The Birds and the Bees, academic version

Some guy has written a blog post asking "Is it morally acceptable to hire postdocs?"

This is not an absurd question on the face of it and one of his points appears to be that hiring postdocs is done in preference to hiring longer-term staff-scientist type people.


Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. This I think is closer to a fundamental resolution of the problem. Rather than hiring a short-term postdoc by dangling a future faculty job in front of them, it is far more fair to hire a researcher permanently with a salary and benefits adequate to their experience. Although the current funding system is not particularly suitable for this – obviously, permanent researchers should be paid by the university not by grants – it can be done. A permanent researcher also becomes a great asset for the lab as they accumulate valuable skills.

I agree that if you can manage to do this, in preference to a series of 3-5 year cheap 'trainees' doing the same job, this is a morally superior place to be. Totally.

The blog post starts, however, with the following figure

sourced from Schillebeeckx et al (2013) in Nature Biotechnology.

See how the production of new PhDs each year leads to an ever-increasing disconnect between the number of available PhDs and the number of faculty jobs? So yes, there is an increasing body of postdocs being exploited and not being able to get the faculty jobs that they started graduate training to obtain.

BUT THEY DIDN'T GET DROPPED OFF BY THE STORK OF SCIENCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

They were made. Intentionally. By faculty who benefit tremendously in their own careers from an inexpensive, unbelievably hard working, young and less-distracted, deluded and optimistic workforce.

Faculty who, as it happens, are unbelievably motivated to come up with excuses why their continued overproduction of PhDs year in, year out, is not any sort of problem.

You know, kind of like any sort of Western subpopulation which advocates family sizes of 8, 15 or whatnot can't find any sort of problem with overpopulation.

And kind of like the US Baby Boomers stopped talking about overpopulation the second they realized their comfy retirements were gonna depend on a lot bigger working population behind them, paying the taxes that they couldn't even be bothered to pay in their own heyday.

But I digress.

The point is, that this blog post contains a big old howler:

One might object to this: Isn’t there the same problem with PhDs as with postdocs? In my view, the problem is not the same. I believe that entering a PhD program in natural sciences is not a commitment to an academic track, whereas entering a postdoc is, in most cases. Most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc experience, so a postdoc definitely narrows down one’s options. In contrast, a PhD generally widens the options. So, in my view, most PhDs should not go onto the academic track. But in general having more educated people in the non-academic world is good, especially given how many people do not believe in evolution or what idiots oversee science in Congress. A more detailed discussion of this subject is a topic for another day.

HAHAHAHAAH!!!!!!

Riiiiiiigghhhhhttt.

Bog-standard excuse making that I hear from every damn participant in a graduate program that simply cannot bear to see that their habit has been to exploit cut rate labor. At first they simply refused to admit that there was any overproduction whatsoever. Then, when the evidence became overwhelming, they clutched the excuse of "alt-careers" and "general good" like a man going down for the third time grasping a life-saver ring.

It's laughable and pathetic.

One might even venture, immoral.

__
p.s. I don't blame people directly for participating in this crappy system we are in. It demands that PIs exploit people to survive in the grant-funded rat race. Having a lab based exclusively on the work of ever more expensive career TurboTechs and Staff Scientists is a path to disaster. I grasp this. But for Glory's sake people! Stop pretending it is something it isn't. Stop pretending that your lab's arrangements are totally free of exploitation but those other aspects of the system, over there, are immoral and evil.

56 responses so far

  • Mytchondria says:

    This is the worst sex blog I've ever read.
    And you're a fuckken schitzo nutter, Ted. What ever happened to 'our poor baby scientists who never got a chance to run a lab'? Some days I can't believe we CoBlog.

  • karassment says:

    I would really like to know what people think about this. I have been looking for a TT job for years, and now that it finally looks like it will happen, I think about this all the time. I am acutely, painfully aware of how hard the job market is. My current PI has flatly refused to take any students, telling the administration that it isn't ethical with the job market as it is. I am not going to have the clout to do that, and even if I did, my start up will disappear really fast if I hire only high paid uber techs and staff scientists like you said. The students I'll be talking to about joining the lab will already be students, a decision they made independent of me, maybe without all the information. I can make sure I give them graphs like the one above and talk with them about what the people I know from grad school are doing now, but I don't think any of that would have dissuaded me from going on. Do people talk about these statistics with students? How do they respond? How often do students change course based on this information? I'm not going to have much access to undergrads, and don't think I'll have the budget or fame to attract postdocs for a long time. I am going to be training graduate students knowing their odds of a faculty job are very very low. I feel like all I can do is be sure they know that and commit to helping them navigate the landscape as it is. I wish I felt more confident in my ability to do that.

