We are going to fix the NIH

January 28, 2013

Scicurious went to the trouble of Storifying a Twitter conversation that involved @mbeisen, YHN and @KateClancy, among others.

Kate Clancy provided more context for her outrage here in this post, Kate Clancy’s Short Grant Rant: On Broken Promises:

Last night I was talking to a colleague who just heard he missed the funding cutoff for his NIH grant by a single point – a score of 19 and under was funded, and his grant was a 20. He had applied to one of the many institutes that is trying to keep the R01 afloat by reducing funding to all the other funding mechanisms – which happen to be the mechanisms used more by early career faculty because they don’t have enough preliminary data for an R01 for several years.

Michael Eisen’s promised post is here, Restructuring the NIH and its grant programs to ensure stable careers in science:

It is an amazing time to do science, but an incredibly difficult time to be a scientist.

There is so much cool stuff going on. Everywhere I go – my lab, seminar visits, meetings, Twitter – there are biologists young and old are bursting with ideas, eager to take advantage of powerful new ways to observe, manipulate and understand the natural world.

But as palpable as the creative energy is, it is accompanied by an equally palpable sense of dread. We are in one of the worst periods of scientific funding I – and my more senior colleagues – can remember. People aren’t just worried about whether their next grant will get funded, they’re worried about whether a career in academic or public science is even viable

The very first post on the DrugMonkey blog read, in it’s entirety:

Biomedical research scientists in the US (and worldwide) are bright, highly educated and creative folks. Most are dedicated to the public good, undergoing years of low pay while fueling the greatest research apparatus ever built- the NIH-funded behemoth that is American health science. Yet they persist in various types of employment stress and uncertainty for years, with minimal confidence of ever attaining a “real job”. It is dismaying to realize that by the time he received his first R01 (the major NIH research grant) Mozart would have been dead for 7 years (tipohat to Tom Lehrer). The official noises coming from the National Institutes of Health, and even some individual institutes such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (scroll for comments on the young investigator) are positive, sure. We’ve heard such sentiments before, however, and most objective measures show long, uninterrupted dismal trends for the young and developing scientist.

So yeah, my disclaimer is that I have some interest in efforts to fix some of the problems in the career arc of extramural NIH-funded science.

I anticipate that I may get even preachier than usual about these issues on the blog, encouraged by Michael Eisen’s post.

My aspiration is to damp down my tendency to snark and dismiss and exhibit a lack of patience with those who drag up the most obvious and tired points (soak the rich! too many overheads! greedy deadwood tenured jerks with 20 grants!). Feel free to hold me to that on posts tagged Fixing the NIH.

NIHtargets8typesofPIMy request to you is to take your suggestions all the way down. Stand up for what you are really calling for. This means that you should identify who is going to pay the price for your fixes. What type of investigator, what generation of scientist, which types of University. Above all else, step up and admit when your policy plans are designed to conveniently also assist your situation now, in the past or in the future. I will endeavor to do the same.

There is a very simple truism of politics that never fails.

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease.

Step up, my friends. Step up to the plate. Go over to Sally Rockey’s blog and throw down comment each and every time there is an opening. Write a letter to Science or Nature. Blog yourself. Write comments on blogs like Eisen’s, Clancy’s or mine. When you talk to your Program Officers at various Institutes or Centers of the NIH…slip in your points about careerism.

SuccessRates1962Don’t whine. Make it about science in your subdiscipline as much as you can and about your personal situation as little as possible. Quote facts about the NIH, preferably those they have generated themselves. Make specific proposals, constructive proposals and be honest about the impacts and implications.


No Responses Yet to “We are going to fix the NIH”

  1. Jim Woodgett Says:

    Spot on that any changes will come at *someones* expense. It always does. Also need to be prepared to ask whether a career in research deserves/merits any form of stability given that most jobs no longer enjoy security. Part of that argument, I think, comes from the effect instability has on the quality of science. If your prospects are short term, so is your thinking. This makes for bad science and distorts the type of research that is applied for, how its evaluated and how its funded. This needs balancing against some form of effective performance evaluation so that people don’t feel overly secure that they can rest on their laurels and deny access to funding of more promising (usually younger) scientists. Let the debate roll. It’s something we are all invested in.


