The graduate training pipeline

April 20, 2012

Quite a few folks around the Intertoobs have commented to the effect that we have too many mouths to be fed by NIH grants. They suggest that we need to take steps to cut down on the “overproduction” of PhD scientists who are, in large numbers, aiming to land independent research positions.

Mid April is the time when graduate programs are wrapping up their admit / acceptance lists for Fall 2012. I’ve heard on the order of a half dozen programs bragging about record numbers of doctoral students lined up for their next class of entry.

Are you kidding me?

Please Dear Reader…tell me you know of programs that are intentionally downsizing?

No Responses Yet to “The graduate training pipeline”

  1. odyssey Says:

    Ours has each of the previous 2-3 years. I don’t know if it did this year, but we’re pretty bare bones already.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    “bare bones” intrigues me….is there a minimum size for an entering grad class? I’d venture …. 5?


  3. Grumble Says:

    The number of new grad students is going down at my college. At the same time, the quality of applicants seems to have increased in recent years, presumably due to the recession.


  4. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    We are downsizing…I believe that our entering class will be around 6 students (maybe 7). I would not be shocked if we reduced it to 4 or 5 next year…

    We are also revisiting the requirements for getting a PhD and making the program all around more stringent…


  5. Dr. KanneDo Says:

    IMO a department should only admit the number of students they are graduating each year, unless they are hiring junior faculty who need to fill their labs quickly. And then, those faculty should be heavily involved in the selection of students.


  6. odyssey Says:

    Minimum size will of course depend on number of faculty (among other things, like funding). We have a big umbrella program that includes 7 departments. I believe the program is taking in 20-25 students per year now. That works out to be roughly 1 student per 6 faculty.


  7. Annika Says:

    Mine is growing, which is nuts, because at this point the chair of the grad program is BEGGING PIs to take students but most PIs won’t even take rotating students because their funding is uncertain and they can’t waste manpower training someone in for 12 weeks. There are slightly fewer PIs who can afford a student then there are students, making finding a lab insanely difficult for incoming peeps.

    I don’t blame the students – as an undergrad coming in I had no idea about the funding situation, the postdoc situation, the job market…But 5 years in, I can only blame the administration for not being more upfront.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    Tch, tch Odyssey. That sounds like your bare minimum is based on faculty needs?


  9. becca Says:

    “”bare bones” intrigues me….is there a minimum size for an entering grad class? I’d venture …. 5?”
    Most of our grad programs had much smaller grad classes- we just had 18 grad programs for a total grad population of ~250 students (figure 250 students = 50 students in each year; so that’d be 2-3 per program, which is about what we saw).
    TOO MANY GRAD PROGRAMS (we had departmental and umbrella) taking TOO MANY STUDENTS. It was a mess.


  10. Beaker Says:

    The two grad programs I am familiar with did not cut back. Indeed, the admissions committees continue to rationalize that it is better to bring in less-qualified students–or a foreign student who can pay tuition–than it is to let those grad slots go un-filled. The argument they make (explicitly or implicitly) is that these trainees are cheap labor. Cheap labor for whom? That’s right: the faculty on the admissions committees. The pyramid scheme continues…

    One the other end of the pipeline, I have discussed this issue with a student recently accepted to an elite graduate program. You can’t blame him for taking the chance. When job prospects are so bad for people in their 20s, grad school with stipend looks pretty good, even when the odds of attaining a tenured faculty position are getting longer. “A PhD can’t hurt you,” they say. And it is possible that by the time he finishes training, a lot of baby boomers will have retired and faculty slots will become more plentiful. Or not. I’ve heard both arguments.


  11. odyssey Says:

    Tch, tch Odyssey. That sounds like your bare minimum is based on faculty needs?

    Not quite. We could probably find funded homes for about 50% more (consequently I have plenty of colleagues clammering for an increase in admissions). And that doesn’t take into account students who land fellowships or are put on training grants. Whether the glut of PhD’s had anything to do with setting our level, I don’t know. Probably not. More likely a reaction to the current funding situation.


  12. BugDoc Says:

    We are finally downsizing. Large class sizes of previous years were not due to intentionally taking more students, but rather higher than average acceptance rates in those years, common during recession. We have now altered our admissions process to better control numbers of incoming students. The concern about training too many students has been extensively discussed amongst our faculty; most are in agreement that we need to restrict incoming trainees and really enforce rigorous standards. However, even after much discussion, there are still a few holdout faculty that think we should take MORE students!


  13. juniorprof Says:

    cut in half here. and its intentional


  14. neuromusic Says:

    my program just confirmed an entering class of a whopping 21 students this year. the program director sent an email congratulating current students and faculty on our good recruitment efforts.

