. I would love to believe that something will change but, like DM says, the money just isn't there. The indirect costs are something that the NIH could look into as a means to perhaps divert some money elsewhere, but it will never happen. It's funny because following the recession, so many profs here have been let go (or left) and I think we must have at least 3 - 4 admin for every researcher. I walk down the halls and see labs closed, hallways empty, but in the accounting and admin offices, I see a hive of activity. Kind of pisses you off when you are paying your own salary AND theirs. • drugmonkey says: Oh, and for bothe Jonathan and JB, I am not asserting the NIH brought about the current state of affairs. They benefit from it, tremendously, and are therefore incredibly motivated to continue things as status quo. It is not necessary that they caused it to realize this. I would say that demands for convincing hard evidence from JB when he tried to raise questions is an excellent head-in-sand ploy to avoid stopping the labor gravy train. • Alex says: "people shouldn't have to sacrifice for a PhD and a 40k/year job" You have a point about the 40k/year job (entrance to the middle class shouldn't be Herculean), but the idea that a PhD should be sacrifice-free is privileged nonsense. A PhD dissertation is supposed to describe original knowledge and original ideas, things never known before. There has never been a time in history when new knowledge was easy to acquire. New knowledge and technological advances are the most expensive, difficult things imaginable. There's a reason that Edison said 99% perspiration. There's a reason why some ancient Egyptian scholar purportedly wrote (sorry, can't find the reference now) that his academic job is nothing but frustration because there's nothing new to discover, no new idea to contribute. There's a reason why creative geniuses are often troubled souls. The Norse were making an important point when they told the tale of Odin losing an eye to gain wisdom. Mind you, I'm not saying that reproduction should be one of the sacrifices, but you didn't qualify the statement or restrict it to certain types of sacrifice. If you'd qualified the statement, I'd agree. • drugmonkey says: The "show us (more, more) convincing evidence" ploy is how the NIH is avoiding doing anything about the Ginther report, btw. Just you watch. • Hermitage says: Srsly, re: Ginther report? That study was absolutely fantastic, what further data do they want? A doodle of a flaming cross on copies of the reviewer comments? *Sigh*. • AcademicLurker says: I walk down the halls and see labs closed, hallways empty, but in the accounting and admin offices, I see a hive of activity. Kind of pisses you off when you are paying your own salary AND theirs. Indeed. At my old institution I was shocked to discover the large swaths of empty lab space in our "old" new building when the school had just put itself many millions of$$ in the red through the construction of a "new" new building.* Of course, the debt was presented as a need for the faculty to up their game and bring in even more indirects. Thing like that are why I keep ranting about irresponsible growth on the part of medical schools & research institutes. * And no, the labs weren't empty because folks relocated to the new space. They had been empty for quite a while. • drugmonkey says: Hermitage- honestly I doubt even that would convince people. • Dave says: @AL: Same situation here. We seem to have this mass expansion going on in terms of new buildings, but a rather severe and noticeable reduction in faculty. Very odd. We are even starting to experience closures of whole basic science departments, and good senior faculty who used to hold everything together are deserting the place for other posts. Very worrying situation indeed. It seems the medical school here is re-focusing its efforts on generating revenue from clinical services. Research seems to be a side-issue for the moment. Of note, very few PIs are tenured here, and even if they are it means little in terms of support should the shite hit the fan. I guess what we are seeing is the impact of the tight NIH budget. • Jeremy Berg says: drugmonkey: I do not think NIH's position is driven so much by self interest (in terms of reliance on cheap labor to get research done) as it is by inertia and the fact that institutions and established faculty are likely to be vocally opposed to many actions. To their credit, NIH responds better to data than to anecdotes but, as you say, even strong data are not enough if either (1) NIH don't know how to proceed or (2) they fear the political consequences (either from the extramural community or from Congress). Now that I am outside, I hope I can bring components of the extramural community together to propose solutions to NIH that the extramural community is willing to live with although this will not be easy. • anon says: Thanks JB • Virgil says: Jeremy Berg, Dave (and everyone else here) if you haven't read this book, please do so... http://www.amazon.com/The-Fall-Faculty-All-Administrative-ebook/dp/B005CU4TPK This is where the money is going. This is why indirect costs are 50-90%. This is why university administrators constantly talk of "right sizing" the faculty (how else can they pay for all the admins). This is why there are 3 senior associate vice deans for diversity in research, or whatever other dumbass names they can dream up. These are the same admins who blab on about "best practices" (a.k.a. doing what everyone else does), being level with our "peer group" of universities (a.k.a. doing what everyone else does). The same folks who insist that each Department needs its own IT support person. The same ones who change the frickin' accounting and purchasing software every 2 years. The same ones who announce a new rule regulating chemical X, animal Y, trainee salary Z, and expect you to comply with 2 days notice. The ones who always have carpeted offices on the ground floor, with beautiful views out the window. The ones who sanction a new fleet of hybrid SUVs for the parking lot attendants to drive around in. The ones who assemble "working groups" who spend a year coming up with a new mission statment, and then sanction a$shit-ton of money to re-brand and re-color everything on campus. The same folks who throw around terms like "strategic planning" and "faculty compensation incentive" as if those terms actually mean a darn thing! Yeah, anyone who's worked at a research university knows the f***ers I'm talking about.

Administration is a pox. Please, please NIH, for the love of all that is sacred, kill it.

@Virgil

Everything mentioned in that paragraph (except the fleet of SUVs) is so familiar it's scary.

I'm especially puzzled at how these "branding" agencies convince universities to throw millions of dollars at them.

My former institution went through one of these re-branding campaigns, and switched back to all of the old stuff (logos, letterhead & etc.) 2 years later.

They literally could have piled ~$15,000,000 (the estimate I heard for the total cost of the whole thing) in cash in the middle of the quad and set it on fire and it would have been about as useful to the university in the end. • bill says: I would gloat about how thoroughly DM's "34 is the new 24" got owned by other commenters after he dismissed my criticism, but I'm better than that. Wait, no I'm not. *dances* And the whole "our profession is no worse than others" schtick is exactly the kind of rhetorical dodge that you, DM, are fond of pointing out when others use it. Why shouldn't our profession do *better*? It certainly won't if our answer to anyone who raises problems is "suck it up, everywhere is just as bad". • becca says: "Like many have said already, the relationship between NIH and the institutions is probably what matters most" It's really important, true. But I think this conversation has revealed that the relationship between congress and the NIH is also an issue. I don't know how thorny that one is, but I'll take Jeremy Berg's word that NIH asking for some things can have negative consequences. For that matter, another thing that needs reforming is the relationship between taxpayers and congress. But that one's a right mess. That's harder than curing malaria, that one is. Alex- the PhD is an academic accomplishment. It should demand academic sacrifice. Wrestling with data. Writing papers. Arguing with reviewers. Heck, just devoting yourself (mostly) to a single topic (mostly) for years is a sacrifice/privilege/special thing in its own right. I agree that creating knowledge is hard work. However, nobody is saying students should just sign up and be handed a PhD in X years. Nonetheless, the PhD is an economic liability. In terms of the opportunity cost of those years, and taking into account the whole world of PhDs (not just elite students in elite institutions getting poached off by various industries). There is no reason we should demand that people should make additional economic sacrifices beyond that opportunity cost (lest of all a cost of 'don't have a child until it's physiologically unwise'- that one's immoral to ask of anyone) in order to obtain a (vanishingly small chance at?) a certain 'socio-edu-economic' level. • miko says: @Virgil +1 . Actually, +afuckjillion Senior administrators feather their nests and advance their careers with meaningless bullshit: unnecessary buildings, "centers", "initiatives", layers of vice-douches and relentless drones that protect then from ever having to talk to any faculty who don't have a Nobel or a book on the bestseller list. The fucking chairs in the hallways of my building cost$600 each (and suck to sit on). The vampire squid analogy is apt: wherever there is money they will stick their suck-tube, and in the biomedical sciences money is in grant overhead. They don't give a fuck about research... they measure productivity in press releases.

This is why anyone who says universities can't afford a non-faculty class of professional scientists who make a professional, progressive wage is full of shit.

• Dave says:

"layers of vice-douches and relentless drones that protect then from ever having to talk to any faculty who don't have a Nobel or a book on the bestseller list. The fucking chairs in the hallways of my building cost $600 each (and suck to sit on)" hahahaha!!!! so fucking true - especially the vice-douches. An administrator in our school last week went through the hallways and took our fucking break/tea/coffee chairs because she was "..sick of seeing them in the hallway". Because we are public, I know she makes very close to$200,000/year and just got a 20% raise. Worth every penny I say.

Seriously though, we had a very heated "faculty senate meeting" a few weeks back because so many people are struggling for funds. The topic centered on the availability of bridge-funds for salary since we get little salary support. I'm not kidding, the douche in charge actually told the division chairs (who were complaining) that THEY should get together in some kind of co-op and find the money to bridge some of their faculty. The response was rather sharp and was along the lines of "we have no fucking money, arsehole", to which the senior money man at our university (vice something or other) finally said "there is no money, cocks". The end result was that the division chiefs demanded to go to his office and inspect the books themselves because they refused to accept there was no money since we seem to be spending lots elsewhere.

It was a very sad situation. The message was clear: you are on your own and you will get little if any support from us if you lose funds.

What the fuck can the NIH do, realistically, in this situation?

• rs says:

"What the fuck can the NIH do, realistically, in this situation?"

kill the overhead. NIH money is for research and should be used only for research. The universities should get money for maintenance directly from NIH or from state agency depending upon size of the university.

• anon says:

rs,

totally agree. the overhead is simply an abuse that is no longer sustainable and should not be tolerated.

• There are three conclusions being asserted in this thread that are very very poorly founded on empirical data or even logical thought processes:

(1) That getting a PhD--especially when you are getting it for *free*, as are all biomedical PhDs--is an economic liability.

(2) That there are vast sums of money sloshing around universities paying for expensive desk chairs and administrator salaries that, if instead spent on PI salaries and other research expenses, would have a substantial effect on the fiscal constraints of the biomedical science labor market.

(3) That a substantial reduction in NIH support for indirect costs wouldn't lead to an immediate severe *contraction* of the biomedical science labor market.

These three assumptions are so poorly grounded in reality, that they should rightly be considered delusions. Speculating about supposed solutions to perceived problems in the biomedical sciences labor market in the absence of a correct understanding of the current realities of that labor market is worse than pointless.

• Beaker says:

Virgil is right: read The Fall of the Faculty. You will laugh and cry simultaneously. Once vice-douches are created, they exist perpetually. The money in their trough comes from various sources, including overheads. They like to create things that justify their existence (new buildings, offices, furniture, and regulatory mechanisms). And they always feed first, leaving the scraps for the runts on the faculty.

Seen from this perspective, the poor postdocs, the subject of this thread, are just bottom-feeders in a complex and inefficient ecosystem over which the NIH has little influence. Controlling overhead growth would help. However, once overhead rates have been raised, they go back down about as often as does the sales tax. Here are some more firsthand tales of administrative vice-douchery:

1. A project to remove perfectly fine wood veneer from all storage cabinets in the university, and then re-veneer with shit that looks exactly the same. That same week, the faculty were informed that library journal subscriptions would need to be slashed because there was no money.

2. The fancy chairs. Yep, we got 'em too. Every frickin' year, a new pallet of chairs appears in the loading dock and percolates up to the various administrative carpetlands.

3. Curriculum reform times eleventy.

4. A project to install giant cement planters outside university buildings. These were placed in areas that are protected from rainfall, requiring that they be watered by humans weekly. This year's project is to move the planters to new locations that benefit from sun and rain.

5, The yearly effort to replace the AV systems in the lecture halls. We already have in place AV control panels that dwarf the one used by Lt. Uhura. Except ours don't work.

And don't get me started on the inane rules and regulations...it is never their fault, and they have no power to adjust things in a practical way,,, they are just doing what they were told by the douche above them.

• bill says:

I'm gonna ignore (1) because it's an old, old topic around here and will generate more heat than light, but it seems to me that we could settle (2) with actual numbers.

I incline to CPP's view (that there is not nearly as much administrative fat in the system as folks tend to think), but my unsupported opinion is worth the same nothing that everyone else's is. Does anyone have data?

As for (3), let me see if I get CPP's point: remove the NIH overhead and the same money has to come from somewhere. If there are, as seems to be the case, no magical unicorns available to shit it onto a silver plate in the Vice-Provost's office, then it does seem likely that universities would have to reduce the amount of research they supported. Rs' idea that the NIH should provide grants to researchers and infrastructure monies to institutions separately seems (to me) likely to lead only to a reduction in the average grant size. After all, the NIH doesn't have any money-shitting unicorns either.

Which brings us back to (2): on its face, a system of apportioning infrastructure dollars along with research dollars (by allowing overhead from grants) would seem a reasonably efficient method of paying for research. If it's not, and if that lack of efficiency is being caused by administrative bloat and/or redirection of money obtained as grant overhead to purposes that don't support research -- surely that should show up on the books somewhere?

• bill says:

Those are CPP's (1) - (3) to which I refer, not Beaker's 1-5. Our comments crossed in the ether.

• DJMH says:

CPP, that was a lot of "you're wrong" with very little else. Want to explain *why* the attack on admin/indirects is so delusional?

• Jonathan says:

If any of you think NIH would ever be allowed to get away with cutting indirect costs I've got a bridge to sell you. AAU, AAMC, and every other lobby group would scream blue murder and every Senator and Representative with a university in their state/district that benefited from indirect costs would pitch a hissy fit the likes of which the research world has never seen.

• Alex says:

3. Curriculum reform times eleventy.

I think you mean "demands for paperwork showing that the curriculum comports with the buzzword-of-the-month" times eleventy. Real curriculum reform is urgently needed but can only come from faculty who are engaged in the subject and passionate about teaching but have not drunk the kool-aid given out at curriculum reform workshops.

• drugmonkey says:

I don't know why you people complaining about vice douchery don't know that some animals are more equal than others....

• Alex says:

Primate models are definitely better than murine models, which are better than zebrafish, which are better than fruit flies, which are better than yeast.

• whimple says:

bill: on its face, a system of apportioning infrastructure dollars along with research dollars (by allowing overhead from grants) would seem a reasonably efficient method of paying for research.

While true, not really relevant to the question of whether "alternative careers is just the next exploitation strategy". The crux of the matter is CPP's point 1: That getting a PhD--especially when you are getting it for *free*, as are all biomedical PhDs--is an economic liability.

Is that true or not? The NIH clearly doesn't care as it isn't even vaguely in their mandate. To me this reads as a simple supply and demand issue: the Unis are paying you because if they didn't, no one would do it. They pay what the market demands, pure and simple. Is it worth it? Dunno. My guess is that it is a break-even proposition: if you take your PhD and market yourself suitably, you do about as well as people that didn't get a PhD and market themselves suitably (like my comp sci and engineering friends). It's when you don't market yourself suitably, for example, by holding on in perpetual post-doc purgatory waiting for the magical TT unicorn to give you ride to the promised land of rainbows and cake that you get burned. Engineers don't do this. Of course, sometimes you do get to ride the magical TT unicorn, only to discover that the cake is a lie.

• drugmonkey says:

Ummm... It's the pigs Alex.

• Alex says:

What sorts of addiction behavior studies are you doing on porcine models, DM? 🙂

• Jeremy Berg says:

First a point of clarification: NIH does not determine indirect cost rates; these are determined by negotiations between universities and components of the federal government, either the HHS Division of Cost Allocation or the Office of Naval Research according to principles in OMB circular A-21.

Second, a recent National Research Council report on Research University and the Future of America (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13396 ) recommends increasing indirect cost reimbursement to cover the full costs of research.

• DrugMonkey says:

Interesting JB. Especially since one might fit the whole hard money / soft money debate about PIs being funded partially by their Universities into this notion of "the full costs of research".

• DrugMonkey says:

ORWELL IS NOT A JOKING MATTER ALEX!!!!!11!!!!!!11111!!!!!!!

• Beaker says:

I concede that even if the economics of indirects were perfect--if every cent of overhead led to the advancement of the the projects in some efficient and quantifiable way (heat, electricity, maintenance, secretarial support, etc)--all of the structural issues discussed in DM's post would remain. And killing overheads altogether clearly would create further (acute) hardships for scientists-in-training. It would not improve their career prospects.

