Shut off the PhD tap
January 28, 2013
We need to stop training so many PhD scientists.
It is overwhelmingly clear that much of the quotidian difficulty vis a vis grant funding is that we have too many mouths at the NIH grant trough. The career progression for PhDs in biomedicine has experienced a long and steady process of delay, impediment, uncertainty and disgruntlement, things have only gotten worse since this appeared in Science in 2002.
The panel’s co-chair, biologist Torsten Wiesel of Rockefeller University in New York City, is surprised to learn that this aging trend continues today: “You’d think with all the money that’s going into NIH, [young scientists] would be doing better.” His co-chair, biologist Shirley Tilghman, now president of Princeton University, says simply, “It’s appalling.” The data reviewed by the panel in 1994 looked “bad,” she says, “but compared to today, they actually look pretty good.” She adds: “The notion that our field right now has such a tiny percentage of people under the age of 35 initiating research … is very unhealthy and very worrisome.” …Experts differ on why older biomedical researchers are receiving a growing share of the pie these days and on what should be done about it. But they agree on the basic problem: The system is taking longer to launch young biologists.
We need to turn off the tap. Stop training so many PhDs.
This is going to hurt the many, many of us (and therefore the NIH) who depend on the undervalued labor of graduate students. This chart (click to enlarge it) from the NIH RePORTER site shows the relatively slow increase in NIH funded fellowships and traineeships compared with the more rapid increase in research assistantships (light blue). Read: graduate students paid directly from research grants. The more graduate students we “train” in this way, the more we need to secure more R01s and other R-mech grants to support them.
Spare me your anecdotes about how graduate students cost as much as postdocs or technicians (to your NIH R-mechanism or equivalent research grants). If they weren’t good value, you’d switch over. The system, as a whole, is most certainly finding value in exploiting the labor of graduate students on the promise of a career that is now uncertain to be realized. This is because the charging of tuition and fees is still incomplete. Because students have the possibility at some point during the tenure in our laboratories of landing supporting fellowships of various kinds. Because some departments still receive substantial Teaching Assistant funds to support graduate students (and simultaneously ease the work of allegedly professing Professors). And above all else, because we are able to pull off an exploitative culture in which graduate students are induced to work crazy hard in a Hunger Games style bloodthirsty competition for the prize….and Assistant Professor appointment.
It is going to hurt undergraduates who may wish to become PhDs and now cannot compete successfully for an admission to what are, presumably, going to become increasingly selective programs. I regret this. I am a huge fan of the democracy of our academic system and I wish to let all who have an interest…try. I have come to the belief that at this particular juncture, the costs are simply too high. The ratio of those who enter in pursuit of a particular outcome (Professordom) to those who achieve it is just too low. We need to rebalance. Part of the pain will fall on the undergraduate who wishes a career in science. Their chance to compete will be abrogated.
This is, in the short term, going to hurt the NIH’s output per grant dollar. Across the board, this labor is going to have to be replaced with research technicians*. People who get regular raises, benefits and work a more traditional number of hours per week.
But it will shrink the balloon of PhD trained people who are hankering to get into the NIH system as, eventually, grant-funded PIs. This will be a good thing in the end.
UPDATE 01/29/13: Check this out!
My honest disclosure is that this one is painless for past me and current me. First, I was a fairly decent candidate for graduate school when I applied. I looked good on paper, etc. I assume that I would still have been competitive for at least one of the four offers I received out of five applications. Second, I have made my way as an investigator without much reliance on graduate students labor. So for me, this one is painless. Shutting off the tap of graduate trainees wouldn’t have changed the way I have done research up to this point.
*One likely outcome is that graduate training and postdoctoral training is going to have to include more managerial approaches. Yes, this happens spottily across all of bioscience at present but as a population, it will increase. It will involve more supervision of techs earlier in the PhD training arc. I think this is a good thing.