So my post about why biomedical scientists suffer more than others in STEM fields seems to have received some attention. ScienceBlogling Chad Orzel writes:
That’s true, but here’s the thing: it’s not unique to biomedical science. The same problem afflicts physics– every time I post something about wanting to attract more students into physics, I’m guaranteed to get a few hectoring comments about how irresponsible it is to try to recruit students to a field with too many Ph.D.’s and not enough jobs. And it’s not like being on the tenure track in physics is all hugs and flowers and adorable puppies– also crossing my RSS reader yesterday was Sean’s brutally honest assessment of the tenure process at research universities, in physics. That’s a pretty good match for what commenters on the Science Professor post say about biomed.
If you want to assert that biomedical scientists are uniquely unhappy, you need to come up with some problem that is unique to biomedical sciences. The two best candidates I saw in my quick skim of the comments to the original post are the doubling of the NIH budget in the 1990’s, which led to a probably unsustainable increase in the number of students taken on, and what I’ll snarkily summarize as “Doctors are assholes.”
I don’t disagree with Chad; in fact, within academia, I think physicists have it worse.
But note that key phrase: within academia.
My experience, being in a place with a lot of physics Ph.D’s, is that they have far better options outside of academia than do biomed scientists. Math and programming skills, along with a good dollop of brains, aren’t a bad skill set. At the Major Genome Center we have quite a few physics Ph.D’s who were hired for their math and computer skills–often from a sojourn in industry. Biomed Ph.D’s are too often trained very narrowly with a skill set that is only useful within biomedical science: they really don’t have a lot of fallback options. But since I guess I didn’t make the point clearly, I’ll turn it over to ScienceBlogling Jessica Palmer:
This is something I’ve tried to explain many times to nonscientists: most of the esoteric techniques I mastered during my thesis aren’t useful outside a Drosophila lab. They’re not transferable to any other field of biology, let alone any other scientific or nonscientific profession. Those skills I picked up on my own – speaking, writing, teaching, how to think about problems and dig into the literature unaided, how to handle severe setbacks, find ways to motivate myself – those are all transferable to virtually any career. But you have to teach those to yourself….
Within your research, also, you should focus as much as you can on learning broadly applicable skills – programming, statistics, how to handle large datasets. Later on, your obscure skills will impress nonscientists, but it’s your transferable skills that will make them want to hire you, and help them envision what you could do for their organization.
…acquiring transferable skills is only a good investment if everyone accepts that graduate students are not going to follow their PIs into academia in exactly the same field using the same techniques. Until the “traditional model” of academia dies, graduate schools will be turning out students prepared to compete for a handful of academic jobs, and unprepared to do anything else.
And while I don’t know if this qualifies as a unique problem, I think the other thing to note is that I think this problem is much greater for biomedical scientists than it is for those Science Professor called “ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot.” I had lunch this week with a senior evolutionary biologist (I guess that falls under “whatnot”…) who agreed with my speculation and then added that, in his department, a good portion of the ecology and evolutionary Ph.D’s go onto public policy or government positions (e.g., one student will be joining the USGS to track coyote populations). Between a good background in statistics and more public service options (you don’t find too many cell biologists who become wildlife biologists), ‘E&E’-ers seem to have more options. In my experience, this coincides with less graduate student and post-doc misery.
Yes, funding is limited across the STEM fields in academia–and that makes everyone miserable. But I still contend that biomedical scientists are trapped within academia far more than other STEM disciplines. They need more options.