Personally, I feel privledged to have gotten my PhD without having to go into debt, and my career options have only increased because of it. So I'm with Whmple and CPP on that point. And if there is a structural problem, I agree with Berg that while the NIH may be part of an unsustainable structure, it did not cause it, nor can it singlehandedly fix it.

If money is a drug, then the system is simply in withdrawal. If you are jonesin', then you can go cold turkey (get out of academic bench science) or stay on your methadone (perpetual postdoc). Things are gonna get worse before they get better because a whole lot of excellent and well-trained people are going to be competing for non-bench, non-lab head positions during a down job market. It is my hope that the longer prognosis is less dire because our society would benefit from having more leaders in all professions who have been trained in evidence-based critical thought and problem solving--and fewer leaders whose chief skills are marketing and gambling.

Alex--DM means RED pigs only.

• Dev says:

If the economic system, and the currency that drives most actions, is the problem, or not good enough for the society structure, not only the expected result is that it will negatively affect everything, but that the point to focus on is solving it, or adjusting it to a wider range of coverage.

So that must be the basis for the little word, unsustainable.

• bill says:

holding on in perpetual post-doc purgatory waiting for the magical TT unicorn to give you ride to the promised land of rainbows and cake

Ouch. Dude, it's like you know me.

• bill says:

Tangentially, this:

determined by negotiations between universities and components of the federal government, either the HHS Division of Cost Allocation or the Office of Naval Research according to principles in OMB circular A-21.

reads like something out of The Onion.

• WS says:

Wow, this is one of the most candid discussions I have ever seen regarding the problem of biomedical Ph.D. overproduction, underemployment, and under-compensation. I find it difficult to believe the NIH has as little control over the situation as Jeremy says. For example, what circumstances permitted the NIH to so dramatically increase Postdoc stipends in the late 1990s? The cynic in me (or is it the realist?) assumes that the NIH was in danger of losing its cheap labor force. I knew one postdoc, who quit as a postdoc so she could get rehired as a technician in the same lab at a much higher salary. The NIH decided to experiment with a new stipend level that would maintain the glut of grad students and postdocs. Regardless, lets assume that the NIH is powerless to change the situation. It is up to all of you (and me) to let young undergrads know the reality. As I said previously, I naively assumed that with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, I would have no problem finding a middle-class job, and no one told me otherwise. Oh yeah, there was also that "study" by the NSF predicting a serious shortage of Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences around the turn of the century. And that came at the very time we were in the middle of creating the biggest glut of Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences in the history of planet earth. Anyway, when a student talks to me about getting a Ph.D. I tell them that the probability of finding employment beyond a postdoc is low and even if they do, they are not likely to come out ahead financially over there lifetimes. If they still choose to pursue a career in science, well that is exactly the kind of dedication that will result in success. But the more the reality of the situation gets out to the public, the fewer people will enter science. Supply goes down. Demand goes up.

• Alex says:

Universities swear that research is a money loser.

They swear that state funding isn't adequate to cover instruction.

They swear that tuition isn't adequate to cover instruction.

The athletic department swears that it is making money for the university when it is under attack, and swears that it isn't when people come asking for money.

The endowment is at least a known quantity (we hope) and you can do back of the envelope estimates of the income generated.

And even in my most hyperbolic moments I will grudgingly admit that revenue from those hyper-caffeinated parking ticket enforcers is probably only a drop in the bucket, in the scheme of things.

So what the hell is covering the salaries for the Deputy Associate Vice Presidents of [something that has no meaningful effect on research & teaching]? Where the hell do they find the money to pay for consultants to redesign letterhead?

I don't think we could solve all of our budget woes by gutting administration, but we could solve some of them. And the rest of the university would at least run a bit more efficiently if we didn't have 20 different Deputy Associate Vice Provosts asking for reports on something or other.

• rs says:

"Supply goes down. Demand goes up."
Nope, biomedical science PhD or post-doc labor force does not depend on the local supply. It is gone long time ago. Look around and you will find more non-American students and post-docs than native Americans. Even faculty ratio is slowly changing (anecdotal). There is a famous joke about Mathematics department in an American university where "Russian professors teach to chinese students".
Not complaining since I am one of them who benefitted from an easy immigration policy, but to think that supply/demand ratio will change because of the poor compensation is a pure ignorane. Also, this is exactly the group (non-citizen trainees who depend on Visa) who can not complain about exploitation, which makes matter worse for everyone and brings us back to the original quest of this post.

• Dev says:

Becca, the issue of having kids or family as a working scientist should be no different than any other field of work. But it is.

Good and reliable day care, or schools, make a difference in the productivity. And maybe that is A 'clincher'.

• anon says:

It seems to me that the science exploitation problem is very much like the world financial/banking problem. Very few want to risk anything to solve it. In the meantime, let the science/development/ citizens suffer and die.

• Jeremy Berg says:

WS: Postdoc stipends (and predoc stipends) were raised on training mechanisms (T's and F's) in the late 1990's and into the "doubling" period. NIH has the authority to adjust such levels (with Congressional approval) because these programs are covered by the National Research Service Act (NRSA). Many institutions used these levels as guidelines to cover postdocs paid from other sources. I do not believe that NIH has the authority to mandate salaries on research grants (other than the overall cap placed by Congress) and, in any event, I do not believe that Congress would be very sympathetic to minimum salaries rather than letting the market dictate salaries levels.

• MudraFinger says:

@CPP point (3) - When a bubble pops, there is generally a contraction, yes. When the housing market bubble popped, the necessary consequence was a sh!ttepile of foreclosures. As well documented by the "modeling subcommittee" of the recent workforce report to NIH, the biomedical research workforce bubble that has certainly popped had been building for decades. How could there NOT be a contraction? Many, many of us soft-money stiffies are going to lose our jobs. I take that as a given. There's no avoiding it now any more than one can avoid hitting the rocks at the bottom once one has driven off a cliff. People are still pretending this isn't the case because some of them haven't hit the bottom just yet. When you're in freefall, you can still convince yourself (and try to convince others) that everything is still juuuuust fine. The point is, will this crisis be wasted and the Universities & NIH (JB is right, it's a joint COI problem) be allowed to continue with their demonstrably unsustainable business models and arrangements, or will we maybe learn something from this and force change?!

• Dave says:

Having gone over this post again in an attempt to keep it on topic, I am becoming more and more confused about what exactly the goals of the NIH are. Am I the only one? I have always thought that it preferred to remain as a kind of passive mass funder of science and that it had little overt interest in careers etc. That seems to be changing rapidly and a lot of us are now looking for the NIH to ensure that post-docs etc get what they want out of a science career. But at the same time, it is fairly clear that they can't or won't really do much to change what many of us think are problems in the system.

• Dave says:

Oh and it amuses me that the NIH has no idea how many post-docs they fund. My own fucking school literally has no clue how many post-docs we have. The reason? Primarily exploitation of foreign post-docs who are not real employees or students and therefore are completely off the HR radar. Its like they don't exist. This is something that the NIH should change and it would allow them to better track their researchers.

• whimple says:

JB: I do not believe that Congress would be very sympathetic to minimum salaries rather than letting the market dictate salaries levels.

I agree with this, however, 'the market' is strongly influenced by the essentially free-trade in limitless human capital coming across the border. Currently there is some degree of control because many training grants require American citizenship and there is some latent resistance to paying different salaries for the same job (training grant vs non training grant) although this may erode further in the future.

• Dev says:

Once again, here is the main issue I've deduced with the standard human analytic tools a scientist uses:

The economic system limits growth, or as it is set is inverse relation to population growth, so it applies to science too. And the component that allows the flow of activities, in science too, is currency, and if that is limited or deteriorating so it will the science and the science output. Curiously it also changes the nature of human being relations, which in turn make the decisions down the timeline. We name that final observable state 'corruption', but what triggers it?

Well, facts? the relational node linking resources to goals is money, the unit in society (science community) that permits trade of knowledge/skills/output/therapies/innovation/life itself, etc. If you go from there and begin to view the reality of your surroundings you further deduce more components of a 'system' that somehow limits or facilitates things, and even in the wrong way.

So you ought to conclude that as it now the system is insufficient, the economic and social system. So what can be done about that? well, as simple as it sounds it would be by putting in more of the fuel and oil in the right places while the authorities and experts envision the 'scientific' way to adjust the main buffer of the system to tolerable conditions that avoid degeneration and the crash of society.

I just want a true civilized world and its various components, but the rules and laws in place seem to counteract that simple and rightful goal.

How could you have missed all this going on?

• qaz says:

So, Jeremy Berg, why can't NIH raise the graduate student stipends on training grants like it did postdocs? Postdoc salaries rose with the NRSA levels because many (not all, but many) PIs base all of their postdoc salaries on the NRSA levels. (I know this because I was a PD before the raise and a PI after it!) Right now, graduate student training grant stipends often don't cover the full levels offered by many graduate programs. If training grants were significantly higher, many graduate programs would scoot to match it.

Also, in terms of graduate student stipends, it is important to recognize that there is a definite market economics going on. You can see this by comparing graduate stipends between different fields (biomedical [NIH training grant stipends], computer science [higher], physics [lower, often with teaching requirements], english and the arts [negative, as in you pay]). So there is a market economics going on. Graduate programs are paying enough to lure students away from more lucrative jobs. You can argue that the lure is insufficient, but it is really any more of a lure than minor league baseball (most of whom never make more than grad students and end their careers with no training and no certification - at least we get PhDs), or the opening steps of a law firm (work 24/7, get paid well, but have to spend high to survive, and can get tossed at a moments notice), or starting your own business (most of which fail)?

I also think that the arrogance of R1 researchers thinking that they are only preparing graduate students to replace them as R1 researchers is disappointing. We are professors - teachers teaching graduate students how to think and preparing them for many careers in science (e.g. industry, policy, teaching at a PUI, all of which are important careers). That's why we are doing this teaching (research apprenticeships) at a university!

• Jeremy Berg says:

qaz: NIH did increase predoctoral stipends at the same time as it did for postdoc stipends. The predoc stipends actually increased by a larger factor. The history of these stipend levels can be found at grants.nih.gov/training/Stipend_History_V2.xls . For example, the predoc level was $6552 in 1985,$10008 in 1994, $20772 in 2004, and$22032 in 2012. For comparison, the postdoc level 0 level was $15996 in 1985,$19608 in 1994, $35568 in 2004, and$39264 in 2012. The ratio of postdoc level 0 to predoc went from 2.44 in 1985 to 1.78 now. As you note, many programs supplement the predoc stipends to compete for students.

• WS says:

Jeremy, I appreciate you giving such even-tempered responses when so many of the comments seem quite hostile to the things you say. Nevertheless, I find it curious that congress would be reluctant to set minimum salaries for biomedical (or other science) PhDs. So frequently, we here about the lavish salaries and benefits earned by people employed in particular careers, including many government jobs. I think it is fair to say that many of these careers require less intelligence and less hard work than the average science career. Yet one always hears the same tired excuse for these lavish salaries: "we have to pay these salaries and benefits in order to attract the best and brightest." Funny one never hears that argument made about scientists. I guess scientists should find the practice of science to be its own reward. Perhaps. My only complaint is the lack of transparency in this regard. Instead we very frequently here our political leaders, including president Obama, talking as if we don't have enough young people interested in science. If that were truly a problem, then increasing compensation should help to "attract the best and the brightest." Clearly a lack of interest is not the problem. Instead, our political leaders are trying to fool young people into believing that making a career in science should be a path to secure and near-certain employment, much like the NSF studied I cited. That is obviously not the case. All I would like to see is for that simple fact to be communicated to the public, much like the public is largely aware that a Hollywood acting career is far from a certain path to prosperity.
On a different note, I cannot help but wonder if the system nurtured by the NIH for biomedical scientists could provide the solution to the crisis of spiraling health care costs in the U.S. If the NIH paid for the training of M.D.s, like it does for Ph.D.s a huge number of young people would want to attend medical school under the supposition that they would find lucrative employment upon graduation. Shortly after starting medical school these students would then be told they need to do a brief stint as a "postdoc" under the supervision of a "principal M.D." in order to acquire "additional training." As the supply increased, the demand for M.D.s would go down, as would their salaries. The length of "postdocs" would continue to increase until eventually these medical postdocs were "transitioned" into permanent positions. I am sure there are many possible euphemisms for these position: "staff physician," "senior medical resident." Any other suggestions? Just a thought.

• Beaker says:

Thanks for the link Whimple. And kudos to the journalist for writing this. The article appeared today, and there are already over 500 comments. The response to this article, combined with the number of comments on this blog, suggests that the bioscience training issue is going viral. I am frequently surprised by the number of baby boomer scientists who remain clueless to what is happening. I guess that is because their jobs are not in jeopardy.

• Beaker says:

Having now read some of the comments under the WP article, I am disappointed. Many commenters try to pin the longstanding problems in science training/infrastructure/funding on Obama. Yawn.

Here is the meta-problem. In a meritocracy, those who performed well in the difficult science and math classes should be rewarded with good careers. For biologists, this is no longer true. Perhaps it is still true for engineering and medicine?

Instead, those who are rewarded in today's society are dicks who see no shame in gambling with other people's money (example: people named Diamond).

• Jeremy Berg says:

WS: I think you have identified one of the key issues in this debate: Are we training too many or too few scientists? For biomedical scientists, it seems to me hard to make the case that we are training too few although this a particularly tough time with the overall economic downturn, the situation in academia driven by growth during and subsequent to the NIH doubling and a highly constrained NIH budget, and a tough time in the pharmaceutical sector due to many big revenue drugs going off patent and and relatively few drugs in the pipeline. Of course, given the length of training for biomedical sciences, a Ph.D. student who starts now, spends 5 years in graduate school and 3 years in a post-doc may be coming into a different situation than the present (better or worse).

There are other areas of science and engineering where the supply of trained people is less (relative to demand) although these may not be at the Ph.D. level. Furthermore, few would argue that the level of scientific literacy of American students overall is optimal. Students with math and science expertise (high school and college grads) do better in the job market than those without those skills. This may account for statements by the President and others encouraging students interest in science.

With regard to possible Congressional responses to any minimum salary proposals, this is speculation on my part. However, given the lack of an ability to make a strong case that too few biomedical scientists are being trained (in fact, the recent NIH report suggests the opposite), a general aversion to economic regulation from many in Congress, and the challenge of making the case that approximately $22000 + tuition (up to$16000) of taxpayer's money should be directed to individuals in a degree program when they have many constituents struggling with much less. One would have to have a very strong argument about the national interest in such a policy in order to succeed.

I am not sure I follow your suggestion about medical education, but physicians do spend considerable time as student, interns, residents, and fellows, working under others before they become independent and they usually go substantially into debt along the way.

• Alex says:

I am amused that a PUI might be considered an "alternative career." We also get 100 applicants per open position, largely from the same pool as the R1 folks. (Many of the poor suckers who have no chance at an R1 job also have no chance at a PUI job.) We do research. We publish. (And not just in shitte-ass low-IF journals.) We mentor students. We teach (but you guys do too....I think), we just teach more than you. We sit on committees. We get tenure. We squabble over academic politics. We go to conferences. We're different from R1 schools, but not too different. It's no much of an "alternative."

• Alex says:

Or maybe this is like the 1990's, where every pop rock band was labeled "alternative."

• becca says:

Jeremy Berg- ah, but physicians are not as politically inept as scientists. It's high time scientists started:
1) a nonprofit to do what "match" does for MDs and residencies for PhDs and postdocs to provide legibility to this stage in the career path;
2) a single overarching professional society which has enough political muscle to enforce maximum PhDs taken in by academic medical schools and universities, much like the AMA does for MDs (via a takeover of the AAAS, if necessary)

• whimple says:

Note that the AMA also polices the borders as well as regulating the local supply.

• rs says:

Same rule apply to the business school PhDs. Those are also heavily regulated, making sure that the demand remains higher than the supply. Most of the business school PhDs expect to lend the job immediately after finishing their degree. For industry needs, they have MBAs. Maybe science need to adopt these policies as well.

