Mike the Mad Biologist

In response to my post about the scientist glut, ScienceBlogling Razib writes:

But that aside, what’s the point of funneling more math and physics graduates into math and physics instead of finance if they can’t put bread on the table? Or is the issue narrower, specifically the difficulty of getting an academic job? Or perhaps the major dynamic is that science & engineering professions are just really bad at capturing the value they generate for the society as a whole?

One of Razib’s commenters hits the nail on the head:

We do not need more scientists, but academic science as practiced depends on a large surplus of expendable trainees (grad students and postdocs) who have to believe that a career in research is an attainable goal. This creates an overtrained, underemployed workforce, but the alternative is to make “trainee” type research positions professional positions, which would be expensive. First, because you would have to offer real salaries and benefits, and second you could not create the illusion that working 80 hour weeks for 40,000 a year is going to someday get you your own lab, meaning less work out of each employee.

Tangetially, I raised this in a post about how NIH and other funders need to shift funding from R01-type grants to larger program project grants (italics added here):

From the perspective of academia, more resources devoted to larger projects means fewer smaller grants–and grants are how untenured professors get tenure, and tenured professors become full professors. Sure, if academics are involved with large project grants, they can swing some funding (sometimes a lot of funding), but it typically won’t be ‘their’ funding, and that also matters for tenure decisions. Publications will have many, many authors, and, again, they can’t be claimed as ‘theirs.’ Now, in defense of this system, it is very good for training students. It is very good at coming up with novel research ideas. It’s a good system for academia, but, if you want to turn basic research into translational research (never mind interventions), it’s not designed to do this

Before everyone freaks out (ZOMG!! YOU EATED ALL TEH GRANTZ!!), I’m talking about shifting funding. But one advantage of large project-oriented or center-oriented* grants is that they are educational ‘sinks’–they soak up surplus PhDs. As long as the economic incentives are for academic researchers to produce far more PhDs than are needed to replace themselves**, we will continue to have this problem. And after all, isn’t the point of training all these people to then have trained people doing stuff?

To shift gears completely, I think (without any evidence to support this) that one of the quiet casualties of the housing bubble is that it denied financial oxygen to biotech–or more cynically, the housing bubble wiped out the potential for a biotech bubble. That would also serve as an ‘educational sink.’

Finally, government budgets at the local, state, and federal levels have been shrinking. There could be lots of opportunities for certain disciplines in government research and service***. But shrinking budgets have eliminated any potential for growth in these areas****.

*Whenever I propose more center-oriented funding, academic researchers freak out–and forget that grants are awarded to institutions, not individuals, despite the colloquial use of “his/her grant.”

**Even a modest training regime–let’s say, one student for a six year period with no overlap between students–will result in five students during a faculty member’s career.

***By service, I not only mean administration, but also doing non-research activities (e.g., surveillance work in epidemiology).

****Even if budgets don’t shrik, without a massive wave of retirement, constant budgets in real dollar terms will do very little to act as an educational sink. If you think this is an expansion of ‘big government’, well, no one seems to mind expanding big gummint when it comes to our surveillance/prison state.

Comments

  1. #1 Min
    January 21, 2010

    Language matters. To say that there is a scientist glut is to say that we have too many scientists. That statement is difficult to swallow, in our innumerate society. Don’t we have creationist glut? Better to say that we have an insufficient demand for scientists. :)

  2. #2 Mike the Mad Biologist
    January 21, 2010

    Min,

    fair enough.

  3. #3 AcademicLurker
    January 21, 2010

    “Sure, if academics are involved with large project grants, they can swing some funding (sometimes a lot of funding), but it typically won’t be ‘their’ funding”

    I think there is a big problem with inertia at the level of individual (mostly medical) schools. My sense is that NIH would like to encourage more large team science and collaborative projects, but promotion/tenure committees are very set in their ways.

  4. #4 Alex
    January 21, 2010

    It is possible to have a glut of highly specialized, highly trained people competing in a narrow job market, and also have a glut of scientifically illiterate people.

    One possible solution to that problem, one that a lot of professional societies and NSF talk about, is shifting some of that highly specialized scientific talent into k-12 and public outreach and science journalism and science museums and lots of other good things that would benefit the public. OK, but it’s not clear that all of those hyper-specialized people would actually enjoy it (the mental traits that make for good research can sometimes make for good teaching and outreach, but not always). Even for those who would, was it optimal to spend 6 years in a Ph.D. program and 3 years as a postdoc before switching gears into those endeavors? Sure, there’s a lot of potential benefit in having people with “in the trenches” experience of research telling people about science, but that’s only one part of the equation, and that’s a lot of time. Maybe it would have been better if they had started preparing for a different endeavor earlier?