  • potty theron says:

    @mytchondria - if you have time for more sex than is in this post, youre not doing it right. Real Scientists only fuck over their trainees.

    @karassment - congrats on the job. But, you don't have to *totally* follow the exploitation route. You can be a funded person, with a smaller lab, and work with techs and 'others'. In my clinical department, with no degree program, it is damn difficult to get any students at all. Yet, the successful labs, which are still 3-7 people, including PI, include a full time tech (yes, fresh out of college is not going to be the same as a 20 year vet), and often creatively found others. Master's students needing a MS project (who are on a clinical track). Picking the right people, and empowering them (ie making sure there is a piece of the project to call their own) is not the same as a PhD student, but can satisfy your need for help to be successful. You say you don't have access to UG's. Is there a local institution with which you can pair up?

    @DM - boomers? now responsible for over population? Please, didn't you learn any sex ed?

  • dr24hours says:

    If the system is immoral, why are those who participate blameless? Oh yeah. Because it's the system *we're* part of. Other immoral systems must be mercilessly dismantled! But please, don't fix my system on my watch. It'd screw me over. Let's do nothing and pray it collapses after we're dead.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ever heard of the boomlet? The echo? Try harder Potnia.

  • drugmonkey says:

    karassment- exactly. You are in a position in which it seems the only route to survival is to use graduate student labor to build your career. The system is persuasive, no matter how you might prefer to act. Just so long as we *recognize* this for what it is, we're moving forward.

    Grad programs can reduce their admissions, btw. This "they already decided" business doesn't work on the Grad Program of Science level.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am comfortable in the decisions I've made in how to run my lab, dr24hours. I'm not going to pretend it didn't come at a cost. So I'm not super judgy about starter labs trying to get launched. I reserve my ire for BSD types defending their "record" graduate class admissions over the past few years.

  • dr24hours says:

    @DM, and I have no problem with your comfort regarding your participation in a system you label immoral. But you're very quick to judge other systems, and demand changes in their moral constitutions, which would have similar consequences to the many fine individuals similarly trapped in them.

    The fact remains, higher education is is several bubbles right now (PhD production, tuition, and campus building to name three), and they will all pop, with horrific consequences, unless something is done that impacts people currently running labs deleteriously. We're all hoping that it isn't us. But I don't think that's really a moral position to take.

  • Busy says:

    I've reduced my intake of grad students since I too consider unethical to produce unemployed PhDs. My last four graduates all ended up in industry even though at least three of them wanted very much to stay in academia.

    And in support of DMs comment, some of my grants are directly tied to the number of people I graduate, so yes, the system pushes you in the direction of exploiting young students instead of say, hiring permanent staff.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Dr24hours: I submit to you that one who has demonstrably opted for the less-exploity way of doing business in an exploitational system, has done so despite clear cost to career advance and does so knowingly and intentionally is advancing the cause.

    I'll need some citation on this alleged other bullshittio I demand change in. Taxes perhaps?

  • karassment says:

    @potty theron I had not thought about other institutions in town for UGs - thank you! That's definitely a possibility. I have had a few UGs do a senior thesis in the lab with me and some have been really great. I will actively seek out MS students too...any more info on what "others" can be? Or how to find "right" ones? That's probably a huge question on its own. I know you're right about empowering people - have seen that at work in a big way!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    NSF is specifically interested how many students you will be training. It's part of the Broader Impacts and comes up on panel. Possibly ironically, one would have to defend not training students in a proposal.

    That said, I doubt the combined PhD production from NSF funding even matches the largest 15ish biomed programs on an annual basis, so the scale is different but the job market isn't any better.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    There are perverse incentives in our graduate school system. In Ontario (at least), universities are induced to take on graduate students by the provincial government by being paid based on the number they accept and the amount of funding is linked to growth (far more money for more students than accepted in the prior year). However, the costs of these graduate students are largely shifted to their supervisors (there are some scholarships but most student stipends are paid from investigator grants, at least in the medical sciences). The students then pay tuition to the university. Larger science graduate departments are seeing their faculty slow down in recruitment as their grant funds stagnate (also due to huge uncertainty in funding as agencies are yin the process of reforming their programs with unpredictable outcomes) and are penalized by the university by having their core support shift to smaller departments that are still growing. So, the graduate school grows in fits and starts based on arcane inducements that have no bearing on supply and demand (ironically, reduced demand is met with penalties). Yet, the universities are addicted to the cash, government is addicted to more PhDs = better economic health in the future and so we perpetuate the ugly mess.