• WS says:

Becca, whimple, and rs: You get my point about training of M.D.s and you make some good suggestions. I wish somehow they could be implemented. Jeremy, yes it does take some time and effort to become a practicing physician. And yes, they usually go into debt, but given the typical salaries of M.D.s, that debt seems not to be an impediment to a big financial payoff. At least I have never heard of doctor struggling financially, nor have I ever heard of an unemployed doctor, except as the result of serious malpractice. It again comes back to supply and demand. Perhaps the solution is to stop paying graduate students for their Ph.D. work. Many students (including myself many years ago) think this is a great deal and are willing to work for peanuts, because they get a "valuable" Ph.D. at the end. Little might they realize that in order to actually extract any value from that degree, it will usually require an indefinite period of underpaid postdoctoral work (3 years, Jeremy?! that is almost unheard of today). A permanent postdoc colleague of mine once described this as getting kids hooked on drugs. There is a small initial investment, but then you reap the rewards. Does anyone else know of an advanced degree, besides the Ph.D., where students are actually paid to get the degree? I think that alone says something significant about the value of a Ph.D.
Oh, by the way, Alex. You forgot another big difference between R1 schools and PUIs (where I also work) -- the salary.

• drugmonkey says:

There is only one possible solution to get Congress on board.

Evidence the Chinese are on the verge of perfecting their Westerner sterility virus.

(where'd that yellowcake guy go? We need him...)

• Dev says:

Mr J Berg,

I really hope you get a chance to look at the relationship, or correlation, between science job problems and the status of the economy. Got to be beyond politics to yield good science policy, no?

One thinks it has to be informative and helpful for problem solving, because the public discussions seem to indicate that not only the amount of money available is fixed relative to an increasing population number but also relative to inflation, and that the more money is circulated-even through the basic needs- the worse it gets. Adding to that the increase in work force number, makes people wonder if there's a better solution than to cutting money circulation by cutting it in the workforce to alleviate the currency/economy situation.

• smilehehe says:

I spend 5.5 years for a bio Ph.D. and another 5.5 for a bio PostDoc. Then I published a 1st author Science and a 1st author Nature. But I can't find a faculty position after two years. I am near 40 now.

so I just left the academia.

• Neuro-conservative says:

Jeremy Berg -- I am curious if you think that we could try to make a deal with Congress: a one-time boost in baseline budget (maybe 10%), in exchange for a meaningful cost-sharing with institutions.

A few examples:
1) phasing in a minimum %effort for faculty that needs to be paid by the institution (e.g., increasing in 5% increments so that in 5 years, NIH will pay only a max 75% of an investigator's salary);
2) gradual reductions in indirects (perhaps most easily accomplished by capping overhead on salaries, as was recently done for genetic microarrays);
3) eliminating F31's and phasing out other pre-doc support (placing onus on Uni's to either fund their own students or eliminate slots);
4) mandate institutions receiving postdoctoral support provide health insurance benefits for all recipients.

I am sure this sounds naive, and I suppose that the risk is they would just take these or other suggestions for cuts, without the increase in baseline. However, perhaps Congress would listen if enough senior leaders signed a letter to Science, and pledged to work together with Congress to fix the problems?

PS. I am suprised nobody has yet pointed out this essay in Science.

• miko says:

smilehehe... you sound like you have a pedigree problem. Let me guess... no recs from Papa Bears?

• whimple says:

Also a fun read referenced in the 2012 Science commentary (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/321/5889/644.summary):

In theory, the resulting chilly job markets for recent biomedical Ph.D.'s should generate negative feedback that would tend toward more stable equilibria. In a closed system, and one with full information available to prospective graduate students, some fraction of undergraduates who might otherwise consider becoming Ph.D. students and postdocs would correctly perceive the difficult career paths and would pursue other options.

In practice, however, the system is not closed. Given increased research funding, additional graduate students and postdocs can be readily recruited from large potential pools in countries with fewer such opportunities—precisely what took place as the NIH budget was rapidly doubled (15). Nor is there anything even approximating full information about career prospects available to prospective entrants, whether domestic or foreign.

• miko says:

At my elite institution, prospective grad students are given to believe that whatever limits there are in budgets and job markets will not affect them, because they are golden children hand picked by the aristocracy of academic science. Judging from the heavily beaten path from my building to the drug companies down the way or to McKinsey et al... it's not necessarily the case.

Here is my job search flow chart for my fellow postdocs, based on Extensive Data (TM) from n>1 faculty searches. Welcome to the peerage system!
1. Elite PhD and postdoc institutions.
Yes? Continue to #2.
No? Proceed to pharma.

2. Pedigree lab with accompanying references from your PI's 2-3 most famous friends.
Yes? Continue to #3.
No? Proceed to pharma or management consulting.

3. N/C/S.
Yes? Continue to #4.
No? How famous are your PI's friends?
-Nobel or likely future Nobel: BOOM! Proceed to #4 anyway!
-"I think I've heard of that guy": proceed to pharma or assistant editor at prestigious journal.

4. Technically you should actually apply, just as a formality.

Congrats! You're on the short list! And by "the short list" I mean you are going to get the job and the rest of the list is there to make the search look legit. Here's what you will need to do:
1. Make some slides on which you have pasted figures from #3. Use Comic Sans if you want! Old people thinks it makes you seem cool and casual.
2. Answer questions in English while not looking at the floor.
3. Make sure the silverbacks are comfortable around you.
4. Put on your frilly collar and tights and order some microscopes!

• Jeremy Berg says:

becca (and whimple, rs, and WS): You are correct that M.D. training (and that for many other fields (although to a less extent) for business and law) is regulated (not only by the AMA, but also through the AAMC and related organizations). But I do not think the problem for research is structural (in the sense of not having the right organizations) but rather conceptual (the scientific community has not come to grips with the conflicting needs that is has). For example, increasing institutional salary commitments will increase the stability of positions that survive, but will almost certainly lead to a decrease in the number of faculty positions available in the short run. Perhaps the most fundamental problem that has contributed to the present situation is that the number of Ph.D.s trained has been driven by the NIH research budget. Stability would be increased if reasonable career paths were developed that uncoupled training numbers from the level of research activity but this is a problem that needs thoughtful solutions.

WS: As noted above, the number of physicians trained is highly regulated so that are few unemployed physicians (although there are some). The debt load does play a significant role is selection of speciality. I used 3 years for a postdoc not because it is the current average, but rather as a minimum to illustrate that, even in the best case, there were 8 years between starting a Ph.D. program and looking for a permanent job (assuming the any postdoctoral work is done) and the world can change a lot over that period of time. I believe that Ph.D. education is paid for specifically because the typical financial rewards are less than they are for medical, law, business, etc. where debts incurred during training can typically be paid back over a reasonable period of time in the working world.

Dev: I think there are several factors contributing to the present circumstances in biomedical research. First, the number of individuals being trained has grown dramatically (with the number of Ph.D. approximately doubling and the number of postdocs approximately tripling since 1985 according to the NIH report). Second, the economic downturn and the overall federal (and state) budget situation is constraining investments in research and university support, and limiting opportunities in the private sector. Third, the pharmaceutical industry is in crisis for other reasons (drugs going off patent, poor pipelines, other issues). I agree that good science policy need not be political, but finding solutions that balance the conflicting interests is not simple.

Neuro-conservative: It may be possible to get Congress on board with an integrated plan, but this is going to require getting leaders in the scientific community and NIH on board. Each of the issues that you raise is likely to have substantial opposition.

• Neuro-conservative says:

Jeremy Berg -- Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree that my proposals, or any others, are going to face considerable opposition from affected stakeholders.

Therefore, I think there needs to be a "Simpson-Bowles" style commission, appointed by Dir. Collins, including representatives from all relevant groups (including students, postdocs, and junior faculty -- not just graybeards and admin hacks), to develop a report that can be presented to Congress.

Do you think such a proposal is science fiction?

• [...] I get to the article, it’s worth noting some context provided by DrugMonkey (boldface mine): There is a very good argument to be made that the NIH is quite happy with the [...]

• Virgil says:

I have to take issue with something in the WP article, and being generally espoused here...

Since when did a life sciences post-doc' only last a couple of years? As long as I can remember (going back to at least the early 90s), post-doc's have always been a minimum of 5 years, often 7 or 8 when you factor in Research Instructor, R-A-P and those other bridge positions before landing a proper tenture track job.

The only people who get TT positions after 2-3 years are those willing to accept a position at Podunk College with COBRE funding, or the very rare genuine superstar (i.e.not representative of the masses). For the rest of us mere mortals looking for a position in a decent sized city on the left or right coast, 5-7 years is the average, and it has been for quite some time. It's not a product of the current recession or the ending of the NIH budget doubling. A post-doc' was 5 years in 1985 and I'd be willing to bet it was 5 years in 1975 too.

• Vene says:

WS, "At least I have never heard of doctor struggling financially, nor have I ever heard of an unemployed doctor, except as the result of serious malpractice. It again comes back to supply and demand. Perhaps the solution is to stop paying graduate students for their Ph.D. work."

That's a great idea, I so enjoy how the system works to keep bright, motivated low income kids out of the medical field, we need to make it even harder for people foolish enough to be born to working class parents to enter science. It should be the domain of the elites only. It's not like medical schools are having problems with this. There's also the pesky issue that those in medical school are <a href="http://i.imgur.com/7L0lq.jpg"disproportionately wealthy. Let's face it, we live in a system the best way to obtain a good education and career is to be born to parents with education and good careers and proposing to increase the cost of education is so ridiculously out of touch. This will just further divide our society on the lines of class. But, that's okay, the smart and motivated kids who live in a ghetto can just work as janitors or wash cars for a living instead.

• Vene says:

Blargh, I messed up the HTML

This is the link for the parental wealth of med students.

• miko says:

"Third, the pharmaceutical industry is in crisis for other reasons (drugs going off patent, poor pipelines, other issues)."

I assume by "other issues" you mean "really bad science." Or did I miss the part where GWAS = drug target = cure ever made any biological sense.

• [...] see the most recent of many discussions about this over at DrugMonkey and Mike the Mad Biologist. It’s clear that the status quo benefits current PIs and their [...]

• Dev says:

It does look complicated, I hope you gather many good suggestions.

• Echo says:

Why isn't anyone working on the important scientific problem of creating money-shitting unicorns? Sounds like an idea for the next NIH Roadmap or Blueprint or whatever they're calling it these days.

• GAATTC says:

One aspect of this report that I have not seen touched upon in the 100 plus comments is the length of the PhD. Why so long? We are ok with 4 yrs for MDs, but average 6 yrs for PhD? I strive to get my students out in 4 yrs with 2 papers. At least that way they find out 2 yrs quicker than average how tough things are and they can move on with their lives.

• IndustryScientist says:

I've been having this discussion with several of my colleagues and it's nice to see such fervent discussion on it here. Right now, I have a very good industry scientist R&D job - one of the few from my graduate class to do so - and would be considered a success by every standpoint from the NIH. Yet when RAs at my company ask me whether or not it's worth it to get a PhD, I hesitate and ask them the following questions:

1) Are you willing to give up starting a family in the next ten years?
2) Are your and your significant other willing to another area of the country?
3) Are you capable of working 60+ hour weeks for the next ten years?

If the answer to any of these is "no," I tell them it's probably better to remain as an RA, since you'll be easily employable and with enough experience you'll eventually come to command a salary equal to a starting scientist in industry. Yes, your career path is limited, but if you enjoy working at the bench, why bother getting the doctorate? A starting RA, fresh out of college makes $55K, with excellent benefits, stock options and a 40 hour, 9-5 work week. You're doing science and you get to have a life outside of the lab. What's not to love? The biggest problem with the grad school/postdoc system as currently constructed - aside from having far too many PhDs and not enough jobs - is that the expectation is for one to be a workaholic, 24/7 scientist to the exclusion of everything else in life. And you get a pittance of a salary for that effort. Yes, 39K is reasonable by the standard salary of the average American, but when you consider the average American works a 9-5 job, it suddenly pales in comparison. And it's even worse if you life on the coasts where the cost of living is exorbitant. Plus if you have a significant other with a career and/or children, you're probably unable or unwilling to move to another area of the country, further limiting your job prospects for the few positions which are out there. And many of the positions that are out there ask for very specific skill sets in the lab, limiting your options even more. I was exceptionally fortunate to get the position I have now and it only opened up due to extreme circumstances (the scientist I replaced had to move across the country for family reasons and they needed someone to start immediately). Before I received the interview I had started looking for positions outside of the lab (medical writing and consulting) because I desperately needed a higher salary. I was the lucky one - the three postdocs who still remain in the lab I left have all been there for 4+ years (one for nearly five). So what can be done to reform the system? Starters: 1) Grad school time needs to be shortened. Four years max and you're done. 2) Grad schools need to accept fewer students in the short run until the PhD glut abates 3) Incoming students need career advice and given options on careers outside of academia But I have a feeling nothing is going to change until kids stop applying to grad school and the pipeline of cheap labor dries up. That's probably the only thing that would get the system to alter itself considerably. I really love my job, but I was one of the few lucky ones and I wouldn't wish what I went through to obtain it on anyone. • Neuro-conservative says: IndustrySci -- I would take your suggestions a bit further and try to create a high barrier between the master's and PhD. Terminal master's wastes much less time and is far more suitable to many lab-based and " alternative" career paths. • IndustryScientist says: Neuro - well, what really needs to be done is to blow up the whole system and create an academic setting more in line with that of industry - have staffs populated by RAs, staff scientists who work under a PI (but are paid much better) and one or two students, perhaps with universities kicking in cash to fund support scientists who can act as extra departmental lab hands to whoever needs them. The biggest problem here is that with the current job market there's really no incentive to entering a PhD program - the opportunity cost is just too high despite having your schooling paid for, especially when one can get an RA position right out of college easier than a PhD scientist can get a position and the RA gets paid better than a postdoc to boot (with a better lifestyle). But there's no incentive for academia to to do this and there's currently no money to make those changes either. So I really don't see anything changing unless kids en masse stop applying to grad school. • WS says: Industry Scientist, Very nice letter. It again comes back to getting the word out. I think if all Ph.D.-granting institutions were required to include the comments of this blog in there brochures, the problem would be solved. I certainly would have reconsidered. • becca says: Vene- I hear you, but if bright upper-class kids go to top 10 schools and do a risky postdoc and marry 1%ers and eventually end up with good faculty positions and rationalize The Biomedical Research Enterprise with lines like "most PhDs make 80k+ a year! They pay you to go! It's a great deal!" that motivates bright working-class kids go to Typical Flagship State Universities (the kinds that have LOTS of tuition support so they can get enough TAs for bio101) and do a postdoc or two and marry a teacher and wash out with zero savings, then we will NOT have served the working-class kids if they were equally capable of becoming systems analysts or programmers or chem engineers. We need fewer PhD students; it seems to me 'better' to get there by increasing their stipends and offering fewer positions than decreasing the # of people signing up by eliminating stipends. However, although both work in theory (and is much more to my liking), I do wonder if there's any data on which would be more effective. The "good" news is, left unchecked, rising healthcare costs and rising tuition will probably take care of some of this problem. They will both work to increase the cost of having a PhD student, without rising the stipend the PhD student will get paid and thus not (as dramatically) increasing the incentive to go to grad school (as rising stipends). This is particularly true if it becomes easier to get healthcare while working the type of job one qualifies for out of undergrad (yes, I did just imply that one metric we could use to tell if the ACA works is by having fewer PhD students #unforseenconsequences?). Of course, relying on the extreme inflation in healthcare and tuition to get us to the goal assumes we're all A-OK with a massive net funneling of money from the taxpayers (via NIH grants) to large healthcare corporations and universities operating budgets. (PROTIP: you can't complain about the cost disease of indirect rates without noticing the cost diseases of higher education broadly, as reflected by tuition rates) • Virgil says: @Industry Scientist. You make some good points, and rationally, but again it comes down to the question of what is fundamentally WRONG with a 5-7 year post-doc? You mention friends in their 4th year of post-doc' as if this is some kind of dreadful cancer that has doomed them to failure. WTF? At no time in history, have academics (post-doc's or otherwise) been in a position where they can live comfortably in big trendy cities, with kids, and work 40 hour weeks, and get out of a post-doc' in 4 years, moving on to a tenure track position in the same megapolis. It's never been like that, and I don't see why everyone's knickers are in a twist trying to make it so. You struggle in a big city with no kids and being dirt poor, or you have a bit more comfort out in the "real" part of the USA, and if you're lucky after 6-7 years you might land a position in a small college, from which you can work your way up to a position at a top-rank school. This is not reality TV, it's just the basis of academia, always has been. • whimple says: Virgil: what is fundamentally WRONG with a 5-7 year post-doc? The short answer is "the opportunity cost". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opportunity_cost • miko says: Virgil, the stupidest and wrongest argument in all this is that things are the same now as they have ever been. They are not. Read the fucking numbers. • AcademicLurker says: the stupidest and wrongest argument in all this is that things are the same now as they have ever been. They are not. Read the fucking numbers. True. It's like when I was an assistant professor struggling to get my first RO1 with pay lines hovering around 9%. "Oh, it's always been tough", said the profs who went through the tenure process when pay lines were at 30% I wanted to strangle the f*ckers. • IndustryScientist says: Virgil - The system may have been acceptable decades ago when jobs were (relatively) plentiful compared to now, but even that acceptability is relegated to a very specific population of scientists: Those willing to work 24/7 in the lab to the exclusion of everything else in life. To those people, while they're being exploited, this exploitation is acceptable because of their motivation and ambition. But decades ago, the odds of getting a reasonable university or industry job was fairily reasonable; that golden ring was a pretty good motivator. But in 2012, what do PhDs have to look forward too: 1) No faculty positions 2) Few R&D positions and even those that are there have very low job security 3) Increased numbers of unemployed PhDs, all looking for the same jobs So the golden ring is basically gone. So now you're asking people to be exploited for 10 years AND taking away the one reward (the promise of a stable, successful career) which makes it somewhat acceptable. There's really no incentive to get a PhD anymore. And think about it: You could get a BS in biology and start immediately at a company making$10-15K more than a starting postdoc with benefits and stock options. They're basically doing the same work as a postdoc, only getting paid more and have a normal 9-5 workday. Add this to the fact they'll have ten years of earnings under their belt before the PhD is hired, there's simply no incentive to get a doctorate here. Not to mention, at least an RA is doing bench work, as opposed to increasing numbers of PhD who are forced to leave science entirely due to lack of jobs.