    15 is our historically typical entering class. when “only” 12 came a few years ago, you would have thought the world was ending by the way the faculty running the program talked about it.

    You know, at the same time that I hear so many complaints about “overproduction” of PhDs, I also hear complaints about how few politicians have any science background or the poor state of science journalism, poor state of technical economy of US relative to BRIC, etc. It seems to me that we don’t have an overproduction of PhDs, but an overproduction of PhDs “who are, in large numbers, aiming to land independent research positions.” We should stop referring to every non-tenure-track faculty career as “alternative” and recognize that the intensive training of a PhD is not just valuable but critically needed in other segments of society and adjust our training programs to help PhDs succeed in such areas.


  15. Alex Says:

    Odyssey’s numbers seem reasonable. One student per six faculty means an average faculty member gets a student every six years. At typical graduation rates, that means only one grad student per lab on average.

    In the world of undergrad-only departments, we brag about the number we send to grad programs. It is what the funding agencies want to see….


  16. Elizabeth Says:

    At my undergrad institution, they accepted a large class of 19 last year in evolutionary biology. They anticipated in taking 15 this year, though I don’t know what the final number is [though I’m one of them :)]


  17. odyssey Says:

    Odyssey’s numbers seem reasonable. One student per six faculty means an average faculty member gets a student every six years. At typical graduation rates, that means only one grad student per lab on average.

    On the face of it, it does sound reasonable. But remember, once you’ve trained one graduate student, you’ve in effect trained your replacement. Where will the others go? This is a question academic science needs to consider far more seriously than it has in the past.


  18. neuromusic Says:

    Where will the others go?

    The answer is obvious: “Not academia”

    This *answer* is what academic science needs to consider more seriously.


  19. Alex Says:

    Even within academia, not every professor trains PhD students. After you train your replacement R1 professor, you can still train a few more professors, provided that they don’t teach at PhD institutions.

    But, yes, at some point you are training people who will do something else, and they will probably enjoy more money and (slightly) less stress.


  20. odyssey Says:

    The answer is obvious, but for too many in academia the question is not.


  21. neuromusic Says:


    yes, indeed 🙂


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    Neuromusic- do you feel like your program gives a realistic sense of the chances of landing faculty positions from the start? From either the faculty or the other students?


  23. We take about 5 new PhD students per year, but epidemiology is a bit different in that much fewer of our students are aiming to stay in academia–many know from the start they want to work in industry, or for a hospital, or the government, international non-profit, etc.


  24. Beaker Says:

    Academia wants the trainees, not the trained. The trained ones who don’t make it up must go out. Where do they go?

    1. Some go to industry, but recent layoffs in Big Pharma etc have made this less common.

    2. Administration, policy. Having scientifically literate people contributing to public policy is a good thing. Their impact is kept in check by the sometimes inane political discourse surrounding scientific issues. Many of the people I know who went this route spend their time on regulatory issues, which I doubt is why they chose a career in science.

    3. Teach at a medical school. Medical school applications are going up up up. The number of slots is limited, and society’s need for trained physicians is growing. I’d like to see an analysis of cash flows into medical schools from tuitions versus grant overheads. Are the relative amounts changing?

    4. Teach other. To mentor and improve the scientific literacy of our society. Not a get-rich-quick scheme, but you get to keep your soul.

    5. Science journalism, PR, grant-writer, editor. How many PhDs can be absorbed?

    6. Wall St, consulting. Analytical skills come in handy.

    Did you notice what is missing? WORK IN A LAB. The number of positions for trained PhD researchers to do bench work is limited because under the current structure, they cost too much.


  25. Anne Says:

    Yep, mine has downsized deliberately. While it helps faculty who want to support senior students (but there are too many) and have to support nearly everybody over the summer (very few summer TA positions), the department will have to hire a lot of undergrad TAs to fill all the slots for the regular school year.


  26. Another anon Says:

    Drugmonkey, from my time in the same program as neuromusic, the attitude was always: we’re training the best, and there is ALWAYS space for the best. E.g., an infamous talk by Sejnowski in which he reassured us that there were a lot of good universities we had never heard of.


  27. Dr. O Says:

    The programs I know of are staying about the same.

    @Beaker – another route for PhDs is patent law, and not a bad one, IMO.


  28. neuromusic Says:

    DM – no, definitely not. I’ve never heard the actual numbers for my program, but its well ranked so everyone says that we’ll have better chances than the ~10% national numbers.

    But I haven’t seen the data 🙂


  29. neuromusic Says:

    @Another anon

    haha! that does not surprise me.


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    Well, you have seen the data….In a way. doesn’t the department have a proud knowledge of their output over the past 20 years? How many Yun Guns and mid career hot shots can the program claim? If they write training grants, somebody central keeps close tabs on this….


