Mike the Mad Biologist

By way of Seeing the Forest, we note that at Miller-McCune, Beryl Lieff Benderly has a must-read story about the supposed shortage of scientists in the U.S. A while ago, I described the supposed shortage of scientists as a problem of incentives:

As long as financial ‘engineering’ is more lucrative than actual engineering (and other disciplines)–both in terms of pre- and post-tax salary–and has better job security, many students, particularly when too many graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, will choose to do something other than science.

And consider defending the economic justification for tenure the pre-40 career path of the typical Ph.D. scientist:

I’ve always thought that the primary reason for tenure at the collegiate level was economic. Intellectual freedom notwithstanding, without academic tenure, universities would either have to pay more for their faculty or wind up with worse faculty. Consider an undergraduate who might have loans to pay off. Then add five to eight years during which, if he is lucky, he doesn’t accumulate debt, but certainly isn’t saving any money. Then add the post-doc (at least one) where, again, there’s low wages and little savings. Follow that with five to nine years of running like hell, at which point you [might] receive tenure. If tenure weren’t available, few people would put up with that career trajectory, unless the pay were higher.

So I found this part of Benderly’s article dead on target:

Before the mid-1970s, U.S. science and engineering graduates could look forward not only to intellectual challenge and the excitement of doing important and admired work, but to security and, ultimately, an upper-middle-class income. Aspiring scientists could climb a clearly defined ladder from graduate school to stable and reasonably lucrative careers. Able students could finish a doctorate in four or five years, generally supported by a fellowship or assistantship.

A handful of the most talented new Ph.D.s might then spend a year or two as postdoctoral fellows, generally following a particularly promising line of inquiry in the lab of a prominent professor. Marked as rising talents, they would proceed to especially prestigious assistant professorships.

Now, not so much:

For the great majority, becoming a scientist now entails a penurious decade or more of graduate school and postdoc positions before joining the multitude vainly vying for the few available faculty-level openings. Earning a doctorate now consumes an average of about seven years. In many fields, up to five more years as a postdoc now constitute, in the words of Trevor Penning, who formerly headed postdoctoral programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the “terminal de facto credential” required for faculty-level posts.

And today’s postdocs rarely pursue their own ideas or work with the greats of their field. Nearly every faculty member with a research grant — and that is just about every tenure-track or tenured member of a science department at any of several hundred universities — now uses postdocs to do the bench work for the project. Paid out of the grant, these highly skilled employees might earn $40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab. A lucky few will eventually land faculty posts, but even most of those won’t get traditional permanent spots with the potential of tenure protection. The majority of today’s new faculty hires are “soft money” jobs with titles like “research assistant professor” and an employment term lasting only as long as the specific grant that supports it.

Um, yes. This is exactly right. I believe the phrase you’re looking for is labor exploitation. As one anonymous director of postdoctoral affairs put it:

The director of postdoctoral affairs at one stellar university, who requested anonymity to avoid career repercussions, puts it more acidly. The main difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers, he jokes, is that the Ph.D.s don’t pick fruit.

And quelle surprise, this might convince people to not continue in science:

Many young Americans bright enough to do the math therefore conclude that instead of gambling 12 years on the small chance of becoming an assistant professor, they can invest that time in becoming a neurosurgeon, or a quarter of it in becoming a lawyer or a sixth in earning an MBA. And many who do earn doctorates in math-based subjects opt to use their skills devising mathematical models on Wall Street, rather than solving scientific puzzles in university labs, hoping a professorship opens up.

And all the quants going to Wall Street worked out just peachy for everyone too!

Look, Benderly and I aren’t telling anyone with a Ph.D., unless perhaps they’re one of the few annointed ‘stars’, things you already don’t intimately know. But the point is that the problem is pretty obvious–those in positions of authority and who benefit from the current state of affairs are willfully ignorant (italics mine):

For a variety of reasons, however, many Ph.D.s find the transition from academe to private business hard to accomplish. And at the university, “alternative careers” — that is, becoming anything other than a professor — generally get the lip service worthy of distant second choices.

This traditional value system does not persist only because of professorial cluelessness. In his recent book, Lives in Science, University of Georgia sociologist Joseph Hermanowicz documents the key role that this mythology plays in recruiting students for graduate programs. “Professors rely upon these people to carry out their work,” he says, “and one way in which to get that accomplished is by training people in the ideals of science, which include these notions of success.”

Back when today’s senior scientists were starting their careers, this mythology formed part of an implicit bargain, labor force economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University has pointed out. Academic science functioned as an apprenticeship system, with graduate students and postdocs accepting meager pay and long hours, knowing that their teachers took personal responsibility for launching their careers. Indeed, the success of senior scientists’ students was an important measure of their professional standing, notes Vincent Mangematin of Grenoble Ecole de Management in France, an expert on scientific career trajectories.