    Seems to me we have a huge problem in academic training little to no regard for supply and demand at any level. It's as though the costs of this disconnect are invisible because those who suffer from the consequences are irrelevant. It is hard to match supply and demand when the transit time is a decade, but surely we can at least get the incentives aligned?

  • AsianQB says:

    Back when I used to run the local student chapter of the xyz-society at my school, we had the idea to add a "Where are they now?" section to the department website to track where the older students, post-docs and researchers were. Our objective was to put the current/graduating students in touch with alumni for professional contacts.

    As we started poking around looking for information, we sensed that the department/institute were not in interested in this at all. You know, all the potential negative publicity that could stem from the hordes of post-doc positions but little PI-ness of the future.

    Personally, I got to know at that time why alt-ac is critical, and how clueless everyone in academe was on what that actually means.

  • drugmonkey says:

    One program I am familiar with reacted to news of poor faculty-transition rates with a lot of bleating about how it had *nothing* to do with them and was all on the postdoctoral training their grads received. I think some of them actually believed their own excuse making!

    Step forward five years and those same people were telling the grad students that "all that bad news applies to other graduate programs that aren't as good as ours. You guys will be fine."

    Hilarious.

  • dr24hours says:

    @DM, I agree, and of course I don't know the personal decisions you've made, but I certainly have no reason to doubt your word. As for citations, I'll make it a point to identify them as they arise, which they do frquently. I'd rather not go sift your twitter-stream at the moment. Essentially: a good solid half of your political argumentation probably falls under the category.

  • MoBio says:

    Quite a quandry...I've limited the number of students over the past several years (even though I have a very large lab) as I do not believe I should produce PhD's who may have difficulty getting jobs in the future.

    My track record is quite good (~50% of my PhD graduates are in tenure-track positions; 40% in non-tenure track [Research Assistant/Associate soft-$$]; 10% in pharma [and they have higher salaries and benefits than those in academia]) but agree that we cannot continue to 'churn out PhDs' with the overall low prospect of gainful employment. Notably all are employed in science and appear pleased with their positions.

    Here we limit the time a person can be classified as a post-doc to 5 years and I think this is a trend elsewhere.

  • Joe says:

    I love the academic staff people working in my lab, but they do not do the same job as the post-docs. The post-docs have different goals, abilities, and attitudes. So, I think the idea that you are choosing between these types of workers to hire for the same project goals is wrong.

    The idea that post-docs are all looking for academic jobs also is no longer true, if it ever was. Students from my lab that work in industry or government also did post-docs. Many employers are requiring post-doc experience because they can still get plenty of great applicants even with this extra requirement.

    Since funding comes in 5yr chunks, is hiring someone into a "permanent" (soft-money) staff position really different than hiring a post-doc to do that job?

    As for grad training, I can't bring myself to hire new grad students even though there are financial incentives to do so. Also, my big grad program has reduced by about half from previous years.

  • dr24hours says:

    @MoBio: Your track record is quite *academic*, and your trainees are employed, which is good. But is academic better than non-academic? I think that that's part of the exploitation theme (in general, now, not you specifically, obviously) in that we set up "academic success is success, anything else is failure".

    I'm in a supposed alt-career. I contribute academically, publish, etc., but I'm on hard money and make more than most academics my age make. Why should we consider that failure? For me, a professorship would be an alt-career. I'd have to give up a LOT to consider taking one.

  • PaleoGould says:

    If the problem is the exploitation of cheap labor in exchange for a promise of future employment that 1) doesn't actually pay all that well, and 2) was never actually guaranteed, even in ye good old days, then the immorality is not in the hiring, it is in the remuneration. Basically, you can hire fewer graduate students as much as you want, but until the system values their labor at its worth, the immorality is still there.

  • MoBio says:

    @dr24hours

    Actually about half are in pharma (which normally is 'non-academic'). I guess the point I didn't make so clearly was that they eventually have landed "where they wanted to land." and I am grateful I could help them out in some small way.