    Academics need the cheap labor of trainees, and they have persuaded themselves that it’s horrible when people leave the pyramid scheme. Sometimes they phrase it in snobbish terms and imply that a faculty position at a research university is the only good path. Other times they try to pretend it’s about being progressive and saving the world, lamenting that anybody who leaves the pyramid scheme is “Leaking from the pipeline” and it’s so horrible and for the sake of justice and rainbows and puppies we must stop this ASAP.

    But the truth is that we have more people than we need in academic research, and they’re going to have to go somewhere. Some of them will probably do great in jobs informing the public, others will do great in industry (where demand depends on the business cycle as much as the sub-specialty in question) and others will go for jobs not directly related to science. The big question we should be asking is what is the most humane way to get them out of the pyramid scheme sooner.

  5. #5 Janne
    January 21, 2010

    Two quibbles:

    First, whether a grant is institutional or not really depends on the grant. It may well be true both theoretically and practically with the specific grants you are thinking of but it’s not necessarily true in all cases. There’s plenty of examples of a PI moving to greener pastures and taking their big-money grant, their grant-purchased equipment and half their staff along, leaving the original institution with an empty lab, some bewildered students and a sudden hole in their budget.

    Some types of research grant really are personal. They’re awarded to a specific researcher for doing a specific project, and where that research happens is not relevant. Another type I’ve seen is nominally tied to the institution, but the grant is worded such that payment is conditioned on professor Name working at the institution and being the beneficiary of the grant. If Professor Name leaves, so does the grant.

    Second: “And after all, isn’t the point of training all these people to then have trained people doing stuff?”

    No. The point of training all these people is that they want to be trained. It’s up to them what they want to do with their training afterwards. We don’t restrict the number of drama students just because paying acting jobs are few and far between.

    Pat answer, I know, but really – a big part of the problem is that we are giving students a distorted view of what they’re likely to be able to achieve in their career. If we make it clear both before and during training that the chances of “making it” academically are small, then people can make a more informed choice.

    The other part is not giving them the training to do something else when they can’t do an academic career. Graduate students need to get enough, well, practical experience and guidance to be able to do a non-research, non-academic career after graduation.

    With decently well-informed students that are given a fighting chance to get a worthwhile job after graduation then having a surplus is no longer a problem.

  6. #6 Alex
    January 21, 2010

    Pat answer, I know, but really – a big part of the problem is that we are giving students a distorted view of what they’re likely to be able to achieve in their career. If we make it clear both before and during training that the chances of “making it” academically are small, then people can make a more informed choice.

    The other part is not giving them the training to do something else when they can’t do an academic career. Graduate students need to get enough, well, practical experience and guidance to be able to do a non-research, non-academic career after graduation.

    With decently well-informed students that are given a fighting chance to get a worthwhile job after graduation then having a surplus is no longer a problem.

    +1

  7. #7 A
    January 21, 2010

    Indeed, in many science fields, more Ph.D.s are trained, and hang around as postdocs for too long than there ever will be academic positions. The American public research enterprise depends on such cheap labor, and those who have tenure have no incentive to change that, but rather maintain the illusions of their students.
    (I remember a senior professor answer a postdoc’s question ‘What would you tell new students wanting to do research in [field]’ by saying, without hesitation, ‘I’d tell him: If you are good, you will make it.’ That was at a time when even postdoc positions were very competitive, and one of this professor’s former postdocs was unemployed).

    That would be fine, I think, if the Ph.D.s and postdocs were well-informed about their ultimate (very small) chances of success, and if there were ample other careers available, with help given to career transition to industry or K-12 education or other.
    For example, all in the biosciences could also get a M.D., which certainly is a very well-paid career choice.(I know that will add years to your education).
    For the hard sciences, the problem is that society / industry typically undervalues the contributions by scientists and engineers, as ‘talent is cheap,’ due to market forces, and can nowadays be imported or outsourced. E.g. compare the salaries of chief engineers and the chief legal officer at private companies; legal is better-paid, even if it does not require much more than extreme carefulness. When scientists / engineers to go into Patent Law, their salaries also improve.

    But then, the over-educated are normally bright enough to eventually recognize their situation, and will find something which pays the rent. People working in industry are mostly quite happy. But the transition out of academia is often unnecessarily difficult.

  8. #8 Lyle
    January 21, 2010

    Alex hit the nail on the head the university research system depends upon its nearly slave labor contingent to work. A question I never see answered in a field is what percent of folks in a field go into non university jobs. The reciprocal is the number of students a faculty member should have in a career.the current system is Malthusian in the extreme, and is now approaching breakdown along with all of academia reaching a bubble state. There has been little productivity improvement in academia still the same old lecture type system.

