The pyramid scheme

September 17, 2007

A recent comment on the post that generated some heat bemoans the pyramid scheme that is modern bioscience. The more general critique boils down to the fact that the PI or lab head is generally given the lion’s share, if not all, of the credit for scientific papers, findings and the like. The assignment of credit takes a number of forms including the habit most of us have of referring to findings and /or bodies of work as the product of “Dr. Greybeard’s laboratory” or “Prof. Bluehair and her colleagues”. Yes, even the grad students and postdocs who are resentful of the lack of crediting of their efforts are guilty of using this shorthand with respect to other research groups! This is also despite the fact that many (most?) PIs end their scientific presentations with a recitation of all of the people who did the actual work including technicians, graduate students and postdoctoral trainees suggesting that they understand quite well who is really responsible. Remember your Marx/Engels Reader from the general distribution class you took in college?

I don’t remember it too well, I’ll admit. Nevertheless the general outlines remain and it is pretty clear that the modern bioscience laboratory fits into the capitalist mold pretty well. The techs and trainees are, of course, the proletariat with the PIs standing as the owners of the means of production. I don’t want to belabor this point too much. Not really my field. Those more steeped might want to chime in on the question of why this is a common human sociological pattern and the relative power of such an arrangement to succeed and to be productive. I only recognize that it is so. That the most productive and the most well-funded labs operate on certain principles. I think there are lessons here for the young investigator thinking about how to shape career.

One stereotype of the new Assistant Professor trying to make it is that they spend the day at the bench and the night hours until midnight writing grants and papers. You’ve heard it I imagine and may even have observed it. I think this is a fool’s game. My advice to newly independent Investigators is as follows:

Your job as a PI is not to generate primary data. Your job is to manage the lab, train new scientists, direct the research, make sure the results get published and above all, keep it funded.

The first thing you need to do is get / train an excellent technician who can be the essential hands to generate a data stream of your most bread-and-butter basic work. [I recognize that in some fields the roles of the tech can vary from support to essentially doing the experiments. If you have to be doing “bench work” or equivalent, there is always something a tech can be taught to make your work more efficient and easier.]

There are many motivations in science. From just liking to putter at the bench, run rats or whatever to a desire for winning the Nobel Prize. Many of us have motivations all along the scale. My advice is that as PI if you hew to closely to benchwork you are sunk. There are simply too many other things that require your attention.

For me, I conceptualize the career path as a continuing process of influencing the conduct of more and more science. From directing the efforts of one part-time tech, to an undergraduate intern, onward and upward to running your own lab, growing your research group and establishing collaborations, well one of the reasons for doing this is having an effect on a broader sweep of science. One might also view the peer review process in a similar way. Why DO you review papers? The grant review process should be even more obviously rewarded by this “benefit” to your ego.

This process has to be reinforcing to you or otherwise, what on earth would you want to be a PI for? I happen to have come to this early when I recognized as a graduate student that my chosen model was a slow generator of data and that I wasn’t “going to really get anywhere” on the labor of my own two hands. I don’t care how hard you work, there are only so many hours in the day, people. This was a fortunate thing in some ways because when I was appointed, I kept the idea of a technician-generated data stream leading to my most bread-and-butter type of publications as a front and center goal. Not to say that one can get there overnight and not that everything in the lab can be devolved down the line. But these considerations should help to shape how you launch your research program.

The next step is, of course, exploitation of trainees. Techs are paid to do a job; no problem. Scientific trainees, however, have ideas about their roles in your laboratory. Some feel quite strongly that they are independent guests with loyalty mostly to themselves and the expectation that you mentor them in an almost parental sense of sacrifice and obligation. They feel, in a word, exploited by a PI who in any way views the trainee as simply a quasi independent generator of data for the PI’s own purposes. When I was a trainee, I viewed this as a reciprocal relationship in which I was getting as good as I gave. As PI? I recognize the benefits of the arrangement for me, certainly, although I try my best to supply good mentoring. Do I exploit my trainees? Well in a certain capitalistic sense, yes.

Where’s the problem? I mean, if the capitalistic framework fits, then how does academic bioscience differ from all our other professions in the US? Why are the middle and upper manager equivalents so resentful that they aren’t CEOs? (To stretch the metaphor). Is it solely because we exist in a culture where everyone believes from the start (i.e., grad school) that they will/must become the CEO someday?

