Humane treatment of scientists

While folks are often attentive to the harms scientists might do to other people (through unethical treatment of human subjects, or toxic dumping, or whatever), they seem not to worry so much about scientist-on-scientist cruelty. I'm not talking about having your boss in the lab force you to donate ova or anything. In fact, the kind of cruelty I have in mind today is much harder to pin on individual actors. Rather, it's a sort of cruelty that seems to be built into the institutional structures of science.

Which, for the scientist, kind of sucks.

What started me thinking about institutionalized cruelty to scientists were a pair of posts on scientists' blogs. She Falters to Rise worries that, despite the lack of greeters, science is Walmart:

Conduct your business in a global market where the number of workers/manufacturers far exceeds the demand. Rely on a market that creates a surplus of skilled laborers who will take what they can get just to have a piece of the pie. Lock in your employees and make them rely on public assistance instead of providing it yourself. Healthcare...what is this healthcare that you speak of? ...

If you want to compete, you had better stop relying on how good you are at doing A,B, and C because there are a lot of people who can do A,B, and C. And, as your 11th-grade economy teacher pointed out, that makes your value as low as the lowest bidder's. Because the lowest bidder feeds off pipe dreams, pride, and making ends meet, he is willing to undercut the competition--well, at least he's willing to do A,B, and C for chump change.

You can sit around and complain about the system--you can round up the masses and demand change. I'm willing to bet that those tactics will work as well as those being employed to stop outsourcing, offshoring, and free trade agreements.

This isn't an isolated case of Thomas Friedman-induced paranoia; YoungFemaleScientist is battling it out with the academic job market, discovering what may be unwritten rules (like the "nine year rule"), and wondering whether the system can improve while people are still killing themselves trying to survive within it:

I stopped reading this wonderful, preaching-to-the-choir report by the NAS [Bridges to Independence], because it doesn't say anything useful for me. ...

I stopped reading it because it's full of great suggestions for how we should fix the system, and by 'we' I mean taxpayers, Congress, NIH, and PIs.

It's also full of suggestions for what postdocs should do- finish within 3 or 4 years, seek out mentors, publish papers, mentor students, write grants, and so on. All of which I'm doing and exactly on the timescale that they suggest is ideal ...

What they don't say is why, when we do everything right, we still can't get jobs, and what we (the unemployed, frustrated postdocs) can do about it RIGHT NOW. They don't comment on the 9-year rule [how many years of postdocing it seems to take before one can get a tenure track job], but I wish they would comment on how search committees, despite claiming that they don't expect more than 2 or 3 years of postdoc, inevitably just look at the grand tally of publications and hire the oldest, crustiest postdocs they can find.

The whole document laments, at great length, the loss of all these great young scientific minds to industry and other employment than research. I guess we're supposed to hope the system gets fixed so the next generation doesn't also get lost.

What we seem to have here is an oversupply of scientific talent, circling the tarmac in their postdocs waiting for an opportunity to land in a permanent job as a real-live, grown-up scientist with something resembling job security (even if it only lasts until the tenure hearing). More newly-minted science Ph.D.s on the market means that department can be very choosy about who they hire -- they don't have to take a candidate right out of grad school when they can choose from a significant pool of candidates who have had two or three postdocs. And suddenly, because of market forces, doing two or three postdocs becomes a de facto requirement for getting the job.

Did anyone tell you that when you were applying to grad school? Doubtful. More likely, you heard that the U.S. needed more Ph.D. scientists - stat! Certainly, that's what I heard:

Since I was an undergraduate, a loooong time ago, I have heard doom-and-gloom stories about critical shortages of science Ph.D.s in the U.S. Of course, while in graduate school in chemistry I found out that U.S. universities were turning out something like 30% more chemistry Ph.D.s than the U.S. market could handle. So I confess to being a bit skeptical about the target numbers of science Ph.D.s certain folks think we ought to be reaching. Is this one of those situations where we're not actually striving to reach the optimal number of Ph.D. scientists to fully staff a healthy and active scientific community but rather pursuing growth in output for growth's sake? Does our economy depend on an every increasing production of Ph.D. scientists? (What's the futures market like on string theorists?) Is this just one more number we'd like to be able to hold up to compare ourselves favorably to Germany, or China, or India?

Is the rate at which science Ph.D.s are churned out of U.S. universities an attempt to "keep up" with Ph.D. production in China and India and other countries the U.S. views as major competitors in scientific research (and related industries)? Or, is it a plot to thoroughly saturate the market with quality scientific labor so it will be a buyer's market from here on out, allowing universities to conduct top-notch research at rock-bottom prices? (Perhaps it's really a plot to save faculty from the loathsome task of teaching pre-meds, given the close connection between the number of premeds to be taught and the size of the science graduate programs at most research universities.)

Faculty members and university administrators wouldn't be consciously setting up a system that used graduate students and postdocs as a mere means to achieve their ends, would they? Because, wouldn't that be wrong?

The big question, as YoungFemaleScientist reminds us, is how to stop what, from the inside, can look and feel like a cycle of abuse. One obvious approach might be to change the rate of production of Ph.D.s -- recognize that making too many Ph.D.s might be ethically problematic, because it reduces the prospects for productive and satisfying careers among the overcrowded candidate pool, and just make fewer.

Which is great, provided there's not someone else ready to flood the market with cheap Ph.D.s. Is it really in the best interests of the global community of science to get all protectionist (imposing tariffs on imported Ph.D. scientists and so forth)? I have my doubts.

