Pharyngula

This week’s Nature has a horribly depressing article. If you’re a graduate student, don’t read any further.

Really, stop. I hate to see young biologists cry.

NSF data show that the number of students in US graduate programmes in the biological sciences has increased steadily since 1966. In 2005, around 7,000 graduates earned a doctorate. But the number of biomedical PhDs with academic tenure has remained steady since 1981, at just over 20,000. During that period the percentage of US biomedical PhDs with tenure or tenure-track jobs dropped from nearly 45% to just below 30%.

7,000 students per year casting a covetous eye on a total of 20,000 positions? You’re all waiting for me to die, aren’t you?

What about the post-docs?

Although numbers of applicants for postdoctoral fellowships awarded by the NIH increased between 2002 and 2006, the percentage who were successful dropped sharply (see graphic). And the average age of scientists earning their first R01 grant — the NIH’s bread-and-butter grant to an independent researcher — has risen from 34 in 1970 to 42 now.

i-046279d60bd7c66173626225ef60d57a-fellowships.gif

A suggestion:

A posting to an online careers discussion group puts the matter bluntly: “If you aren’t thinking about ‘alternative careers’ before ever setting foot in graduate school, then you’re being foolish.”

The article does mention that the number of Ph.D.s going into industry has tripled in recent years, so it’s not totally hopeless … but we are seeing a shift in the biology profession, that’s for sure.


Check, E (2007) More biologists but tenure stays static. Nature 448:848-849.

Comments

  1. #1 factician
    August 23, 2007

    But the way we talk about the profession hasn’t changed. All the professors at my *large medical school* still talk like we’re all going to be academics. While I would certainly like that, it just doesn’t seem likely that any of us actually will be. Even if we wanted to go to a liberal arts school, and mostly abandon research, most liberal arts schools are hiring sessional teachers, not tenure track folks. Something around 40% of the teachers at the state school where I am are “temporary” staff who have been around for more than 5 years.

    It’s really even more depressing than that Nature article makes out.

  2. #2 me
    August 23, 2007

    I can’t remember the last time I saw a student or postdoc who was as driven to find an academic position as I or most of my colleagues.

    They’re ALL going alternative, mostly straight out of grad school—bypassing postdochood.

    Good for them. Smart kids.

  3. #3 Josh
    August 23, 2007

    Yep, my PhD advisor and the senior faculty in the department when I was in school were definitely of the opinion that if you weren’t thinking high-powered research tenure-track, you were a second class graduate citizen.

  4. #4 Comstock
    August 23, 2007

    As factician pointed out, the biological science graduate programs seem to operate as if all students are on their way to becoming academics. I do think it leads to an unrealistic sense of hope among the students. It is not hard to look at the situation as exploitative, with false hopes driving the students on. I don’t want to blame PIs too much; I see the universities as eager players, ready to get their share of the grant money, and not worrying that much of it relies on the labor of a servant class who will never be made master of the house.

  5. #5 dorid
    August 23, 2007

    … and we complain that the US is behind other countries in science and technology. Looks to me that science degrees are becoming as devalued as other degrees. If there’s no where to go after getting a degree, why would people (who have to eat and pay rent, after all) want to go into the sciences.

    I can see mothers saying “what do you mean you want to be a biologist?! Honey, there’s just no money or jobs. It’s like being a professional football player. Sure, everyone wants to do it but the odds of making it in the field… well… don’t you want a nice RELIABLE job… Like a HAIRDRESSER, maybe?”

  6. #6 coturnix
    August 23, 2007

    “….the average age of scientists earning their first R01 grant — ——- — has risen from 34 in 1970 to 42 now…”
    Crap! This is no “young researcher”! I am ancient, yet if I apply next year I’d only be ‘average’?!

  7. #7 Mike O'Risal
    August 23, 2007

    You’re right; I’m depressed now.

    On the other hand, there’s more to the world than the United States. I have no particular reason to remain here if I can make a better living elsewhere. In fact, there are a lot of reasons to want to leave a country where a large fraction of the populace thinks of one as “the enemy.”

    It’s a big world out there. Perhaps we’re in the early days — or even the not-so-early days — of what will eventually be seen as either a brain drain that impoverishes this country, or else as a successful effort to “drive the snakes out of Ireland.”

  8. #8 Drew
    August 23, 2007

    Depressing is right. I just passed 4 years as a postdoc (Genetics and Cell Biology), and with 3 pubs under my belt, and 4 more either in press or in the pipes I can barely get a sniff in the Academic world. An industry job is about my only hope if I’m not interested in an “alternative” career. It hardly makes the ~10 postgraduate years I’ve invested seem worthwhile.

  9. #9 Ben D
    August 23, 2007

    Sigh. Maybe things are better in the UK though? That’s what I’ll keep telling myself.

  10. #10 Mike P
    August 23, 2007

    I have a question for you academic types. I’m in a science-related career, though not a scientist, so I’m curious as to how you folks view industry positions. Is it like selling out? Or can you be academically respectable working in industry?

  11. #11 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    It’s depressing, all right. And irresponsible and exploitative on the part of the universities, who for years now have been quite knowingly turning out far more Ph.D. recipients than there’s a market for, and (with a relatively small number of departments being honorable exceptions) giving little more than lip service to career counseling. (The system is even more exploitative where postdocs are concerned, because they’re still relatively cheap labor but, compared to grad students, far more productive.) Knowing the odds, I breathed a big sigh of relief when my sister (who I like to refer to as “the real scientist in the family) recently got tenure at Northwestern.

    However, I am personally here to testify that there IS life after academia.

  12. #12 Drew
    August 23, 2007

    I have a question for you academic types. I’m in a science-related career, though not a scientist, so I’m curious as to how you folks view industry positions. Is it like selling out?

    When I started in graduate school that was the prevailing sentiment. There’s less of a stigma now. It’s certainly easier to justify when you can finally afford to eat well and own your own home. πŸ™‚

  13. #13 Tony Popple
    August 23, 2007

    I don’t think we should be too upset if there is an increased focus on industry as opposed to academia. We are going to be facing a lot of challenges associated with health care and an aging population. The biomedical industry needs to provide solutions to a lot of difficult problems and they will need good people to do the work.

    Over the last several decades, there has been a lot of anxiety in the physical sciences with research being transferred to engineering departments. I still strongly support basic research and see it as highly necessary, but I have to admit that I have personally benefited from this transition. It took a lot of useful technologies out of the lab and made them commercially available.

  14. #14 Drew
    August 23, 2007

    (The system is even more exploitative where postdocs are concerned, because they’re still relatively cheap labor but, compared to grad students, far more productive.)

    Ah, but that’s the rub. We’re all cheap labor (even the tenured profs to some degree). The system relies on exploiting the wide eyed dreamers that will work for peanuts and beer. Research would likely come to a grinding halt if we were paid handsomely (or even hourly). For my doctorate I routinely put in an 80+ hour week while being paid for 20. πŸ™

  15. #15 Randall
    August 23, 2007

    Well, fuck. I should have listened to my friends and switched to CS when I could still make the big bucks. Well, I guess there’s always doing something entirely unrelated…

  16. #16 MartinC
    August 23, 2007

    And yet when one Discovery Institute hack doesn’t get tenure its apparently the conspiracy of the century.
    The situation in the US is actually quite good compared to a lot of places in Europe where there is a similar (or even worse) lack of permanent positions. Thats why you get a lot of europeans (and asians) adding to the numbers chasing your local positions in the US.
    Its obvious we just need more ‘framing’ on this one to help us see it in a better light.

  17. #17 factician
    August 23, 2007

    I’m in a science-related career, though not a scientist, so I’m curious as to how you folks view industry positions. Is it like selling out? Or can you be academically respectable working in industry?

    It’s a very different lifestyle. The friends that I know who have gone into that route can barely talk about their work with me in the vaguest possible terms. I often learn more about what they do by reading about their company in newspapers than I do from talking to them.

    I really enjoy talking about my work, and if I go that route, I will really miss it. There are some companies that still publish about their work, but there are precious few of them.