Or is it only about job security?

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57 Responses to “The pyramid scheme”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    “This process has to be reinforcing to you or otherwise, what on earth would you want to be a PI for?”

    I am a data junkie. I want to have as big an operation as possible, with as many different projects, and as many people as I can support. Every time one of my trainees shows me some new cool data, my brain squirts dopamine. Everything I do is designed to keep those dopamine squirts coming as frequently and consistently as possible.

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  2. JSinger Says:

    I remember using “pyramid scheme” in a comment on your “How to Fix the NIH” post and your misunderstanding the term, and I think you’re doing the same here. “Pyramid structure” and “pyramid scheme” aren’t the same thing.

    A pyramid scheme requires continuous exponential growth to avoid collapse. In the case of NIH funding, increased funding generates new PhDs which generates new postdocs which generates new PIs. Which brings us to today, where a new massive increase in funding is required to allow the new PIs to generate new grad students…

    Industry research has a much more pronounced pyramid structure than academia but it’s not a pyramid *scheme*. If you have a hiring freeze for a few years, the whole system doesn’t stress because everyone below the top isn’t expected to move up or out.

    The comment that set off this discussion kind of conflates the two ideas.

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  3. drugmonkey Says:

    yeah, a fair enough distinction. I should have used “structure”. I disagree, btw, that the NIH game is actually a “scheme”. We will not be experiencing any sort of “collapse” and we can weather 1 trainee-per-PI or even less than 1 trainee-per-PI just fine. Science will still march on. Although I’d like to see a tech or two on the budget…

    The post above talks about how I prefer to construct my lab and PhysioProf’s comment underlines the point. But this is a preference. I also think it is perhaps the easiest/best route to long term success which is why I also think it is a good lateral-mentoring point to make. This does not imply that it is required to survive or to do good science. My local academic unit includes people who have been stable, contracting or expanding over the past 3-5 years. They are all still hanging on from all appearances.

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  4. whimple Says:

    Of course, if they’re tenured, it’s impossible for them to drop off.

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  5. drugmonkey Says:

    i’m in a softmoney environment. no money, no jobee. even tenure doesn’t mean much in this type of situation.

    if one contracts down to a pretty minimal level, conceivably even down to oneself, it is still possible to be viable. enough to keep putting out a paper or two, cover the gap with review articles and generate enough prelim to keep applying. it isn’t pretty but the point addresses the notion that one HAS to have a big pyramid to make it work. it is not an absolute requirement for survival in the short term.

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  6. PhysioProf Says:

    “[W]e can weather 1 trainee-per-PI or even less than 1 trainee-per-PI just fine.”

    I would leave academic science if I were in this situation and it looked like it was going to be more than transitory. It just wouldn’t be enough fun for me.

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  7. drugmonkey Says:

    Cross that bridge when and if you come to it…

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  8. JSinger Says:

    I agree that a “collapse” isn’t in the cards, NIH fearmongering notwithstanding.

    As for “[W]e can weather 1 trainee-per-PI or even less than 1 trainee-per-PI just fine.” — even if that were possible or desirable, I don’t think that the possibility of transforming the structure of basic research to something completely unrecognizable changes the fact that it’s premised on unending growth *today*.

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  9. drugmonkey Says:

    JSinger, I don’t think a higher PI to peon ratio is “completely unrecognizable”. There are now and have always been smaller labs that do quite good and important work. more common in some types of science than others because of differences in the labor demands to generate a publishable data set. Not all career paths for PIs are uninterrupted growth, some experience more cyclical patterns.

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  10. […] 19th, 2007 The DM has been talking, I think, about career progression in research focused tracks. This got started by some discussions around the usual blogs and even Science/Nature on the age old […]

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  11. […] The pyramid scheme « DrugMonkey Pyramid structure of scientific laboratories. Interesting (tags: science) […]

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  12. Bill Says:

    “Where’s the problem? I mean, if the capitalistic framework fits, then how does academic bioscience differ from all our other professions in the US? Why are the middle and upper manager equivalents so resentful that they aren’t CEOs? (To stretch the metaphor). Is it solely because we exist in a culture where everyone believes from the start (i.e., grad school) that they will/must become the CEO someday?

    Or is it only about job security?”