  • new PI says:

    I'm a new PI who has hired as a part-time "tech" someone who recently received his PhD in exactly the right subject (for me). He could be doing a postdoc but is instead using half his time to work on his small startup. I'm paying him the hourly rate of what he'd make industry, including benefits, and he's easily doing the work of a full-time postdoc. I'd not hesitate to try this again.

    One of my major fears with low wages is that they disproportionately impact females and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. At least one study showed that female trainees--even when single--are more apt to be concerned about meeting the needs of future families. I wouldn't be surprised if this translated to more sensitivity to low wages, although I don't think this hypothesis has been tested.

    But let's assume wages are truly higher than they are now, and that winning prize NSF and NIH fellowships doesn't rob you of three years of Social Security and retirement contributions (as they currently do). Assuming all incoming students & postdocs see the plot above and know the relevant statistics, is it still immoral to hire them if they want to work? I spent most of grad school and my postdoc stressing out over my TT job prospects, but I never thought I'd be sold a line. No one promised my anything, ever. (Although this doesn't make it right, I'd guess most employers tend to exaggerate the benefits of the jobs they offer.)

  • MelanieAnnS says:

    Hiring a full time staff person, to be paid by the university instead of by grants would mean one less faculty member. Universitys love the lab system as it is because everyone is paid by grants.

  • dr24hours says:

    @MoBio, Ah! Gotcha now. Thanks.

  • Busy says:

    @PaleoGould, when the modern American PhD model was established post-WWII an academic job was (1) middle class which at the time was rather good and (2) you had a guaranteed job in the rapidly expanding university system.

    Things starting breaking down around the early 70s when departments stopped expanding and when the middle class promise was no longer a valuable thing, since the average American has a middle class job. That was the time in which we should have reformed the PhD process. Instead we plowed on for 40 years trying to patch up the problem with increased postdoc positions for ever longer periods of time.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Are post-docs really cheap labor anymore? The NRSA stipend levels, which many people/departments/institutions rely on for general post-doc salaries regardless of funding source, just went up substantially. While I think it is great from a post-doc perspective since they often feel underpaid given their education/experience, I find it concerning given my current perspective as a junior faculty member trying to budget my first R01.

  • dsks says:

    "The idea that post-docs are all looking for academic jobs also is no longer true, if it ever was"

    I'm pretty sure their are stats backing up the expectations on that point, but I'll have to dig for them. Just based on my committee experience canvasing early career geeks at a fairly large society meeting I'd say it's true that grad students are much less inclined towards academic science than they used to be. But academic postdocs, who have usually chosen to stay in academia precisely because they fancy that track, still err strongly towards conventional TT aspirations. However, it's wrong to think that the changing attitudes of the grad students might reflect some sort of solution accompanying the next gen; the truth is that the industry-bent ones are as uneducated and out-of-touch in re workforce realities as the academic-bent ones before them.

    This is a crucial point. It's important not to focus the problem of PhD oversupply too much on the academic track bottleneck. Industry is being held up here as a straightforward can't fail alternative, but pharma is going (just went?) through a tremendous period of restructuring and new permanent R&D jobs are actually very few, and young PhDs and postdocs are usually having to compete with a substantial pool of experienced lateral hires moving from one company to another. Lately, the majority of folk I personally know getting industry positions out of grads school or short academic postdocs are taking industry postdoc contracts, which can be a bit of a crap shoot in re quality and tend to be the first to get cut during a lay-off (plus, I'm hearing that there's an increase in the use of these positions by companies as convenient short-term contract hires, where the actual likelihood of a subsequent permanent hire is pretty slim).

    Bringing down doom and gloom is obviously no solution either, but injecting a bit more reality into the minds of would be grads, and raising the bar on quality for entrance into gradschool, is both the moral and practical way forward.

  • Jo says:

    I'll play Devil's Advocate.

    First, Higher Education plays some unsavory roles in the broader context of society. Are we really engaged in educating the next generation of research scientists, or are we involved in a certification process, stamping folks with a badge of "sufficient IQ", "sufficient drive" and "sufficient perseverance"?

    Second, the supposed suffering of these overeducated PhDs isn't bourne out by the data. Unemployment rate: BS 4.0%, PhD 2.2%, Median weekly earnings: BS $1108, PhD $1623. You could argue there are more efficient ways of doing this, but I don't buy that it is immoral. Take a step back, and a PhD is still a relatively risk free way of dramatically increasing your lifetime earnings.