    On the other hand, the friends that I have in industry aren’t driving an 11 year old car and a 17 year old car like my wife and I… They have retirement accounts. And take vacations. My wife and I have been together for nearly ten years (5 as husband and wife) and we’ve only taken one vacation in that time… So it does look a little like selling out, because the monetary compensations are considerable (if I went to industry tomorrow, my salary would at least triple).

  18. #18 Michael Vieths
    August 23, 2007

    I recently finished my undergrad biology degree, while working full-time as a programmer. Every time I look at grad school, it turns into ‘I won’t even be able to afford my mortgage’. I’m making almost 4 times the stipend listed for Molecular Biology grad students at the U of MN, and that was without a degree. I keep telling myself that it’s about more than the money, but if the odds are slim I’d even be able to make progress in a new career, it makes it hard to justify a switch.

    Are there any resources for what industry jobs are out there?

  19. #19 cureholder
    August 23, 2007

    When I was in graduate school (not in biology, but in a field far less worthwhile, political science), I once spoke with a senior professor about the odds of getting a good academic job after earning my PhD (as that field had no real industry alternative).

    He paused, sighed, and said, “Well, where there’s death, there’s hope.”

    Fortunately, I found (after five years and two MAs) that I hated the academic side of the field (as virtually all poli sci research is pointless academic bullshit, unlike that in biology). I wanted to teach. Having already gotten a teaching job (at a local community college), I left graduate school and focused my non-teaching time on entrepreneurial pursuits. Good call, by the way.

    Best wishes to all the bio grad students out there. It’s a tough field, but very rewarding for those I’ve talked to who stuck with it.

  20. #20 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    Michael, I suggest you consider getting a Master’s degree in a program geared towards preparing students for a career in industry. There are a lot more job opportunities at that level- many quite good- and the opportunity cost of getting the degree is far lower than for a Ph.D. I can’t say anything more specific because my impressions of the market would be way out of date, but I just wanted to plant a seed.

  21. #21 Peter Ashby
    August 23, 2007

    Back in the mid ’80s when I began to enquire about doing a PhD and what then I was reliably informed by several people that my career would be like this:
    Get PhD
    Get postdoc
    Get another postdoc, probably
    Get lectureship
    Get tenure
    Work
    Retire

    I was also told that I was at a lucky age, the cohort of lecturers who had been hired en mass in the early 70s with the expansion of university education were all about to retire, thus opening positions for the likes of me to fill.

    But it never happened. It never happened because:
    There were now too many postdocs, even when I gradauated PhD in ’93.
    The universities were clawing back a whole stash of salary cash on the reitrement of tenured staff by replacing them with ‘Teaching Fellows’ on short term contracts. No research oportunities there.
    It was realised, consciously and unconsciously that PhD students represent cheap labour.
    Grade and degree inflation meant every girl and her budgie has a bachelor’s or honours degree so you do a PhD to differentiate yourself from the herd. Thus providing that cheap work force.

    So my career is now over, despite my name in Nature.

    Anyone reading this who is a biology undergrad: Don’t Do a PhD!!! You may have the innate optimism of the young,’ I will be one of the blessed ones’. But the system is now stacked solidly against you.

    I should have read the signs when during my first postdoc I was approached by a guy from another lab who had just been gifted his own lab on the basis of being given a project that struck gold. He asked me if I had any ideas for experiments he could do, as he had to write a grant proposal and had no ideas. There was my head full of perhaps two or three proposals worth of ideas I could have written there and then and this guy had been given his own lab. Science may have been a meritocracy briefly, it is certainly not one now.

  22. #22 MAJeff
    August 23, 2007

    You’re all waiting for me to die, aren’t you?

    Not you, but a generation of sociologists πŸ™‚

  23. #23 Randall
    August 23, 2007

    Also, this is somewhat supporting my decision to delay entering grad school; maybe during a “gap year,” I’ll find one of these “alternative careers” mentioned.

  24. #24 Ben
    August 23, 2007

    I’m just beginning graduate school in the life sciences. Knowing the current research conditions (dismal funding, few jobs, etc) in this country, I’m approaching my science career expecting not to obtain a faculty position. Although the Nature article is sobering, it is helpful for students and other young scientists to know what they are getting into.

    Personally, I like that there are several career options for new scientists. If anything, the current lull in funding support and jobs may lead to stronger support of more alternative career paths.

    I don’t have the actual statistics on this, but I know that funding availability is fairly cyclical. Although this particular downward trend may be more severe, at some point it has to go up, right?

  25. #25 Katie
    August 23, 2007

    I never wanted to be a PI and now after a couple of years of grad school am actually horrified by the idea. Then, I went to graduate school for all the wrong reasons anyway. I want to take my masters and get the hell out, but I am not in a big industry field and don’t know what the hell I would actually do nor what good the masters would do me. Wish I could go back to undergrad and forget about biology altogether.

  26. #26 caynazzo
    August 23, 2007

    I agree with factician: in academia selling out/working for the man is widely considered synonymous with industry employment. It’s a bit of reactionary envy at the pay-scale gap between the two, but it can also be a legitimate critique when science becomes corporatized.

    Though I’m a staff scientist at the NIH. Who am I to judge.

  27. #27 Jeff Alexander
    August 23, 2007

    Why is this depressing? Would you prefer to see fewer students earning doctorates? There is an easy solution to that problem, accept fewer students into the graduate programs. I suspect that for all fields which have a doctoral program there will be more graduates than positions for tenured faculty. If there is a huge mismatch, that is merely an indication that there are other good uses for the doctoral degree.

  28. #28 Tex
    August 23, 2007

    A very large part of this problem is directly due to NSF’s continued instance that each of their grants fund graduate students. In fairness to NSF, part of their emphasis on educating far more scientists that the country can absorb is related to mandates from congress, but still, they need to realize that they are part of the problem and not part of the solution. NSF should take a realistic view of what needs to be done to advance good science (like supporting already trained people who can do the proposed work faster and better, if not cheaper) and back off the social engineering for a while.

  29. #29 Josh
    August 23, 2007

    Why is a huge mismatch between # of PhD graduates and # of faculty positions an indication that there are other good uses for a doctoral degree (I am presuming that ‘other good uses’ here means other types of jobs)? I haven’t seen a very good correlation between the various factors that drive graduate student admissions rates (e.g., the myth that graduate students significantly increase the productivity of young PIs and the resulting desire by those PIs to write lots of money into grant proposals for grad students) and employment.

  30. #30 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    If there is a huge mismatch, that is merely an indication that there are other good uses for the doctoral degree.

    There’s a hidden premise in that argument- it assumes that most people who choose to go for the degree are acting on the basis of an accurate assessment of their future prospects. I am sceptical about that, to put it mildly. The consequent, which essentially states that the bulk of Ph.D.’s who end up in “nontraditional” jobs are not underemployed i.e. are suitably employed relative to the opportunity cost of obtaining the degree, also requires demonstration rather than assertion. (I really don’t know the answer to that one.)

  31. #31 factician
    August 23, 2007

    If there is a huge mismatch, that is merely an indication that there are other good uses for the doctoral degree.

    Ummm… not really. Graduate schools don’t accept students because they know there are jobs at the other end. Graduate schools accept students because tenured researchers need minions to keep the research enterprise working. Whether those minions on the conveyer belt fall off at the end matters little to whether or not they are allowed to step on the conveyer belt.

    Of the group of students I started with in 1997 in graduate school, about 2/3 of them are still involved in biology in some way (and making use of their Ph.D.). That’s just 10 years. In another ten, how many will still be in biology?

    Jobs in industry are competitive, too. The friends I have in industry are perpetually job searching in case their job disappears, and they get laid off (average time people last at an industry job is only a few years – can’t find reference, sorry).

    When I hear talking heads saying that the U.S. needs more people in biology, it makes me feel faintly nauseated. It’s simply not true, there’s an enormous glut of talent.

  32. #32 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    I have been on about this for years; universities are training too many students. It is MUCH too easy to get a Ph.D. these days, from both a financial AND scientific standpoint.

