Your Problems Are Not Unique

Via Mad Mike, a discussion of why it sucks to be a biomedical scientist:

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.

The comments are full of possible reasons, and Mike offers his own suggestion which falls right in line with the rest:

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.

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.”

The NIH situation is a very real problem, with funding having doubled suddenly in the Clinton years, then flattened out over the last decade. A number of institutions made hires and modified policies (consciously or unconsciously) during that expansion in ways that depended on a large and expanding cash flow, and are running into problems now that the pool of money isn’t expanding any more.

Of course, you can argue that this is just another example of the life sciences lagging 40 years behind the physical sciences. The same basic thing happened in the physical sciences and engineering in the wake of Sputnik, only more so. There was a huge and unsustainable increase in the amount of money available to the field, leading to an explosion in the number of researchers, and then a general tightening of the metaphorical belt in the 70′s and 80′s, which puts a lot of stress on younger researchers. So, if it’s just a money thing, any difference between the physical and biomedical sciences is really just a result of the physical scientists having had thirty-odd years to get used to the same cash flow problem.

“Doctors are assholes,” on the other hand, is the stand-in for a whole host of comments that relate to the “medical” part of “biomedical.” If you read through that comment thread, you’ll find a lot of people complaining about the profit-driven management of medical centers and the generally inhuman manner in which medical students are treated bleeding over to the science side.

To the extent that the problem is cultural– that is, biomedical students and post-docs are unhappier than physics students and post-docs because of lots of little things that are common practice in biomedical sciences but not elsewhere– there’s probably something to this. Even as a student, I was always a little boggled by the shit that med students put up with, and seeing things from the faculty side has not done anything to raise my opinion of the medical education system. The remarkable thing about the business is that we manage to produce any doctors who aren’t assholes.

I suspect, though, that the main source of the effect is just selection bias. That is, 87% of the Science Professor’s email is from bitter and unhappy biomedical scientists because 87% of the bitter and unhappy people reading blogs about biomedical sciences are in biomedical sciences. This is partly because people are more likely to read within their own field (I barely have time to keep on top of the physics blogs in my RSS reader, let alone the plethora of life science blogs here at ScienceBlogs), and partly because there are many more bio types in general. Probably 50% of the bitter and unhappy comments I get on posts about academia are from bitter and unhappy biomedical scientists.

And, of course, the bitter and unhappy people are vastly more likely to comment (and blog) at length than the people who are more or less happy with their lot in life. Which tends to skew the perception of academia as a whole, really– college professors really aren’t all as miserable as reading academic blogs and magazines would lead you to believe. That’s not to say that there aren’t very real problems with academia in general, and academic science in particular, but the academic life is not an unremitting tale of woe for every single academic, by any stretch.

So, on the question of why biomedical scientists are more miserable than other scientists, I’m agnostic, shading toward “Because doctors are assholes.” I don’t really believe that their situation is uniquely awful, though.

(As a side note, that comment thread is also remarkable for the wildly distorted views people have of other science fields. There are some staggeringly dumb things asserted as fact about other areas of science, most of them quickly corrected. If you want evidence that it’s not just physicists who arrogantly talk out of their asses about subjects they know nothing about, though, it’s a good place to look.)

Comments

  1. #1 becca
    March 31, 2011

    Except Science Professor *isn’t* a biomedical scientist, she’s a physical scientist. So are physicists likely to attribute 87% of blogs and/or whiny comments to biomedical scientists, irrespective of the actual authorship of the blog or comment? “Oh, I don’t read it, ergo it’s not my field” is not the same as people not reading outside their fields.

  2. #2 Mac
    March 31, 2011

    I think there are some differences between the training in biomed and other life science fields (e.g. ecology/evolution) that do make life more miserable for them. In my life science field graduate students are far more independent than the biomed students I know, probably because the resources involved in biomed are more expensive. Because of that though e/e grad students are generally happier, it’s their research and that makes a huge difference. I don’t know about other fields as well but the contrast within life sciences is pretty striking. I devised my own project rather than doing a piece of someone else’s work, I think that’s rare in biomed. I would have hated doing a PhD where I was treated like a tech and I think that’s one of the big differences. Biomed folks?

  3. #3 Brian
    March 31, 2011

    I haven’t read the original article, but from the stories I’ve heard from my sister, who’s looking for jobs in Molecular Biology right now, yes, Molecular Bio is WAY worse than anything I’ve heard of in other fields. I have no idea WHY… but stories that boil down to advisers simply being ASSHOLES, and not being called to task for it at all.

    One example: Grad student is at bench, says he’s going to take off to grab some lunch. Adviser says “Why do you need lunch? You’re already fat!” The implication being “Stay at your desk and continue to work for me slave!” And this kind of assholishness seems to be more common in bio than any other field I know about.

  4. #4 Alex
    March 31, 2011

    I’m a physicist who does things that biomed people find interesting, so I get to hang out with both groups. Honestly, as a physicist, I find biomed culture weird. For starters, they always refer to their advisor as their PI rather than their advisor or professor.