  9. #9 anns
    January 22, 2010

    I would add that, alas, the indentured servitude model of academia along with the debt-model of college financing that accompanies it (with tuition rising to partially offset lack of social investment) are probably also responsible in some ways for the housing bubble that drained the oxygen out of the funding environment in the first place.
    NYT says that before the bubble burst about 40% of harvard grads were going into finance (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/weekinrevie/12lohr.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all). Why? It’s a job with a future and they have debt to service. As inequality gets worse and more students graduate with higher debt, more of the brains will go towards the worthless, socially harmful professions that are fueling the problem. Because we made it a choice between what they’ve been told is the American dream – marriage, a house, a family while you’re still in your late twenties or early thirties – and doing worthwhile work which fulfills them and makes the world a better place. These brains will then create new innovations which will create the next bubble and the next bailout, increasing inequality and decreasing social investment. The more threadbare academia gets, and the worse it treats people interested in furthering human knowledge, the worse our society will get as the minds that should have cured disease or discovered the GUT go on to evade SEC regulations instead.

  10. #10 David Johnson
    January 22, 2010

    How is this even surprising or interesting? Anyone who did a PhD and/or postdoc in the “naughties” will ho-hum at this. How could you possibly have a lab with a big shot PI and 16 trainees at any particular time, and expect that all 16 trainees (or even one of them) would get an academic job? I know that biologists aren’t mathematically inclined, but it’s so obvious to everyone but the PIs.

    There have also been many studies available for nearly a decade to support the gut-reaction analysis: http://www.ascb.org/newsfiles/careers_rewards.pdf

    I have first author papers in Science and Nature, and my advisor still suggested that I would have to do another postdoc to make myself marketable to academia. Nope, I’m over it.

  11. #11 Paul Nelson
    January 22, 2010

    It’s interesting to read this blog, and the comments that follow. Clearly, the author and most of the commenters have convinced themselves that once you do a PhD, you are duty bound to become a professor in accademia. This is not the case. I did a phd, and 2 university post docs, followed by a fellowship at a research institution, and then went (very well paid) into Industry. It is the way to go. At this point I have to point out that I am not an American, but came to the USA on an H1-B visa, and now have a green card. I am not slave labor at reduced rates either – the company I work for pays above industry average. The pros[ects for an excellent career are fantastic and I am relising the American Dream. Unfortunately, it seems too many native americans (and by that i mean people born here in the USA, not the people Columubus called “Indians”) seem to think the American Dream includes being a millionaire and owning multiple homes etc. If people would dial back their greed, they would be so much happier in life and career.

  12. #12 Jim Austin
    January 22, 2010

    Hi folks. This is an issue that’s been kicked around for more than a decade. At Science Careers we’ve covered it extensively. It’s one of those questions that lacks a simple answer. But there are some things that can be said about it.

    * WRT certain comments, a distinction needs to be made between society’s need for something and true, old-fashioned economic demand. To say that there’s a glut of scientists does not mean there are too many. It means the supply is much larger than the demand. It’s economics, not a value judgment.

    * There’s a real, serious problem of under-employment among smart, well-trained 30-something scientists, which is to say that we’ve got too many postdocs and not enough places for them to go.

    * And yet, statistically science remains quite a good career; though these things vary with field, unemployment rates are nearly always well below the national averages and salaries, while quite low in early career relative to the level of training, are still well above the poverty line (even then) and KEEP RISING FAR LONGER THAN IN OTHER FIELDS. That’s probably because science training gives you more productivity potential. A mason or a carpenter can only improve his or her skills so much, but a scientist can keep getting better.

    * Which is to say that, though there definitely are problems, and postdocs are indeed exploited and have too few opportunities, things aren’t really all that bad overall.

    * Also, one of the problems is that, while many, many scientists end up with great careers, often those careers were not and could not have been foreseen. They end up happy, but not where they aspired to be.

    * Do we really even need to mention that doing science can be an amazingly gratifying career?

    * Finally, though clearly the immigration/mobility issue comes in to play here, one does not increase opportunity by decreasing it…which is to say that protectionist labor policies are not the answer.

    Jim Austin, Editor
    Science Careers
    http://www.sciencecareers.org

  13. #13 Forever-a-postdoc
    April 10, 2011

    “and second you could not create the illusion that working 80 hour weeks for 40,000 a year is going to someday get you your own lab, meaning less work out of each employee.”

    I’d like to disagree with this comment. Productivity of the american postdocs and grad students is quite bad. Yes, they do work 60+ hours, but they do this wasting lot of time unnecessarily, due to their inexperience, lack of general knowledge etc.

    Grads are burdened with TA and courses; postdocs jump from one place to another every other year — all this does not really go with good productivity.

    A professional, adult technician might as well do the same or better work as a postdoc in the regular working hours.

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