  2. bam294 Says:

    Hey Monkey,

    I agree that someone needs to take the high and rational ground (whudda thunk it would be you) and have the dialogue with NIH. But isn’t that sort of akin like having a discussion with the head waiter on the Titanic? By writing Nature, Science and NIH bloggers, are we getting to the heart of the matter? Science is so poorly funded, have we given up this fight and now are thinking ‘just overhaul it with what there is’?
    Yes, there are some HORROR stories of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ out there in this environment (and I have a fabulous couple I may share if drunk enough), and yes, these issues need attention. But at this epic moment of crisis, I’m a bigger fan of scientists advocating for funding to the public and to Congress. By speaking english about what you are working on to non scientists and why its important, by getting on board with outreach (poor Meltzer http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/12/one-researchers-effort-to-fight-.html) and talking to politicians. But that’s just one science chicks opinion.


  3. qaz Says:

    I will happily trade large funding (multi-R01) for consistent funding. The successful labs I know all live in boom and bust cycles of too many grants to maintain sanity followed by (or preceded by) too few grants to do the work. It is not true that helping one group has to hurt another. Sometimes there can be a lateral shift instead.

    I think that phrasing this debate in terms of how we can help a hurting cohort is problematic because then it is all about transferring funds from one cohort to another. (And yes, most of the current proposals have been based on helping one cohort at the expense of another.) But IMHO the problem isn’t survival of a cohort (*), but rather the stability of the funding paradigm.

    * I am a (very very very lucky) survivor of the decimated cohort between the baby boom and their kids.


  4. Bitter Says:

    What ever happened to the swaggering mean people who usually make comments on this blog? What about that guy who adds the letter “e” to all forms of profanity?

    C’mon, at least admit that you want a job and you want to deny a job to the other people just like you, who worked just as hard and are just as smart and deserving.

    Shrink the field. Reality sucks. You can’t repeal mathematics. Not everyone gets to join the R01 club.


  5. Is NIH itself though really the problem? There’s a fixed amount of money (which is probably not going to get bigger) coupled with the current university structure for research. How is “fixing” the NIH going to help a 20?


  6. Grumble Says:

    Well, since you asked, I’ll repeat what I’ve already said in other comments threads: the problem is not simply the lack of job security. It’s the constant, unrelenting need to be writing grants in order to get just the bare minimum required to stay afloat. This is *incredibly* wasteful of scientific talent and resources.

    The relationship between what one proposes in a grant and what one actually does is, in many cases, tenuous at best. This means that the NIH is demanding that the scientific workforce spend a majority of its time writing bullshit, not doing real science. How can this be good?

    In my view, the solution is to implement some form funding based on past results. I’m not saying that all grants should be awarded this way, but some large-ish fraction of NIH’s money should be awarded based on what a PI has done in the past, NOT on what she bullshits about what she’ll do in the future.

    Am I proposing this because it would make my life easier? In part, yes. But my own publication record is certainly not the best in my field, by many metrics. So it has the potential to help a lot of other people much more than it helps me. And I am most certainly NOT suggesting that opportunities for less-experienced scientists be limited in anyway. I’m saying that once the newbies get their funding and demonstrate what they can do with the cash, the barrier for getting re-funded should not involve onerous amounts of time-wasting grant-writing.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    What about that guy who adds the letter “e” to all forms of profanity?

    When we can get him to be serious, PhysioProf is probably the next most-insightful about the NIH game….next to me, of course. He is also, hands down, the clearest.