  31. drugmonkey Says:

    Anotheranon- of course all the other elite programs are telling their suckers the same sad line….


  32. mod.cur Says:

    @Beaker – another route for (biology) PhDs is biocuration, some of these positions are in industry while others are at publicly funded databases, our numbers are small but growing


  33. neuromusic Says:

    DM – hmm… yes. someone writes the training grant (which will undoubtedly include this year’s record acceptance rate)


  34. drugmonkey Says:

    But shouldn’t there be a local cultural meme of pride about all the top notch faculty that have emerged from the program over past decades? My training department offered some memory of their successes…one could tell from early on just how to match rhetoric with reality. There’s variability of course….I think my particular year did better than average at landing professorial level jobs…


  35. neuromusic Says:

    DM – yeah, there are hero stories, but I treat such anecdotes the same way I treat anecdotes about how someone’s horoscope perfectly predicted their good day. I want REAL DATA to compare to the null hypothesis (i.e. national averages).

    According to colleague in the program who tried hunting this info down a few years ago, they don’t track past postdoctoral placements.

    Argh. Why are scientists so opposed to analyzing their own productivity/outcomes with the same rigor they apply to their dishes of cells?


  36. drugmonkey Says:

    Because they are most interested in a particular outcome rather than someone else’s truth?

    And in fairness, it is true that postdoctoral training has way more impact on faculty appointments. So in the shorter timeframe, it sounds acceptable to claim “we can only affect the quality of postdoc environments”. IMO, this starts to get hollow when looking over 25 years….


  37. neuromusic Says:

    very true re: ~1-3 years as relevant timeframe for measuring outcomes of PhD training. many other factors beyond grad program’s control after that.


  38. Joe Says:

    This year our umbrella program took 22 students for 85 faculty. We had a >50% acceptance rate, which is unusual. We had been much lower the last several years (about half this year’s number), but people have been clamoring for students and the last two years, the chairs have chosen to accept more applicants.


  39. drugmonkey Says:

    many other factors beyond grad program’s control after that.

    While this is true, I still think that looking at 25 years of training, one can place some responsibility on the department of doctoral study. You have to say if the graduates are selecting what look like good postdoctoral labs but then not going on to faculty appointments in any respectable number something is wrong. It might be the perception of what is a “good” postdoctoral lab. It might be sowing the seeds of later burnout. It might be that your departmental rep attracts postdoctoral supervisors…but not hiring committees.


  40. IGrrrl Says:

    So…. I was brought in to present on grant writing to post-docs in biomedicine at an elite organization, and had a chat with my sponsor about how long some of them had been post-docs, and what the overall success rate was for the post-doc to tenure-track/lab transition. She said that globally, about 25% of post-docs get the kind of faculty job we think of as the traditional job (nb: I haven’t verified this number, but others may know if it’s right). I asked if it were better for those from her elite university. She said yes, it was about 30-35%. This was an elite, as in top 5, institution.

    There were people in the room who had to lie to their PIs about where they were spending the day (“Not in the lab? No! How can a grant writing seminar help you crank out data for me?”), and there were people in the room who had been post-docs for 12-15 years. Many, many had been in postdoctoral positions for around 8 years. None of the so-called advisers for these trainees appeared to be actively mentoring them in how to move on. It was the ‘cream rises’ mentality, through and through.


  41. IGrrrl Says:

    My point being, if that was how they treated the post-docs, I can’t imagine the grad programs were any more realistic to their students. I don’t think this place has cut admissions, and people of my acquaintance who trained there as PhD’s were told that the pedigree of [$elite_institution] would assure their future careers as faculty at other elite institutions.


  42. queenrandom Says:

    The large, state U that I’m postdocing at has been steadily decreasing its incoming class size…it’s about a third now than it was 7 years ago and I believe will be smaller next year. This was mostly because a lot of faculty didn’t have the funds to take on student stipends. The privately funded research institution where I got my PhD is steadily increasing its incoming class size (it was stagnant from 2007-2008 but has increased since) – the institution pays student stipends, not PI grants.


  43. My institution is intentionally and explicitly following a policy of increasing the number of PhD students in the biomedical sciences, in part by actually devoting hard institutional dollars to the support of PhD students.

    And this whole “overproduction of PhDs” is a demonstrably false claim:

    The unemployment rate for PhDs in 2011 was 2.5%, and the median weekly earnings were $1551 (> $80,000 per year). This is much greater than any other level of educational attainment other than professional degrees (law, medicine, etc). There is only “overproduction of PhDs” if you assume that PhDs are only being produced to become faculty members who go on to train additional PhDs.

    If there was “overproduction of PhDs”, then PhDs wouldn’t be making so much more money than almost anyone else. And considering that in the natural sciences, you get your PhD for free–and even get paid while doing so–it is an excellent deal.