    How does academic bioscience differ from all our other professions in the US?. One word. PAY. Middle and upper managers in the real world make enough money to buy houses, raise kids, and plan for retirement. Middle and upper manager equivalents in bioscience are called “trainees” to justify “subsistence pay”. I would actually be relatively happy as a postdoc if I was paid a decent wage. So the problem is, me and other postdocs/students are encouraged to be your “middle managers” with the promise of someday becoming a “CEO” who, although not rich, can at least afford to live as a normal adult. I guarantee that if postdocs were actually paid decently, a lot less people would have a problem with being “middle and upper managers” in the science world.

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  13. bikemonkey Says:

    “with the promise of someday becoming a “CEO” who, although not rich, can at least afford to live as a normal adult.”

    Most of the non-scientist people I talk to about this gig are absolutely flabbergasted when I get around to the part where the number of grants acquired has no (immediate) effect on my salary. Just sayin.

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  14. Bill Says:

    Yes, you certainly aren’t driving a Porsche, either. But you make a lot more money than your middle managers. At least enough to be relatively comfortable I’d think.

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  15. physioprof Says:

    “Yes, you certainly aren’t driving a Porsche, either.”

    I’m not!? Sez who!? Oh, right. I’m not.

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  16. drugmonkey Says:

    Depends on which Joneses you are comparing yourself with, doesn’t it Bill?

    I’ve seen some salary numbers from BigFalutin’StateResearchU’s which suggest that starting Asst Profs are in the $70K range. Some differences with negotiating experience and 9mo/12mo contracts in traditional FTE vs soft money med school. $65-80 as a range? This squares approx with the few people on the market who have shared numbers with me.

    NIH postdoc scale for 5 yrs is, what, some $50K plus a bit.

    a “lot” more money? please. especially when in your mind you are comparing yourself to those alleged “similarly or less well trained” lawyers, doctors, mba’s etc who suppposedly are making $150 “in their first job”. I’ve heard the arguments, believe me. they have a tendency to hit the top of some rumoured salary range and assume that but for our choices to be scientists, we’d be making those numbers too. pshaw.

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  17. physioprof Says:

    I think that Bill’s whole analogy is grossly miscalibrated. The notion that PIs are analogous to CEOs is a joke.

    Most PIs are analogous to project managers, and those with bigger labs could be considered analogous to middle managers. Department Chairs are analogous to middle managers. Deans are analogous to Chief Operating Officers. University Presidents/Chancellors are analogous to Chief Executive Officers.

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  18. drugmonkey Says:

    In his defense it was the original post which stretched the metaphor…

    the small-business model might give us more appropriate metaphors?

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  19. Bill Says:

    As an assistant professor at a medical school in any large metropolitan area, you would make a lot more than I do as a postdoc in that same area. If you make 65-80k in Big State U-town, you still make a lot more than me, especially adjusting for cost of living. Postdocs are screwed on salary, you will never convince me otherwise. Perhaps assistant profs are too, but not to the same extent.

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  20. whimple Says:

    Bill says: I would actually be relatively happy as a postdoc if I was paid a decent wage.
    At least you get to whine about it. Does that help? Remind me again who’s forcing you to do this. Is The Man breaching the “be happy” clause of your contract? Your comparison of assistant professor salaries to post-docs salaries implying a roughly equivalent level of productivity between the two is incredibly naive.

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  21. Bill Says:

    Oh come on Whimple, get over yourself. This is the comment section of a blog, I’m allowed to whine as much as I want (unless DrugMonkey decides to turn me off). I’m not implying anything at all in terms of productivity, although I know plenty of postdocs who are much more productive than PIs, and vice vera. Your assumption that all assistant profs are so much more productive than postdocs is the naive one, in my opinion.

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  22. physioprof Says:

    “Your comparison of assistant professor salaries to post-docs salaries implying a roughly equivalent level of productivity between the two is incredibly naive.”

    Your assumption that there is a single metric of “productivity” that can be applied to both PIs and post-docs is incredibly naive.

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  23. whimple Says:

    Ah good, we’ve got the political correctness out of the way. WHY are assistant professors paid more than post-docs? Let’s have some reasons.

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  24. drugmonkey Says:

    They own the means of production?

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  25. physioprof Says:

    For the same reason major league baseball players are paid more than minor leaguers: their work is more valuable to those who pay the salaries.

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  26. Bill Says:

    Yes, exactly. They generate revenue for the institution from grant overhead. They are in a position to make a name for themselves in their field and thus bring prestige to the institution (thus alumni donations).