Lastly, I don't understand the mindset that this system is acceptable. It's slave labor, pure and simple, with no endpoint. The fact you think a 4-5 year postdoc is acceptable is completely ridiculous. I managed to escape after "only" 3.5 years, but even that took a toll on my sanity and my family. Putting in ridiculous hours for the "sake of science" is antiquated B.S. - one can't think if they can't afford to live or eat.

But the only way this will end is if students just start saying "no" to grad school.

• drugmonkey says:

Virgil-

you are distressingly out of touch with reality. Having grown up in an academic family I have a fairly good idea of what was then and what is now.

Plus, more importantly, I can actually read the numbers. Do the inflation conversion for salary numbers. look at house prices (and costs, mortgage rates are key) relative to academic salaries. Review the number of dual-income versus single-income families in academia and outside of academia. View the concentric circles of faculty housing surrounding Universities (yes, even in BFE!!!) that go in concert with age/length of career at that Uni. Review the pension plans that used to be available to my parents' generation of academics, at what stage of life (tied to appointment age) and review what is available now.

I also have some idea of the degree of competition to land a job and make tenure then and now. It's harder to now, no question.

"comfortably" is a convenient weasel word because it allows you to apply all sorts of subjectivity. Better to simply draw comparisons to prior generations. and you know what? the 5 miles through academic snow argument is total bullshit. the numbers don't support it.

final note: The kids these days have it WAY harder than even I did a mere cough*coughyears*cough*cough ago. I have no problem admitting that. The older guard shouldn't have any problem either....we're data driven scientists, remember?

• Dev says:

Industry scientist and Virgil:

good points representing the lines of academia vs industry science and higher ed, but I have to disagree with the 'requirements' for either one.

Virgil: do you have to be poor and living in a dump, have no interest in family life but rather make kids as you go about life, and move around to be in academia? you don't need any education for that, it rather fits with the lifestyle of irresponsible youngsters, immature adults, hippies, etc. I don't think that just means knowledge, creativity, hard work, 'promising', etc. Then, what exactly is the role of academia? And, does this subclass restricted to a certain type of educational institutions? how are they maintained in terms of money?

Industry scientist: are you saying that the responsible and more well-rounded scientist needs to be in industry? does industry fund the schools for education/training for that line of work?

In both cases it would need to be made clear for the population.

And in both cases the limitations are in the ratio of available resources to funding. And in the ability to apply and sustain the workforce without draining the money resource.

Because competition is good but generating millions of people to get a few good things for society is 'inefficient'. Be it planned or by mistakes.

So all this discussion in science is the same thing in the rest of society. We do need change, but for real.

• Alex says:

I agree that things have changed, but Virgil is simultaneously both right and misinformed in certain points.

The only people who get TT positions after 2-3 years are those willing to accept a position at Podunk College with COBRE funding, or the very rare genuine superstar (i.e.not representative of the masses). For the rest of us mere mortals looking for a position in a decent sized city on the left or right coast, 5-7 years is the average, and it has been for quite some time.

I don't think it's ever been the case that every PhD could get a job at a highly-ranked research university in a city of one's choice. Virgil is right about that. OTOH, teaching at a PUI or whatever is not always the end of the world. There is real satisfaction to be found in mentoring undergrads. You can make real contributions to science that way, both through the people you train and even through some of the science that you do with them. And there is real intellectual fulfillment to be found in teaching multiple classes per semester. All of that teaching both in and out of my field has really sharpened me as a scientist. Just yesterday, a student came to me with a question about a technique we're using in our research, and I realized that the same concept is used to obtain a key result in another sub-field that I had to cover in a course, and the references to that work would be perfect for my student to use in working through his project.

and if you're lucky after 6-7 years you might land a position in a small college, from which you can work your way up to a position at a top-rank school.

Very, very few people manage to publish their way up to a top-ranked school. I'm trying it but I doubt it will work. And, you know, other than the salary (a gripe for another time), that's OK. There's real fulfillment in this work.

• IndustryScientist says:

Dev -

are you saying that the responsible and more well-rounded scientist needs to be in industry?

Not at all. There are many good academic scientists. What I'm saying is that the work/life balance is so much better for an RA in industry right now than for an academic postdoc. Thus there's really no incentive into entering into an academic PhD program, since you can do good, fun science AND earn a reasonable salary in industry so much easier than in academia. And you don't need the 10 years of training on top of that.

Does industry fund the schools for education/training for that line of work?

Of course not. But what I'm saying is the system of training in academia has no endpoint; postdocs are stuck in training, working long hours and earning no money because there are no jobs for them. So in that regard, why even enter into it in the first place? There's no incentive there and the opportunity cost of doing so is ridiculously high.

• miko says:

" Having grown up in an academic family I have a fairly good idea of what was then and what is now."

Word. My dad was begged to take his first TT job with 1 paper and a 2 year postdoc. He got tenure without applying for it 4 years later in a political trade on the college P&T committee.

• drugmonkey says:

"political trade"? as in "I'll vote for your tenure candidate if we put....ummm, this dude.....up immediately"?

• Dev says:

Thanks industry scientist, and that is a good solution for at least a part of the population. I agree with that in terms of money and other social benefits.

My point is driven at the build up and accumulation of these 'mythical icons' doing not much good at the end of the run for the bulk of society. So I question the role in terms of clarifying and hopefully improving it that cluster of society. Because I've seen and heard the same from good academia people, though not famous. And I bet that if that unnecessary pressure is lifted good things will happen.

But the point of money/resources relative to education and application success remains------->economic system

• miko says:

@DM: precisely

• If there is "no incentive" to enter academic science, then why are so many clamoring to do so?

• IndustryScientist says:

Because they falsely believe they will have no problems getting a job when they finish and have no idea what they're going to be put through to get there. In other words, most really don't have a clue until they're already in too deep to drop out.

Thus the need for better education of job prospects for grad students and the need for graduate programs to track where their students end up and make that information publicly available to all future applicants. This will certainly decrease the number of applicants once they realize exactly what their job prospects are once they reach the (perpetual) postdoc stage.

• FunkDoctorX says:

@CPP - IndustryScientist is right on with his comment. Incoming PhD students don't have a clue as to what they're getting themselves into. The problem lies, partly, in how science is taught at the undergraduate level. There is no instruction as to how science actually works with respect to either the process of scientific discovery or as a vocation. It's just textbook example BS.

Picking up on another thread in this post about how much more difficult it is now to get a TT job than it was even 10 years ago, it fucking grinds my gears (Peter Griffin style) to hear these senior profs hammer their trainees about being in the lab all the time so they can publish in high profile journals to increase their own prestige. Most of these big wigs that came into academia in the 70's and 80's probably worked 30 hours a week. At least that's the only way I can figure out how they had only 4 or 5 publications from a PhD and a couple years of being a postdoc.

Bloody hypocrites...

• People have been complaining for fucken *decades* that incoming grad students are grossly afflicted with false consciousness and if only they knew the real truth, they would never enter graduate school. There is a huge amount of information *everywhere* about the future job prospect statistics, and for the last fifteen+ years can be obtained with the most cursory searching of the Internet. And yet really bright, really ambitious students keep applying to graduate school.

Occams's Razor leads to the conclusion that these students are not grossly ignorant and deluded, but rather they have weighed the risks and benefits and have decided to attend graduate school in light of that weighing.

• IndustryScientist says:

Um, no.

Have you even read any of the recent articles published on PhD job prospects and the overproduction of PhDs in recent years? Have you paid attention to the Sally Rockey of the NIH saying how "surprised" she was at the number of PhDs not ending up in academia? Have you looked at any of the discussion on how graduate schools aren't required to keep track of where their students end up?

All of these things are available with the most cursory searching on the internet. Occams's Razor leads to the conclusion that you really have no idea what you're talking about.

• bill says:

There is a huge amount of information *everywhere* about the future job prospect statistics, and for the last fifteen+ years can be obtained with the most cursory searching of the Internet.

So it should be no trouble at all for you to provide a metric fucketonne of links to back this up, right?

I do think there's more information around than ever, and that discussions like this one are becoming more common and visible (and that these are Good Things). I don't think it's as cut-and-dried as you make it sound, especially on your "15+ years" timetable. Fifteen years ago I was starting my first postdoc, and there was fuck-all information to be had and fuck-all discussion of issues like job prospects and alternative careers. "Alternative careers" wasn't even a thing -- there were no fucken alternative careers, if you didn't want to be an academic PI what the fucke were you doing wasting everyone's time and taking up a spot in grad school? That attitude, which is toxic and stupid, is still very much with us today.

• FlyoverProf says:

There were lots of people writing about the 'problems' of the the current system long before the NIH budget doubling. It wasn't hidden. Here is something I recall reading as an undergrad:
http://www.marshall.org/article.php?id=16

"I must stress once again that the institutions of science - the scientific societies, universities, funding agencies, journals and every part of the structure of the way that we do science - all evolved during the period of exponential growth. These institutions are optimized for exponential growth, but are poorly suited for a future which is, at best, in a steady state, since we do not know how to run a steady state of science."

• WS says:

"There is a huge amount of information *everywhere* about the future job prospect statistics, and for the last fifteen+ years can be obtained with the most cursory searching of the Internet."
Comrade, I have to agree with the consensus here. The information, let alone a huge amount of information, about job prospects is not there. Young people enter science with the naive belief that a reasonable job awaits at the end of there 10+ year effort. Very few people would sacrifice one-fourth of their productive-working life time otherwise. I certainly would not have. At this point, if I can retire by the time I am 70, I will consider myself fortunate. And the only reason I can retire that early is because my wife (also a Ph.D.) also managed to find a modest-salary job. If you can site the huge amount of information, I welcome it. I have been looking for a way to expose this NIH-sponsored scheme for quite a while. My simple question is this: what fraction of "biomedical" Ph.D.s find employment IN SCIENCE beyond the level of a postdoc? In this category, I would include academic P.I.'s, Industry scientists, most journal editors, and possibly a variety of government jobs. However, I do not include the countless postdocs who have been "transitioned" into permanent positions, which are nothing more than permanent postdoc positions disguised under a variety of clever titles. Those positions rarely, if ever, involve any increase in salary or benefits. They are merely a not-so-clever way the NIH has managed to conceal the permanent postdoc problem. If I had to venture a guess at that number, it would be 30% and almost certainly less than 50%. Does anyone else have a guess?

• Virgil says:

@DM, IS, Dev et al. I guess everything is relative.
I too grew up in an academic family, one in which my long "retired" father still marks exam papers to make ends meet, and the folks still have a mortgage so will either have to move soon or win the lottery before they die. A family in which we moved house 5 times during my school years so Dad could follow the work. During grad school I waited tables and worked telemarketing lines at night, and worked as a frickin' security guard on building sites on weekends, so I could make rent and write my thesis during the day (stipend was cut off after 3 years, standard pactice in the country I was trained in). I got my first car after a year of being a post-doc, got my first house after getting a TT faculty position. Did 7 years combined post-doc and bridge positions, and published 25 papers during that time because thats what I was told it takes to make it. Then, a month ago as a "senior" investigator (10 years into this faculty game and thus no longer "early stage", even though I have another 25 years before I can retire), my grant got shit-canned by NIH. Oh, and there's the 2 kids to think of, and the wife who's a post-doc too, so no savior partner salary there.

So, yeah, color me a little bit cynical when I look around and see early 30s post-docs with 5 years under their belt and 10 papers (maybe one or two in a glamor mag), driving around in new cars, whining about how long its taking them to land a TT position. As comrade physioproffe (IIRC) put it best.... Cry me a fucken river! As Dev questions... "do you have to be poor and live in a dump?" Err, no, but it's a good start if you expect to make a career out of this academia lark!

But hey, we weren't gonna mention walking uphill to work thru'snow both ways (except to say that ignoring context is a huge failure when trying to understand others). You (DM) were mentioning a whole bunch of numbers regarding loss of pension plans, failure of faculty salaries to keep track with inflation, having both partners in a relationship have to work full time to make ends meet... WTF. That's not unique to academia, it's reality for everyone. Talk to a GM employee if you want to whine about pensions. Faculty have never historically lived in expensive parts of town. More dual income families exist at every level of the economy, not just academics. Planting the blame for crappy faculty career conditions on anything other than a crappy economy, is midguided.

In summary, being in academia has always been shit. It has forever meant that you have to live in crappy places, live in crappy housing, drive crappy cars, put off having kids, and sacrifice all kinds of other niceties afforded to those with less scruples (aka your classmates who went into banking). Get over it. Yes there are some (the academic 1 percenters) who can buck the trend, but for us mere mortals its a fucking hard slog that will probably send us to an early grave. You still want in? Fine, but please stop the incessant whining about how the folks who got in before you had it so much easier!

FFS, my post-doc last week asked for a fucken recommendation for a cleaner. A fucken cleaner, for their house!! WTF?!! Be honest people, when was the last time, dear reader, you held a frickin' toilet brush in your hands? If the answer is anything more than last week, You have no right to complain about academic salaries!

As has been spoken elsewhere (by whom I cannot recall)... "as long as the poor drive to work and are obese, we have a pretty long way to fall until we realize the true meaning of poverty in the US".

• Dev says:

To alleviate poverty the conomic system needs analysis, and fast, because it does not work anymore no matter what and there's plenty of good suggestion throughout the web. Also reverse the trend in values and ethics for society.

It's weird that with so much knowledge, talent, drive, and skill in science and innovation we actually see a worsening trend in work and social benefits. That is a huge red flag. of

Oh well, I know I've done my part.

• IndustryScientist says:

Virgil

1) The job market of today does not equal the job market of past decades. The PhD glut from 10 years ago has flooded the market with applicants. In addition, we have virtually no academic positions available, very few grants being funded and the downsizing of R&D by industry. Thus we have a great increase in PhD supply and greatly reduced demand. This job market is far worse than anything you or your family have ever experienced.

2) The fact you think the current system is somehow acceptable because "it's how it's always been done" is ridiculous. You admit the system is broken, but because you went through it, everyone else should too. Well, sucks to be you, but at least you did get a TT position out of it. That reward basically doesn't exist anymore for the great majority of PhDs today.

