In the Twittersation that accompanied my post suggesting a 20% reduction in graduate admissions for this cycle, @EugeneDay objected to the paternalism of it all.

Feels awfuly elitest. Do you have a motivation other than lowering the NIH funding line? More PhDs != Bad Science.


People get to try to follow their own aspirations! Sometimes they fail. That’s sad, but doesn’t warrant national policy.

This echos PhysioProf’s usual comment that academic science is like elite sports, media entertainment and a number of other professions where a lot of people strive for the Major Leagues but never make it. While I agree with the analysis, I don’t think we need to embrace it fully and enthusiastically. This aspect definitely makes me uncomfortable. As a disclaimer, there are probably several points of my career where I would have washed out under harsher (but probably reasonable) filter conditions. I happen to think I eventually made a contribution as a NIH funded PI so this makes me…sympathetic. To the notion that everyone deserves a chance at the NIH extramurally-funded Prof/PI prize.

But this is not just about making the competition for NIH grants better for me personally- these steps would only affect my chances, what, some 15 years from now? This about trying to restructure the labor market in our industry.

Getting back to the individual and their “rights”, look, we most emphatically do not extend this chance to everyone, as admitted by @EugeneDay:

Of course not, but determined by program capacity, quality of applicant. Not fiats. RT @drugmonkeyblog Open admission?


Remember context: departments should restrict to high quality applicants, etc. Not advocating slinging PhDs out window to passersby.

Right? So obviously the principle is established. We already restrict graduate admissions below the level of “all who express desire for training”. We do this at the elite, not so elite and (I presume) even the lowliest ranked programs. It didn’t come up on the Twitters but we also wash people out after they have been admitted. The loss rate in the first year or two of most graduate programs that I am aware of is consistently nonzero. I’d say it is rarer for people to washout at the qualifying exam/dissertation proposal stage and rarer still on the doctoral defense. But it does happen now and again.

So how can we say that my proposal to reduce graduate training classes by 20% (or even 50%) is any different in principle? It is not. Unless we compare to some arbitrarily selected prior interval and argue that the success rate for seeking graduate training is lower. But that seems silly to me. Competition for various job sectors is always in flux. For that matter, “program capacity” is one of the things on the table in this discussion. The ability to pay stipends factors into “capacity”, as does the amount of research funding to support the scientific efforts of graduate students, the amount of time the Profs have for “training” versus “getting the research done efficiently” and, one might argue, the ability of any given program to place their students in various occupations post-PhD.

Otherwise what? What would happen in a peachy, let-the-customer-decide grad school market?

I prefer to let people filter themselves. Other’s decisions are not my business. RT @drugmonkeyblog: Where to put filter?

and they will filter themselves and all will be peachy right? Let the market correct?

Individuals should be informed by their advisors. I have nothing against programs contracting. Just no orders from on high.


Whoever pays them now. Each case is unique, right? I’m not advocating more, just in favor of case by case decisions.

So he’s right back to having a filter…but he just has this pipedream that the market will correct itself. While emitting a suspicious indication that this is all about personal discomfort in telling people “no”..

Whose job is it to ruin an aspiring scientist’s dreams? Only mine if I’m the advisor. Everything case by case.

No. A thousand times no. Our business leads to a lot of pain and wasted time for many precisely because we refuse to be engaged in the career aspects of the profession. We evince a hands-off approach that we do not need to be concerned about such tawdry concerns. “Just do great science, young Jedi and all will be well” we say. If all is not well for a given person, clearly they did not do good science and we don’t want them anyway! They are not capable and therefore not deserving. Alternate careers? Not our problem? Too many PhDs being produced? Hey, who are we to restrict the entry point?

These go together. And it is just ever so convenient that for many of us we make out like bandits, professionally, by exploiting the desperation of graduate students. By exploiting the statistically unlikely hope of the eventual Professorial entry card to extract a lot of labor for relatively little compensation.

I think it is time for us, as a profession, to take more responsibility. To remember that our left-wing dominant socio-political orientations should apply to us as well.

We are the exploiters of graduate student labor and it is time for us to restructure our profession.