    My argument is certainly not that postdocs should be paid AS MUCH as assistant professors. There should be a logical progression, from the bottom up, of salary increase. However, in science you have situations in which people in lower positions actually make more than postdocs (i.e. some research techs). You guys like to rank on postdocs and students over here, and that’s fine, its nice to see a counterpoint to YoungFemaleScientist’s warped view of the world. But the fact remains, postdocs are responsible for a huge proportion of the hands on work in academic research labs, as well as much of the intellectual advances, and a good deal of grant writing in some cases. As Whimple said, no one forced us to do this, but it would be a better system if people were more fairly compensated, at all levels.

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  27. whimple Says:

    Here’s the current situation:

    $70k starting assistant professor (approx)
    $51k most senior post-doc (2007 Kirschstein)
    $36k starting post-doc (2007 Kirschstein)

    What do you think this table should look like to represent fair compensation for post-docs?

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  28. […] complementary to the way that Young Female Scientist “ranks on” PIs. For example, in a comment to this post, Bill wrote: You guys like to rank on postdocs and students over here, and that’s […]

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  29. Bill Says:

    $60k starting postdoc
    $85k most senior postdoc
    $100k starting prof

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  30. PhysioProf Says:

    Well shit, as long as we’re pulling numbers out of our asses, I like these better:

    $600,000 starting post-doc
    $850,000 most senior post-doc
    $1,000,000 starting professor

    Given the current economics of the biomedical research enterprise, they’re not any less realistic than yours.

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  31. drugmonkey Says:

    I like them numbers Bill!

    Look, totally agree with you that it sucks that academics don’t make more. I’m in this career, remember?

    I’ve been there. The technicians making $55K+ when I was making about $30K as a postdoc. And note I started before the big jumps in NRSA stipends, when year one was running about $19K. And that was not so long ago my friend. Anyway, the screwjob of being payed less than career techs because you are partially “in training” is a good issue, IMO. The issue of a livable career path as something less than full asst prof, ditto.

    But your tone of “senior post-docs are essentially doing the asst prof’s job so they should be paid almost as much” is what got the original back-and-forth with YFS going. and why whimple chimed in like that.

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  32. Bill Says:

    Physioprof,

    Thanks for the condescending reply. Much appreciated. I can see how your students and postdocs must really enjoy dealing with you on a daily basis.

    Drugmonkey,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I don’t know why I even bring up these points, the pay system in science will never change, and postdocs will always whine, so I can’t really add anything constructive. Oh, and I didn’t post anything on YFS about postdocs doing the same work as asst profs. That’s her mantra, not mine.

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  33. drugmonkey Says:

    “I don’t know why I even bring up these points, the pay system in science will never change, and postdocs will always whine, so I can’t really add anything constructive.”

    Not true. The big upgrade in NRSA payscale right around 98 or 99 (if memory serves) was a very nice change at the time. This came about through postdoc whining. (and organizing unions, etc) Things do NOT change quickly but they do change. And they change because there are squeaking wheels, not because of sudden realizations on the part of the powers that be.

    “That’s her mantra, not mine.”
    -but surely you see how your comments about salary might be seen in this vein?

    “Physioprof, Thanks for the condescending reply.”

    go easy, he’s been working on his “ranting” inner blogger today. but this is also the response I tend to get over on YFS and I find it oversensitive and a bit unfair. see PPs post on “ranking on postdocs”. I was composing a very similar screed in my head as well.

    just because one gets a mite sarcastic (and even rants a bit) does not mean one is a shit to one’s advisees.

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  34. BugDoc Says:

    In response to the comment that senior postdocs may be as or more productive that assistant professors, first of all, that could only be considered for good postdocs IMO (maybe the top 5%?). That statement would not apply to most postdocs out there. Secondly, while good postdocs certainly are productive at the bench and hopefully are the driving intellectual force behind their project, there is no way to compare them to an assistant professor in productivity, since that is comparing apples and oranges.

    This is not meant to be a rant about postdocs at all, but to point out that while Dr. Postdoc is reading papers and doing experiments on her one project, a good PI at any one time is reading papers and planning for 5 projects, writing 3 different grants, writing/editing several manuscripts, reviewing grants/manuscripts, teaching, mentoring students (including attending multi-hour committee meetings), sending out many recommendation letters, drumming up collaborations, traveling to give seminars & talks and doing committee work (which can be very time intensive, e.g. graduate admissions). If we’re lucky, we get to mess around with some bench work occasionally.