Starting about three decades ago, however, this long-standing agreement began to unravel. In a number of fields, placing students in desirable faculty jobs became more and more difficult, and several years of postdoctoral “training” gradually became the norm for nearly everyone rather than, as formerly, a mark of special distinction. It was, in fact, a form of disguised unemployment.

The old system is long dead and buried. So what to do? I proposed moving to a research center model, as well as preparing for scientific careers outside the traditional faculty path, and so does Benderly:

Assorted critics of the present system have suggested various models. Generally these involve staffing labs with permanent career employees, from technicians to Ph.D. senior scientists, on a long-term basis rather than depending on low-paid transients. Some institutions have used variants of this model. They include the Howard Hughes Medical Institution’s Janelia Farm in Ashburn, Va., and the legendary, now essentially defunct, Bell Laboratories, which belonged to the monopoly telephone company and produced seven Nobel Prizes.

Scientists-in-training also need effective means of preparing themselves for the careers that exist outside the academy. This will require universities to provide resources and time during graduate school and postdoc years for learning unrelated to an ever-narrowing focus on a single research question.

Given the structural incentives for faculty and universities to preserve this system, I’m not sure how we change this, especially since independent post-docs (as opposed to lab tech cum post-docs) aren’t critical to maintenance of the current system. But we can’t change anything until we recognize the problem.

And the problem is not a damn glut.

Comments

  1. #1 JMG
    June 15, 2010

    Maybe some of the problem is the decaying financial situation of higher education. It kind of reminds me of why public secondary and elementary education is in decline: years of small blows, cutting an art program here, laying off a few teachers there. Individually, these cuts aren’t too damaging, but there’s no corresponding upside. Over time, the system begins to decay from the inside out, and major problems arise.

  2. #2 Tony O'Brien
    June 15, 2010

    I stopped studying physics at undergraduate level because The maths was hard, what I was interested in was not available as research where I lived but mainly because I could not get my head around the non absolute nature of time.(I was never going to be one of the anointed ones, I probably would not have even got accepted to study for a PHD.)

    Got a business degree instead. Subsequently my notional hourly rate was rather good as a public servant, but so many extra hours were just part of the job. (As a Post doc you get a poor hourly rate and you work many unpaid hours.)

    I got better value in income, learning how to drive a truck. Ten hours of lessons a little under a thousand dollars and better income. True the hourly rate is less, but I get paid for every hour I do and get penalty rates.

    So do I regret not carrying on with the physics? Not one little bit (OK I do regret it a little bit). The rewards are not there, the respect is not there.

    For every really senior academic on some pretty good money, how many post doc’s are on peanuts? Who earns more; a world leading scientist, or a top city level coach?

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    June 15, 2010

    I finished my PhD in four years, in 1965, and hired on as an Assistant Professor. We thought things were tight back then. Little did we know. Although my department did not have a PhD program, over the years, I was involved in educating some 15 eventual PhDs. All of them became active in the field without ever doing a post doc as such. I retired in 1997, and from what colleagues tell me, my university is a much less happy place now than it used to be. I think higher education in general is in real trouble, and science and engineering particularly so.

  4. #4 The Phytophactor
    June 15, 2010

    Presently our small biology dept has shrunk to tiny because of a combination of opportunities elsewhere, retirements, and a severe lag in hiring. There should be 10 new positions here for biologists at just one university. And of course you must cope, and then if you do cope successfully, some superior intellect in administration gets the idea that you don’t need so many biologists.

  5. #5 justlurking
    June 15, 2010

    “I think higher education in general is in real trouble, and science and engineering particularly so.”

    Yea, those folks in the humanities have it made.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    June 15, 2010

    Looking at it from the other side (industry) I know a fair number of PhDs who have been paid very well since they were 30, publish regularly in their fields, and have research budgets larger than most entire academic departments.

    They are colloquially called “failures.”

  7. #7 K. Rose
    June 15, 2010

    The postdocs at the large state university where I postdoc’d in the late 1990′s at were categorized as “seasonal help”. Yep, just like the extra folks hired to shovel the walks in the winter. That way the postdocs are not eligible for benefits.

  8. #8 Jim Thomerson
    June 15, 2010

    There was an article in Bioscience, maybe around 1980, perhaps earlier, which viewed science from a population biology viewpoint. There was a period of logistic rapid growth, with several doublings of resources available to science. However, at the time of the article, the prospects for another doubling were very low. The conclusion was that carrying capacity had been reached or surpassed. There would be intense competition for resources in a 0 growth situation. Some areas of science would expand and others contract, even go extinct. The number of available jobs would not increase. How many people got hired would determine how many people had jobs, regardless of how many qualified job seekers there were. There was also a prediction of strong contraction in the number of science PhD programs, and the number of large lab enterprises. I don’t think that has happened, and here we are today.