    The fact that many institutions are cutting back their production of PhDs for fiscal reasons is far from salutary, and in the long run is going to severely harm the competitiveness of the US economy as compared to other advanced and developing economies whose politics aren’t dominated by deranged racist misogynist white christian lunatics.


  44. bob Says:

    Thank you Physioprof! I was surprised by the consensus in the comments about the supposed over-production problem. As a postdoc gearing up to look for faculty positions, I should be one of the sensitive ones, but I say if the funding’s there, accept more students. People going to grad school aren’t children, they have some responsibility to have at least a glance at what the prospects are!


  45. drugmonkey Says:

    PP, I noticed that you failed to addresses the effects of opportunity cost. Gated, of course, on the talent level of the appropriate class of folks.


  46. FmsRse12 Says:

    I wonder if there are others like me who intend to just be post docs for say 15-20 years and retire or do something else…I don’t want faculty job, it’s not that I am not successful, I just want to be a post doc as long as I can….


  47. Isabel Says:

    Ahh, so the problems in the science publishing industry AND the fiscal problems of the academic world are caused by lying, racist white christians. I suspect CPP has never encountered ANY problem that wasn’t caused by “racist white christians”.


  48. Isabel Says:

    FmsRse12, I feel the same way.


  49. whimple Says:

    And considering that in the natural sciences, you get your PhD for free–and even get paid while doing so–it is an excellent deal.

    That’s how you know it’s not worth it. If there was really this awesome pot of gold waiting at the end of the training, the trainees would be paying for the training, not the other way around.


  50. Alex Says:

    Wait, we didn’t pay? Didn’t DM mention opportunity cost?

    Exercise for the reader:
    1) Look at the house you live in.
    2) Look at the house of a college classmate who either got a job right after college or went to a professional program (MD, JD, MBA, etc.).
    3) Compute the difference in the price tags.
    4) How much did you pay for the “free” PhD?


  51. drugmonkey Says:

    More importantly- look at the investment/retirement portfolio of your peers who started careers (or hell, just decent jobs) right out of college…


  52. queenrandom Says:

    I actually have a great control for comparison – the senior tech in my lab started teching at roughly the same time I did, but I later went to grad school for a few years and am entering year 2 of the postdoc. The comparison of (current and lost) salary, benefits, retirement is…..quite depressing.


  53. Alex Says:

    More importantly- look at the investment/retirement portfolio of your peers who started careers (or hell, just decent jobs) right out of college…

    Excuse me while I ingest this cyanide…


  54. Okay so if all these bitter people that say that they’re earning too little money go and find themselves jobs that pay more, then there will be more TT jobs for the rest of us. And considering what my PI earns, I would be willing to stick it out a while longer on such a low salary.


  55. drugmonkey Says:

    IBAM- the complaints are about the Salary during training, not the PI salary.


  56. frostnoodle Says:

    @QueenRandom – but when you finish the postdoc won’t the salary increase be worth it in the long term? From my research it doesn’t seem like lab techs make all that much, ~$50k? (source: Or am I missing something here?


  57. becca Says:

    What matters to me is
    1) the unemployment rate of *new* PhDs in biosciences- how intense did the recession go and if this is the new-normal for e.g. state universities, what does that mean?

    2) if there is an opportunity cost in terms of employment likelihood, and not just earnings/retirement savings/benefits/ect.
    i.e. if you took the people who got into PhD programs, are those types of individuals more employable after getting the PhD or after doing whatever else they are inclined to do? It’s neigh impossible to judge non-systematically, because it’s too hard to control for “well, they didn’t start the PhD or didn’t continue because something so awesome came along” bits that stick in the memory. I know a lot of people who are probably less employable than they would be with a masters and work experience.


  58. queenrandom Says:

    @frostnoodle – my colleague makes more than that as a tech. I’m showing my age a bit here, but he’s been a tech for about 12 years. Average techs may make that, but if you spend the same time teching as you would in grad school/postdocs, the tech makes more – it’s just that on balance, most people (like me) spend a few years teching before getting a higher degree (MD, PhD, MS), so that drops average tech pay. Of course, I didn’t go to grad school to get rich (ha!). If I am lucky enough to get a TT position, yeah it’ll obvs pay more than a tech. But that doesn’t make COL more affordable in the meantime. Whether that has to do with saturation of PhD’s on the market, I don’t know. I’m not entirely convinced. I think it has more to do with how much society (through federal budgets) and institutions (through paylines/benefit packages) value PhD level science. Heck, at my current institution, PIs would rather have postdocs than students or techs because after benefits, they’re *cheaper* and have more experience.