3) Postdoc salaries have not kept up with inflation. $39K in expensive urban areas (where most of the top universities are located) barely allow one to afford rent and food and most have to take out loans to supplement their basic living expenses (as I and most of my fellow students did). I actually escaped the system, have a very good industry job and was able to remain in science. But I was one of the few lucky ones from my class, most of whom are still stuck in postdocs or have left science entirely. And before this job happened to come along, I had started looking for jobs outside of science myself because I needed to support my family. And I can't in good conscience tell young RAs at my company, all of whom are very good bench scientists, to go get a PhD because I'm unwilling to sell them out into the same system of slave labor that I barely escaped, especially when all of these kids earn more than a postdoc without the 10 years of training. "Get over it" simply doesn't fly anymore - if the system doesn't change, it's going to collapse. And given the recent spate of articles on the subject, it looks like the media and the NIH are finally starting to realize this. • becca says: Virgil- if you're going to look at things that way, you didn't have to walk up hill both ways because your PhD didn't have to take 6 years before anyone started to consider that you might have done enough (irrespective of publishing history). This is the norm in this country, and it has profound implications for retirement savings (if you start saving for retirement at 28 instead of 25, you need to put away about 25% more over your entire working life- this is what is meant by "opportunity cost", and it is NOT equal for everybody who gets a PhD). Yes, everybody has certain aspects very tough, and that has always been the case. That does not mean that some of these problems can't be ameliorated, if not totally fixed. You are right that the economy is crappy... but you are wrong that that is the ONLY factor at work here that is different for this generation of biomedical researchers. The adjunctification/deprofessionalization of the academic labor force generally predates the current economic downturn. Everybody (including industry) uses more temp labor than they used to. Using PhDs as temp labor (with only a very small minority of more stable jobs) is a big-picture trend going on here, perma-docs are a symptom not the end-all-be-all. • rs says: "People have been complaining for fucken *decades* that incoming grad students are grossly afflicted with false consciousness and if only they knew the real truth, they would never enter graduate school." CPP: These are bright eyed kids who have been praised all their school life for being good in academics. They were probably one of the best in their school. They enjoyed being academically challenged, and even with all the information available, they are naive in young age and don't want to think that they might need money for mortgage, for kids education, for retirement, for food etc etc. They have been good at academics, so they don't know why it can not work for them in the long run. You can say that our whole current education system right from kindergarten is designed for being a university professor as Sir Ken Robinson said on his 2006 TED talk. Graduate school and post-doc positions traps these people and in no way it will reduce, because there really are many bright kids all around the globe. Add in this factor, the lure of getting degree from an america university vs one of the university in their home country which is even more poorly paid and has poor infrastructure, it can multiplied by a factor very easily. They have no idea (sometime for many years) that they are being used as a slave. Since they have already is in trap after putting years or because visa is not flexible, its not easy for them get out as well. They have no comparison about local compensation for simple jobs until they spend few years in country and make some friends outside of academia. This is then they either go into "do or die" attitude (meaning forgoing all their other life), or get disillusioned or frustrated, but by that time many years have passed and more such naive youngsters have joined the game. Yes, you can say that its ok to exploit the people since they came asking for it in the first place, but I think this is not good for science as well, so the whole system need a big overhaul. • miko says: I don't know where Virgil grew up, but given the second half of the twentieth century's economic expansion and property value trends, you would have to have seriously mismanaged your shit to be struggling if you worked full time in a professional field (including academia) all those decades. That was a period of growth and increase in real estate and equity value that we will literally never happen again. I just sold my parent's house for over 10 times what they paid for it in 1969, when they were both still under 30 and my dad started his TT job. That will never happen again. My mom did not work until all three of us were in junior high. No family could get away with that today. We were not rich but we went on vacations and owned 2 cars and a even a lake cottage (now worth 20x what was paid for it in 1983 -- never again). Completely unthinkable for my wife and I, both nearing 40 with no kids. That world no longer exists, Virgil, BUT IT DID. Today is not like the past, but in our parents' generation it was the norm for educated professionals. Sure, maybe not everyone, but we do not compare by anecdote, we compare by TRENDS IN THE DATA. My parents' experience of late-20th century family life of educated professionals is far more representative than what you describe. You're fucking delusional if you think a significant number of postdocs own new cars or hire house cleaners. Pull your head out of your ass. • Spiny Norman says: "$39K in expensive urban areas (where most of the top universities are located) barely allow one to afford rent and food and most have to take out loans to supplement their basic living expenses (as I and most of my fellow students did)."

Well maybe people should fucken take that into account when they select grad programs or postdoc positions. Some good universities are indeed in expensive urban areas. But there is a shit ton of great universities and labs in flyover country and various other places that are not NY/BOS/SF, where the cost of living is lower and the quality of life is excellent. Don't blame others if you're too stupid to take cost of living and known, published salaries and stipends into account when choosing where to get your training.

• IndustryScientist says:

Spiny

First of all, pedigree matters when it comes to getting a job in this economy. Sorry, but a postdoc from Idaho State simply isn't going to get considered when up against a postdoc from Harvard or Columbia.

Secondly, many postdocs have families and/or significant others with careers and can't afford or are unable to move to other areas of the country.

Thirdly, you can hardly place the blame for the inequity of stipends across the country on the choices of students. Your attitude that all the "smart" students should only go to grad school in areas of the country where the cost of living is more affordable is laughable. Yes, there are so many dumb, foolish students at Harvard and UCLA who should have chosen Midwest State U. instead because the rent is lower. Do you realize just how ridiculous that sounds?

• Spiny Norman says:

Industry Scientist: I was not talking about Idaho State.

This may be hard for you to believe, but there are plenty of elite schools, programs, and labs in places that are less expensive to live in. Places where one can train in HHMI labs with PI's who are in the National Academy. Even with Nobel and Lasker laureates.

If people want to live reasonably well during training, and are too stupid to find those places, whose fault is that?

"Your attitude that all the "smart" students should only go to grad school in areas of the country where the cost of living is more affordable is laughable."

"Should only go to" is not remotely equivalent to "take into account" (what I wrote). You have a reading comprehension problem.

• Spiny Norman says:

...and for the record the majority of my many friends who went to Harvard/MIT for grad work flamed out. >75% of my grad class in a good state university in a less expensive town with a terrific grad program are tenured or tenure-track, some of us at elite universities, have current NIH funding, etc. The Harvard/MIT kids generally wondered WTF happened. They'd thought, like a sorry number people in this thread do, that having a big red H stamped on their ass was worth a shitload more than it's actually worth.

There is more than one form of pedigree, and the obvious path is not necessarily the smart path.

• IndustryScientist says:

Spiny

Your attitude is laughable. Just because students take it into account does not mean they are able to act upon it. Moving to an affordable area of the country is out of the question for many graduate students and postdocs.

Grad school is not equal to college. I would recommend to any college student to choose cost over location and pedigree because 1) college is only four years and they typically return home for the summer 2) most college students do not have families to support.

Grad school applicants typically will be forced to move to wherever they attend school, pay for rent and living expenses themselves and some have family considerations. Postdocs are in an even worse state since they are older and typically more immobile because of their living situation. Plus since there's no definite endpoint for a postdoctoral fellowship, that uncertainty further makes moving an impossibility for many. The fact a postdoc in Boston gets paid the same as a postdoc in Nebraska is simply ridiculous.

If all postdocs could simply pack up and move to the middle of the country where it's more affordable, they would. But they can't and the ones who are on the coasts get penalized for this. And the fact you fail to recognize this is laughable, indeed.

• drugmonkey says:

Should the NIH cap on faculty salary *also* be adjusted depending on whether they work in Nebraska or Boston?

• Spiny Norman says:

The scientific (and more broadly, academic) life has, for most people, always been nomadic. This is not new. Nearly everyone I know who's gone the graduate education route had to move hundreds or thousands of miles for grad school and/or postdoc and/or later jobs, me included. That has *always* been one of the strengths and weaknesses of the game.

---

"Grad school applicants typically will be forced to move to wherever they attend school, pay for rent and living expenses themselves and some have family considerations. "

Grad school applicants are not "forced" to do anything. They make choices.

"Plus since there's no definite endpoint for a postdoctoral fellowship, that uncertainty further makes moving an impossibility for many."

Again, this is a longstanding feature of academic science and MANY other fields. It is not news.

"If all postdocs could simply pack up and move to the middle of the country where it's more affordable, they would. But they can't and the ones who are on the coasts get penalized for this."

Call the waahmbulance. This is real life. You don't always get to live where you want to live in academia or most other fields, and some places are more expensive than others. Boston is not so far from Philadelpia, and Harvard is not better in any meaningful way than U. Pennsylvania. You do not have a right to be subsidized by NIH simply because you would personally prefer to live in Brookline or Noe Valley. And if you do want to live in those places, you must prepare to make the requisite trade-offs.

Where I think a lot of people err is in thinking that one needs to be trained in SF/NY/BOS to be competitive. It simply isn't so.

• Just because students take it into account does not mean they are able to act upon it.

Dude, you're a fucken wackaloon nutter if you really believe that the rest of the US (or world, for that matter) labor economy is all fucken unicorns and rainbows and academic science is some kind of uniquely exploitative hellhole. People choose to go to graduate school because if you succeed at the outcome of becoming a self-sustaining federally funded PI, you get paid to have a really fucken awesome time. And if you don't, you have gotten paid to receive an amazing education and obtain skills that are highly valued in a variety of professional contexts.

You seem to think that only *you* can see things clearly, and everyone else is either delusional or nefarious.

• Spiny Norman says:

Word.

• miko says:

"Should the NIH cap on faculty salary *also* be adjusted depending on whether they work in Nebraska or Boston?"

I don't know why this would even be controversial. Almost every employer in the world adjusts salaries for living expenses and other cost/benefit considerations. Many jobs pay more in places like Nebraska because it is harder to recruit. Many, like academia, can pay less because the jobs are scarce and living costs are low.

I have no fucking clue what any of this salary nonsense has to do with the oversupply/pipeline problem.

• neuromusic says:

People choose to go to graduate school because if you succeed at the outcome of becoming a self-sustaining federally funded PI, you get paid to have a really fucken awesome time. And if you don't, you have gotten paid to receive an amazing education and obtain skills that are highly valued in a variety of professional contexts.

Bingo. This is why I've chosen to be here.

• IndustryScientist says:

Should the NIH cap on faculty salary *also* be adjusted depending on whether they work in Nebraska or Boston?

Sure, though at least faculty can make a living wage. Adjusting postdoc stipends based on cost of living in an area would be easy since it's a zero-sum game. Lower the stipends in places that have low cost of living and raise them accordingly where they are needed.

I have no fucking clue what any of this salary nonsense has to do with the oversupply/pipeline problem.