  9. #9 M.
    June 15, 2010

    There is one thing that also NEEDS to be mentioned more often: benefits!

    Most places classify postdocs differently then other personnel, so they don’t have to pay retirement or other benefits. Usually, health insurance is all you get.

    This means that all those years you spend training for an unattainable position also don’t count towards your retirement! (And children of postdocs don’t get any breaks when attending the university, as is the case for other employees.)

    More repercussions are going to be felt fairly soon, I think. The quality of incoming graduate students is still good, thanks to the pervasive mythology – but this is starting to fray, and once the mask is off, the quality will decline.

    Currently, a lot of first-class researchers are simply leaving. There is a selection process going on: the best and the brightest, at some point during the interminable postdoc, leave for industry, or for law school, or for medical fields. This leaves those who couldn’t make a change, and the few lucky ones who stumbled onto a discovery important enough to propel them forward faster.

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    June 15, 2010

    My wife taught part time at the university for maybe 20 some years. The last five years she taught, the university put everyone into the retirement system. So she gets $100+ a month plus supplementary medical, dental, and eyeglass insurance. I understand this is no longer how the system works. The benefits bit is something one has to consider. My wife went over to cash out, and was persuaded not to do so.

  11. #11 Joseph
    June 15, 2010

    I’m a US citizen postdoc in physics. My best job lead is outside the US in South America. It should be good on all fronts, since I can readily get a non-postdoc position which often becomes a professorship, and there’s a good budget to visit conferences so I can stay in the physics scene and get a job later back in the US. Apparently, places outside the US are quite willing to pony up very good pay for researchers.

    Who knows. If it turns out to be really good, I may not need to worry about returning (although staying active in the international physics scene is critical). The US is losing, even if I totally suck.

  12. #12 Joseph
    June 15, 2010

    (I would have been in an industry job if the recession hadn’t hit them when I was about to fly up for interviews.)

  13. #13 dzdt
    June 15, 2010

    I’m one of those quants who went to wall street with my math Ph.D. The implicit tone in this post reflects the attitude familiar to me before leaving the academy, that anything outside of the academic track is a less attractive waste of talent. From this side of the fence, it looks much different. The problems I work on are every bit as hard and interesting as the research questions I looked at as a graduate student, but these actually matter*. The people I work with are every bit as intelligent and educated as in a top academic department. And the pay is much better. The only major downside is the limited number of vacation days. It still amazes me that anyone can view this as a second tier option, after actually experiencing both worlds.

    (*There is an open secret little known to people outside of mathematics that “math research” in academia is completely disconnected from reality, with most branches of study applying to absolutely nothing of practical use. It doesn’t matter. Really.)

  14. #14 Joseph
    June 15, 2010

    dzdt: are you hiring? :)

  15. #15 A
    June 16, 2010

    The postdoc-with-little-pay-and-without-future system is well entrenched; funding agencies don’t want to have PIs hire permanent research staff, so as to avoid future obligations, and PIs are under pressure to hire as much help for as little money as they can, with their limited grant money, so as to stay competitive.
    It won’t change as long as every postdoc job gets filled.
    Only once [famous PIs at tier-1 university] advertise for postdoc positions, and do not find anyone for a year will the situation improve.
    Unfortunately too many postdocs and graduate students have illusions, maintained by their employers, about their future prospects.

  16. #16 Anonymous
    June 16, 2010

    I won’t reveal my name, as if this came back to me my chances of continuing on in academia would be utterly destroyed.

    Anyway, I took a look at my prospects for academic work and realized that a Ph.D. was as far as I could hope to go. There simply won’t be positions that I have even a remote chance of getting. So why continue? To put it simply, I’m desperate enough to spend any amount of time doing academic work (I have foolish notions about making a difference.) that I’m willing to settle for getting into a Ph.D. program and contributing to science for at least a little while. Once I have my Ph.D.? Well, that’s pretty much it. It’ll be back to my current state (unemployed and unlikely to find a job), so I might as well get to work on my MRS degree (Since my blue-collar hubby actually makes more than I ever would as an academic anyway.).

    Could the problem fix itself in the next ten years? Possibly, but f*cking unlikely. When you get right down to it, there isn’t much of a dumber career decision right now than “Ph.D”.

