Mike the Mad Biologist

Science Professor makes what I think is an entirely accurate assessment of the misery of many in the biomed academic world (emphasis original):

However, much of what I have learned, although fascinating, has been second-order compared to this:

People in the biomedical sciences seem to suffer a lot more than those of us in just about every other STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] field.

…My data: 87% of my blog-related e-mail is from unhappy, bitter, troubled, distraught biomed grad students, postdocs, technicians, and early-career faculty. Others write to me with problems, but these tend to be of the “I’m frustrated with my advisor” sort rather than the “I’m being tortured, abused, deported, sued, and I fear my academic career is over” sort that I routinely get from biomed people.

I specify biomedical rather than the life science in general because, as far as I can tell, the ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot seem to be reasonably content, or, at least, not more stressed out or bitter than your average chemist, physicist, or engineer. No, it’s you people doing the important disease-curing research etc. who really seem to have the most difficult academic lives of all.

Of course there are happy biomed people. I can think of at least 2, maybe 3. And I hasten to admit that I don’t really understand much of what I read in some of the biomed blogs, especially all the posts focusing on NIH R2D2 grants or whatever. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but the e-mail data nevertheless indicate that something is going on over there in the biomedical departments.

Having been both on the “ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot” side and the biomedical side, this really rings true.

The basic problem stems (so to speak) from too many biology Ph.D.s and not enough funding, leading to an immensely cutthroat environment–and one that is psychologically damaging to boot. Yet, despite a massive surplus of biomedical Ph.D.s, there still is a culture that places the academic tenure track above all else–and in my experience, it seems much stronger, much more inviolate than in other STEM disciplines. If you leave the tenure track, you are viewed as a partial (at best) failure.

So why does this dysfunctional cultural paradigm exist? I think it has to do with two things: specialization and Ph.D. training. When you go to Ph.D. school in biology, especially biomedical sciences, you learn a great many difficult techniques requiring lots of skill–it’s not for dummies at all. The problem is that most of the skills you learn are only useful in…the biomedical sciences. Most don’t learn enough ‘generalist’ skills, such as high level math or serious programming skills, to have other career alternatives if academia doesn’t work out. Worse, many of the skills they learn become obsolete. A decade ago, sequencing was a Ph.D. activity, or at least, an activity supervised very closely by a Ph.D. Now, it’s largely automated, and the machines are mostly run by technicians with bachellors degrees. So even within biomedical science, for some Ph.D.s ‘up or out’–moving to a managerial position (i.e., becoming a PI)–is the sole option.

The way around this is to give those who go to Ph.D. school training that allows them to survive outside the biomedical tenure track. But one reason that won’t happen is the shortage of funding (feedback’s a bitch). It isn’t in the career interest of those doing the training to have students do many things that aren’t related to the success of their lab’s–their PI’s–research program. At some point, students have to start to produce for the lab.

It would be more productive if all of the letter writing that went on in defense of re-re-submissions of NIH proposals were directed at this problem instead. But that would mean recognizing the inherent instability of the current academic biomedical research structure.

Just saying.

Comments

  1. #1 pip010
    March 30, 2011

    1st its a HUGE problem there is only one way to go for scientific research. second you should be a skillful in something, at least 1, math, coding, sys, tech, etc. then go for science! However this is exactly the opposite of the current model :( Im CS and I felt so much at ease doing bioinformatics MSc thesis in modern medical imaging techniques, such as MRI.

  2. #2 Joe H.
    March 30, 2011

    “The way around this is to give those who go to Ph.D. school training that allows them to survive outside the biomedical tenure track. But one reason that won’t happen is the shortage of funding (feedback’s a bitch). It isn’t in the career interest of those doing the training to have students do many things that aren’t related to the success of their lab’s–their PI’s–research program. At some point, students have to start to produce for the lab.”

    This is it. This is the problem, boiled and distilled into potent firewater. I hesitate to put too much on record about my feelings only being a 5th year in a biomed program, but I’ll say this: When I try to explain that I do outreach or write or communication work in order to raise my head above the masses of largely identical PhD students, my peers most often shoot me down with comments like “what does a soft skill do for the lab?” or “you can’t be the best at communication AND science”.

    And that’s the problem. Many smart people out there see the benefit of skills that are more broadly applicable outside tenure track, but those people aren’t on my committee and they don’t pay my bills. All THOSE people seem to care about is the scientific output as it relates to the Project and the Renewal.

    And when people like me aren’t rewarded at the bench for the things we do away from it, we are forced away from one to the detriment of the other.

  3. #3 escapee
    March 30, 2011

    Being in a dysfunctional lab is like being in a cult, or a ponzi scheme. When/if you finally free yourself, you wonder why it took you so long to realize you were being used. Grad students are nothing but cheap labor for many PI’s. And not because the PI’s are evil, but because they have no real choice but to squeeze every last drop of data from their students in order to stay competitive.