  59. bsk Says:

    Whimple: full funding is very common for Finance PhD programmes too, and I think you’d find it much harder to argue there isn’t an awesome pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

    Everyone else: to address the opportunity cost issue:

    Assuming the 2011 statistics also constitute a reasonable expectation for future earnings, and assuming a working lifetime of 40 years for masters graduates and 34 years for PhD graduates (that is, assuming PhDs earn nothing over 6 years of additional study), average lifetime earnings are still higher by $115,128 for PhD graduates. The difference is even greater for PhDs vs undergrads.

    You can accuse me of oversimplifying here, but this kind of quick calculation should at least give you pause.


  60. whimple Says:

    Whimple: full funding is very common for Finance PhD programmes too, and I think you’d find it much harder to argue there isn’t an awesome pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

    The relevant comparison here is to medicine, not finance.


  61. bsk Says:

    Whimple: My point was that tuition fee waivers do not necessarily indicate poor future earning prospects. Which discipline it comes from is irrelevant – it’s still a counterexample.


  62. drugmonkey Says:

    BA level techs in private companies, big pharms or mid biotech, have a 12 year head start, not 6. And they have compounding benefits of retirement monies across that time. Not to mention they have some geographic stability that can make buying a house a cheaper proposition (re: market timing).


  63. bob Says:

    The discussion of opportunity cost was common knowledge amongst my peers when we were considering grad school. For the more naive students, it’s still their responsibility. If a department has space and funding for students and wants to accept more, let them. What’s with this paternalistic attitude that these applicants don’t know what’s best for them?

    “Sure, you _say_ you desperately want this opportunity to study and do cutting edge research, but the opportunity cost is just too high, trust me. Go work for a bank, I promise to be jealous of your house in ten years.”


  64. bsk Says:

    Drugmonkey: how do you arrive at a 12-year head start? I was under the impression that most PhD programmes last 5-6 years if you come straight from undergrad.


  65. GMP Says:

    Doing a PhD in the sciences or engineering is the only way that smart people from not so well-to-do countries from all over the world can get a fighting chance at a comfortable lifestyle in the US. I am one such immigrant and I am immensely grateful that I could go to grad school in the US and be paid for it, because the depressing alternative would have been staying in my home country. Undergrad in the US is generally out of the question for many foreigners because of the necessity to pay, but a PhD in the sciences/engineering — a degree that brings a good earning potential and one that you don’t have to pay for — is an absolute blessing.

    People with PhDs don’t generally starve and the unemployment percentage among PhD graduates is fairly low. For me and the likes of me these discussions on how rich/how big a house/how fat a portfolio one would have without having gone through grad school sound really ridiculous; talk about a first world problem, being middle class and upset about not being more well off. I really don’t care how much an MD or a JD or someone in big pharma makes — for me, none of those would have been an option anyway. I am very happy with what I make and that I have been able to make a good life (both personal and professional) for myself. So YEY!!!! WOOT!! AWESOME!!! 111!! 11! for getting a PhD in the sciences and engineering in the US.


  66. Isabel Says:

    GMP, your field sounds light years away from biomed, however. Has anyone claimed there is an oversupply of engineering PhDs? I wonder if the stats for future employment and earnings can be teased out for the different science fields and subfields. Btw, you have mentioned the success of your PhD students before, but I don’t remember-have any landed tt positions at a top research university?


  67. becca Says:

    GMP- First, no one is worried about what happens to the PhDs that make what you make, though we may be pointing out PhDs that make what you make could have made more (assuming they had other options- as a foreigner you may not have had some of these).
    But no one is *that* worried about what happens to the science PhDs who got tenure. Because with tenure comes *job benefits* that are decent enough you won’t starve in your old age, even if you didn’t build as much wealth as if you’d started as a tech and moved into industry.

    Caring about a ‘fat portfolio’ is not simply a matter of building wealth for first world bling. Many of us are actually worried about starving in our old age. As a science PhD of this generation, I will NEVER get the pension deal (or the health care deal) my Mom got as a union worker in the past. I know that. For better or worse, I also know I’ll probably live longer than she will. So I’ll need a 800k- one million more when saving for retirement than she did (assuming I want to live on 20k/year and retire at 70). If I could assume medicare and SS will be there, I could save less, but given the political climate I do not feel comfortable making that assumption.

    I also know that, barring extraordinary circumstances, the community colleges and state unis of the future will be much more expensive than they are now. So I know I’ll need to save much more for even a bare-bones college education for my kid than my parents did (I figure at least 3 times as much).

    In other words, I know I cannot save enough for my retirement and fund my kid’s college fund on a postdoc salary (which is, after all, less than the *median* salary a college graduate age 26-30 makes).