Exactly. In my initial comment I was talking about how postdocs on the coast had it harder than most postdocs, but all postdocs have to contend with entering into a postdoctoral fellowship where you make $39K with no benefits for a 60+ hour work week with no defined endpoint and very low job prospects. I love science and ended up with a great job, but I was very, very fortunate to do so and the road I took to get here I wouldn't wish on anyone. Anyone that says suck it up, this is science and this is the way it was always done, I say times (and the job market) have changed to the point where the system is now unsustainable. And as far as student choices go, sure I chose to go to graduate school. But that was after three years as research tech where all the PIs told me to go because it was such a wonderful experience and I can have a great academic research life afterward. That was before the PhD glut appeared. But I still frequently hear PIs saying the same thing to undergraduates today - there's no acknowledgement in academia of the reality of today's job market. But this is a bubble that's eventually going to burst because there are only so many postdocs and research assistant professor (i.e. really senior postdoc) positions to go around. And industry sadly doesn't look like it will be able to soak up the excess anymore. • drugmonkey says: Lower the stipends in places that have low cost of living HAHAHAHAHAHAA Oh, this is going to go over gangbusters. • Spiny Norman says: Can't speak for others but when I entered grad school in the mid-90s all the news articles in Science an Nature were about the hopeless job situation and the lack of TT positions etc (remember this was before the NIH doubling). I entered grad school assuming that I would have to change jobs and that I would not have an automatic position in academia or industry. So why'd I go? Because I loved research and getting paid a subsistence wage to do it -- even if I had to change careers after 7 or 10 years -- struck me as an almost unimaginably cool opportunity. This careerist notion that there is or should be a job pipeline... well, maybe it hasn't always been obviously wrong, but it's certainly been obviously wrong since the mid-90s when I got into the game. As for telling undergrads and grad students, I warn them all that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This notion that all of us professors are telling our students that there are jobs-a-plenty if they'll only sign up for grad school -- well, that's just unmitigated bullshit. I certainly don't say it and I can't think of anyone who does. I tell them that they will need pluck and a whole lot of luck and I'll do my best to prepare them, but there are no guarantees and it's pretty dire out there. Full fucking disclosure. And yet I still have more good applicants to the lab than I can afford to hire. Go figure. Maybe there's more to life -- and science -- than raw careerism. • IndustryScientist says: Yes, well, I didn't say it was going to happen. And realistically lowering any postdoc salary is a bad thing at this point. But I am surprised cost of living isn't factored into postdoc salaries at all when (IIRC) it is factored into graduate student stipends (or at least I believe it was when I entered graduate school). And I will also say that the particular university where I did my postdoc also screwed us over by not putting us on payroll. Thus I didn't receive a W2 at the end of the year, I received a 1099 and had to pay quarterly taxes. But this screws you over since you essentially have to pay double the Medicare/SS taxes throughout (since your employer usually kicks in half, but if they don't you have to pay it out of your own pocket). We were slaughtered on taxes throughout my postdoc. Kind of curious as to whether this is a universal thing with postdocs or simply something done at that particular institution. • Spiny Norman says: I always got a W2, when I was on a private fellowship, when I was on my PI's RO-1, and when I was on a T32. • IndustryScientist says: Oh, and Spiny - If that's what you tell your students and they're all gangbusters to get a degree, good for you and your students. Obviously we've had two very different experiences in academia. I didn't go into science because I expected to be handed a job on a silver platter, I entered it because I loved doing experiments and I worked exceptionally hard throughout my graduate career to give myself the best chance of getting a position when I was done. But that love of science didn't supercede my desire to get married, have children and be able to support them. And by the end of my postdoc, before this current job miraculously fell into my lap, I was about to abandon science entirely so I could find any higher paying job so I could pay the bills and have a reasonably normal life. This isn't careerism I'm talking about here. It's simply the desire to have a normal paying job, with normal wages that allow you to pay your bills and have the time to enjoy your family outside of the lab. My contention it is very difficult to do this as a postdoc in the current system. Maybe your postdocs have a very different experience, but I know plenty of my colleagues who are not as fortunate as I am. • lee says: Industry Scientist: It is my impression that paying trainees without withholding taxes FICA etc is correct in certain situations. Jeremy Berg alluded to this when he stated the following above: "This leads to issues such as the fact that two postdocs in the same lab, one paid by an NIH fellowship and one paid of a research grant, are treated quite differently from an employment perspective." • whimple says: CPP: People choose to go to graduate school because if you succeed at the outcome of becoming a self-sustaining federally funded PI, you get paid to have a really fucken awesome time. And if you don't, you have gotten paid to receive an amazing education and obtain skills that are highly valued in a variety of professional contexts. You kind of left that whole post-doc thing out of the analysis. If the deal was go to grad school and then either head off into your self-sustaining federally funded PI gig, or head off to be highly valued in a different professional context, then it's all good. HOWEVER, the actual deal is: go to grad school, then wait in a low-value netherworld context for an arbitrarily long period of time. As an aside, since we've put rainbow/pony-land on the table, I wonder what fraction of PIs do in fact have self-sustaining federal funding for the entire duration of their PI careers. Once upon a time we used to have this thing called "bridge funding", but that largely became a bridge to nowhere, and subsequently dried up. • IndustryScientist says: Lee, Spiny - Re: taxes. I think I started out on an NIH training grant. But after a year and a half, I was granted a two-year fellowship from a certain non-profit research institution which covered my salary for the latter part of my tenure, but getting that award didn't change my tax status at all. Figured it probably had to do with where the funds came from. It really makes a enormous difference in the amount of take home pay you receive and it's one of the reasons I was so desperate to find another position by the end of my time there. • MediumPriority4Life says: Have to say im with CPP and Spiny here. I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started grad school in 2000 - PhDs told me not to do it (was warned). Told me not to marry another grad student (I did not listen). I came from the 5th best public university in my state as and undergraduate (not a child prodigy by any means), went to a strong public university for grad school but did thesis in a small lab. Got known for working hard, wrote papers. I knew early on in grad school that I would make it. Lot of students were smarter than me and came from better universities, but they could not work hard - but thought they were. Each day I finished several more experiments, over the course of 5 years that adds up. I went to big time lab as a post doc with my reputation as one who works very hard. In this lab I never had a discussion with the 10 other post docs I overlapped with about not getting paid enough. Most of us had families too. We all just wanted to do science and felt lucky to go to work each day with the hope of discovery. It was an awesome time. *** I had two kids and was the sole bread winner in my family. Owned a house. This is not possible for everyone, but it is not impossible though . I saved a lot of money as a grad student cause I ate P&J every day for lunch. ***** Got a tenure track job in 2009 after 4.5 years as a post doc, at a mid size school, in the down market of that year and I am doing ok three years in. Got some good grant money, lab growing, I can even teach now. You don't have to come from the right pedigree to make it, you just may have to work harder - not something limited to science by any means. So from my perspective, I knew it was going to be a hard road to succeed at the beginning. I did not care, and it worked out for me. I know it is just one story, and others have not had the same success I have had. But I do know several others who have also landed good jobs. I also know that in the past my credentials would have put me in a big university with a bigger start up package with more grant money rolling in. But as someone who takes their kids to school in a blue collar neighborhood, I see the hardships other families are having. So it is hard to think I deserve more, as I lived better as a postdoc and am doing even better now. Now I mentor PhD students. I tell them from the beginning that a hard road awaits them if they want to be a PI, but if they enjoy the lab life than go for it. Thought I would share, • whimple says: Do you tell them they need to be better than you were or they won't "make it"? You should be able to tell which (if any) fit this category. Do you tell the others to go home? • drugmonkey says: Do you tell them they need to be better than you were or they won't "make it"? I don't do this. What use would it serve? They won't believe any stories I tell of my training history, not really. And who's to say our retrospective is accurate in the least? You should be able to tell which (if any) fit this category. Ye-es. Sort of. And yet part of my history is that I worked a lot harder as junior faculty than I ever had before. A LOT. Do you tell the others to go home? Nope. Why should I? I am here to train them, not to screen them. 🙂 • MediumPriority4Life says: I am real honest, I tell them judgement day is coming - be ready. Be suspicious of idle time. I tell them they need to get better every year at their trade or its over. As for telling them they need to be better than me - I'm 36 and in my prime. Myself at 25 could not compete with me now - i'm too efficient and I know how far I can push myself, they don't. They know I how long I work, so they are always thinking "do I really want to do that". Some will decide no, some wont. The good ones get better each year and I think to myself - that one has a chance! I know I am better than my undergrad and PhD advisor at research. I worked harder, wanted it more - it is what it is. I wont be better than my post doc mentor cause this person is a driven superstar. But I'll try. My students though are getting pearls of wisdom that I learned when I was 25-33 when they are 21-24. If they want to be better than me and willing to work for it, they can do it. I stand with CPP with this comment "People choose to go to graduate school because if you succeed at the outcome of becoming a self-sustaining federally funded PI, you get paid to have a really fucken awesome time. And if you don't, you have gotten paid to receive an amazing education and obtain skills that are highly valued in a variety of professional contexts." I loved being a grad student. I was poor, but I shared some great years with interesting people. Same thing as a postdoc. There are a lot of clues along the way at whether you will make it or not. I know pretty quickly when I meet someone who will out achieve me and I know who I will out achieve - and I am not the most perceptive person. • JaySeeDub says: ...is it wrong that I was reading this while making reservations at Morimoto's Napa restaurant? • IndustryScientist says: I disagree that getting a PhD trains you for a variety of things. Most people don't spend ten years training in science to become a consultant, science writer or sales rep (as many colleagues I know ended up) nor do you train to become a perpetual postdoc either. It trains you for being a scientist and if the scientist jobs aren't there and you aren't able to get one - well, it feels like you wasted a decade of your life. I will say though that doing a postdoc does prepare you well for working in industry - you're used to long hours so the workload doesn't phase you at all. But instead of writing papers and grants, you're designing and conducting experiments, writing protocols and making data presentations. Plus the support staff is so much better and everything is streamlined for efficiency. Since you have constant deadlines, you generate a ton of data and are able to work on many interesting projects simultaneously (we do a full characterization of two novel knockout mice per week... yes, per week). I've learned more in the year I spent here than in the three and half I spent at my postdoc. It's an amazing environment to do science and I feel incredibly fortunate I have my current position. Problem is, industry Scientist positions are just as difficult to obtain as faculty positions are nowadays - only 17% of our company has a PhD and since I joined we've only hired one other scientist and it was to replace someone else who left. It's much easier to get an RA position (with little or no experience) than it is to get on a Scientist track. And thus, that's why I hesitate in advocating graduate school to my RAs - you have a better chance of getting an industry job with a BS in Bio (and little to no experience) than you do with a PhD. And that industry job pays more than a postdoc. I'm as competitive as the next person - I applied to positions constantly for two years until I got this one. I appreciate all that graduate school prepared me for. But I'm also a realist - since the odds these days of getting a good scientist job with a science PhD are so low, I really feel I can't advocate the path I took to any of the kids I see, especially when they already have a good job doing science. Indeed, many of the RAs in my group are just as good if not better technically than many postdocs I know. Perhaps some would succeed, perhaps some would love the lifestyle. But I'd feel incredibly guilty if one came to me ten years from now desperately looking for a job and I had to turn them away because we had no openings. And given the job market, odds are fairly high that would happen. So I'm brutally honest to them - on the hours, on the pay, on the lifestyle and on their odds of getting a good job when they finish. • Spiny Norman says: " It trains you for being a scientist and if the scientist jobs aren't there and you aren't able to get one - well, it feels like you wasted a decade of your life." If I had stopped doing science the day I walked out of my grad school laboratory, I would still have made at least one significant scientific discovery — learned something amazing that no one had ever known before. There are not a lot of things in this world that I'd trade for that experience. That's the thing. On its own terms, grad school was worthwhile, and I got paid to do it. That's the potatoes. Any additional rewards are gravy. • Alex says: I would still have made at least one significant scientific discovery — learned something amazing that no one had ever known before. There are not a lot of things in this world that I'd trade for that experience. That's the thing. On its own terms, grad school was worthwhile, and I got paid to do it. This. I tell students that I make zero promises about their careers after grad school. The only thing I promise them is that if they do things right in grad school, they will learn something that nobody has ever known before, and they will learn how to learn things that nobody has ever known before. I don't promise them that this will take them anywhere afterward, just that they will be able to say that they did that. • And yet part of my history is that I worked a lot harder as junior faculty than I ever had before. A LOT. Interesting. The hardest I ever worked as a scientist was as a post-doc. BY FAR. IndustryScientist: I think we get the picture by now. You didn't like your mentors, you didn't like your institutions, you hate paying taxes, and you think you are entitled to make a lot more money than the median income for all individuals in all jobs and professions in the US just because you are a scientist with a wife and kids and want to live in a particular location. Now that you have lucked out and got a jobbe that you like better, you want to convince everyone else how horrible their choices were. And by the way, you have presented *ZERO* evidence that you would have ever got this jobbe you now think is the bees knees without having all of the pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training experiences that you currently deride. • Oh, and by "hardest" I mean "hours spent on specific job-related tasks". I'm not including coming up with brilliant ideas while I watch my chauffeur polish the Bentley. • WS says: Spiny and CPP4Life, You and your students are exactly the type of people who should be going into science, since you are apparently happy to practice science regardless of the conditions under which you might have to live. However, most people don't have that attitude. I would argue, and I think most people in this blog agree, there currently is not full disclosure for prospective grad students. If there were, the Ph.D. overproduction problem would be solved, because I think few people would be willing to devote 10+ years of their life to grad school and postdoctoral work with only a 30% chance of finding reasonable work thereafter. Of course, a new problem would result, namely, the cheap labor source for most current labs would dry up. In that case, the NIH would be forced to develop a new and sustainable science model. • MediumPriority4Life says: WS, My students know the situation and come to work anyways. Perhaps there is not full disclosure, but people seem like suckers if they cant figure out the situation early on (*). I ate wings and played trivia regularly with post docs and older grad students during my time. Don't you think people talk candid about the deal when enjoying beers? I know my current students have these talks with their peers often. * I advise premed students and many have this sucker phenotype as they still think they will get into medical school even though their grades rule this possibility out. • MedChemDoc says: I have been reading with much interest the discussions going on here. I have a few comments that I would like to add to the mix. 1. The discussion regarding jobs is imprecise; there are fewer jobs in the US (4% unemployment rate is pretty good), but tons in China and India. Degrees from the US are very sought after in those markets and thus there will always be students wanting to come to the US to get their degree. Thus, as was mentioned before, graduate education is not a closed system. Many of the people that I have trained have indicated that they will move back "home" to get a good job. We can argue about immigration and the use of taxpayers dollars to fund our competitors, but right now, there is nothing that prevents paying foreign students and postdocs on grants. 2. I have little sympathy for people that say they didn't know the challenges before entering graduate school. You want to be a researcher and yet you apparently will not research something that will affect the next 50 years of your life? Makes no sense to me. Extensive research, however, is useless. As was mentioned by Dr. Berg, NO ONE knows what will happen in the 10 years your training will take. I can just as easily imagine comments along the lines of "Dr. Greybeard told me that Bunny Hopping was a bad area of research in 2012, but look at all of the ads for Bunny Hoppers in 2016? Why were they actively trying to keep me out of that area? I could have made$200,000 researching my first love of Bunnys if it wasn't for that awful advice!" Simply put, I tell everyone that I don't know what will happen in 3-10 years from now, so you should study what you are most interested in doing. Trying to game the system just asks for failure.

3. Science is no different than many other professions including classical musicians, baseball players, etc. There are huge opportunity costs in all these professions as only a few people will get the opportunity to actually do what they are trained to do. All of these professions are dependent upon market forces and the number of opportunities available. Almost every study of these professions have said that the opportunity costs are very bad, but people still want to try.

4. I can think of lots of ways to significantly reduce the number of trainees into the system (have NIH no longer pay soft money salaries, NIH no longer pays for any trainees, NIH only pays for US trainees, remove stipends and tuition for all PhD students, etc.). However, none of these will change the basic business climate and magically create jobs. In my own state, Pfizer bought the two pharma companies and closed them down. When I entered graduate school, there were lots of jobs. Not any more. Do you think that Pfizer et al. would change this policy if there were less scientists? No, it would get worse because the few scientists would ask for higher salaries, which would drive jobs away. I think that what we are experiencing is simply globalization and it aint going away.

5. No one has really mentioned something that I think is the most important, namely, freedom to decide what you want to do. If you have the aptitude and drive to do something, does anyone really believe that there should be a group telling you "No, we already have too many scientists. I don't care if you are a genius and split the atom with you Fisher Price toys, you'll have to wait until all the other scientists are employed before we will train you?" This goes against my "American" beliefs.

6. Finally, ALL education is an opportunity. It is not a job granter. All it does is provide you with the opportunity to make of it what you will. No one can make you study, work hard, etc. Its all up to you. What you are purchasing (or in the case of a science PhD, given) is the opportunity to try.

• drugmonkey says:

WS:
Re: "full disclosure.
It is more complicated. Grad students think they are the shit and the Odds don't apply to them. They sometimes listen but don't *hear*. They observe but can't *see*.

I was certainly such a person, for far too many years into my training for this career. Yes, programs and mentors can always stand to improve but there is a certain base optimism that will never disappear.

Also- many people convert from the "I do it b/c I love the work and learning" phenotype to the disgruntled phenotype along the way...

• drugmonkey says:

Word, MadChemDoc. Word the fuck up.

• Science is no different than many other professions including classical musicians, baseball players, etc. There are huge opportunity costs in all these professions as only a few people will get the opportunity to actually do what they are trained to do. All of these professions are dependent upon market forces and the number of opportunities available. Almost every study of these professions have said that the opportunity costs are very bad, but people still want to try.

I've been saying this for fucken years, and every time I do, I get shouted at by shrieking hordes of disgruntled bitter people like Industry Scientist (who, by the way, still has not explained how he would have totally still obtained his totes awesum industry jobbe if he didn't subject himself to the slave galleys of grad school and post-doc training). If you want a guarantee of job security and a comfortable life, then become a fucken accountant.

• rs says:

"Science is no different than many other professions including classical musicians, baseball players, etc. There are huge opportunity costs in all these professions as only a few people will get the opportunity to actually do what they are trained to do. All of these professions are dependent upon market forces and the number of opportunities available. Almost every study of these professions have said that the opportunity costs are very bad, but people still want to try."

I disagree. Science is no different than other profession such as doctors, lawyers which need long training and a very specialized talent, and as like medical or law profession, one has a right to expect reasonable compensation with long working hours. It is true, that students don't pay for their degree, but they work as per direction of PI in most cases, and also they generate publications, so they provide some value for the money they recieve. It can be considered as an apprenticeship, but it is still a work. No one has a luxury to think and attempt problem of their choice in biomedical science. You do what your PI is funded to do. One hires post-doc over student if possible, to get benefit of having someone with few years of training, so why not to pay for that experience.

I am generally against any kind of union, but have witnessed first hand abuse of a PI on students and post-docs. Maybe a class action law suit is an answer. Maybe we don't need a PhD degree at all and classify this as a work.

CPP: shouting same thing again and again doesn't make it true for everyone. As with anything else, the problem is multidimensional and there is no single solution which fits for eevryone.

• Isabel says:

". Science is no different than many other professions including classical musicians, baseball players, etc. "

It is very different in that so much of the scientist's long training is funded by taxpayers; we are constantly told that we need more scientists (and we do); and Obama and a million other people aren't out there every day trying to interest kids in classical music or baseball.

The suggestion to limit to US trainees on NIH grants is reasonable. It wouldn't magically create jobs, true, but it would create more jobs for those in this country, funded by the taxpayers (so returning value to the "investors").

• becca says:

"I am generally against any kind of union, but have witnessed first hand abuse of a PI on students and post-docs. Maybe a class action law suit is an answer. "
HA! I just want to comment on how foreign this mentality is to me, although it does make me think.

• Spiny Norman says:

"I would argue, and I think most people in this blog agree, there currently is not full disclosure for prospective grad students. "

I absolutely do NOT agree. That is, in fact: total, unmitigated, infantilizing, take-no-responsibility BULLSHIT.

If a university graduate -- a highly-educated 22-23 year old adult -- accepts admission into a graduate program with at 5.5 year mean time to doctorate, it is THEIR responsibility to give some thought to whether that investment of over half a decade is going to be worth it on their own terms.

Vast troves of quantitative data on graduate education -- salaries and outcomes and qualitative data on specific experiences and personal stories and how the environment has changed over time, etc. -- are only a Google search away, for specific programs and for research in the natural and health sciences more generally.

If someone who is trying to decide whether they should have a life in RESEARCH is too lazy or stupid to do a fucking Google search, and give the results so obtained some serious thought before committing to a major decision about half a decade of his or her own life, whose fault is that?

• miko says:

I'm just going to decide it's yours, Norman, because you're such a douche.

• miko says:

I apologize for being uncivil. It's practically a spinal reflex on this thread at this point.

• Spiny Norman says:

I'm o.k. with that, if only to compensate for the times when I wasn't blamed for something that was my fault.

• lee says:

rs your rebuttal of madchemdoc and CPP sounds very much like an entitlement argument. As in, "I've put all of this time and effort into being a scientist I deserve a position with a wage I deem matches my effort". Look, there is room for failure. Just because you have degree in hand, 60+ hour work weeks behind, and ahead of you, doesn't mean you're entitled to anything. Secondly, whining about a profession that essentially has a 4% unemployment rate with salaries above median income levels seems self-serving to me.

• Spiny Norman says:

"Spiny and CPP4Life, You and your students are exactly the type of people who should be going into science, since you are apparently happy to practice science regardless of the conditions under which you might have to live. "

Not true. See hierarchy of needs, comma, Maslow's.

It's true that a big house and a new car are not major priorities for me. But I was careful. I got paid to go to grad school and emerged with less debt (student loans, credit cards) than when I entered. Of course, as mentioned above I did due diligence and chose a grad school in a town with affordable housing, went without an auto, didn't have cable TV, etc.

Those were conscious choices based on the assumption that there would NOT be a job waiting for me when I was done. That assumption in turn was based on a clear understanding that academic jobs were few and far between, and that I was not special.

I did get the career and the grants (well, some of them), and the tenure. But I have never assumed that these things would happen. In fact, I have pretty much always assumed -- at every stage -- that these things would not happen, and that I'd have to make other plans.

• miko says:

"I did get the career and the grants (well, some of them), and the tenure. But I have never assumed that these things would happen. In fact, I have pretty much always assumed -- at every stage -- that these things would not happen, and that I'd have to make other plans."

If I admit that this is the right attitude and that you did not effortlessly waltz gaily into your first TT job, will you admit that your chances were much better then than they would be today?

It is not to the salary/time/effort that bother me -- my wife and I saved enough money for a downpayment on our house during grad school (atypical circumstances, granted) -- it is the order-of-magnitude increase in the number of postdocs in the last 20 years.