  4. #4 Robert Tabor
    March 30, 2011

    Another reason is that often biomedical scientists are employed at medical institutes where the culture may be more of a top down command structure where rank may take precedence over idealistic science. Because of the nature of some portions of the medical culture, disagreement at one institute may follow the scientist and create bias at other places of employment.

  5. #5 Mokele
    March 30, 2011

    I’ve gotta say that I really, really like (and, if I get my own lab, would to emulate) my current adviser’s model – PhD students are few & far between (there’s 1.5 at the moment), are given extensive freedom, and serve to open up new areas of research. Post-docs are hired to work on specific projects (with help from undergrads and TAs), and can outnumber PhDs 2-to-1. This way, there’s only a few doctoral students to contribute to the glut, but you can take advantage of the glut to pick up highly skilled new PhDs before their skills are obsolete and given them positions where they can work on your projects 100% of the time.

  6. #6 Taylor M.
    March 30, 2011

    I’m really thankful that I’m coming into the biomedical sciences field from the opposite side. I’m a Chemical Engineer by training but my PI has a very bio-focused lab. I study tumor metabolism while others in my lab study liver cell function or antibody production in CHO cells.

    The advantages to being in this department have been very clear to me from the beginning. I have access to some amazing biomedical scientists who have taught me a ton of very specific techniques, but I can also rely on my math and engineering training to help me think differently in certain situations. I’m expecting that having the ChemE background with my training in biology and disease mechanisms will make me marketable to more than just academia.

    Every field is becoming much more interdisciplinary and people who focus on one specific field or technique are becoming less competitive. It’s both an exciting and unfortunate situation. It’s exciting because the collaborations that are forming will bring about some amazing science. But it’s unfortunate for those want to stay very focused and specialized.

    Hopefully things will be moving in a more positive direction for the biomedical sciences soon!

  7. #7 Frank
    April 5, 2011

    I don’t think the problem is limited to biomedical research. I got a doctorate in botany, and all my friends in another lab were on anti-depressants. Not sure why I wasn’t, come to think of it.

    There’s something about living in borderline poverty, with a real chance that you’ll fail after working on something for years, living with the knowledge that, once you graduate, you’ll have a <10% chance of getting the academic job you want, living with the knowledge that you’ll have to go through ~5 years of below-average-wage postdoc work to become “ready” for that academic job, then having to work 60 hours/week to keep it… Knowing that if you’re good, your reward will be a lifetime of sitting on committees and writing grants, rarely going hands-on with your reasearch. Oh, I don’t know. What could possibly be wrong with this?

    Finding that I could be earning twice as much as a consultant (at least pre-2008) was just icing on the cake.

    As one of my grad school buddies said, “If they every develop a good cure for OCD, the population of grad students will drop by 80 percent.” He may be exaggerating, but there’s a germ of truth in that statement, and it doesn’t bode well for the future health of the life sciences.

  8. #8 Lindsay L
    April 5, 2011

    It is a genuinely sad state – one that I finally decided to run away from screaming. I completed my Ph.D., tried two different post-docs, and realized it would be best for everyone (especially me) to be one less scientist in the giant pool of applicants fighting for the few good jobs.

    The good news is that people do actually learn important umbrella skills from going through doctoral training and, with just have a little creativity and a lot of courage, you can find/create a career outside of science (industry/academia).

    I traded in my pipettes for a soldering iron so to speak. I’m a recovering molecular biologist who found a fantastic home as the Director of Education at an amazing electronics company. I’ve never been happier and am grateful for my Ph.D. because it helped me get to this position.

  9. #9 Patrick W
    April 6, 2011

    The problem in the biomedical sciences is that the field is still stuck in a 1970′s mode of thinking about careers and salaries, where the only path to making a living is an academic professorship. The P.I.’s running lab still think it’s OK to pay technicians $35,000/yr and postdocs not much more. Very few non-Postdoc PhD’s get hired in these labs.

    The whole field needs to move to a system where there are fewer postdocs and wage slave technicians and more experienced PhD’s running the lab and making decent livings doing so or, cut drastically the number of PhD students in their programs.

  10. #10 Larry Hunter
    April 6, 2011

    Stop wining, and get in a better training program. Graduate students in biomedicine should be learning a lot more than bench techniques. In my training program, we emphasize not only technical skills, but communication (written and oral), professionalism, and life-long learning and development — see our mission statement: http://compbio.ucdenver.edu/Hunter_lab/Hunter/bioi7711/ed-mission-statement.pdf

    Anyone who can do these things can succeed in industrial or government environments as well as academic science. Our graduates work for pharma and biotech companies, as well as NIH and (mostly) good academic positions.

  11. #11 Anonymous
    June 15, 2011

    Can I be accepted in a university if i want to study Biotechnology or Microbiology if i failed Physical science?