…if you’re not a tenure-track PhD (and that will be most of you. Sorry). I’ll have more to say about ScienceBlogling DrugMonkey’s training post tomorrow, but one of the disturbing things in the comments of his post was the high numbers of people who viewed PhD training only in light of producting more tenure-track faculty. Since that’s something I’ve blogged about before, I was going to respond, but then science got in the way (stupid SCIENTISMZ!). Fortunately, two excellent pieces showed up discussing this topic (my timing is exquisite). Over at Scientific American, Beryl Lieff Benderly asks if we produce too much scientists. Benderly (italics mine):
But many less publicized Americans, including prominent labor economists, disagree. “There is no scientist shortage,” says Harvard University economist Richard Freeman, a leading expert on the academic labor force. The great lack in the American scientific labor market, he and other observers argue, is not top-flight technical talent but attractive career opportunities for the approximately 30,000 scientists and engineers–about 18,000 of them American citizens–who earn PhDs in the U.S. each year.
“People should have a reasonable expectation of being able to practice their science if they’re encouraged to become scientists,” says labor economist Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “It shouldn’t be a guarantee, but they ought to have a reasonable prospect.” But today, however, few young PhDs can get started on the career for which their graduate education purportedly trained them, namely, as faculty members in academic research institutions. Instead, scores of thousands of them spend the years after they earn their doctorates toiling in low-paying, dead-end postdoctoral “training” appointments (called postdocs) in the laboratories of professors, where they ostensibly hone skills they would need to start labs of their own when they become professors. In fact, however, only about 25 percent of those earning American science PhDs will ever land a faculty job that enables them to apply for the competitive grants that support academic research. And even fewer–15 percent by some estimates–will get a post at the kind of research university where the nation’s significant scientific work takes place.
As long as we train PhDs to do other things than be tenure-track faculty, there isn’t that much of a problem, but, given the way research is currently structured, there’s little economic incentive for that to change from within the academy (italics mine):
Despite a longstanding dismal job market in academic science, however, departments continue to recruit graduate students and postdocs because they need skilled and inexpensive labor to do the work promised in professors’ grant proposals. Doctoral-level researchers must receive the “trainee” wages paid to postdocs–generally about $40,000 a year for 60 to 80 hours a week with no job security or promotion opportunities. But paying postdocs a true professional wage would mean many fewer highly skilled hands, fewer publications and less chance of winning a grant renewal…
This dynamic creates distorted incentives, an artificial sense of shortage and a vicious circle. From the standpoint of a department chairman, Teitelbaum says, “you’ve got this research funding [that] will finance 15 graduate research assistants and 10 postdocs and your department and your faculty are committed to doing the research because you won the grants, but there aren’t enough people applying to be graduate students and postdocs from the U.S. From your perspective, that could be deemed to be shortage.” But, he emphasizes, “the demand is inside the institution, it’s not in the labor market.” Faculty members intent on getting the research done are “not thinking about…whether there’s post-university demand for people who have gotten PhDs or done postdocs.”
….Some senior academic scientists have told Teitelbaum they are “very worried” about the fact that the supply of scientists that this country’s universities train is thus totally unrelated to the demand for researchers in the market for career positions, but they find it “difficult to be open about it because it’s very threatening to the structure by which research is done,” Teitelbaum says. ” Who’s going to actually do the bench research?” Other professors, educated decades ago, “finished their doctorates, in a very tight labor market where they could get a tenure track position or have several offered them right off the bat,” Teitelbaum continues. “So they have only positive views of their experience. And they might think that people today are just complainers or whiners and [so] just get on with it. If you’re good enough you’ll do fine. That would be a fairly typical position.”
So what are possible solutions to what is a glut (or at least, a tenure-track glut)? I’ll get to mine in a bit, but Jennifer Rohn has some ideas (italics mine):
…Phase I, all lab heads train only 3-5 students over their career lifetime – just enough to replace the current generation of lab heads, with a few extra in case of attrition. These students would be the very best that the universities produce, and competition would be fierce. A few more of the lab positions would be held for post-doctoral training of those few students. But the bulk of research staff in the labs of the world would be made up of permanent, professional scientists. These would be paid a lot more than ‘apprentices’, but you probably need far fewer of them to get the desired results. And perhaps a few more students and postdocs could be trained with money paid into a general institute kitty contributed by the other professions who now skim off science’s leavings. After all, these companies – banks, law firms, publishers, big pharma and the like – are getting the benefit of good staff without contributing to the bulk of their education and training. This way, you’d get a more efficient lab, all talented scientists would have real prospects in research and morale would be a lot higher. Perhaps more meaningfully, those who leave the bench for related jobs would not have to suffer through a superfluous number of postdoctoral years funded by siphoned-off research money that was intended for purer pursuits – you only need a PhD to do many of these jobs, not eight years of postdoctoral servitude during which pension and savings accumulations are concomitantly delayed.
What happens when the pool of permanent research staff is ten or fifteen years away from mass retirement? Here’s where we reach my dream, Phase II. Gradually you start expanding the university science places and PhD positions, letting in perhaps 2 to 3 times more than you’ll need to replace each of the permanent staff as they go offline. Eventually, with adjustments, the system should reach an equilibrium: enough PhD students to stably feed a majority pool of permanently employed, professional research scientists, each lab with a traditional lab head at its helm and a team of true apprentices.
It sounds good, although, as Rohn admits, the implementation will be tricky, to say the least. But what she’s describing is the ‘center model’ which is often disparaged. I’ve argued that the center model needs to be more common in science:
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?
Personally, I work at a large science center, and one of my roles is to work with outside collaborators. From my perspective, I am doing far more interesting and relevant science than I would be as an independent PI. I’m also not required to do jobs (i.e., straight administrative stuff) that many PIs, at some institutions, are required to do–I can focus on the research. I never say never, but I can’t ever see myself wanting to return to academia. My pay is better, and I (usually) have some time for a life*. Unlike many advanced degree programs, where the employment options are usually broader (or there are simply more jobs available), the PhD results in an incredibly narrowly focused career path. If you want to ‘fix the shortage’, then broaden that path.