    While I agree that it would great for postdocs (and asst profs) to make higher salaries, I do think it should be acknowledged that most of us got through grad school with our tuition and stipends paid by our PIs, and unlike medical or law students are not paying off large student loans. Would you be willing to incur debt to pay your own graduate tuition and cost of living in order to allow higher wages for postdocs? I am actually in favor of more of a pyramid structure to allow for more highly paid “senior scientist” research positions in academic labs. However, unless NIH and other granting agencies are willing to accommodate such salaries, it’s unlikely that this kind of structure can be supported.

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  35. PhysioProf Says:

    “If we’re lucky, we get to mess around with some bench work occasionally.”

    Personally, I don’t give a shit whether I do bench work (I don’t). I am addicted to data, not to pipetting restriction enzymes or impaling cells.

    “I am actually in favor of more of a pyramid structure to allow for more highly paid ‘senior scientist’ research positions in academic labs.”

    I agree completely. At my institution we do have a significant number of people in “Associate Research Scientist” and “Research Scientist” positions.

    “However, unless NIH and other granting agencies are willing to accommodate such salaries, it’s unlikely that this kind of structure can be supported.”

    That’s the rub right there. The point I was making that got up in Bill’s undershorts is that you can bitch and moan all you want about post-doc salaries and the absence of permanent non-independent senior scientist positions, but it means nothing if NIH doesn’t come up wth the hondo to pay for it. As things currently stand budget-wise, it just ain’t gonna happen.

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  36. Bill Says:

    Sorry for the personal attack PhysioProf, I get frustrated with this issue, and as a postdoc its very easy to get defensive when a PI makes comments about salary. This blog is quite informative, I think I can learn more about PIs and their concerns here than in my daily life. Although I don’t want to join you guys as an academic PI (and in fact, what fool without an MD actually thinks this is achievable these days?) I can appreciate reading about your issues

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  37. PhysioProf Says:

    “Although I don’t want to join you guys as an academic PI (and in fact, what fool without an MD actually thinks this is achievable these days?) I can appreciate reading about your issues.”

    There are numerous assistant professor positions out there in the biomedical sciences for which an MD is not a relevant qualification. My institution currently has about a half dozen job searches going on in the basic sciences.

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  38. Bill Says:

    “There are numerous assistant professor positions out there in the biomedical sciences for which an MD is not a relevant qualification. My institution currently has about a half dozen job searches going on in the basic sciences.”

    I’m sure that’s true. But the numerous assistant professor positions are vastly outnumbered by the much more numerous postdocs who apply to them. Thus not overly achievable. Those of you in those positions are to be congratulated for making it there.

    In my field, if you have an MD, you’re much more likely to get a faculty position, much faster, than if you have a PhD. Not complaining here, just stating fact.

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  39. PhysioProf Says:

    “In my field, if you have an MD, you’re much more likely to get a faculty position, much faster, than if you have a PhD.”

    Are you talking about clinical sciences?

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  40. Bill Says:

    Immunology

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  41. whimple Says:

    “In my [immunology], if you have an MD, you’re much more likely to get a faculty position, much faster, than if you have a PhD.”

    This is wrong. Go to some departmental websites and count how many assistant professors of immunology have an MD… not very many (almost none). There are practical reasons for this: MDs graduate with a huge load of monetary debt. They will never pay this off on a typical assistant professor salary ($70k as discussed above). This almost forces them to go into clinical medicine. For exactly the same reason, a recent MD has to do a residency and a fellowship. An academic post-doc is almost impossible (I know only two MDs that have done it, and I’ve known a LOT of post-docs) meaning MDs can’t get trained in how to do actual research. This only leaves graduates of MD/PhD programs. These are few and far between since medical schools can’t afford to give away free medical school in order to train MD/PhDs that aren’t going to stick around and that might (usually) completely bail on doing research, saying, ‘hey, getting a PhD in 3 years and getting all my medical school bills waived is a pretty good deal!” Even if MD/PhDs automatically got jobs ahead of PhDs (which they don’t), there aren’t anywhere close enough to go around.