  • eeke says:

    My last NIH grant application was criticized for not including a post-doc at 100% effort. I had listed two techs, instead. Are reviewers under pressure to ding PI's for not having post-docs or some sort of trainee? WTF?

  • drugmonkey says:

    a good solid half of your political argumentation probably falls under the category.

    In US politics the lines are emphatically clear that right wing policy has a perfect record of complete wrongness over the past 100-150 years, at the least. So, meh.

    My track record is quite good (~50% of my PhD graduates are in tenure-track positions;

    MoBio- I am very curious. Did you ever consider whether you should ever train any more PhD students over the N=1 needed to replace yourself? Or, if you suspected this hit rate would obtain, N=2? What was your thought process about how many students you 'should' train over the course of a career?

    then the immorality is not in the hiring, it is in the remuneration.

    I tend to agree although I'm less focused on the immediate than on the longer term career prospects. The idea that younger/newer employees get paid less for the same work (or a slightly less expert version of it) is endemic in US salaried job categories and our system depends in part on the expectation that salaries generally increase with experience. (and I grasp that job security across the board is less than it has been in times past, yes)

    they eventually have landed "where they wanted to land."

    This comes dangerously close to the sort of excuse making that makes the steam come out of my ears. There was a survey (out of UCSF? ) that everyone likes to quote that showed that career goals of first year grads had changed by the time they reached year 4 or so. The apologists say, as you do, that this shows that trainees are finding jobs that they really want. I say bushwah and the impetus is on you to prove that this change of plans is not because they have decided that what they *really* (still) want is simply out of reach for them and they need to move the heck on with their lives. Those are two very different bits of information about the health of the system.

    is it still immoral to hire them if they want to work?
    Was it immoral to hire kids to work the coal mine tailings?

    I find it concerning given my current perspective as a junior faculty member trying to budget my first R01.

    There is little doubt that NRSA salary increases that the NIH puts through, without any change to the R grants, when they know full well more postdocs are supported on R-mechs than on F-mechs is a big contributor to what looks like selfish bastige PI behavior. Postdocs always blame the PI for not raising their salaries but hardly ever look at the larger picture. (and for sure the one who draws the short straw doesn't like getting fired because of budget realities within the lab)

    but pharma is going (just went?) through a tremendous period of restructuring and new permanent R&D jobs are actually very few,

    RIGHT???? And yet I find that many academics, when faced with the current PhD glut, still say "but why can't they just get a job in Pharma?". Totally out of touch, as usual.

    the majority of folk I personally know getting industry positions out of grads school or short academic postdocs are taking industry postdoc contracts,

    Exactly. It had to be over 10 years ago I first heard of an industry "postdoc" and was simultaneously outraged and amused (that it had taken this long for them to catch on to the exploitation scam).

  • drugmonkey says:

    My last NIH grant application was criticized for not including a post-doc at 100% effort. I had listed two techs, instead. Are reviewers under pressure to ding PI's for not having post-docs or some sort of trainee?

    I think it is mostly because reviewers think that a postdoc will provide more intellectual horsepower than a tech and especially when you have two techs, you could have one of each.

    I fully embrace this bias, I have to admit. I think a one-tech, one-PD full modular R01 is about the standardest of standard lineups. Anchors the team. Best impact for the money and all that.

    A divergence from this expectation would require special circumstances to be explained (and of course there are many projects imaginable where two-tech, no-postdoc *would* be best, you just have to explain it)

  • Dave says:

    Yeh jobs in pharma are no longer much of an option. As someone who almost took a pharma job a year ago, even if you are lucky enough to get offered one, the prospects for stability and career progression are just as bleak if you ask me, if not bleaker. Salaries are not that great either to be honest. With all the mergers and acquisitions and general instability in the sector, I would find it tough to recommend that a student pursue that option instead of academia. Further, most pharma companies are relying more and more on academic labs to actually do their R&D, so one could argue that if that interest you you are better off staying in academia, in some capacity, in the long term.

    Basically, the 'alt-careers' stuff is utter nonsense. Nobody in their right mind goes into a rigorous PhD program to be a science writer, or a lab tech in pharma. It is also not the responsibility, financially, for universities and the NIH to fund students to get a PhD that then go off and become accountants or MBAs. What's the fucking point in that? Whether they end up employed or not completely misses the point.