    So for me, being a science PhD has meant never buying a house, or new cars, or building any other wealth, or ever going on vacations/ect. It’s CERTAINLY meant I can never have more than one kid, because there’s no way I can afford DAYCARE for two kids, let alone two college funds.
    It means, in short, I’d have been better off at ‘the button factory. Except of course those union jobs aren’t there anymore. So YEY!!!! WOOT!! AWESOME!!! 111!!11! for the US!


  68. MediumPriority4Life Says:

    I know things are not great as a biomed PhD, but for me things have worked out pretty good and the ride was fun – granted I landed a TT position after a 4.5 year postdoc.

    The journey:
    Finishing my PhD I made 22K/ year and bought a car.

    Started postdoc making 33K, bought house had first child and was the only salary earner in my house.

    Third year of post doc, making around 38K (I think), had second child.

    Last year of post doc made around 42K/ year.

    (Notes: I picked doing my postdoc in a city where I could have a house on a postdoc salary of this amount. I also was in a HHMI lab where I received the suggested NIH payscale salary. Salaries are based on my memory as I was too lazy to investigate.)

    Reflection on journey:
    I enjoyed doing biomed science so I went to graduate school. Left a job a Pfizer, this was a good move as the Pfizer facility was closed a few years later. I enjoyed grad school, so I continued on as a postdoc. I enjoyed being a postdoc, had a decent lifestyle.
    Fortunately I was able to get a TT position, if this did not happen I probably would not be as content as I am now. But I was warned going into grad school at the opportunity-cost, but I felt it was worth the risk.

    Did I make the best career choice? Who knows, but I have always liked my jobs and still do.


  69. drugmonkey Says:

    6 yr grad + 6 yr postdoc = 12 yrs behind the pay curve.


  70. bsk Says:

    Drugmonkey: the BLS statistics are for all PhD graduates – which includes post-docs, so my assumption of a six-year lag is reasonable.

    And as to your point about compounded investments, this is offset somewhat by the fact that savings are typically much lower earlier in one’s career. Without spending some time to do the calculations, I don’t know which effect wins out in the end. But the case is not as clear-cut as you’re making it out to be.

    Of course these are all average statistics and things could well be worse in your field. If that’s the case, I’ll have to take your word for it.


  71. whimple Says:

    All you have to do is to compare MD lifestyles with Ph.D. lifestyles. MDs win! 4 yr PhD. plus 4 yr postdoc (optimistically) vs 4 yr Med school + 4 yr residency (depending on specialty). The really enormous upside to medical school vs grad school is that the med school cut is very early in the game, vs the Ph.D. cut which is very late in the game.


  72. drugmonkey Says:

    Bsk- don’t forget to include average age of reproduction into your investment/savings model….


  73. physioprof Says:

    Dude, why are you trying so fucken hard to convince people that getting a PhD and doing science suckes so hard, when they could totes get an MBA and be like totally a fucken billionaire by now? It’s not only a fiscal decision, and if you don’t make it to professordom, with a motherfucken PhD, you’re gonna be financially well off no matter what. It’s a lot fucken better than all the vast numbers of minor league baseball players who if they don’t make the big leagues end up cooking fucken meth in a trailer park.


  74. Eli Rabett Says:

    Go read Paul Campos (lawyers guns and money) on the law school scam. They PAY to be unemployed.


  75. another anonymous person Says:

    Drugmonkey says: 6 yr grad + 6 yr postdoc = 12 yrs behind the pay curve.

    Depends on the pay curve you’re looking at, doesn’t it? PhD pay curve: 6 years at ~25k + tuition paid for, then 6 years postdoc salary.

    Given all the articles out right now talking about how the typical post-undergrad employment (for those who find employment) is about the same salary range as grad school stipend, that 6 year grad school of guaranteed employment as long as you don’t blow your candidacy really isn’t so bad.

    Postdoc typically starts at >30k, $39k if on NIH scale. Science faux pas, but I’m going to quote Wikipedia ( on this – median income for a 2-person family in the US (typical for postdocs, who don’t usually have kids) was $40k in 2004; they don’t have the family size breakdown after. Not so bad, really, to be at the national median income when you’re 27 years old.

    If you assume that everyone going into a PhD program is going to be an engineer who gets employed without a master’s degree (that they have to pay for), ok we’re behind the pay curve. On the other hand, I’m in a better place on the pay curve than any of my peers who went into music, public school teaching, or the service sector. I’m in a similar place on the pay curve to my friends in industry or in computing – and most of the computer friends are self-employed and have no benefits unless through their spouses. And I didn’t have to pay off a master’s degree, so I don’t have an extra mortgage in student loans.