    I did my Ph.D. at a well-respected Canadian university, and during that time I published three first-authored papers in mid-impact factor (6-10) journals, second authored four others, wrote several reviews, and one textbook chapter. I was very happy with my training, because I made it what I needed it to be. I worked hard, and had a little luck. After working for one year at an NGO (in a research development capacity), I’m now returning to research to do a post-doc with a very well respected clinical oncologist/basic scientist.

    All of this sounds great, and I don’t want to toot my own horn, but my experience is not typical. My lab was full of people who were simply not qualified to hold Ph.D.s; they will never be capable of holding a tenure-track position; of being independent thinkers. And yet, my former university has recently made it EASIER for people to get funding to do a Ph.D.

    My solution is this:

    1. Reduce the number of internal AND external Ph.D. level scholarships, but increase the value of each award. This way, you reward the truly excellent students.

    2. Create an interview process for acceptance into a Ph.D., similar to that for MDs. Make sure you are only accepting people with the potential to be independent scientists, whether or not they eventually go on to do this (some people hate academia).

    3. Have universities pledge to create tenure-track positions in proportion to the number of Ph.D. students they accept in each area. It doesn’t have to be a 1:1 relationship (since not all Ph.D.s WANT to be PIs), but figure out what the proper proportion is, and stick to it. If you can’t afford to hire new professors, then you can’t afford to bring in new students.

    Graduate students and (especially) PDFs do all of the work, for VERY little pay. We accept this because we know it is training. In Canada, the government has made scholarships and fellowships tax-free (PDFs qualify IF they also take a course for which they pay their own tuition…it’s complicated), which is a good start. But without caps on the number of people accepted, this just creates a glut of Ph.D’s with no place to go.

    Universities and research institutions have to take responsibility for this, and do something about it. I will be joining my institute’s PDF association, to make sure that these things are looked after. I want to be a PI, and I think I have the skills to do it; but I shouldn’t have to be 42 before I get my first operating grant. I have a life to lead. I’m giving up a MUCH higher paying job to go back to do a PDF, because I love research. I’m not going to let this kind of thing continue without a fight.

  33. #33 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    Universities and research institutions have to take responsibility for this, and do something about it.

    This was being said all the time even 3 decades ago when I was in grad school. So when is it going to happen? Never is my guess.

  34. #34 DaveX
    August 23, 2007

    It’s all Mojotycoon’s fault. He’s been occupying his DNA Bench for 40 years, fruitlessly trying to build a BMW out of scrap.

    Someone needs to push him out of the way, huh?

  35. #35 dkew
    August 23, 2007

    This biologist finished his PhD, finally, in 1984. The expectation was definitely that we would be research academics, except for the industry sellouts, with no thought for puffball teachers. After multiple postdocs, interspersed with long temp work in industry, I find no positions. I’m “over qualified” for industrial and teaching positions (which seems to mean they think I’d demand too much money or autonomy), yet at the same time don’t have the skill-of-the-day for those positions. Companies won’t train, even people with obvious ability to learn fast, or discuss the issues. I’d have been much better off, financially, with just my SB.

  36. #36 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    @Steve:

    It’s going to happen when students and PDFs have had enough. 3 decades ago, to be fair, this was an issue, but not like this.

    4-5 year post-docs (consisting of two postings) are the NORM now; remember, the PDF was orignally created to provide some additional training, and wasn’t originally required for tenure-track jobs. Look in the back of Nature and tell me how many postings for Assistant Professorships you see that don’t say “minimun 2 year PDF experience”. And when was the last time a university hired someone with JUST a 2 year PDF? Virtually never. I am 29, and I’ve had my Ph.D. for just over a year. If I do a 4 year PDF, that makes me 33, which isn’t horrid, but only then will I be able to LOOK at an assistant professorship, and only then will my salary return to what it is working at the NGO I work for now!!!

    The universities and institutes wont change on their own; students and PDFs have to say “this is ridiculous”. The problem is, their postings are temporary, and they feel that speaking out might jeopardize their chances of getting a tenure-track position. Someone has to break that cycle!

  37. #37 Jeff Alexander
    August 23, 2007

    There’s a hidden premise in that argument- it assumes that most people who choose to go for the degree are acting on the basis of an accurate assessment of their future prospects.

    Point well taken. I am assuming that those who complete a doctoral program (as opposed to those who start) have decided that completing it is worth the time and effort and have a reasonable basis for believing that to be the case. If it isn’t the case — and their teachers know it not to be the case — then it seems that there is a responsibility on the part of their teachers to encourage them to leave the program.

  38. #38 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    Jeff, I predict that if you interviewed a sizable sample of beginning grad students- genuinely talented ones in strong departments, to make the sample a fair one- you’d find a depressingly small number who accurately evaluate their chances of following in their advisor’s career footsteps. And the universities are not exactly broadcasting this information to them.

  39. #39 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    @Jeff

    Totally agree. There are many reasons to get a Ph.D., and I don’t agree with “industrializing” science, but the expectation should at least be that the Ph.D. candidate be CAPABLE of becoming a PI; I am seeing people in Ph.D. programs that have no hope of this, and their supervisors and advisory committee’s say nothing. Yet they get the same degree as I did.

    During my Ph.D., I wrote operating grants. I mean literally thought up the ideas, worked out the experiments, considered the pitfalls and “what-if-this-doesn’t-work” issues, designed a budget, and wrote the thing up. My supervisor got those grants based on my work. To be frank, and again not to toot my own horn, but not all Ph.D. students are capable of this. Some of them get lucky, get a first-authored Science, Nature, or Cell paper, and they’re off; with absolutely no knowledge of how to be an independent investigator. THAT is what has to stop, IMHO.

  40. #40 plunge
    August 23, 2007

    Honestly, while I’ve been considering continuing grad school with the hopes of becoming a wonderful academic working on fascinating problems in biology…. it’s stuff like this that keeps me from doing so. Because that hope is near bullshit levels of unlikelihood.

    What’s the point of inspiring people to go into science with hopes of delving into the mysteries of the cosmos when the reality is mostly one big rigged game of exploitation?

  41. #41 Dylan
    August 23, 2007

    Michael – good luck and I hope you are able to get things to improve. Here in the UK there has been a lot of recent stuff about improving career development for researchers (partly driven by new employment regulations) but the reality has failed to keep up with any of the rhetoric (my University and funding body are deeply committed to developing my career but not if it involves a) spending money or b) offering me a real permanent job. In some ways its even worse than having rubbish career prospects because at the same time people keep telling that they are working hard to improve them while doing nothing. That said I hope you do better than me at changing things for the better.

  42. #42 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    I am assuming that those who complete a doctoral program (as opposed to those who start) have decided that completing it is worth the time and effort and have a reasonable basis for believing that to be the case.

    I think I didn’t sufficiently advert to the “complete” part of that. The trouble is, those people have already invested some of the prime years of their lives, at an enormous financial opportunity cost. If they’re only starting to correctly evaluate their future prospects at that stage, it’s far too late.

  43. #43 other bill
    August 23, 2007

    If you are good at Math, consider switching to Biostatistics/Bioinformatics. There are a potload of industry jobs there. Psychologists and Sociologists are being hired as “statisticians”.

  44. #44 Todd
    August 23, 2007

    This has been a great posting for me. Next year I’ll “retire” after 20 years of an “alternative career” doing a science related job in the military and plan on fulfilling a long-time (often delayed) personal goal of getting a PhD. Since I’ll be in my mid-40s and competing with 20-something new PhDs by the time I’d complete a doctorate I realized academia would always be a distant second to getting a corporate or government job (which pay way better anyhow, an important concern when you have kids in college). But after reading this it sounds like I should just dump the academia option entirely. Sure, the thrill of doing pure science for the sake of knowledge is enticing but if all the bananas in the tree are taken you have to eat the figs.

