The recent Rock Talk posts on graduate student and postdoctoral training are putting data behind truths that many find self-evident. I am struck by the ensuing commentary threads which say the NIH must do better at tracking the fates of trainees.

The subtext seems to be that the NIH should 1) care about large numbers of people training for ten years for academic careers and not achieving those jobs and 2) do something about it.

There is a very good argument to be made that the NIH is quite happy with the status quo. It permits them to get their work done more cheaply. The labor force is persuaded to work hard for less money through the strategy of dangling a PI career on a stick ahead of postdocs.

The “trainees”/labor force are induced to voluntarily put up with exploitation now because they imagine they will be compensated later for their sacrifices.

Understanding of how the odds apply to themselves is, shall we say, incomplete and optimistic.

The interests of the NIH are best served by maintaining the value of the future reward as high as possible.

With this lens we should view any NIH
protestations about alternative careers for which someone trained by them is suited with a healthy suspicion. The NIH does not have any interest in the nature of the carrot they tie to the stick. They only care that it induces the donkey to keep walking.