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  42. Bill Says:

    Sorry Whimple, that’s a load of bullshit. I work in the field, talk to junior faculty about their competition with MDs, and see MD postdocs come into my lab and make a lot more than I do (try 75k to start, forget about 70k as an asst prof, I don’t know where you get that number. Newsflash, they make a lot more than you do at your level). Talk to some people in my field if you don’t believe me. I don’t know where you get your numbers for MD PIs. Where I’ve worked MDs or MD PhDs have made up at least 30-50% of the faculty.

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  43. whimple Says:

    From http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/297/22/2496
    Number of people applying for their first NIH R01 grant: (2004 data)
    2880 PhDs
    670 MDs
    500 MD/PhDs

    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/Average_age_initial_R01.xls
    Average age first R01 grant awarded: (2004 data)
    41.7 PhDs
    43.3 MDs
    43.2 MD/PhDs

    From http://www.aamc.org/data/facultyroster/reports.htm:
    Number of faculty in basic science departments at US medical schools: (2006 data — emphasis mine)
    12760 PhDs
    2240 MDs
    1380 MD/PhDs

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  44. whimple Says:

    From http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/297/22/2496
    Number of people applying for their first NIH R01 grant: (2004 data)
    2880 PhDs
    670 MDs
    500 MD/PhDs

    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/Average_age_initial_R01.xls
    Average age first R01 grant awarded: (2004 data)
    41.7 PhDs
    43.3 MDs
    43.2 MD/PhDs

    From http://www.aamc.org/data/facultyroster/reports.htm:
    Number of faculty in basic science departments at US medical schools: (2006 data — emphasis mine)
    12760 PhDs
    2240 MDs
    1380 MD/PhDs

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  45. whimple Says:

    http://www.aamc.org/data/facultyroster/reports.htm
    Number of faculty in basic science departments at US medical schools: (2006 data)
    12760 PhDs
    2240 MDs
    1380 MD/PhDs

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  46. Bill Says:

    Yes, 28% of them have MDs.

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  47. PhysioProf Says:

    That’s 22%, not 28%.

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  48. Bill Says:

    Oops, you’re right. Still almost 1/4 of all PIs. Where I have worked, as I mention, its closer to 30%. My point remains, in my field if you have an MD you will tend to progress faster, and often further, than if you have only a PhD. I can’t speak for the other biomedical sciences, although word of mouth from colleagues who have come from other fields seems to indicate it is simular.

    You state the average assistant prof makes 70K to start. MD postdocs make more, does that imply they are more productive than assistant profs? I don’t think pay is always directly related to productivity.

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  49. PhysioProf Says:

    “MD postdocs make more”

    Who is paying MD post-docs >$70,000 per year, and where is this money coming from? It’s sure as hell not coming solely from R01s. Now, if you’re talking about MD post-docs who are expending substantial effort–and supporting substantial salary–on clinical practice, that is a whole different situation.

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  50. whimple Says:

    My point remains, in my field if you have an MD you will tend to progress faster, and often further, than if you have only a PhD.

    Also not true. See for example:
    http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/297/22/2496
    New Physician-Investigators Receiving National Institutes of Health Research Project Grants — A Historical Perspective on the “Endangered Species”
    Howard B. Dickler, MD; Di Fang, PhD; Stephen J. Heinig, MA; Elizabeth Johnson, MS; David Korn, MD
    JAMA. 2007;297:2496-2501.

    There is also the well-known statistic that the average age at which either an MD or MD/PhD receives their first R01 is later (43.2 years) than those with a PhD (41.7 years).
    (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/Average_age_initial_R01.xls)

    So, not only are basic science faculty with medical degrees outnumbered 3.5 : 1 by PhDs, they take longer to succeed and do worse subsequently as well.

    The MD holders are paid more as starting faculty. At my institution PhD assistant professors start at around $70k, but a starting MD/PhD assistant professor makes about $125k. Then again, the MD degree brings baggage with it, like a 20% time commitment to clinical duties. In practice, the 20% commitment tends to be a lower bound that has a way of gradually creeping upwards.

    For what it’s worth, when I was a PhD post-doc the “conventional wisdom” among myself and PhD colleagues was that the MDs in research had it easy and were taking our jobs and that if we had to do it over again, we’d all get MDs instead. I think this is more of a “grass is greener on the other side” feeling among PhD post-docs, since the objective data doesn’t support these assertions.