    More serious differences:
    1) They have a lot more soft money academic positions than us. Yes, I’m aware that there are tons of soft money physics positions in national labs, and I’ve met industry people whose positions are essentially soft money (they are only employed as long as they can line up external clients to pay for projects) but I’m thinking more about the university jobs here. In the physics departments that I’ve been in, I’ve always seen a few people with a title like “Research Professor” or whatever, but biomed departments seem to be crawling with them.

    2) Their training path seems to be longer. Yes, we’ve all known some ancient physics postdocs, and no, not every physicist starts grad school at age 22 (or even 23). Still, in my sojourn in Biomedland, I was shocked to discover that a lot of people did “postbacs” before applying to grad school or med school. I was also shocked to discover that a 4-5 year postdoc is not seen as weird, whereas in the physics departments I’d been in most were 2-3. Even the ancient postdocs were (usually) on a string of 2-3 year stints (for good or for ill).

    3) I don’t know the extent to which this makes a tangible difference, but it might have something to do with the culture: They don’t teach nearly as much as physicists. Even at the R1 physics departments that I trained in, most professors taught a full class pretty much every term. They might have graders, teaching assistants for the labs and discussions, but they had to show up and lecture 2-3 days every week of every term. Biomed folks often teach just a portion of a class, and in some of the more research-intensive places they might not teach at all some terms. Consequently, however bad the “R1 or bust!” mentality might be in physics, it seems to be even more acute in biomed, because teaching is just not on the radar. Less time spent explaining to n00b freshmen might also have effects on the culture. Finally, one might speculate that a scarcity of TA positions makes funding pressures even greater, because there are fewer relief mechanisms if a lab is in a rough patch for grants.

    Put it all together, and their academic culture is very different than ours. So I consider it plausible that something in this weird culture leads to greater misery.

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    March 31, 2011

    @Mac: The problem with your theory is that physics also has its big science vs. little science divide. If you are in experimental particle physics, for instance, you will be part of a collaboration involving hundreds if not thousands of people, and the tradition of alphabetical author listing in that field ensures that unless you happen to have a name which floats to the top of an alphabetical sort you will almost certainly never have a first-author publication on your CV (at least biomedical people have a decent shot at getting some first-author publications). But I haven’t heard any evidence that grad students and postdocs in experimental particle physics are significantly more miserable than those in fields dominated by smaller labs. (There was some wailing and gnashing of teeth in the wake of the SSC cancellation in the 1990s, which is an even more extreme event than the NIH funding issues, but that appears to have been a temporary hit.) There are occasional reports of tyrant PIs in physics, but they are sufficiently unusual as to be noteworthy, and peer pressure (in the form of steering potential grad students or postdocs to other groups) is effective at convincing most of these PIs to mellow out. By contrast, such horror stories in biomedical research are “dog bites man” stories, sufficiently common that one more doesn’t raise any eyebrows.

  6. #6 Brian
    March 31, 2011

    Another difference, and I’m not sure how this plays out, is that in order to get work done in a MB lab, you need a PI, 2-4 postdocs, 6-10 grad students, and MAYBE a tech. (This is at an R1 school). This seems to be the way that all labs are set up. And so, unless new tenure lines are being created, there’s roughly 3 post docs for every existing faculty member, and 3 grad students for every existing post-doc.

    My understanding is that in Physics, you rely more on techs. If you need something built, you get a tech to build it. In Bio, you get a grad student to do it.

    In my own field of Computer Science, we get undergrads to do it. There are PLENTY of undergrads, and the vast majority of them don’t want to go to grad school, so getting some scutt-work experience is good for them… plus they get beer money.

  7. #7 Alex
    March 31, 2011

    Um, physics labs have tons of home-brew equipment. Frequently you see the grad students in the machine shop.

    In general, techs in physics departments are different from techs in biomedical departments. In physics departments, there’s a machine shop, or an electronics shop, or whatever, and equipment jobs that the grad students aren’t doing (for whatever reason) get sent to the shop. The technicians are paid per job. My understanding is that biomed faculty often hire their own in-house technician who just works in their lab.

  8. #8 Brian
    March 31, 2011

    @Alex: Except that, according to my sister at least, they DON’T hire an in-house technician. They expect the grad students to figure it out. The grad students (with no programming training) have to write their own analysis code, (with no engineering training) have to build their own devices (whatever they need), etc.

  9. #9 kb
    March 31, 2011

    We use techs like a company might hire a contractor or outside consultant – when we need something done fast and building the capabilities in house would take too long or cost too much. Otherwise, it’s up to us grad students to get it done.

  10. #10 I.P. Freeley
    April 1, 2011

    I’ll point out that Astronomy is currently undergoing a repeat of the bio 90s and Physics 70s. The naughties saw lots of NASA funding enter the field, such that the total federal funding for Astronomy doubled. Faculty hiring has remained flat, so now we have a glut of folks with 6+ years of postdoc experience and no shot at a faculty job. Last year in Astro, for US institutions, there were ~49 faculty hires and 83 *prize* postdoc fellowships (that’s not counting regular grant funded postdocs).

  11. #11 CCPhysicist
    April 2, 2011

    AIP data show a long-standing trend with about 30% of PhDs ending up in academia. Industry is still there even if it is invisible to many faculty, who only track students who remain in academia, and is perceived as an “out” by those who rationalize staying in academia.

    It would be interesting to know if there is a similar jobs study in the bio-med area and what it shows.

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