• rs says:

"rs your rebuttal of madchemdoc and CPP sounds very much like an entitlement argument."

try giving this argument to any other professional than the scientists.

Look, its not a question of hours per week put in or degree per say. Scientist are trained with a very definite and interesting skill set, other wise you could hire just about anyone from the street for your lab, so it is painful to see that they are under-valued when it comes to pay them a reasonable salary.

No, don't give job to anyone who you think is not trained or is not as per your expectation, but once you decide to hire someone as a post-doc since he/she is cool, pay them a reasonable salary at least better than the average salary in the university for the support staff. Don't give them bullshit that they are getting recognition in exchange. Many of them will not make it to the TT job, but they will definitely loose years of saving.

• drugmonkey says:

so it is painful to see that they are under-valued when it comes to pay them a reasonable salary.

When, in the course of your training, did you understand what academics were paid relative to their "value"?

Seriously, I want to know.

Because, as I've mentioned, I've been around the academic professions most of my life so I always understood that professors got paid shittily compared to lawyers, physicians, dentists, veterinarians...hell, just about any other brain-work profession.

• rs says:

Were they always paid poorly compared to secretaries, IT professionals, grants managers, or technicians in the university? Post-doc salaries are exactly like this in the current system. I am not talking about TT job (low salary is compensated with life-long job security). Looking at the increase in the age of average first TT job, many people are spending their most productive years as post-docs and as far as I can see they are invaluable in the science machine. It is no secret that most of the work comes out from the hands of post-docs in terms of publication. My point is that post-doc positions should be considered as a normal job within the university and paid accordingly.

"When, in the course of your training, did you understand what academics were paid relative to their "value"?"

I am trying to avoid putting personal stories, so as not to steer away discussion from the point.

• bill says:

I've been around the academic professions most of my life

I wonder if this is what's behind some of our differences. I'm the first in my family to go to grad school and (I think) the second ever to go to college. I had no experience at all with "brainwork", my parents and their friends, and my friends' parents, were all tradesmen and such. I naively absorbed the prevailing lore at college and grad school, namely that you wouldn't get rich but job security wasn't an issue, you could make a steady living working on interesting problems.

The not being rich didn't bother me much, so I happily carried on. What I wish I'd been (a) told upfront in much clearer terms and (b) smarter about finding out for myself, is the lack of job security. (That is: does a career as a professional gambler appeal to you? If not, steer clear of academia.)

• drugmonkey says:

that you wouldn't get rich but job security wasn't an issue, you could make a steady living working on interesting problems.

This was my frame of reference too. It was true for my parents' generation of academics to a much greater degree.

I wish I'd been

I don't think we disagree on this either. I was aware of some things and unaware of others. I saw the profs in undergrad and grad school and how they differed from my childhood frame of reference. Doesn't mean that I fully grasped how things really were.

• drugmonkey says:

I wonder if this is what's behind some of our differences.

I suspect what you see as "differences" are attributable solely to outcome. I did happen to get lucky. I have never tried to describe my "success" on the path as anything other than good fortune that presented itself at the right time. I have very little doubt that I could very easily have been shelled out of this pathway during my postdoctoral years.

• bill says:

True, I give you props for owning the role of luck, and we do agree much more than we disagree. I think you take a rosier view of the Ivory Tower than I do, but again you're correct in that outcome may be most/all of the reason. (I am not without some sourness to my grapes, I admit.)

Another point of agreement/admission from me: if someone had sat me down in my early 20s and explained all of this and presented all the evidence, it's even odds I wouldn't have listened to them anyway!

• becca says:

" professors got paid shittily compared to lawyers, physicians, dentists, veterinarians...hell, just about any other brain-work profession."
HAHAHA male privilege. HAHAHA.
I just expected to make more than school teachers and nurses. How stupid was THAT?

• drugmonkey says:

Vets are all women these days becca.

• Alex says:

Speaking of nurses...

My RN mother makes about the same as me, and I was just promoted to Associate Professor. I don't see any injustice in making the same as a skilled professional with a few decades more experience than me. OTOH, her opinion is that I'm smarter and nicer than those dumb jackasses that she has to call "Doctor", so why can't her son with the title "Doctor" make the same as them?

I know there are some big differences between the jobs, but do you expect me to argue with my mother when she says that her son deserves more money? I'm tempted to send her to argue with my Provost, truthfully.

• becca says:

" I'm tempted to send her to argue with my Provost, truthfully."
DO IT!
Naw. Seriously, teachers and nurses should all be making bank for all the (metaphorical) and (literal) crap they deal with.

My point was, what's perceived as "brainwork" is influenced by Privilege, what one perceives about career potentials is influenced by Privilege, and what is paid handsomely is so intricately tied up in Privilege it's not even funny.

As a side note to several commenters-, this seeming attempt at public shaming of "prideful/arrogant/entitled" directed at those who would have the audacity to demand such Romney-esque privileges as "a modicum of job security" and "retirement benefits" and "a salary above 35k/year for an educated professional" for the Labor Of Love that Science Always Has and Always Much Be is truly a form of pathetic and pointless pandering to Privilege.
Look, jackhats, you don't gain any "I might to get to be a PI or get paid more money once I am one" karma points by crapping on trainees who yearn for (and work for, but do not *expect*) some sad little corner of an American dream. Yes, these problems are bigger than postdocs. Yes, in many respects postdocs have dream jobs. Yes, in some cases those dreams turn to nightmares (especially if things go south with the PI). And yes, in the Grand Scheme of Humanity, all of these problems are pretty trivial. That doesn't mean it can't get better, and it doesn't mean it will get better by crapping on people.

• Alex says:

"DO IT!"

Oh, am I tempted...

I think it would be better to send my 93 year-old Italian grandfather, though. Dude used to be a salesman. By the time he was done, I'd probably have an endowed chair.

• WS says:

Isabel,
Right on. Perhaps a career in science should be compared to a career in music, professional sports, or (as I mentioned previously) Hollywood acting. The difference is that it is widely known that very few people can make a successful living in the last three. And I have never heard a politician talking about a shortage of actors. I do hear them frequently talking about a shortage of scientists. Perhaps there is a shortage in some fields, but clearly not the biomedical sciences.

Spiny,
I have searched the internet many times regarding the overproduction of Ph.Ds. in biology. Very little reliable information comes up. I did it again, just now, using "employment prospects biomedical Ph.D." One of the links that comes up was "Booming careers in biomedical science." Even if other negative links come up, who is a student going to believe, the internet, or President Obama, or even their own professors. I teach at a small PUI. One of my better students was interested in graduate school. He spoke with several other professors, but I was the only one who told him the truth about employment prospects. It is not good enough that they find out after they start graduate school. They should have the information before.

• Alex says:

OK, guys, here's a question: Say you're at a PUI. Say that the PUI has funding for some program to prepare disadvantaged/underrepresented students for PhD programs. This program is (circle all that apply)

a) Addressing an important problem facing both the profession and our society
b) Providing valuable mentorship and training for the students
c) Luring the least-advantaged into a pyramid scheme
d) Other

I'm conflicted. I understand the need. And I will support anybody who goes to graduate school with eyes wide open, taking informed risks. But I also feel, um, weird about anything where the metric for success is when the first in the family to go to college defers a good job for several years of low wages. I feel even weirder at the thought of us older, tenured, not-underrepresented folks benefiting from this, you know?

It's a hell of a dilemma. I can tell myself that there's something important about this, but I also see the downside.

• Yeah, dude, you should totally tell those disadvantaged folks to stay the fucke away from science, and leave it to the white d00ds whose parents paid for them to go to college, which is as it should be. And this way, all of the people crying on the Internet that science is so unfair because they don't get to live in San Francisco in a nice house in the Richmond with their wife and two kids and have a ten minute commute and enough money to pay for a nanny will still all continue to be a bunch of white d00ds, which is as it should be.

Cause you know, the people failing to check their privilege are totes the ones who claim that getting paid to earn a PhD in science is a reasonable route to a middle class life doing something you enjoy, not the ones complaining about how getting paid $50,000 per year to do science as an Nth year post-doc/research scientist is slavery because you are not guaranteed a jobbe for life. • miko says: Remember when banks were targeting minorities and the less financially savvy in order to give people mortgages they could't afford? And the Refucklicans were like, personal responsibility blah blah blah... it's not the BANK'S job to tell people what they can afford, nom nom nom. PhD recruitment is the liar's loan of the Ed Biz. You eyes-wide-open douchebags are in good company. All this caveat emptor shit is bullshit. PIs and institutions actively recruit students and are not generally not honest about career path. That's why the recruiting material says "Prepare for a Career in Biomedical Reserch," not "Prepare for a Career in Teaching Section" or "Prepare for a Career in An Unrelated Industry that Values the Project Management and Analytical Skills You Will Obtain While Advancing Your PI's Career, But Which You Could Probably Save 7-10 Years By Just Going Into Today." Is trusting respected scientists and universities ultimately the fault of the 22-25 year who loves science and didn't trust angry blogs instead? Yeah, it is. Maybe the PIs, institutions, and funding agencies have some responsibility here, too. • miko says: CPP, that's not what people are complaining about. I know you REALLY REALLY wish it is was, so your comments would be dull trolling, but it's not. • miko says: So many typos. Sigh. Also, only a bridge-and-tunnel wank would think anyone wants to live in the Richmond. • whimple says: Just go to any graduate program's website. Look at the implied promises of how your graduate degree will set you up for success. I like this one... Stanford - Biochemistry: "A Personalized Program That Prepares Students for Productive Careers". Any other good ones out there? • Comrade Physioprof says: Search this comment thread for the word "slave". • miko says: 234 comments. 6 uses of the word "slave" or variants. 3 of them from CPP. • Comrade Physioprof says: So this means the other three comments totes don't even exist and I'm just making shitte uppe? Is this some kind of new math or something? • miko says: Duke Neurobiology program is pretty straight up: " The goal is to train scientists for academic positions in research-oriented institutions." Crazy! That's the exact same goal as most people starting a PhD! It's like, they totally GET me. • miko says: No, it means what you said was a total non sequitur with respect to 90+% of the discussion here, including my comment that preceded your "slave" troll. • WS says: Alex, As a rule, I find racial preferences offensive for a variety of reasons, but to answer your question, your racial-preference hypothetical question is most like (c) luring kids (regardless of race) into a pyramid scheme. However, the "underrepresented/preferred" groups still have the advantage that they will receive preferential treatment for admission to graduate school. There are also a variety of racially-exclusive fellowships for postdoctoral work, and then of course there is preferential treatment when applying for jobs. So I would not worry too much. As a postdoc, I applied for approximately 100 jobs over the course of two years. I heard essentially nothing from most of these. However, without fail, ALL of them sent me a questionaire asking me to identify my race, with, of course, the dubious assurance that it would in no way affect the consideration of my application. CPP, I agree with miko. Are you trying to make some profound statement with all your misspellings, or are you really just that bad of a speller? • Yael says: "Yeah, dude, you should totally tell those disadvantaged folks to stay the fucke away from science, and leave it to the white d00ds whose parents paid for them to go to college, which is as it should be." This really strikes a chord in me. I was the first woman in my family to go to graduate school and as girl, was told "no money to send you to the top college that you got into" (but my brother got a fancy car when he graduated high school). I was also told to keep quiet during high school chemistry class and told not to enter science competitions because "the boys will all do better". I loved graduate school, where I learned a lot about science, about independence and about my worth as a person thanks to great mentors. Now I am a postdoc in a great lab, doing work that I love and living far away from the people who tried to tell me that certain things were inappropriate because I was a girl. I will be eternally grateful for the funding that enabled me to get an education and break the cultural glass ceilings that I grew up with. Education was my ticket out of there. • rs says: Alex: right with WS. underrepresented minority group has higher rate of emplymenet chances in this game. CPP: just because scientist enjoy science, does it mean they need get paid less or have no life so they will not be worried about job security? does it mean that other professionals (or servie jobs) who get paid better don't like their jobs? more and more I am reading these comments, more I am convinced that this whole system need a crude scrutinity from the court related to labor and emplyment conditions of post-docs. • Comrade Physioprof says: So the new rule of the Internet is that any blogge comment thatte addresses fewer than 10 percent of all prior comments in a thread is non sequitur? Good to know. • miko says: UCLA telling it like it is to the kids: "The goal of the UCLA Interdepartmental Ph.D. Program for Neuroscience is to educate students for careers in neuroscience research and teaching.... Now is an opportune time for graduate study in the UCLA Interdepartmental Ph.D. Program for Neuroscience." Michigan: "Graduates receive a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, which provides tremendous flexibility in choosing one’s career path." If by "flexibility" you mean "something other than neuroscience." UW "The goal of the Graduate Program in Neurobiology & Behavior is to produce the best neuroscientists possible." Because neuroscientists make awesome consultants/editors. • AcademicLurker says: I recall reading the following advice to aspiring fiction writers somewhere: "If you can stop, stop. If you can't, the you're a writer." The (biomedical) research science career path involves such long odds* and so many opportunity costs that there is really no reason to pursue it unless you can't imagine doing anything else. It worked out for me. But just because I won the lottery that's no reason to go around telling people that spending their savings on lottery tickets is a good idea. *and I don't just mean long odds of getting a TT faculty position. I know folks in industry and the days of plentiful jobs there are long gone. • drugmonkey says: Don't worry WS, those amazing free-ride minorities will finally get their comeuppance at the grant-getting stage. • miko says: "So the new rule of the Internet is that any blogge comment thatte addresses fewer than 10 percent of all prior comments in a thread is non sequitur? Good to know" Actually, as it's closer to 1.3% (I was being generous) that's not a bad rule. Also, because it seemed to be in response to a comment about career path, not compensation or working conditions. If it was, in fact, in response to something Becca wrote a few days ago, I'm sorry. • Alex says: I want to make it clear that I will support and encourage anybody, of whatever background, who makes an informed decision to try for a PhD. And I certainly wouldn't single out the disadvantaged for some extra "facts of life" about a PhD. What I have mixed feeling about is how hard to sell the PhD--to anybody. And I have additional qualms about really selling the PhD to somebody who is seriously considering getting a job after college. Especially if I'm singling out people who might be the first in their family to go to college. "Hey! You! Yeah, you with the first diploma in the family. Instead of using that diploma to get a middle-class income right now, how about really low wages for the next several years so that you can hyper-specialize and enter a super-competitive market? Don't worry, it'll be great!" If they decide of their own accord, I support them and offer constructive advice. It's the selling that feels icky. Especially if I and my other pale and (mostly) male colleagues from (mostly) middle-class and better backgrounds are benefiting from it via grants, release time or stipends for work on pipeline projects, and accolades within our institutions or professional circles. There's a right way to do this, for sure, but there's also a very wrong way. It requires a balancing act: Being encouraging without being a sleazy salesman, giving an honest take without singling out certain groups for extra scare-treatment, assuaging fears and building confidence without glossing over the challenges. • Alex says: Responding to a small fraction of the comments is fine. Using a small fraction of the comments to indict the entire discourse? Not so fine. • Being encouraging without being a sleazy salesman, giving an honest take without singling out certain groups for extra scare-treatment, assuaging fears and building confidence without glossing over the challenges. This is also called "being honest about life in a capitalist society". There is absolutely nothing uniquely exploitative about science compared to any other profession. And BTW, let's see how smug and satisfied Industry Scientist is about his escape from the academic science slave galley when the corporation he works for decides to "right size" his business unit and he gets laid off with two weeks notice. • Alex says: The challenge comes when students express doubt about grad school. How hard to push back? How upbeat to be? These decisions are not always easy. It isn't always easy to tell the difference between the person who wants to do something but needs to overcome fear, and the person who doesn't really want it but is responding politely to a pitch. And I think that any honest person would acknowledge that there is a danger of deluding yourself about the difference when your grant renewal will be helped if the person sitting in front of you decides to go for a PhD. • Spiny Norman says: "That's why the recruiting material says "Prepare for a Career in Biomedical Reserch..." Ours doesn't. But then, I wrote it. • miko says: Why would they need to delude themselves? Someone (or ones) who definitely knows better wrote "Now is an opportune time for graduate study in the UCLA Interdepartmental Ph.D. Program for Neuroscience." The difference between academia and the corporate world is that the corporate world calls a temp a temp. There are no promises of a career, you know your position, and you adjust your commitment accordingly. In academia, only management has jobs. • Spiny Norman says: "The challenge comes when students express doubt about grad school. How hard to push back? How upbeat to be?" I don't claim the destination is worthwhile. I claim that the voyage is. Full stop. • miko says: Though to be fair, they didn't say opportune for whom. Clearly it is opportune for their faculty. • Isabel says: "ng something you enjoy, not the ones complaining about how getting paid$50,000 per year to do science as an Nth year post-doc/research scientist is slavery because you are not guaranteed a jobbe for life."