    And average age of reproduction for women who went to college with me? Around 32-34 for first child, so after the postdoc period. This doesn’t really change across the PhD route, the masters route, the law school route, the science route, the humanities route, or straight into industry. Note: the one thing in common here is that we’re all in fields that prioritize work outside the home over time away from career to raise kids. We reproduce late, and make up for it by a self image of being better parents for our maturity. It’s a self-delusion I’m happy to buy into; my kids are awesome.


  76. MudraFinger Says:

    @CPP – “And this whole “overproduction of PhDs” is a demonstrably false claim”

    Maybe. Or maybe U.S. visa policies are being used to both prop up earnings of PhDs in the U.S. and keep their unemployment rates lower than would otherwise be the case if all the foreign nationals that we train in our graduate programs were allowed to stay in the U.S. permanently and compete for jobs in our markets. Instead, they have traditionally had to return to their countries of origin…where they then compete with the U.S..

    I think one needs to ask why half or more of the graduate training slots are being filled by non-U.S. citizens. Maybe it’s because our graduate training programs are really the best in the world and therefore in really high demand by those from many other countries. But you can’t rule out that it might also be because these programs “need” a certain number of trainees for labor on their faculty grants and insufficient numbers of U.S. citizens are seeking out such training. Could it be that, perceiving the low likelihood of success* in a science career in the U.S., being aware of the opportunity costs of the extended training required for entry and that “they could totes get an MBA and be like totally a fucken billionaire” more quickly, some of our best and brightest are avoiding careers in science?

    *Success as defined for them by the cultures in which they receive their graduate training, which generally means becoming a faculty member and going on to train additional PhDs, and become PIs themselves.


  77. physioprof Says:

    Or maybe U.S. visa policies are being used to both prop up earnings of PhDs in the U.S. and keep their unemployment rates lower than would otherwise be the case if all the foreign nationals that we train in our graduate programs were allowed to stay in the U.S. permanently and compete for jobs in our markets. Instead, they have traditionally had to return to their countries of origin…where they then compete with the U.S.

    This is completely false, at least in the biomedical sciences. It is trivial for foreign PhDs–regardless of whether they even received their PhD in the US–to get visas that allow them to remain in the US for extensive post-doctoral training. The biomedical post-doctoral labor market is completely international.


  78. bill Says:

    The biomedical post-doctoral labor market is completely international.

    But what about the faculty labor market? How many foreign PhD’s (US PhD or overseas PhD) who do postdocs in the US go on to faculty positions here?

    Suppose none, or nearly none of them, do: then what? I could see this artificially protecting US nationals from competition, but how does importing these folks for a training period then sending them away again prop up US PhD earnings? Wouldn’t it rather have the opposite effect, of lowering demand for (and therefore price of) postdoc slots? I can’t see how it would affect faculty pay.

    Conversely, suppose they go on to faculty slots in the US at the same, or even at a higher, rate than US nationals (I think this unlikely but as a thought experiment): again, then what? Now the US nationals are not being artificially protected from competition, but again — why would the extra supply of bodies not depress the price of, in this case, both postdoc and faculty positions?


  79. bill Says:

    Shorter me: @MudraFinger, wouldn’t one expect the high level of overseas PhD’s to have the opposite effect to the one you’re postulating, by virtue of supply vs demand?

    I’ve certainly heard that argument as a reason why the US should cut down on the numbers of overseas PhD’s, in order to drive up postdoc remuneration for US nationals…


  80. MudraFinger Says:

    @bill – yes, it’s the faculty labor market I’m concerned with in my comment, not the postdoc market. You can call postdocs “training,” and in some ways they certainly are that. But they also serve other purposes, including providing a holding pattern and “cooling-out” mechanism for many who are never destined to ever hold a faculty position. By the time someone has suffered through enough years as a postdoc and hasn’t landed a more permanent position, they are more likely to see the failure as theirs than as one of the system in which they are working, hence fewer angry individuals returning to their departments of training with ill intent and hammers in hand, though that too, does occasionally happen. Another role postdocs play is similar to the cheap, skilled labor supply on faculty grants otherwise filled by graduate students.

    Responding to your original question – if all the foreign nationals on whom we confer doctorates were to remain stateside and compete for faculty (and government and industry) positions, the already large numbers of applicants for PhD level positions in the U.S. would be substantially larger than it is, unmasking the oversupply that CPP claims doesn’t exist – thereby driving wages down and driving up unemployment among PhDs in this country. My suggestion is that the desire to avoid this outcome may be one factor that influences U.S. visa policy with respect to the kinds of permanent visas that would be required for faculty positions.