  45. #45 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    I had a friend who started her Ph.D. (after completing an M.Sc.), only to abandon it after 2.5 years. She hated research, and was only holding on because she was getting support from a few of us in the lab. Once we all left, she had had enough, and gave up on it. She now works editing manuscripts for a major medical journal, and loves it, making far more than she was as a Ph.D. student (and she had a major scholarship at the time)

    So there is life outside of grad school, if you decide it isn’t for you. The moral of the story is also that universities shouldn’t feel pressure to simply move Ph.D. students along; if they cannot hold their own, get rid of them. Even better, interview them ahead of time and only accept the ones with the best potential to do good work, and who are capable of becoming independent scientists.

  46. #46 factician
    August 23, 2007

    All this talk of PIs and universities taking responsibility seems a little much. The problem is that universities and post-docs interests are not aligned. Post-docs want to get jobs. Universities want to produce research using scarce research dollars. And as long as there is only one pot of money (the NIH), the NIH standard rules the day. (Can we all say “monopoly”?)

    As long as the NIH allows grad students and post-docs to be used as medium term laborers (and doesn’t require PIs to spend a certain portion of their budget on technicians) this situation will only continue to get worse for grad students/post-docs.

  47. #47 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    factician is correct. Academics and academic administrators are past masters at talking principle but acting purely in self-interest; if it’s left to them, acting responsibly toward their students and postdocs will continue to be a matter of pure lip service. Only changes in the rules of the game enforced by the people who hold the purse strings will change their behavior.

  48. #48 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    @Factician:

    I agree, to an extent.

    I think that technicians should be a priority; grad students (and particularly) PDFs should be trained as thinkers first, and a set of hands second.

    But, universities and institutes have a responsibility as well. yes, their primary purpose is to produce good research. For that, you need good people. But somehow, quantity has replaced quality in this regard. Perhaps the technician issue is the key to solving this; take the best thinkers as Ph.D. students, and make funds available for good hands as well.

    PDFs want to get jobs, but they know that this only happens through producing good research. I think a PDF should have a reasonable expectation that if they work hard, get a little lucky, develop their grant writing skills, get some teaching training (another issue altogether), and some supervisory training, there will be a good chance of a tenure-track position at the other end. They should also be able to expect that this wont take 10 years of PDF experience. The former expectation comes through hard work; the second is more directly influenced by the sheer number of Ph.D.s out there, all applying for fewer and fewer jobs.

    I’m simply saying that if universities want to get more students enrolled, they need to match that (at least to some degree) with a commensurate increase in tenure-track positions.

  49. #49 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    But Michael, why will they do that? Out of the goodness of their hearts? And where will the funds to support all those new TT positions come from?

  50. #50 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    Of course they wont do it out of the goodness of their hearts. They will do it because the situation is getting so bad that students and PDFs finally start to say enough it enough.

    They will also do it when, as you say, granting agencies stop thinking of trainees are cheap labour.

    They will fund it by accepting fewer students. I’m not arguing that all Ph.D.s should have a shot at a job; far from it. A lot of them (at least at my former school, which is a top school) aren’t good enough; they shouldn’t have been there.

    Accept half of the people, and use the money you would have spent paying the scholarships to the other half to create a few more positions.

  51. #51 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    I’m not sure the finances work the way you think. Given the facts that much of the expense of training grad students is paid for from external sources (research and training grants), and that their labor in turn helps attract future research funding, the net cost of grad students to their institutions is close to zero and might even be negative in some cases. And a tenured appointment is a HUGE institutional financial commitment over the appointee’s career.

  52. #52 factician
    August 23, 2007

    Michael,

    What makes you think that this isn’t already happening? Plenty of people drop out of graduate school and post-docs. What you are asking for is already occurring, just not at sufficient levels to change anything. Everytime there is a slight shortage of post-docs, they slightly raise the NIH minimum paygrade, and people keep clunking along.

    Nothing will change, unless the NIH mandates it. And why would the NIH mandate a change? For the purposes of research, the system works well. The public gets cheap research. The economics of it just don’t support a system that treats post-docs well. Until some senator looks at the plight of post-docs (don’t hold your breath) and says “This needs to be fixed” – nothing will change.

  53. #53 MikeM
    August 23, 2007

    Actually, PZ, I think you should have encouraged people to read this, not discouraged them. The truth is depressing at times, and maybe 20 year olds at your university have more than one interest; maybe there’s something out there that would excite them as much as Bio, and where there’s greater demand for you at the end.

    I keep reading about the upcoming shortage, for example, of math majors.

    I deal with this on a smaller scale with my own 13 year old daughter. She’s doing great in school, and we’re proud of her… And she keeps saying she wants to be an actress. I have no problem with her persuing acting, but just not as a career. I have no career goals for her; that’s up to her. But she’s really good at math and science. I think it’s possible she’ll end up there.

    But the acting example is a good one. If she went out and got an MFA in acting, chances are excellent she’d end up at a Starbucks. It’s similar to the problem you mention in your posting; the major produces too many graduates for too few positions, only in acting, the problem is probably 100 times worse than what you mention here. By that I mean that at least Bio majors have the OPTION of selling-out. What’s a person with an MFA going to do, be a REALLY GOOD waiter?

    Be open minded, and examine all your options. That’s my advise. If you think, “Hmmm, I like Chemistry/Computer Science/Physics too”, then examine the options in those fields. I see too many younger people try to get into fields where the supply of graduates is endless, and the demand for those people is limited.

    Had I done exactly what I wanted to do right after high school, I’d be an unemployed history major today. I took 3-1/2 years off after high school working in a machine shop, and I’m glad I did, because it opened my eyes that, really, history would have been a lousy major for me. I’m much better off with the degree I have (CS).

    CS was a great fit for me, because whether it was a machine or an abstraction, I’ve always enjoyed tinkering. Anyone who tinkers should consider a scientific field. And there is probably more than one field in science that would scratch that particular itch.

  54. #54 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    Factician, perhaps you’re right.

    I also think, however, that there is a big role to play for PDFs and students themselves. They are, for the most part, silent on this issue. A somewhat related example:

    At the institute that I trained at, there was a large library room, full of study carrels provided for use by the PDFs and students. The seats were assigned, and there were usually enough for all of the trainees in the building.

    Then, all of a sudden, one of the researchers got a grant with funds to build a new tissue culture lab. Great, new facilities to do research. Oh wait, how do we build this thing? You guessed it; annex half of the space from the library, and make trainees read/study at their lab benches (they did offer to put in communal tables in the residual space, but this was only enough for 20-30 trainees at once; far too little space).

    What was the reaction from the trainees? More or less it was “this is a done deal, so let’s deal with it and adapt”. I was the only person who was willing to stand up to the administration (who were ostensibly interested in maintaining good relations with trainees) and say “this is wrong, and here’s why”. I organized meetings with the admin people, and invited every trainee I could; most of them didn’t even know this was happening.

    Long story short, that library is still there.

    This is not even close to the worst I have heard regarding treatment of trainees, and regarding them as second-class citizens. It gets BAD, really bad!

    So trainees have a role to play too; they cannot be afraid to say that this is wrong.

    Universities have to be held to task about how they really feel about trainees.

    Funding agencies have to be part of the solution as well.

    But something has to change. Perhaps the retirement of baby boomer scientists will facilitate a few more positions opening up (and I’ve committed to science, so I really hope this is the case). But it will take a unified effort to get things done.

  55. #55 hip hip array
    August 23, 2007

    Michael wrote
    Some of them get lucky, get a first-authored Science, Nature, or Cell paper, and they’re off; with absolutely no knowledge of how to be an independent investigator. THAT is what has to stop, IMHO.

    I haven’t seen a lab in which the PI really mentors most of their grad students or post-docs.

    They will also do it when, as you say, granting agencies stop thinking of trainees are cheap labour.

    They’ve solved that problem by attracting students and postdocs from overseas. They may be paying them the same, but I don’t expect a groundswell of protest to come from European and Asian postdocs.

  56. #56 Tom @Thoughtsic.com
    August 23, 2007

    This is the problem with universities being run as businesses, handing out Ph.D.s and MBAs like candy to substandard students who just do well on standardized tests and writing ridiculous papers about papers about papers.