    After just sitting through a PhD qualifying exam, it is very obvious to me that we are treating graduate students as revenue generators (especially international students) and passing large numbers of them through at all costs and despite strong evidence that they are scientifically inept. This is to the detriment of the schools, science and, most importantly, the student. Until money is removed from the PhD training equation, nothing will change.

    We keep having these conversations, but nothing ever happens.

  • dr24hours says:

    "In US politics the lines are emphatically clear that right wing policy has a perfect record of complete wrongness over the past 100-150 years, at the least. "

    Even if this is true, so what? Your current position is that working within an immoral system is perfectly ok. Therefore, I expect you to defend rank-and-file conservative politicians just trying to make their way in the political system.

  • rxnm says:

    First thing I was told in my pharma interview was "don't come here for stability."

    Refreshingly honest compared to PhD program propaganda.

    NIH leadership still won't A) Count non-F mech postdocs, B) Admit there are too many PhDs. The STEM SHORTAGE!!!11!!!!1 horseshit is one of their congressional begging tactics. Reforms recommended by their own studies are totally ignored. They are engaging in a slow, messy, decline that is desperate only to evade short-term accountability and BSD panty-bunching.

  • ambivalentacademic says:

    @Emaderton3: "The NRSA stipend levels, which many people/departments/institutions rely on for general post-doc salaries regardless of funding source, just went up substantially. "

    Well. Sort of. NRSA stipends have been increasing 0-2% each year to keep pace with inflation, except in years with Continuing Resolutions or other such nonsense. They have not "gone up substantially" since the early noughties, and they STILL haven't met the NIH's pledge to raise starting stipend to $45K (made in 2001).

    Also, check out the monthly breakdown: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-14-046.html

    Depending on which city you live in, $3500/month doesn't go very far. (I'm looking at you, Boston and SF.)

    This year will certainly be better than previous ones for postdocs, but don't think that worrying about living paycheck to paycheck and paying off student loans weighs heavily on people's minds and wallets at this stage in their career.

  • drugmonkey says:

    We keep having these conversations, but nothing ever happens.

    depends on your perspective. Elite-ish graduate programs and even Sally Rockey are talking about "alt careers" now in a way that never happened in the 90s and 00s. that was a previous round of trainee complaining that saw halting unionization attempts and the national postdoc thingy and ultimately a buyoff via NRSA raises.

    There has most certainly been change. Whether it is enough change or coming along fast enough....well, sure.

  • Dave says:

    Change as in talk, sure.

  • rxnm says:

    I don't think postdoc salaries and working conditions would be considered bad if they were in fact legitimate "training" positions rather than cheap temp work. Given the harmful indifference of the NIH etc to trainee issues, however, I am generally for postdocs unionizing. Causing pain is the only possible way to even get a seat at the kids' table at this point.

  • @Mtomasson says:

    One point I have not seen raised is the difference between large labs and small in the training pipeline. At my inst a handful of labs churn out scores of PhDs and many small labs have 0-1 students. If we treat the pipeline as uniform and just reduce the number of trainees overall, I'm afraid, for a change, the rich will still get richer. That is, large labs will go from 8 students to 4 and most small labs will have 0. I wonder what the effect would be if we capped the number of students a PI could mentor per year. That might have the effect of turning down the pipeline as well as spreading some of the training more broadly.

    On the staff scientist position--it's a death trap because of the total lack of institutional support. At least that's how I've come to see it. No matter how good one's intentions, the relentless financial pressure on PI's means that eventually in a down year, the higher salary of these folks put them at high risk to be fired. And then, they are extremely difficult to hire in a glutted marketplace. The only solution I see for this is to have the institution realize how much they gain from stably employing staff scientists and provide some support. I don't see this happening any time soon. I do have someone coming to the lab next month as staff. She got her degree in my lab and I know her to be stellar. Even so, I told her I can support her for 2 years, and after that, she eats what she kills, i.e. continued employment depends on her helping me get grants to support her salary.

    PS In some heavy irony, our graduate training grant is going up for renewal soon, and I just got an email requesting my information to support the status quo of our PhD pipeline.