  17. #17 "GrrlScientist"
    June 16, 2010

    i was one of those students who believed the old saying “do what you love and the money will follow.” so i did what i loved, and worked damned hard at it, sacrificed everything i had, and worked some more. i ended up broke, unemployable, alone and facing homelessness after a PhD and a postdoc. science is the only profession i know of where the establishment regularly eats its babies.

  18. #18 Jim Thomerson
    June 16, 2010

    Seeing the way the academic world is today, I’m really pleased that I was able to retire without ever using Powerpoint. I think there is a certain thinking today, that if one sort of progresses along, and keeps one’s head down, good things will happen. Maybe so, but I think one is better off being alert and paying attention to the world around, with the purpose of manipulating circumstances to advance your cause. As said above, we did not have a PhD program. I thought this a good thing, because it would have been pretty shabby. On the other hand, our MS program was very successful in terms of our graduates getting appropriate employment, going on for PhD, or professional schools. If I were looking for work today, with the qualifications which got me into an assistant professorship in 1965, I’d be building fence, fixing windmills, or raising goats to make a living.

  19. #19 photoguy
    June 18, 2010

    @13 — “The problems I work on are every bit as hard and interesting as the research questions I looked at as a graduate student, but these actually matter”

    I don’t doubt that the problems are hard but do they really matter?

    For example, perhaps you could explain in greater detail, but it’s not clear to me how things like high freq. trading algorithms make a difference to society. Sure there will be winners and losers but the net impact on society is zero and money is just being shuffled around without creating anything (every buy is matched by a sell). This is unlike most of science and engineering which directly contribute to increasing standard of living for everyone.

  20. #20 Joseph
    June 18, 2010

    “For example, perhaps you could explain in greater detail, but it’s not clear to me how things like high freq. trading algorithms make a difference to society.”

    On the positive side, there are greater returns on e.g. your retirement investments (for you fortunate people who are able to sock some away (let alone those extremely lucky folks who actually get *matching* funds by their employer!! (not that I’m frustrated at being a postdoc and unable to save much, let alone get those golden matching funds)).

    On the negative side, we have the latest recession/depression….

  21. #21 photoguy
    June 18, 2010

    If you invest in a hedge fund that uses high freq. trading and make excess returns compared with the market average, your gain is somebody else’s loss. So there has been no net contribution to society.

    For example, I have an algorithm that monitors the trade sequence and discovers that big pension fund A is going to buying a large block of shares of stock XYZ. My algorithm then puts in a buy order for XYZ that gets executed just before A’s order. I then then turn around and sell my stock to A ( few a few pennies or fractions of a penny more).

    My earning money comes as direct loss to the people who have pensions with A. Pension fund A had to pay a little more for it’s purchase of XYZ and that extra amount has been captured by my algorithm.

    I met someone who worked on algorithms to do this and the math got fairly involved and was very challenging. But if we are looking to better society, I don’t see how putting bright minds to work on problems like this is useful.

  22. #22 ellen666
    July 13, 2011

    I worked as a technician in academia for 20 years w/ a B.A. in Math and Chemistry. A few points you overlooked follow.
    1) The PI’s do not generally train anyone. You either have to reinvent the wheel, or get lucky and have another lab member help/train you in the lab’s techniques. They only want their PhD students to graduate because it’s points for them towards tenure or some teaching award.
    2) Politics still play a big role so sucking up works great, working hard does not.
    3)”Good research leads to good teaching” is one of the worst ideas to ever come from academia. Most PI’s are a disaster in the lab and very boring lecturers. They have to teach to keep their jobs but could care less about the success of any of their students. Most seasoned PI’s hate teaching undergrads since they think it’s beneath them.
    4) PI’s think that anyone working for them wants science to be their entire life. I enjoy lab work but I also need my free time to do my hobbies. I would also like to advance my career but that is impossible w/o a Masters or PhD eventhough I have great skills. The PI’s also disrespect me because I “only have bachelors degree” eventhough I manage the lab so efficiently they never have to worry about anything going wrong or running out of any consumables.
    5) I will never understand the reason for student torture. I know they feel that the students have to suffer like they did to toughen up for the real world but why would anyone keep taking the abuse when there are so few good job prospects available?
    6) PI’s think the only reason anyone would get a PhD is to remain in academia. The author is correct that they disrespect scientists working in the private sector eventhough they can’t wait to make their big discovery and use some company to sell it for them.

  23. #23 Wow
    July 13, 2011

    “If you invest in a hedge fund that uses high freq. trading and make excess returns compared with the market average, your gain is somebody else’s loss. So there has been no net contribution to society.”

    And HF trading creates an overclass: those who have the money and connections to trade on the stock exchange floor.

    If you want microsecond trading, you can’t be any more than 300m from the exchange. And that’s 300m of cabling and routing.

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