  57. #57 Martin R
    August 23, 2007

    Same in Scandinavian archaeology. More PhDs every year, academic job numbers barely constant. The average age of archaeologists who get basic starter jobs in academe these days is 41.

    Somebody should take away the incentive for universities to produce useless PhDs.

  58. #58 James G
    August 23, 2007

    As a PhD holder in chemistry, with one four year postdoc, and a 2nd 2 year postdoc, just months shy of my 35th birthday, who is now taking an industry job, I have a few thoughts about this:

    PhD mentors do need to better prepare their students for careers other than academics, but I feel often they don’t even know what’s out there. I had a hard enough time finding an industry job after my first postdoc. I lucked into my second one, in that my wife (fresh out of her PhD) held an industry position locally and was fortuante enough to have somebody take me on locally. I lucked out again in finding a local industry position. However, when I was looking nationally, I was out of luck for 6 months as my postdoc was ending, with no idea an how to look for an alternative career (such as science policy) outside industry/academia. Then I spent 5 months unemployed, before finding the local postdoc.

    I do think schools should take fewer graduate students, but then this leads into a labor shortage in terms of numbers of TAs. A few classes after my entering class in graduate school, they decided to tighten up admissions. Then, they were begging PIs for the RAs to serve as TAs, and the next year, they reduced the standards to let in a giant class of graduate students.

    Finally, I really wish the government/whoever else says it would stop saying that we have a shortage of scientists and that everybody should study science. I wish people were more science-literate, but I don’t that we need more scientists.

  59. #59 Dylan
    August 23, 2007

    For any UK postdocs reading this there is a new version of the research council concordat on the way and out for consultation at:

    http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/news/draftconcordat.htm

    the last one achieved nothing but what the hell, the more feedback they get the better.

  60. #60 Michael
    August 23, 2007

    @hip

    I haven’t seen a lab in which the PI really mentors most of their grad students or post-docs.

    Likewise. I’ve seen M.Sc. students reduced to tears because they’ve been left to flounder. As a Ph.D. student, I mentored four trainees, including an M.Sc. student, two Ph.D. students, and a PDF (!!!). And I mean really mentored; like planning experiments and teaching the reasons why we don’t do sequential t-tests for multiple comparisons, etc; really basic stuff.

    They’ve solved that problem by attracting students and postdocs from overseas. They may be paying them the same, but I don’t expect a groundswell of protest to come from European and Asian postdocs.

    To be absolutely blunt, much of the problem comes from Asian PDFs. There are good ones, but there are also some REALLY bad ones. It’s a similar problem, only magnified. There are so many people getting Ph.D.s in Asia, and the quality of many of them is VERY poor. But North American PDFs are valuable, and North American PIs realize they can pay them very little. The other thing is cultural: Asian trainees, I have found, are FAR less likely to speak up when there is an issue. The research culture in Asia is: the PI is always (always!) right and is never to be questioned. This does not make for a healthy environment, as I have seen first hand. I have seen M.D./Ph.D.s in tears about their treatment at the hands of North American PIs.

  61. #61 MartinC
    August 23, 2007

    We can always hope that Halliburton opens up a bioweapon facility and takes on biological PhDs.
    Alternatively the insurance industry is going to be very interested in exploiting our services when it realizes that practically everyone has an SNP that will allow it to cancel the life policy when that individual eventually succumbs to a disease they are genetically predisposed to develop.
    Yes indeed, the dark side awaits.

  62. #62 Tom @Thoughtsic.com
    August 23, 2007

    Heck, apply to be in the FBI. They HEAVILY recruit life/physical scientists, particularly those with Ph.D.s. Plus, you’ll start out at close to $60k. Oh, and get to carry around a neato gun and tell people you’re in the FBI.

  63. #63 bug_girl
    August 23, 2007

    Ugh! one of my pet peeves is the use of the word “alternative” to describe what *over half* of PhDs in science actually do.

    The majority of PhD scientists aren’t tenured faculty members. It’s just the cult of academia that tells us we’re inferior for not doing things the “right way”

    (can you tell it really bothers me? πŸ™‚

  64. #64 factician
    August 23, 2007

    We can always hope that Halliburton opens up a bioweapon facility and takes on biological PhDs.

    There are a ton of jobs for folks in the D.C/Virginia/Maryland area doing consulting for companies or the military and Department of Homeland Defense, to evaluate the technologies being developed (wasted?) to detect bioterror attacks.

    Hardly seems like science, though. They just want people who understand what PCR is…

  65. #65 jeccat
    August 23, 2007

    I totally agree with bug girl. I’ll leave the tenure-track position to those who are brainwashed enough to agree with their profs that tenure-track science is the only way to have a fulfilling career. I’ll admit that some faculty really do belong in universities– those true-blue geeks who need their science to be pure, whatever that means– but most of us realize pretty early in the game that there are a lot of ways to wear your science hat.

    Maybe I’m lucky in that I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and knew both professors and industry types growing up, but I NEVER planned to pursue a faculty position. The only reason I did a post-doc is because the economy was crappy when I finished my degree in 2002 and I couldn’t find a real job.

    I’ve been working in a fairly non-traditional industry job for over two years, and I LOVE my work. I use my training regularly, and best of all, I work only 40-50 hours per week and make over twice what I did as a postdoc.

    Faculty positions are for suckers (and the true sucker-philes, like PZ).

  66. #66 ponderingfool
    August 23, 2007

    What kills me that plays into all of this is the lack of career development resources for those in the sciences. How much overhead do these research universities take? Why in the world should faculty members be the primary source of career advice? They can’t possibly know about all the career options. They choose one way of doing things. That is probably what they know best. Do they really have the time to know more? Universities churning out PhDs in the sciences should be devoting resources to help them find the myriad of jobs that are out there outside of the traditional faculty position at a research university. They should be providing resources to develop skills to position their students to get those jobs. That should be the expectation from the granting agencies with regards to the overhead these universities are getting.

  67. #67 Steve LaBonne
    August 23, 2007

    The short answer to that- which has already been alluded to by others- is that the granting agencies don’t give a damn. Their mission is to get the most research for the buck.

  68. #68 Rey Fox
    August 23, 2007

    Now I’m sort of off in the biology tangent of wildlife biology/management, but the notion of remaining in academia was never really brought up in my undergraduate studies, so I had some trouble figuring out why this post was meant to be so depressing at first.

  69. #69 me
    August 23, 2007

    This is not a crisis. New (life science) Ph.D.’s have far more employment options than they did a generation ago.

    Even so, a generation ago, everybody got jobs. As a wise person once told me:

    Great postdocs get great jobs, good postdocs get good jobs, and bad postdocs get bad jobs. But everybody gets a job.

  70. #70 Sivi Volk
    August 23, 2007

    Huh.

    Well, this has been a good read. I just finished my B.Sc. and am planning to take a year off before grad school to work. Now I’m starting to reconsider the whole grad school thing, particularly if I can find a position I like in another field.

    Food for thought, this thread.

  71. #71 rjb
    August 23, 2007

    I’m not suggesting this isn’t an issue, but how did the get that number of 20,000? I’m wondering if someone like me (liberal arts bio prof) is counted. 20,000 seems kind of small. The society for neuroscience meeting alone attracts over 30,000 participants, which included people at all levels of course. But how many colleges, universities, and medical schools are there in the US? And what is the average number of tenured faculty members? Just sounds kind of low to me.

  72. #72 Poe
    August 23, 2007

    PZ Writes:

    You’re all waiting for me to die, aren’t you?

    To move to Morris, MN? I somehow doubt it.

    -Poe

  73. #73 James G
    August 23, 2007

    me – I just don’t believe it. I don’t think everybody gets a job. Too many of my friends just bailed on the field of science entirely right after their PhD or after a postdoc for me to believe that everybody gets a job (even a bad one). Or they are just stringing an infinite # of postdocs together (something I was on the path of until recently). I don’t know how it compares to a generation ago, but I really think people should stop pushing the scientist shortage idea.