    Perhaps mistakenly, I posted these data on another thread here yesterday:
    These empirical data were published in a September 28, 2010 NRC report, “A DATA-BASED ASSESSMENT OF RESEARCH-DOCTORATE PROGRAMS IN THE UNITED STATES” Based on data from that publication:

    During the timeframe 2002-2006, Agricultural Sciences produced 1139 PhDs/yr, with 21.3% of those having “definite plans” for an academic job, suggesting 243 annual entrants to the academic job market.
    For the Biological & Health Sciences, comparable figures were 5797 PhDs/yr, 27.2% –> 1577 yearly.
    Engineering – 5494/yr, 12.3% –> 676 yearly
    Humanities – 3966/yr, 46.3% –> 1836 yearly
    Physical science & Math – 6049/yr, 25.9% –> 1567 yearly
    Soc Sci – 5683/yr, 37.5% –> 2131 yearly
    TOTAL: 28128 PhDs/yr produced, of whom 8029/yr had definite plans for an academic career.

    Does anyone know how many entry-level open faculty positions there were across those fields of study per year during that time-frame? Were government and industry creating 20,000 new PhD level positions annually during this same period?


  81. I remember reading somewhere about the Wisconsin-Madison chemistry program downsizing. I can try to dig up the source.


  82. bill Says:

    Were government and industry creating 20,000 new PhD level positions annually during this same period?

    That is an excellent question. I don’t have good data to answer it. Partial answers might be found here: if anyone has time to go digging.


  83. uncle sam Says:

    So, have you read this thing:

    Hate to make physioprof publish less papers per year or share power in the lab with permanent members if all the suggestions are followed up on, but it sounds good.


  84. postdoc Says:

    “if you don’t make it to professordom, with a motherfucken PhD, you’re gonna be financially well off no matter what”

    There is no such guarantee. Academia before the tenure-track is a big gamble in many fields. In addition to relatively low salary and frequent moves, I have given up five years of contributing to retirement accounts and Social Security benefits because I have been on “prestigious” fellowships that don’t count as earned income (NSF GRF and NIH NRSA)–I’m not really working in the eyes of the IRS. This is a big freaking deal in a field where I have a 1/3 shot of becoming a prof in the near to not-so-near future. After a few more years of this, I will have to start a new career so I can get on with a family and catch-up savings–I noticed the postdoc claiming he was financially fine clearly had someone providing at least $40k of domestic support. My sig o is working to pay off his student loans.

    Things could of course be much worse, but that doesn’t make them okay.


  85. becca Says:

    It seems to me that there are important parallels here:

    The statement “there are people a lot worse off” does not answer the questions “why are things so bad?” and “what could we do better?”


  86. MudraFinger Says:

    @becca – The statement “there are people a lot worse off” does not answer the questions “why are things so bad?” and “what could we do better?”

    There are some who do try to answer these questions, among them Paula Stephan.
    She’s just published an entire book on the topic in fact.

    Excerpted from the book description:

    “At a time when science is seen as an engine of economic growth, Paula Stephan brings a keen understanding of the ongoing cost-benefit calculations made by individuals and institutions as they compete for resources and reputation. She shows how universities offload risks by increasing the percentage of non-tenure-track faculty, requiring tenured faculty to pay salaries from outside grants, and staffing labs with foreign workers on temporary visas. With funding tight, investigators pursue safe projects rather than less fundable ones with uncertain but potentially path-breaking outcomes. Career prospects in science are increasingly dismal for the young because of ever-lengthening apprenticeships, scarcity of permanent academic positions, and the difficulty of getting funded.

    Vivid, thorough, and bold, How Economics Shapes Science highlights the growing gap between the haves and have-nots—especially the vast imbalance between the biomedical sciences and physics/engineering—and offers a persuasive vision of a more productive, more creative research system that would lead and benefit the world.”

    I’m waiting for my copy to arrive right now. There was recently a review of the book in Science which is how I learned of it.


  87. bill Says:

    MudraFinger, I’ve just added that book to my wish list. Thank you!


  88. Virgil Says:

    At my college (a private university affiliated medical center), all of the graduate programs have downsized from incoming classes of 10-15 back in 2008, to something in the 5-8 region today. Thus, the total incoming class of 2012 is close to half of what it was 5 years ago. This has primarily been driven by decreasing NIH grant funding for labs, with the result that in some years there have been problems for some students to find a lab at the end of their 3 rotations. There’s a definite lack of institutional funds to support students beyond about 18 months into the program.


  89. Isabel Says:

    “—especially the vast imbalance between the biomedical sciences and physics/engineering—”

    Does she talk about the vast imbalance between the biomedical sciences and *other biological sciences*? That have to compete with all other scientists for meager NSF funds? Which has a budget around 1/10th that of the NIH?


  90. MudraFinger Says:

    @Isabel – Since I’ve not yet read the book, I can’t be certain, but from what I know of her prior work, I would expect she likely does.

    And this weeks news at least suggests that NSF may be in the offing for a reasonable budget increase in the 2013 budget.


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