  • becca says:

    Jo- recent graduates face a 13.5% unemployment rate with a Bachelors, and a 8.6% rate with an advanced degree (source: BLS http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2013/02/art1full.pdf). Please understand that people are actually suffering, whether or not a PhD pays off for an individual (a calculation which you cannot reasonably make without looking at opportunity cost instead of salary alone).
    The most illuminating comment I've heard from Dean Dad (google if you've never checked him out- he's very good) is that community colleges are responsible for preparing people for a middle class that society has decided it no longer wants. Graduate schools and institutions that employ postdocs are responsible for preparing people for research jobs that society has decided it no longer wants.

  • MoBio says:

    @drugmonkey
    "MoBio- I am very curious. Did you ever consider whether you should ever train any more PhD students over the N=1 needed to replace yourself? Or, if you suspected this hit rate would obtain, N=2? What was your thought process about how many students you 'should' train over the course of a career?"

    I've never contemplated that question.

    I take very few students and only those that I honestly believe will be successful and happy in science.

    I assume my students are similarly 'picky' about how they choose their PhD advisors.

  • qaz says:

    @Dave, don't underestimate the importance of talk.

    Talk opens up new training possibilities (like internships) and new networks (like connecting to previous trainees who have been successful in careers other than academia). Talk opens up the possibility of non-academic role models.

    Even just saying that going to do something else is still a great thing and not a "failure" changes how one sees oneself. I still remember when one of my trainees pointed out that some of the language (like "alternative careers") implied that not going to academia was a "failure". This is certainly something I never believed. But when I looked at the language I had used, I realized she was right. I changed my language. I also started working on connections that could provide her an in into the career she wanted (in this case, policy). [Notice, I didn't "try to find her an alternative career". Instead, I pulled in connections that could allow her to reach the career she wanted.]

    One of the biggest issues with the whole "alternative career" thing was that if a training grant or professor had lots of students who went on to successful non-academic careers, that training program (grant or professor) would be penalized in further grant reviews (like T32 renewals or NRSA applications). The new "talk" coming down from on high has started to chang that review process.

  • dsks says:

    "The only solution I see for this is to have the institution realize how much they gain from stably employing staff scientists and provide some support. I don't see this happening any time soon."

    There is certainly the argument that a lab with a PI and a couple of full-time and fully trained staff scientists should be more productive and, consequently, more competitive for future grants and the indirects the institution desires than a lab that has to go through constant staff turnover and the retraining that comes with it. It's probably not a direct and sufficiently self-evident argument to put to the bean counters, though, unfortunately.

    One thing I think institutions need to do, and which is in their interest, is to provide options for teaching to lab staff. In fact, having come across a fair few postdocs that would like to pad their resume out in that direction, in addition to a fair few instructors that would like to spend a bit of time in the lab*, it seems like merging these responsibilities isn't such a bad idea from the institutions perspective, even at research intensive institutes. It would also be a response to the objection heard in recent years that universities have drifted away from the conventional model upon which they were founded, in that students are largely being taught my non-active scientists.

    (This doesn't mean I'm at all in favor of these ridiculous "teaching postdoc" gigs btw, in which the teaching is basically subsidized by outside entities, thereby removing the very incentive to lay down skin in the game that we need the institution to have for this to work.)

    But, yeah, the only way an institution will step up and support such potential staff positions is if they can see a clear income generated from it, whether that be in indirects or through tuition.

    And, of coursed, we need to shoot down a lot of myths about the work load required in re teaching, which having been on a 1:2/2:2 course load for the last 3 yrs, I've come to realize isn't quite as onerous as I had been led to believe.

    * Many of the folk in these positions are there not so much out of choice but through necessity (trailing spouse being a common one), and would actually relish the opportunity to get back in the lab a little and keep their name in the literature. A potential labor pool not to be sniffed at, I think, part time or otherwise.

  • WH says:

    For current grad students, what is the answer to the converse of this question?

    When is it sane to go on to a postdoc?

  • Joe says:

    @ qaz regarding the term "alternate careers"
    Our grad program has a "professional development" component that includes training, classes, or internship in one of multiple possible career paths that might be of interest to these biomed grad students including patent law, entrepreneurship, science writing, public health, government service, or biotech industry.

  • namnezia says:

    So how many graduate students is it morally acceptable to train? One per career to replace you? Two? None? I'd be interested to hear where you draw this line.