  74. #74 Alloteuthis
    August 23, 2007

    And by contrast to some of these horror stories…most of the people I considered my peers near the end of my Ph.D. program ended up in tenure-track positions. Granted, only a couple are now at high-powered research institutions (though I do have a lab, complete with a few grad students!), but overall we’ve done pretty well. At the time (mid-90’s), none of us thought we’d get academic positions. So, for the folks I knew in my subdiscipline (invertebrate zoology/systematics), things aren’t — or at least weren’t — so dire.

    It really depends on your area of study. I still think that reasonably bright people in my field who want to run their own lab, aren’t too picky about where they end up, and who are willing to work hard can usually do it. By contrast, when I was in grad school, there were way too many cell/molecular/developmental biology grad students for the available positions in academia. On top of that, most of them were handed projects to do for their Ph.D’s. Many of them were very bright, most worked hard, and they probably had good career prospects in industry, but I don’t know how many of them would turn into successful PI’s at a research university. I just don’t think they got many chances to 1) really plan their own research project, 2) work to obtain their own funding or 3) develop their own courses as grad students. I did (I had to do) all of those things as a student. I definitely had the sense, even then, that the CMD department was cranking out technicians (which is a fine career path — I’m just not sure all the CMD grad students realized that’s what was happening).

  75. #75 cserpent
    August 23, 2007

    Long comment warning, sorry.

    1) Universities (administrators specifically) do not care about research. They care about the indirect cost recovery available by having high-end research happen on campus. They care about making money. In the US at least, the corporate business model has taken hold in spades. They’ve lost the mission, or at least changed the mission to something that does not resemble in the slightest the original purpose. Frankly,if public universities could get away with it, they would lease all of their space at premium rates to private companies who would then do all the research using cheap grad student/post-doc labor. In fact, this already happens on a number of campuses.

    2) Grad students don’t just do the bulk of the research work at American R1’s, they also do most of the teaching. It used to be that grad students would act as graders or perhaps would teach a lab now and then. Mostly grad students did their own research under their advisor’s supervision. Now, in many departments grad students are responsible for teaching multiple laboratory sections, preparing and delivering lectures, and performing supervisory work as lab coordinators. They are paid better than they used to be, but still at best about 25% of what a faculty member makes and without even the meager benefits most faculty receive. Public universities will NEVER willingly reduce admission to graduate programs. They can’t afford to lose that cheap labor pool.

    This is especially egregious with international students. Universities often get more money for training them and many are made to work longer and harder than their American counterparts out of fear that they may have their visas revoked if they don’t. I know of at least two instances in one department where international post-docs worked for a few months “off the books” while waiting for paperwork to be completed related to the hiring of foreign workers, only to be told once the red tape parted that they would not be compensated for those months of prior work. They were, in effect kept as slaves by a department in a public university.

  76. #76 SomeoneWhoIsn'tDustin
    August 23, 2007

    Universities (administrators specifically) do not care about research.

    That’s the truth. I’m getting a little sick of these career building PR mercenaries who get tapped to run these universities, only to promply hack their library’s subscription budget by some $300K/year while their athletic department continues to pull down some $50M/year. I’d make accusations of privilege or nepotism as well, but those would be specific and identifiable, and every university has its own examples of both, anyhow. Anyway, I’d go into a long tirade about how athletics aren’t important at all, but I’m sure I’d either be preaching to the choir or, if not, preaching to someone with the IQ of a rock. Also, SWID is certianly not referring to either his alma mater or the university which makes up the bulk of the town in which SWID resides. Nor is he expressing discontent with the need to compete with the scores of other unemployed mathematicians residing in said town for the very small number of academic/research positions. Not at all.

  77. #77 Deepak
    August 23, 2007

    Definitely depressing numbers, but there are other alternatives. I never did a postdoc (that was the fall back), instead getting a job at a startup straight out of school, partly cause I did not want to get sucked into the tenure track system. No regrets whatsoever. On the contrary, the first job was probably some of the most interesting and creative work I have ever done or been around. Don’t do hands on science anymore, but there are opportunities around science for PhD scientists who want to give it a try as well. Don’t limit your thinking and the PhD is rarely a waste.

    The question you have to ask yourself before going the industry route. Are you comfortable doing science on someone else’s time, i.e. what you develop belongs to your employers not necessarily to you? Are you willing to work within the boundaries that are there (e.g. you can’t do stemm cell work at a company that doesn’t do stem cell work)? If the answer is yes, there is no reason not to try it. Academia has enough flaws that it can’t take the high road. Plus some of the most brilliant people I have met work in industry.

  78. #78 SomeoneWhoStillIsn'tDustin
    August 23, 2007

    Definitely depressing numbers, but there are other alternatives. I never did a postdoc (that was the fall back), instead getting a job at a startup straight out of school, partly cause I did not want to get sucked into the tenure track system. No regrets whatsoever.

    You can’t see it, but I’m giving you a huge thumbs-up right now. For my part, I’m looking at some smaller private liberal-arts schools. It’s easy to be cynical about those, as well, but there are some where the academic culture sill revolves around, you know, academics, even if the research funding isn’t top-notch.

  79. #79 Becca
    August 23, 2007

    I should have listened, PZ- reading this is not cheerful (although the comments were worse than the numbers, for me).
    For all the folks out there who have been sucessful- either folks who did outstanding work in grad school and are actually at the top of the applicant pool for academia, or those who landed industry positions which are (as has been pointed out) also quite competitive… what is your advice?

    We can’t fix the glut of PhDs by posting here. But I’m sure there are some of you there that can give some advice on how to stand out from the crowd enough to have some career options.

  80. #80 Tom
    August 23, 2007

    Grad students don’t just do the bulk of the research work at American R1’s, they also do most of the teaching.

    Not only is that true, but I actually taught in my undergraduate senior year. And it was under a Department Chair who only taught one course.

  81. #81 frog
    August 23, 2007

    PZ, you’re making the assumption that Ph.D’s are being trained to become tenure track faculty members. If you look around at the actual training of (probably) a majority of grad students, what they’re being trained for is lab tech (an honorable profession).

    We need more lab techs. Unfortunately, there are very few programs designed for that – terminal masters specifically geared to produce research assistants and teaching adjuncts. Instead, people waste time and money going through an entire PhD program to be trained to read journal articles, make gels, etc. Then they become under-paid post-docs for life, rather than getting an assistant position that pays significantly better.

    Of course, that won’t happen – the current system is a good way to cheat “the workers of the world”.

  82. #82 Dave Eaton
    August 23, 2007

    I really enjoy talking about my work, and if I go that route, I will really miss it. There are some companies that still publish about their work, but there are precious few of them.

    I consider this the biggest downer of working as a PhD chemist in industry. The work is fun, I have lots of resources, good colleagues, and am never bored. But secrecy is not much fun.

    I could give a crap whether anyone thinks I sold out by going to industry. The friends I have that are in academia are forever lamenting how much time they spend chasing funding. There are parts of the lifestyle that look interesting, but the trade-offs don’t seem worth it to me.

  83. #83 Richard, FCD
    August 23, 2007

    Well, … the new Howard Hughes Medical Institute campus in Ashburn VA (about 25 miles west of DC) is hiring πŸ™‚

    http://www.hhmi.org/jobs/main?action=job&job_id=454

    It’s an awesome facility:

    http://www.hhmi.org/janelia/

  84. #84 Dustin
    August 23, 2007

    I would say, though, that I’ve come to agree with Rob Knop on this issue. If you’re looking for an advanced degree with the intent of being ushered into a tenure track position as a necessary consequence of finishing the degree, you probably shouldn’t have wasted your time on graduate school in the first place. The Taoist maxim of “The Journey is the Reward” springs to mind. A graduate education in any field can, for all of its severe problems, be very rewarding on its own. I wish that were true of the loans I had to take to cover the waning support of GTF awards these days since they are not, in fact, rewards unto themselves, but I’m still happy with what I’ve done.

  85. #85 David Marjanovi?
    August 23, 2007

    Finally, I really wish the government/whoever else says it would stop saying that we have a shortage of scientists and that everybody should study science. I wish people were more science-literate, but I don’t that we need more scientists.