The other sort of option for making life better for the next generations of scientific labor centers on treating grad students and postdocs less like widgets and more like, well, persons. It might not take very much.

Being candid with undergraduates applying for graduate school about what job prospects are with a Ph.D. versus an M.S. or a B.S. would be a help -- not just, "Here's the kind of jobs you're qualified to do with each of these degrees" but also how many people with those degrees have been unable to secure jobs they're "qualified" for in the scientific workforce. Similarly, if a hiring committee really isn't going to consider a candidate for a tenure track job who hasn't done nine years as a postdoc, it would be humane to state that in the ad for the job. (If it's not a firm requirement but it is preferred, why not say, "Nine years' postdoctoral experience preferred"?) Sharing information about the forms of life within the scientific community can do a lot to improve things, since much of what feels like abuse when you're an underling is laboring under false assumptions.

As well, faculty and administrators could show active sympathy for grad students and postdocs. Dr. Mom points out that even very accomplished postdocs, who have gotten their research to work and everything, often have a hard time imagining themselves as successful PIs. It's not the fault of these postdocs -- no weakness of character has them anticipating their own failure. Rather, postdocing tends to extend your scientific adolescence. Serious mentoring from a PI could serve as a counterweight to that. Moreover, even an official mentoring program is no good if it's a "double-secret mentoring program". Warm feelings toward grad students, postdocs, and junior faculty tryin' to make it to tenure are pretty much useless unless they move you to let these folks know they're a valued part of the community, and what they can expect from the landscape of grad school/their fellowship/the scientific job market/their probationary period, and what kind of help they can expect from the person having the warm feelings. (Also, this kind of "warm feeling" for underlings is probably not what is needed to make the community of science more humane.)

As Bill put it, "Be excellent to each other."

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I'm glad my insomnia-induced walmart post facilitated you to write this excellent piece. It's difficult to watch brilliant people, who are really good at what they do, struggle to find jobs and make ends meet. The public cries for "a cure for cancer" but the people who will actually make that cure happen can't pay their own medical bills. That is just sad.

I don't think it's very different from what is happening in other industries, but it does add to the question of how to make onself marketable in a "flat world" where capitalism drives us around like a bat out of hell. How can one compete when there are equally brilliant people willing to (or unknowingly suckered into) work for low wages and minimal benefits for countless post doctoral years?

Mentors and training programs are going to have to start addressing this problem by differentiating between training technicians and training thinkers--people with multidisciplinary knowledge who can be innovators as opposed to mere producers. In turn, they are also going to have to put their training practices into hiring practices. If you are going to train people to believe that it is all about the science, about thinking outside of the box and producing quality publications, then you should also hire based on those same ideals.

Too many people with the potential for great things are getting jammed onto the production line.

I also think that the public needs to be made more aware of our situation. I don't think anyone realizes what being a "scientist" actually means.

Scientists are willing participants in this system. If you can't stand the heat, get out and become a creationist or a televangelist. [/rim_shot]

I think you missed the point (well my point, at least), Madbard. My message was: how do we create a system for training scientific leaders, not merely people who participate in the factory line of staining, test tubes, and recordings? Doing everything the "right" way, at the highest level, doesn't necessarily mean that you'll get a job as a "real" scientist. If we are dealing with a situation where only a few people hold the highest positions, supported by cheap and abundant labor below them, how do we train young scientists to get those positions? Publications, grants, and good marks aren't enough. People have to find ways to create a niche while at the same time standing out in a more global community.
I'm not worried about the heat of the kitchen--I'm worried about the training and mentoring of budding scientists and people stuck in the postdoc rut. We must change our training and our requirements so that people know how to get those top positions.

It is not true that we are willing participants. To be a willing participant you must be told the rules; the system must be made transparent. Right now the rules are vague, ambiguous, and outdated. No one explains the rules to highschool students, undergraduates, or even graduate students. Even if you know the rules as a junior faculty member, that doesn't mean that they are subject to change--it doesn't even mean that if you follow them you will be rewarded. You do not see the Truth until you have gotten in it so deep that turning back would be devastating for the type of bright, motivated people who go into science.

The system, the requirements, and the training are in need of a change.

I'm still going to get my PhD, despite hearing all of this before. Perhaps it is naiive of me to think that I'll still be able to find a job, but I'm hoping that researching a hot topic (amphibian declines) will help. Mostly, I'd like to get my PhD because I enjoy doing research and teaching, and I see a PhD as a way to practice both of those. I must admit that posts like this do make me a bit nervous.

So like I read your post on your blogspot page that you were moving and then spent the next week or two wondering why you hadn't posted. Man, I just amaze myself sometimes!

In any case I love this post. It actually falls into a theme I've been thinking about (and you were kind enough to read my post about) for some time now - that the university system is not effectively preparing its students, and this is causing it to be less and less valuable. Peter Woit has written about this issue as well; on the one hand you have people screaming bloody murder about the declining number of phd's in a field, and on the other you can easily show that the current number can't possibly all find jobs.

To be frank, after reading all this I think I've made up my mind not to get a PhD in science; at least not first. It's a hard conclusion to come to, but it feels good, in a way. 13 years of grad and postdoc before tenure trace puts me at 41 before I really feel stable, and the payoff is terribly low. Put like that, I can't believe I ever considered it.

I wish I would have read this article 7-8 years ago; This article is absolutely true what I have gone and going through.
-A synthetic Organic chemist working as a postdoc to cure cancer