One thing that annoys me in these conversations is the implication that postdocs have it great compared to blue collar folk, with their comfortable inside jobs and all, and those blue collar folk would consider postdocs to be whiners. Both absolutely untrue.

"This is also called "being honest about life in a capitalist society". "

Considering you are protected by tenure and you and your trainees are supported by taxpayers the connection to capitalism seems pretty weak.

• miko says:

"Considering you are protected by tenure and you and your trainees are supported by taxpayers the connection to capitalism seems pretty weak."

LOL. A tenured, publicly-funded guy is going to tell us about "life in a capitalist society." Next up, my grandfather explains Twitter.

• drugmonkey says:

Almost as funny as a postdoc like Isabel telling us all about blue-collar workers.

• becca says:

Alex- Good for you for grappling with it like the tricky ethical issue it is. Tell them the truth. The truth for minorities and women is- science needs them, but many places will never want them (and the places that do want them can't be identified by cookie-cutter statements about who is "particularly encouraged to apply").

The general truth for all students is that they should be able to get a PhD "for free" but that there are huge costs involved in delaying putting money away for retirement or having kids, which are often demanded of PhD type careers. That there are (at least proportionately) fewer good middle class jobs in science than there were a generation ago.

You may also benefit from reading Dean Dad, who I respect with regard to how he sees this sort of dilemma: "In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if the root of the problem with public higher education in America is that it was designed to create and support a massive middle class. And we’ve tacitly decided as a society that a massive middle class is not a priority. We’re trying to fulfill a mission that the country has largely abandoned. " (http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2012/04/class-dismissed.html). The general form of this problem *is* larger than biomedicine; CPP's not wrong about that.

• bill says:

DM: I was a postdoc, and I can tell you all about blue-collar workers, starting with my family.

And even if there was a disconnect there, surely it's a much greater one for CPP, who only gives blankets to the homeless so he can have the chauffeur run over 'em to polish the Bentley's undercarriage.

• miko says:

So, as my institutional web site survey continues, I am seeing very little out there indicating that a prospective student will have an awesome time and "enjoy the journey" while "preparing" for many possible careers that may or may not require any of the training you receive. In fact, the more I look around, the more I am getting the vibe that the whole concept of "alternate careers" and broad-based skills training is, I dunno, just some kind of ridiculous fucking charade? Could that possibly be true???

NYU: "The GPNP provides comprehensive training in neuroscience that positions our students to attain success and make significant contributions to the field."

(This one was written by an administrator because it says "attain success" rather than "succeed.")

UCSF: "The purpose of this program is to train doctoral students for independent research and teaching in neuroscience."

Davis: "We offer an exciting, rewarding and intellectually stimulating program of study that will prepare you for a successful career as an independent scientist and scholar."

Le Great White North: "The Integrated Program in Neuroscience (IPN) at McGill University is an inter-disciplinary, inter-departmental graduate program, dedicated to producing world-class neuroscientists."

I've heard mid-westerners are plain dealers: "The Integrative Neuroscience graduate program at the University of Chicago is designed to provide the training and research opportunities for the next generation of behavioral, cognitive, and social neuroscientists."

"The Neuroscience Track at Wake Forest University offers a PhD degree tailored for a research career within one of the most challenging and fascinating scientific endeavors ever attempted — the study of the brain and the nervous system."

Engineers might be more practical? "The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences offers an interdisiplinary[sic! - for real] graduate program ... designed to prepare participants to be competent scientists engaged in original research and to teach effectively."

Southern truth-telling at Tulane: "The curriculum is designed to prepare the students for active research careers."

In summary, fresh undergrads should be totally "in the know" on how the biomedical career path works, yet all of these institutions make it clear their sole purpose and function is to train research scientists.

• bill says:

The general form of this problem *is* larger than biomedicine; CPP's not wrong about that.

So are there other CPP's out there, say on a professional musician blog somewhere, telling people to suck it up because "scientists have it just as bad"?

Comrades Physioprof and MusicianProf are both 100% correct -- and 100% fucken useless.

• whimple says:

Spiny: I don't claim the destination is worthwhile. I claim that the voyage is. Full stop.

That certainly is a starry-eyed sentiment. Unfortunately, it is ludicrous that the valuation of the voyage not factor in the value of the destination. Note that it is called graduate "training" and post-doctoral "training". Training for what exactly?

• http://tipsforclassicalmusicians.com/2010/09/24/20-career-choices-for-classical-musicians/

According to this blogge, in order to make a living as a classical musician, you need to be prepared to hold down two jobbes.

• Beaker says:

The unemployment rates for bioscience PhDs have been between 1 and 4% for decades. If so, then I am not feeling too sorry for those who feel they were deceived or exploited.

On the other hand, what are the unemployment data during the recent un-doubling of NIH funding? Are we now entering a period of mass-uneployment for, say, neuroscientists? Has neuroscience become the new sociology? I don't think so, but recent data, if they exist, would be more informative than historical trends.

• Beaker says:

I googled a bit and found current unemployment rates for freshly-minted undergrad degrees. Neuroscience is the 23rd worst, tied with philosophy. Have not yet found PhD data.

Degrees with highest unemployment

Degrees with lowest unemployment

• miko says:

There is not much recent data, but if you ask just about PhD holders you are asking the wrong question. Postdocs are getting longer and longer and multiplying into 2 or 3 positions. This is a new trend, yet postdocs count as "employment" in your field as a PhD holder. So yes, the employment rate 5 years out of a PhD is very, very high, even though a huge number have no permanent position. The relevant number would be "involuntary out of field" rates after PhD and postdoc training periods.

As far as I can tell, no one tracks this. The only data I've seen is surveys where the sample is clearly biased toward working scientists and people in academia.

• Comrades Physioprof and MusicianProf are both 100% correct -- and 100% fucken useless.

Maybe useless for what you define as your goals, but clearly far from useless for numerous other people in achieving their goals.

Look holmes, it sucks that you didn't achieve what you intended when you set out on your career path. Some people succeed and some people fail. And yeah, luck, privilege, and all kinds of other arguably unfair factors play a big role. That doesn't mean the career path is "exploitation" or "slavery" (not saying you personally used those terms) nor does it mean that anyone who chooses the career path is delusional, suffering from false consciousness, or has been lied to. Different people have different tolerances for career risk, and any financial planner will tell you that the younger you are, the more risks you should take.

• permanent position

In what careers are there "permanent positions" available for everyone who starts out on that career path?

• miko says:

OK, non- training/apprenticeship/temp positions with the same benefits as other employees with the same organization and the possibility of promotion.

• Alex says:

becca-

I do read Dean Dad. I like a lot of his social commentary and insights into institutional culture. However, he's entirely too enthusiastic about replacing an in-person* college experience with 4 years of laptop.edu.

*Do not confuse "in-person" and "residential." I teach at a commuter school.

• miko says:

Because you're totally nuts if you think postdoc "employment" is in any way equivalent to faculty or industry jobs, or remotely resembles an entry level job for a doctor, lawyer, dentist, MBA, engineer, or basically any other kind of professional training.

• Alex says:

"Next up, my grandfather explains Twitter."

• Isabel says:

"DM: I was a postdoc, and I can tell you all about blue-collar workers, starting with my family. "

The point DM and PrivilegedPhysioprof are missing is that blue collar workers are attuned to exploitation strategies and will be inclined to sympathesize with the situation of someone with special training encouraged by the government and based on unusually high intelligence and hard work, who ends up with low pay* and future job prospects that are comparable to a baseball player or musician. I'm not sure what DM meant with his snide remark anyway, I'm looking at a postdoc position in the near future, and of course my blue collar family members have been asking 'so whats's next', so I have experience with this conversation. Does he?

DM and PP don't actually socialize with any blue collar people (as equals that is- CPP does like to give out free candy and chat with the little people on staff from time to time...) and imagine they are secretly all bitter haters and anti-science types.

* 40k with mediocre benefits after 4 yrs undergrad and 7-10 years experience (as a grad and then postdoc) will indeed seem surprisingly low to a blue collar worker.

• bill says:

it sucks that you didn't achieve what you intended when you set out on your career path

The real problem was I didn't think hard enough about just what I did want to achieve. But remember I'm in industry now, and I think I like it better here than in the Ivory Tower anyway -- not a reflection on either path, just a realization about which suits me better.

What I meant by "useless" (which I half take back, since I realize it's much harsher than I intended) was, sure, things are tough all around, but that doesn't mean that we should just accept a shitty status quo in our field. Your constant pointing out that science is not unique for not giving everyone a personal money-shitting unicorn is, I realize, a response to apparent claims that it *should* -- but it's not a solution to the real problems that exist. That they exist in other fields is a reason to ask whether others have found solutions, not a reason to just accept the problems as inevitable.

In what careers are there "permanent positions" available for everyone who starts out on that career path?

Now this, filtered through miko's responses, is a good question. The corollary is: how can we structure science to provide such positions? And, if you like, we can talk about *whether* we should do so -- is it actually a good thing for science (though a bad thing for many (most?) individual scientists that competition has become so ferocious and the postdoc has become more of a holding pen than a position?

• WS says:

Beaker,
Thanks for reminding me about lee's comment about the unemployment rate being less than 4% for bioscience PhDs. I meant to comment on that ridiculous statement earlier. That 96% employment rate, of course, includes PhDs working at McDonalds, and as such, it is a meaningless figure.

Spiny,
still waiting for the results of your Google search. You previously stated that the (un)employment reality that awaits those going to graduate school is just a Google search away.

One thing that I have noticed that virtually everyone agrees on is that there is significant problem for biomedical PhDs finding employment beyond a postdoc. I think that is in itself a huge development, that the NIH would never want to be made public.

• bill says:

Insert ) after scientists in my previous comment. Note to self, hit preview you dipshit.

• bill says:

based on unusually high intelligence

Bwahahahahahahahhhhahahaaahahaaa!!! You obviously move in different circles than me. Sure, there are some very bright scientists around; there are also plenty of dumbasses with PhD's.

You and I also have different ideas about what a blue collar worker is, or at least about what kind of living they make. My family would be all "what the fuck is your problem" if I complained about $40K/year, and they don't idolize "unusually high intelligence" or years spent in college. They do sympathize with the lack of job security. Imma let DM and CPP field that "don't socialize with blue collar folks" stuff, except to say that you may have missed the point of the Bentley gag. • Isabel says: "there are also plenty of dumbasses with PhD's." then some filtering system is malfunctioning. "Dumbasses" shouldn't make it through UG, Grad, and years of postdoc! In PP's world there is a single filter that indicates who can and cannot succeed as an independent research scientist: success at obtaining grant funding. I suspect his rich businesspeople parents influenced his success more than he realizes. • Isabel says: "My family would be all "what the fuck is your problem" if I complained about$40K/year,"

You must be from a low cost of living area. Either that or your family members are jerks. Whether they idolize intelligence or education or not, blue collar people do have an expectation that those assets should increase income. Also science is viewed very differently from English majors. Most people remember how difficult high school science classes were and appreciate the advances of science (especially the medical ones as they age).

• miko says:

Mid-level administrators at my institution are making close to $100K at the end of their career. These are people often with no special training or graduate degrees. In the public university system in my state, administrative salaries (not deans, etc, just office workers) run over the course of a career from around$38K to $85K. There is no reason there should not be an equivalent career track for non-faculty research scientists, with promotions and merit-based raises. There would have to be fewer trainees and fewer positions overall, but once we dispense with the fantasy that those positions are "training" rather than just "cheap," that would only make sense. And taxpayers would have their research funding going to science done by scientists rather than students. I don't need to hear all the reasons this will never happen, I know them already. I know the blue collar guys in my building and quite a few in my neighborhood. They guys in the building all make more money than me, most of them have trade/craft skills. They know all about the PhD-postdoc situation from talking to us eggheads. They think we're fucking chumps and wouldn't trade places with us for anything. "Blue collar" seems to be used interchangeably with "poor" on this thread. • bill says: You must be ... or your family members are jerks ...blue collar people do have an expectation... Most people Pretty much everything you just said sits somewhere on the continuum between irritating and outright offensive, and is either wrong or stupid or both. I think we're done here. • Beaker says: WS, if you adjusted the data for PhDs working at McDonald's and other straw men, I seriously doubt the numbers would change much. The data may have caveats, but they are certainly not meaningless. Here are more and better data that show the favorable prognosis for those who get PhDs. If there has been a recent shift in these trends, it has occurred so recently that we don't yet have data to support the hypothesis that a bioscience PhD is the new sociology/clinical psychology. • miko says: Beaker, I am not afraid of being unemployed. Anyone who can do a PhD kind find some kind of fucking job. This discussion (or a high percentage of it) is about career paths for research scientists, not fear of destitution for fuck's sake. Again, the relevant figure, which I can find no evidence of recent measurements for, is "involuntary out of field" rates after PhD and postdoc training periods. • miko says: I'm going to start trolling all the threads about hand wringing over grants, pointing out how greedy and entitled everyone is. "Blue collar" people would love to apply for those grants, but sadly can't. Unskilled agricultural labors don't get grants, who the fuck do you think you are? • WS says: Beaker, Thanks for the link. I have been looking for something like that. I plan to look further into the data behind this survey, namely how representative of the total pool of PhDs were the respondents. Often these surveys are directed at institutions where you would expect scientists to work, e.g. universities and biotech companies. Given the reported 2.6% that report being IOF, this appears to be a distinct possibility. With the horde of postdocs and permanent postdocs involved in fulltime research, I also find the ~$75,000 average salary a bit hard to believe. Who knows, maybe its true.

I find this discussion of blue collar workers somewhat off topic. I don't know what collar color scientists are supposed to be. I have always considered myself to be a brown collar worker.

• [...] “Alternate careers” is just the next exploitation strategy? by DrugMonkey [...]

• With the horde of postdocs and permanent postdocs involved in fulltime research, I also find the ~\$75,000 average salary a bit hard to believe. Who knows, maybe its true.

Yeah, exactly. Anything that doesn't fit the exploitation/slave galley narrative is a bit hard to believe.

• [...] “Alternate careers” is just the next exploitation strategy? by DrugMonkey [...]

• whimple says:

This would seem to be the relevant data table (from 2006):
http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf09317/pdf/tab68.pdf
I wonder how the precision of the NSF data squares with the NIH not even knowing how many postdocs there are.

• rs says:

"Yeah, exactly. Anything that doesn't fit the exploitation/slave galley narrative is a bit hard to believe."

Yep and for some people, anything which fit the exploitation slave gallery narrative is hard to believe since it doesn't fit either their experineces or perceoption.

Looks to me three blind people looking at the elephant.

• rs says:

sorry for typos, I am tying with a small keyboard.

Almost to 300!

Is this officially the most active thread in the history of DM's blog?

• drugmonkey says:

Maybe. We had some big ones in the SB days though...

• whimple says:

Mind you, I would expect the stats from 2012, after six straight years of declining NIH budgets (constant dollars) to be much worse than the 2006 stats from the NSF report.

• WS says:

Gladde to see you agreee. I was not suree wat I wuz thinking befor. With onlee 2.6% of respondents reportinge they are IOF, the survay was clearly not representativv of all biomedicall PhDs.

rs, who is the third blind person?

• rs says:

Of course, Alex 🙂

• WS says:

So sad to see this thread is dead. But I learned great deal. Thanks to (almost) everyone.

• katia says:

WS,

is that irony?

We can get this thread to 300! Come on people!

• Jonathan says:

""I am generally against any kind of union, but have witnessed first hand abuse of a PI on students and post-docs. Maybe a class action law suit is an answer. "
HA! I just want to comment on how foreign this mentality is to me, although it does make me think."

@becca - you evidently haven't been following the news. The UAW (in what I think was a rather underhand manner) now represents all the postdocs in the UC system, and several other universities have also unionized their postdocs.

• drugmonkey says:

Alrighty folks, I'm closing this thread. Continue here if you must.

• [...] Alternate careers" is just the next exploitation strategy? [...]

• [...] these research tidbits of mine don’t get lost in the DrugMonkey comments, reposting them here. This in response to commenters who claim shit like “everyone” knows that [...]

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