    I do think however that holders of MD degrees do progress further than those with PhDs if they switch to administration. My guess (really, just a guess) is that most Deans of Medical Schools and that class of administrator in medical schools have MD degrees as part of their credentials. Whether this kind of administrative success counts as “progressing further” could still be debated of course.

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  51. Bill Says:

    No, I’m talking about a fellowship for research only, no clinical duties. If you don’t believe me, send me an email and I’ll send you the link.

    There is also an NIH fellowship for MD postdocs, I think its a J-something? Pays them a lot as well.

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  52. Bill Says:

    Hmm. Well Whimple you seem to have backed up your argument with facts. I hope you’re right, if so it would give a lot of PhD postdocs more hope. I can say that, in my own personal experience, there were a lot of successful MD PIs, in terms of getting grant money and publishing. In fact, in our division there are four major PIs, three of them are MDs and one is a DVM. They are doing mostly basic science, but some of it is more clinically oriented. I also hear a lot of grumbling from junior faculty members about MDs, but perhaps as you say this is just a “grass is always greener’ phenomenon.

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  53. Anonymous Says:

    This Clinical load is a HUGE issue for MDs… even MDs who are on a “research” track are often pressed into clinical & administrative / education responsibilities. There is a big problem right now with divisions lose people to private practice (which is happening more and more) or failing to recruit, so everyone has to pitch in to cover for the gaps. At my institution, we keep bringing in R01-funded senior or new investigators with great research promise, only to see them unable to sustain funding in the face of other strains on time & energy. I used to do the “grass is greener” thing a lot as well, until I started working with MD faculty and seeing what they have to deal with given all the challenges facing Academic Medical Centers. These trends correlate with and should deteriorate along with NIH support & Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement. Unfortunately, this will be hard to track with numbers, at least superficially – many MD researchers are in clinical departments and may not show up on a basic science department’s faculty roster (depending on how joint appointments are handled), and many are Co-PIs on grants led by PhD investigators. This is yet another consequence of NIH not having formal Co-PI status (and no, this is different from multiple PI), unlike NSF… the other consequence is in not giving that Co-PI status “senior research staff” positions.

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  54. PhysioProf Says:

    “At my institution, we keep bringing in R01-funded senior or new investigators with great research promise, only to see them unable to sustain funding in the face of other strains on time & energy.”

    That is a really interesting point. So you think this is the main reason that MD’s do statistically worse than PhD’s at getting and maintaining R01 funding, and not because of lacunae in their training?

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  55. Anonymous Says:

    Absolutely… training is an issue, but it’s strongly coupled to that – after all, potential mentors are being sucked into this mentor, and you need time to be trained. Even if someone comes out of a protected Fellowship, as has been discussed extensively being a junior faculty still requires a lot of mentorship. And MD junior faculty need MD senior faculty to help them – one thing our institution has tried is getting PhD senior faculty to be mentors to young MDs, but that’s a bad scene (it’s really hard for a PhD to get their head around the fact that 4 hours in clinic is not equivalent to, say 4 hours of lecture or doing administrative work, and ICU time is just plain write-off). More NIH fellowship money, loan repayments, etc., are probably just throwing good money after bad at this point, given that the problem is the health care system as a whole. Just look at successful MD researchers – invariably they start out in junior faculty well-established programs led by a MD or an MD in partnership with a PhD, and they’re highly protected from clinical / educational / administrative issues. That’s it, period. Numbers would be useful to support this case, but it’s almost certain that pre-faculty training is a wash for R01 success (my educated guess is that it would be more predictive of entering a research-track position rather than getting and keeping the grant).

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  56. drugmonkey Says:

    “it’s almost certain that pre-faculty training is a wash for R01 success (my educated guess is that it would be more predictive of entering a research-track position rather than getting and keeping the grant).”

    There are several types of training, of course. The scientific end, the grantsmanship end, the external careerism and the internal careerism just to name a few.

    It would not surprise me in the least if the balances are very different for MD vs PhD tracks and if some types of “training” are more relevant to R01 success, some types more relevant to “getting a job in the first place”, some more relevant to getting promoted, some more relevant to field recognition (getting a job elsewhere, perhaps), etc

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  57. […] 15, 2008 A recent reader discussion touching on scientist compensation has blown up on a prior post. Bill (no, not that Bill) and whimple have been leading the charge. To add another data point we […]

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