    Second, not sure why there's this impression that postdocs and students are cheap labor? To support a grad student we have to pay, stipend, benefits and tuition, so close to $65K. A starting postdoc is a bit less, just salary and benefits, but by the 3d year paying a postdoc costs about $75K. A technician fresh out of college would be way less, one with a masters a bit more.

    Postdocs (and students) are the intellectual driving force of the lab, not cheap labor. They have a key role in determining the direction of the research and are critical to making it a vibrant productive place.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yes, replacement. One. Exactly, namnezia, well done.

  • E-roock says:

    I think the PI should be the intellectual driving force. Call me crazy. I do clinical research, so our dept has a lot of career certified clinical lab techs. We seem to have a lot of R01s that spin off from and use Program project infrastructure, so our justifications throw effort at the appropriate career tech or core PD that originally got started/hired as part of the P-. Our resident training program has a research track where they do a limited project under supervision of a faculty member during last 1-2 yr of residency, which brings some intellect to the lab, they are motivated and have a good sense of medical relevance. I've made good use out of the highly motivated (if naive) post bachelors, aspiring med student who does 1-2 yr as a lab tech while polishing up the med school applications. They want pubs too. My dept won't let faculty take a post-doc unless they have an R01, and not all labs have post docs. I see the rare critique that Personnel is top heavy, not on my apps though.

  • dsks says:

    "To support a grad student we have to pay, stipend, benefits and tuition, so close to $65K?. A starting postdoc is a bit less, just salary and benefits, but by the 3d year paying a postdoc costs about $75K."

    This is what frustrates me about the NIH's faux-helplessness on this topic. It would seem self-evident that simply reducing incentives for schools to bloat their grad programs for tuition subsidy and instead encourage PIs to rely primarily on postdocs would not only ease up the pipeline pressure but reduce costs and increase labor efficiency (because in my racket, an experienced postdoc is worth 5 good-but-green grad students). Hasn't this very recommendation been made by recent panels convened by the NIH, which it has then subsequently ignored?

  • Dave says:

    Some people are still stupid enough to want to enter a Ph.D. program with the expectation of being a PI. What can we do, except teach them a lesson by accepting them?

  • Dave says:

    A lot of people here are missing the point. Ph.D. programs and postdoctoral positions are like auditions. Lots of people try, few will make it. That's how we ensure that only the most cut-throat... er... um, talented scientists will become PIs.

  • A lot of people here are missing the point. Ph.D. programs and postdoctoral positions are like auditions. Lots of people try, few will make it. That's how we ensure that only the most cut-throat... er... um, talented scientists will become PIs.

    I've been making this exact point for fucken years.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It's a stupid system. That is the point, PP. Nobody fails to diagnose the ailment. The problem lies with Black Knight types who can't admit the legs have been cut off the body Scientifique

  • DrugMonkey says:

    People pay the most money to athletes, actors and rock stars who have made The Show. But those people have to produce more or less by themselves. It is not a systematic feature that they get most of their productivity out of the work of the minor leaguers.

    It would be like if your beloved Wankees didn't take the field until the 9th inning and you had to watch the Penobscot Peahens up until then.

  • dsks says:

    "That's how we ensure that only the most cut-throat... er... um, talented scientists will become PIs."

    It's a little worse than that, I think. Thing is, ambition is still a positive quality in this racket, and I don't fault folk for having it, but even this doesn't ensure success. The primary influence on success is the impact of the grad student or postdocs published data. That seems like it should be fair, but...

    Consider this quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss:

    em>"The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he [she] is the one who asks the right questions."

    The problem we have right now is that scientists are, indeed, largely judged by the answers they produce rather than the questions they ask (and, of course, their approach to answering them). But the answers are - or should be - outside of the honest and objective scientist's control; that's nature's gig, and completely independent of the scientists talent (or ambition for that matter).

    But for every important question we can ask, their are numerous answers spanning the breadth of the impact scale from negative data to Holy Paradigm Shift Batman! A postdoc entering a lab to spearhead a project, no matter how sexy, is essentially embarking on a game of Russian roulette: only one in which 5 of the 6 chambers carry a bullet.

    An additional consequence of putting so much emphasis on answers is that it strongly favors large laboratories, where the greater the number of postdocs the greater the chance is that one of the projects will yield a high impact answer. Great for the PI, great for the lucky postdoc... not so great for the other postdocs, and not remotely informative as to whether the lucky postdoc was a better or worse scientist than his or her compatriots.

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