    No. The whole world needs more scientists. Lots more scientists. Of course, what needs to be done is to create lots more positions for them, and because that would tackle the problem at the root, it’s extremely unlikely to happen.

    Great postdocs get great jobs, good postdocs get good jobs, and bad postdocs get bad jobs. But everybody gets a job.

    Those were the times…

    I’m not suggesting this isn’t an issue, but how did the get that number of 20,000? I’m wondering if someone like me (liberal arts bio prof) is counted. 20,000 seems kind of small. The society for neuroscience meeting alone attracts over 30,000 participants

    …from all over the world, not just the USA!

  86. #86 David Marjanovi?
    August 23, 2007

    Finally, I really wish the government/whoever else says it would stop saying that we have a shortage of scientists and that everybody should study science. I wish people were more science-literate, but I don’t that we need more scientists.

    No. The whole world needs more scientists. Lots more scientists. Of course, what needs to be done is to create lots more positions for them, and because that would tackle the problem at the root, it’s extremely unlikely to happen.

    Great postdocs get great jobs, good postdocs get good jobs, and bad postdocs get bad jobs. But everybody gets a job.

    Those were the times…

    I’m not suggesting this isn’t an issue, but how did the get that number of 20,000? I’m wondering if someone like me (liberal arts bio prof) is counted. 20,000 seems kind of small. The society for neuroscience meeting alone attracts over 30,000 participants

    …from all over the world, not just the USA!

  87. #87 MartinC
    August 23, 2007

    For those young biologists thinking about heading down the PhD route and wondering whether there will be work for you at the end the answer is a resounding yes. Research groups are always eager to take on dedicated workers who will join in with the groups endeavours. The only drawback to this is, however, that you may have to do this in a voluntary unpaid capacity as there is very little opportunity for salaried positions these days. I guess if you are really intent on doing research then this is only a minor drawback. Money isn’t everything after all. Remember that notable scientists including Charles Darwin managed to do fine work without drawing a research salary.

  88. #88 Sivi Volk
    August 23, 2007

    1. Research is good. So is eating.

    2. If I recall correctly, Darwin’s family was quite well off, and his needs were met mostly by his relatives arranging for investors and grants.

  89. #89 PZ Myers
    August 23, 2007

    Darwin was a prosperous, upper middle class gentleman who inherited a substantial sum of money that he and his wife managed well — so yes, he wasn’t hurting for money, and could afford to pay for his research out of his own pocket.

    TH Huxley was not so rich, and had to pay for his upkeep with appointments, lecturing fees, and book sales. Wallace was even worse off; his friends had to wangle a government stipend for him to keep him out of poverty.

  90. #90 hip hip array
    August 23, 2007

    FYI, MartinC worked in one of those labs once and made a major discovery in the field of snark.

  91. #91 hip hip array
    August 23, 2007

    I could give a crap whether anyone thinks I sold out by going to industry.

    AFAIK, there’s no general stigma attached to industry. Academic professors I know all seem to be plugged into various lucrative industrial gigs and/or collaborations, even those who railed the most loudly against the intrusion of commerce into molbio during the ’90s. Friends report less backstabbing in industry compared with academia, the problems are often just as interesting, the people just as smart, and the pay is far better. Job security varies; my impression is that it’s worst for PhDs.

  92. #92 Sivi Volk
    August 23, 2007

    Fair enough. Many important (okay, many) scientists have had to struggle to make ends meet so they could do research.

    I just resent the implication that an interest in having a decent income means you aren’t willing to be a researcher. The little research I’ve done has been fun, but I would like to be able to do it without just scraping by.

  93. #93 Dave Eaton
    August 23, 2007

    No. The whole world needs more scientists. Lots more scientists. Of course, what needs to be done is to create lots more positions for them, and because that would tackle the problem at the root, it’s extremely unlikely to happen.

    I’m not sure I understand this idea. Clearly ‘the world’ sees the current supply of scientists as more than sufficient. In market economies, this is clear because wages are stagnant. In command/socialist economies, clearly someone disagrees with you, or there would be migration to the unfilled jobs elsewhere.

    What need is unmet? I am a scientist myself, in industry, and I am supportive of academic science, but I don’t see why you say we need ‘lot’s more scientists’. I often feel like plenty of things need investigation, but I am curious what you are really suggesting. The lack of scientists cannot be the ‘root’ of the problem, can it, unless there are demonstrably needs left unmet by the lack of them? Yet the evidence suggests a surplus. If there were societal or economic fruit laying there, I would expect either government or industry to employ the surplus. But I am hearing, even from many inside science, that there are too many of us. Are we scientist ourselves too thick-headed to make reasonable suggestions as to where we might put all these PhDs we produce, or, is there really a problem of oversupply that we won’t admit?

    Are you suggesting that the governments of the world start some sort of work program for scientists? If so, to what end?

  94. #94 Alan Kellogg
    August 23, 2007

    You’re all waiting for me to die, aren’t you?

    Nah. Claiming membership in an obscure, and extinct, American Indian tribe would suit me just fine.

  95. #95 Chuck
    August 23, 2007

    I’m happy to be a PhD student in medicinal chemistry at a top pharmacy school: the department has no qualms with training scientists who want to enter the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. The culture is supportive of whatever choices that graduates make.

  96. #96 Chuck
    August 24, 2007

    Minnesota has such a department, by the way. Top notch.

  97. #97 Kent Kauffman
    August 24, 2007

    I’m one of those sellouts. I switched accounting after I worked in the biology field, and I should be making more than most professors in a much shorter timespan. It’s not the greatest job, but it pays the bills, and my thought process goes a little like this: Biology=lots of talented individuals, who love their field, and are willing to work for peanuts; versus Accounting=mediocre talent at best, with lots of individuals who hate their jobs, and no one works if they’re not paid.

    But hey, if you love the field, and a family is secondary, by all means go for it. I still keep abreast of things, I’m just not that dedicated.

  98. #98 hip hip array
    August 24, 2007

    frog wrote: If you look around at the actual training of (probably) a majority of grad students, what they’re being trained for is lab tech (an honorable profession).

    That’s putting an overly positive spin on it, I think. As a new grad student, I was told by the chairman of my department that a certain cancer center in which I could choose to work “trained students to be glorified technicians”. That was a purely disparaging comment on the center’s faculty, because they were wasting talent and shortchanging the students. On a practical level, having a PhD greatly reduces your chances of getting a job as a tech in the US. You’re much better off with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

  99. #99 zayzayem
    August 24, 2007

    I… hate… you…

    (I finish in two months with B. Biomedical Sc. (Hons))

  100. #100 Stevie Rox
    August 24, 2007

    What about us “weird” biologists? By that I mean the non-biomedical/biochemical B.Sc. students. I’m heavily interested in animal behavior (and I’m getting as much as that as I can as an undergrad), and there’s nothing industry about that at all. I feel like grad school is my only option to continue with that sort of thing at all.

  101. #101 Phoenician in a time of Romans
    August 24, 2007

    7,000 students per year casting a covetous eye on a total of 20,000 positions? You’re all waiting for me to die, aren’t you?

    They’re biology students, Myers; they may not actually wait, if you catch my drift. Be real careful what you eat at any parties they attend…

    (Hey, there’s a plot to an entire novel there.)

  102. #102 Sivi Volk
    August 24, 2007

    Hell, if it’s written by a biomed person, it might be a lot better than the general run of biomedical thriller/mysteries.

  103. #103 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    “FYI, MartinC worked in one of those labs once and made a major discovery in the field of snark”
    Oi! I strongly resemble that remark!
    As for Darwin and his salary, I do know he was from a wealthy family but the somewhat snarky comment by me (its still based on the real recent hiring experiences of the medical university where I am based) was to highlight the historical basis of where our profession originated. Biological research developed out of a hobby for rich men – the famous ‘butterfly collecting for vicars’ situation. A lot of us who head into this line of work are genuinely shocked to later find out the discrepancy between the numbers coming into the profession and the numbers of ‘professional’ jobs at the end of it (they really don’t tell you this at the beginning).
    The strange aspect of this is that its not that the biological research job scenario is so bad for the economy as a whole, in fact its a model situation – highly educated individuals willing to take half the average salary expected by most other professionals and with little job security, health benefits or pension prospects, living in rented accomodation, moving from city to city to chase temporary posts. Imagine if we could extend this model to other professions, have lawyers, doctors, dentists, teachers, law enforcement officers etc work with similar salary rates and expectations – the benefits to the economy as a whole would be enormous.
    So, if you are not exactly enamored with the current situation as a researcher just think of it as groundbreaking
    the brave new world of future workplace practices.

