DM, what's your reasoning behind advocating for reducing grad student numbers instead of just bottlenecking at the PD phase? I'd argue that grad students currently get a pretty good deal (free degree and reasonable stipend), and so are less exploited. Also, scientific training is useful in many other endeavors, and so the net benefit to society is to continue training grad students.
My short answer is that it is more humane.
The long answer is....
I'd argue that grad students currently get a pretty good deal (free degree and reasonable stipend), and so are less exploited.
I'll point out that as with most labor exploitation, there is always an argument that the worker gets something out of the arrangement. And yes, we have been through this before about how graduate student stipends are better than minimum wage and the working conditions can be pretty decent in most cases. However, the simple fact is this.
Most people enter PhD training programs in the US because they want the schweet, schweet life of a Professor.
Let's set up some basics with Fuhrmann et al, 2011.
Two prior studies have looked at doctoral student career preferences and how these career preferences change over time (Golde and Dore, 2001 blue right-pointing triangle; Goulden et al., 2009 blue right-pointing triangle; Mason et al., 2009 blue right-pointing triangle). In a 1999 national survey of doctoral students in 11 arts and sciences fields, Golde and Dore found most students entered graduate school strongly considering a faculty career, but students reported a change in interest for this career path during their training: 35% of students reported becoming less interested in this career path and 21% reported becoming more interested
Yep. Most people enter PhD training programs in the US because they want the schweet, schweet life of a Professor. The authors continue on to report their own study.
We surveyed all basic biomedical sciences doctoral students at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to determine what career paths they are strongly considering, whether these preferences are different from when they started their training, and, if so, why....
Respondents initially identified all categories of careers they were strongly considering. As expected, the vast majority of students (92.3%, n = 432) were strongly considering careers in scientific research (i.e., in academia, industry, government; Figure Figure1).1). Seventy-two percent (n = 338) of students included a traditional academic career path (i.e., as faculty with a significant portion of their time spent on research) among the career paths they were considering.
Yep. Most people enter PhD training programs in the US because they want the schweet, schweet life of a Professor.
And the fact that disillusionment sets in during the course of graduate training....
When asked to choose a single career path, confidence in the chosen career path depended on the stage of graduate training (p = 0.006). A large change in confidence occurred between the first and second year in graduate school, with the number of students “still considering a range of options” increasing from 48.8% (n = 40) to 66.7% (n = 52; see Figure S2 in Supplemental Material 2). Uncertainty in career choice remains high (61.4%, 61.8%, and 55.2% for third, fourth, and fifth years, respectively) until students approach the expected time of graduation (sixth or later years, 33.3%, n = 23). How do we explain the drop in career choice confidence during the second year of graduate school?
makes no nevermind to the simple fact that most people enter PhD training programs in the US because they want the schweet, schweet life of a Professor.
So when jmz4 asserts
Also, scientific training is useful in many other endeavors, and so the net benefit to society is to continue training grad students.
and Comradde PhysioProffe reminds us that unemployment rates for PhD holders in the US are pretty low, this only nibbles around the edges of the exploitation issue.
Graduate students work their tails off compared with the average Bachelor's degreed technician. Longer, harder with more responsibility, effort and overall input to the job. On average. They do so because most people enter PhD training programs in the US because they want the schweet, schweet life of a Professor and the system tells them that they have to bust ass to achieve that goal.
The people telling them this, i.e., their supervising Professors in labs, on their Committees and running their graduate programs, understand, or should understand, that most of the graduate students are not going to reach that goal. And they benefit professionally from the extra hard effort that is expended by the graduate students. Again, the graduate students do not put this effort in because of their extra awesome salaries, they do it because most people enter PhD training programs in the US because they want the schweet, schweet life of a Professor.
Inducing people to work in part for a reimbursement that you know they will never get is exploitation. Cynical and evil from a certain point of view.
The fact that we have evolved all sorts of TrueBelief about how graduate education MustBe to cover up the system of labor exploitation does not impress me in the slightest. Don't fall for it. Notice how the monolithic dissertation has been replaced by de facto or explicit requirements for three first author papers? or for publishing papers in certain high JIF journals? All the while bleating at the poor sucker graduate student "well if you want to be competitive for a faculty job...". It's a scam.
Postdoctoral "training" is more of the same. The following graph is handy to illustrate the central issue underlying all of this, namely that the essential research force for the NIH extramural grant apparatus is....the trainee.
That is all that the vast majority of the graduate students and postdocs working on NIH-funded scientific research are there for. Not for their own training. Not so that they can become the future Principal Investigators. For their labor.
And the system is set up to create this huge backlog of highly selected and
"trained" experienced individuals who now want very badly to obtain the schweet, schweet life of the Professor. Or at least some reasonable facsimile thereof as a PI in a soft money appointment. Some of them manage to get in a position to apply for NIH grants. Increasing the number of mouths at the trough. While budgets stay fixed and their supervising Professors (remember them? look up) do not retire to make way for their several-times greater doctoral progeny than replacement value. That would be one*, for the slower members of the audience.
So. Why shut off the tap at the entry to graduate school?
Because it is the most humane thing to do. Most people enter PhD training programs in the US because they want the schweet, schweet life of a Professor. The Fuhrmann et al study shows that it is possible to beat this out of people in the course of graduate training but I see this as a terrible, horrible outcome. They change their minds because they think they cannot reasonably attain their goal. I do not believe it is some natural and organic process of deciding that other things are more attractive (although this must be true for many). That Fuhrmann thing showed that these poor students wanted to get as far away from academic science as possible. Now sure, UCSF may be a particularly horrible environment but I think we will find things not too terribly different in most of the high energy doctoral programs that pump out most of the science PhDs.
The realization that the schweet schweet life of a Professor isn't going to materialize comes with a lot of emotional pain for a lot of people. If you deny this you have your head up your ass and I can't even discuss it with you. I was there at one point. I know a lot of people who were there in my approximate scientific generation. I've listened on the Internet for years now to the various brands of disgruntledoc. People go so far as to commit suicide.
There is something deeply wrong with leading people down the rosy career path into their mid 30s or later and then saying, in essence, "see ya! good luck with that alt career-y thing!". After we, as a business, have profited handsomely from the extra effort they put out in hopes of obtaining the, say it with me now, schweet, schweet life of a Professor.
It is far better to head these people off in their early twenties, fresh out of their Bachelor's education and have them try some other pursuit.
*Oh sure. Someone has to staff the SLACs and teaching Universities. I realize. But we're still way, way over producing PhDs, people. Let's not lose sight of that.