  104. #104 Peter Ashby
    August 24, 2007

    Well Martin C it is already not that far off for many young lawyers. As for the rest, no chance, why not? for one simple reason: the public cares and notices if those people go on strike. If biology PhDs went on strike and managed to maintain it (fat chance), then it would either take at least 10years or a major emergent disease before anyone noticed. Might take a bit longer for lawyers but they would have a similar problem wrt maintaining a strike.

    It all comes down to economic clout. That we will work for peanuts in no prospect jobs because we are dedicated to a subject we love is only part of the problem. I am at the stage where the necessary compromises are just not acceptable any more.

    For one thing my wife and I want to go home, and my chances of doing science in New Zealand are even worse than here in the UK (We do not fancy living in the US). Eventually you get to the stage where other things you have ignored for the last 20years matter to you. So I must find something else to do, only problem is I need just one more postdoc in order to fund the change, but I am now too old and too damn expensive, I cannot move at the moment and my area is running down at the local uni. I don’t do protein chemistry, so I cannot get that job. That is about all the local industry want as well.

  105. #105 MartinC
    August 24, 2007

    Peter Ashby, I know exactly what you mean. I am in a similar situation myself. I think it is a common situation with a lot of researchers that by the time they are qualified to do the job properly – BSc, MSc, PhD and Post-doc, they then find out that there isn’t really a permanent job available and by that time, in your late thirties or early forties it is too late to simply start again so you are forced to stick with it in series of short term contracts.
    I often hear calls that we should do something to increase the numbers of women in science or encourage members of certain ethnic minorities, who are vastly under-represented in research, to take up the profession and the first thought that always comes to mind is ‘for goodness sake, don’t tell them what to expect in terms of job security or salary after they are qualified’.

  106. #106 hip hip array
    August 24, 2007

    I often hear calls that we should do something to increase the numbers of women in science or encourage members of certain ethnic minorities, who are vastly under-represented in research, to take up the profession and the first thought that always comes to mind is ‘for goodness sake, don’t tell them what to expect in terms of job security or salary after they are qualified’.

    Perhaps an ability to recognize feudal systems is what keeps them away in the first place.

  107. #107 Sivi Volk
    August 24, 2007

    MartinC:

    Sorry. I completely missed the snark in your comment. I’ve been made a bit anxious by some of this thread, and kinda jumped on your comment.

  108. #108 Michael E
    August 24, 2007

    I have to say my tears are flowing for all the doctoral students who actually have to get real jobs after a while.

    I love researchers. They make the world more comprehensible and less mystical, but I bet I made more money last year as with my BA/BS and 6 years experience in bio-tech quality assurance than many of the folks in post-docs. (Over $70K).

    What really flabbergasts me about this whole thing is that the doctoal students, who are touted as being intelligent, can’t read the handwriting on the wall until they are in their late 30s?

    I think that Michael is right – too easy to become a docotoral student.

    I woudl like to add a prelude to his plan: No one can go to college without one year of full time work under their belt. It sounds like these doctoral students have lived their entire lives within the halls of academe and don’t know what it takes to make it in the “real” world.

    I went to college right out of H.S. and it was a disaster. I went out in the world for a few years, and then decided to finish my Bachelors. What I noticed as an adult in college was this: Grown ups were less tolerant of wasting their time (since many of my fellow students over 30 had families to take care of around their class time and studies) and the wanted their full money’s worth from their faculty.

    Perhaps if college was put off for one year, the students would be more dedicated and less likely to allow themselvs to be treated as slavish-labor.

  109. #109 Future academic (hopefully)
    August 25, 2007

    I have always wanted to be working in academia. Being a scientist has just some sort of … neatness and coolness attached to it. But the situation in here (Finland) is perhaps even worse than you describe.

    When I started my PhD, I shared the room with one postdoc and one grad student like me. The postdoc couldn’t get funding, so she moved to the other side of the contry. Her husband is a carpenter, and now she is a hosewife. The grad student was dropped by his mentor who retired without notice or getting him another mentor. After a longish time, different arrangements and miscellaneous deals, the grad student has finally got a mentor and a group in which to finish his thesis.

    I have one year of grant money left with which to finish my thesis. After that, I’m afraid, I will become one of the unemployed academicans like so many others. Almost all positions are temporary ones, covering just one research project. It is almost impossible to get a permanent job in which you could plan and execute long term research, like ecological studies. People compete with eachother, instead of working together.

    But, miracles (secular ones) can happen. The baby boomers are slowly retiring, and there seems to be a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. But the academia has changed much since they started their professional life.

  110. #110 greg
    August 25, 2007

    Did anyone notice the confusing transition from biological sciences to biomedical PhDs in the third paragraph of Erika Check’s article? I had to follow up on this little thing which stood out.

    I am disappointed in how well the material that the Nature news article links to is referenced in the powerpoint file. The FASEB does not include a listing of what major and minor fields they consider to be “biomedical”. The following is the best that I can figure out. It looks as if in their graphs they added the biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences together for 7406 doctorates awarded in 2005 (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf07305/pdf/tab1.pdf). However, according to 2003 NSF data the number of tenured doctorates in these fields was 30940 (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf06320/pdf/tables.pdf). Maybe there is some unstated difference in what the FASEB and NSF consider to be biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences. It would be nice to know how such things are defined, in particular when the NSF categorizes biomedical sciences as a minor field that only produced 248 doctorates in 2005, whereas the FASEB puts all biology under biomedical sciences as a major field.

    In a 1998 article in the FASEB journal (Garrison and Gerbi, 12:139-148) the categories included under biomedical sciences come from the Committee on National Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Research Personnel (1994) Meeting the Nation’s Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. This seemed to go along pretty well with the broad biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences grouping of both FASEB and the NSF. Although a lot of NSF biology categories have to fit under the “other biological sciences” used in the paper, such as anything to do with plants. This however does little to clear things up as it is not referenced in the powerpoint file and would be an assumption the reader should not have to make.

    I can’t say they’re wrong because I don’t know what criteria is being used. I can’t compare the NSF and FASEB data and it is frustrating.

    It reminds me of my various mentors and advisors reminding me to read articles critically – to not accept something as the truth just because it is in a high-profile journal.

    I’m surprised with so many smarty-pants around here no one else looked at this first.

  111. #111 Keith Douglas
    August 25, 2007

    Mike P: Most industry positions are realistically technology (or sometimes applied science), not pure science. If you’re fine with that, go for it. One can even publish from time to time, as my father did as a pharmaceutical chemist.

    I have been to graduate school myself, and not in science, either, per se. Certainly no attempt at mentoring there – and I have never found a career counsellor anywhere who has any clue about graduate school in pure research fields, never mind about philosophy. (Yes, yes, I know …) But now it doesn’t matter, since I’ve switched over to my “other” skillset, computing …

  112. #112 Johannes Rousk
    August 26, 2007

    An interesting and nuanced view on the discrepancy in numbers:
    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/08/job-prospects-for-graduate-students.html

    I agree that we certainly should strive for a larger selection than demand if we aim for competence in academia. This would not be possible without the opportunity to weed out at every stage. However, what is the purpose of tenure? If I am not mistaken it is to enable independent and robust research. If the only option to stay in academia is, at every stage, to focus all energy, teeth and claws to hang on to your position, the focus is moved from “the love for science” that Larry Moran hopes for and professes. Anyone workin only to this end would be selected against. I foresee potential problems…

  113. #113 nashpaul
    August 28, 2007

    Greg,

    The list of field designations is included in the notes accompanying each slide.

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