    I’m a bigger fan of scientists advocating for funding to the public and to Congress.
    As am I but I also believe that the current US economic situation makes arguing that the NIH and NSF are the special flowers a ludicrously out of touch non-starter. We can hope and plead but we need to deal with the most likely reality as well—no infusion of extra cash for a good 5-10 years.

    you want a job and you want to deny a job to the other people just like you, who worked just as hard and are just as smart and deserving.
    I want to keep my job. I want to continue to do the science that I love. Yes, most definitely. I am in the middle of my career and I have no desire to step aside for another person. I admit this freely. When it comes to me versus anyone else, I pick me. …..I also want to fix things. What I am willing to compromise on are my aspirations to grandeur (a bazillion grants like the BigDogs of the prior generation).

    How is “fixing” the NIH going to help a 20?
    I really mean “fixing the NIH system including the extramural workforce that they pretend is not really ‘their’ workforce”. But that’s a mouthful.

    boom and bust cycles of too many grants to maintain sanity followed by (or preceded by) too few grants to do the work.
    It strikes me that there should be some way to datamine and model aspects of the boom/bust to refine Michael Eisen’s proposals for funding tiers.

    I could name my direct-cost number based on my boom/bust but I fear I’m going to be hard pressed to back off the “boom” level since I feel that it is not the peak of the boom I’d wish to attain, all else equal (and yes, that is a finite number).


  8. It would be wonderful if congress could be persuaded to give more money. I have my doubts about crowd-sourcing, as money will go to the sexiest projects (dinosaurs, curing cancer, children with motor injuries, human evolution). Lots of good stuff isn’t all that hot, but still important.

    If however, we are stuck with a zero-sum game, that is taking money from one group to fund another, we need to think about how to do it rationally. And right now, it may be better than any other distribution system, but its not always rational. Everybody thinks there group is the one that is really suffering.

    While we are losing people at the young end, we are also losing a certain type at the other. Not the BSD’s with multiple R01’s, but the smaller, basic science guys (doing that un-sexy research). And that has its own demographic ugliness. Some part of my generation (tale end of the baby boom, in their 50’s to early 60’s now) is giving up research – can’t get funded, don’t get students (some of this deserved, some of it not). BUT…. they can’t afford to give up their jobs. So, they hang on, teaching what they have to. Some retool themselves and take on teaching with a passion. Others aren’t deadwood, but they sure as heck aren’t going to make room for the next generation.

    It is not going to work to “kill the old fuckers”. They will resist being killed. Regular, balanced evaluations (every 3-5 years) for everyone, with set courses of appeal would be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, doing away with tenure is not going to go over well, and would likely be used by the admin for a bloodbath rather than as a sensible management tool. Stopping the pipeline may in the end be the overall least painful alternative.


  9. DrugMonkey Says:

    Taking the money away from the Noonan’s will undoubtedly be another post Potty!


  10. WTFunds Says:

    We now spend under 1 percent of GDP on R&D, with industry spending 2 percent of GDP on R&D (and falling). If we keep trimming R&D, we’re going to have to be content shifting the focus of our economy to a more manufacturing base, as opposed to an innovation base – however, our wages won’t support that globally. To use a tortured analogy, we can either be Dell or Apple. We’ve been Apple for years, but we’re starting to organize our budget like Dell. Problem is, those jobs are too cheap for our standard of living.

    The science community has so many strong points, that it’s amazing some folks feel skittish about telling Congress about them: better health, goals to lower costs of care, technological innovation, low rates of fraud/waste/abuse as identified by a GAO report not too long ago. Mike Simpson, a R from I-da-hoe and the #3 on the House Labor-HHS appros subcomm, calls the NIH the “crown jewel” of the federal government. Rod Alexander, the #2 on the House Labor-H Approps, says the same. Hell, even the Chair Kingston, just wants to know the economic impact – otherwise he’s all for it. Last year’s approps bill, Rehberg (from MT for Christ’s sake) and the House Republicans made hard choices in the Labor-H bill and gave NIH $1B extra by trimming other programs. Harkin and the Senate Dems cut NIH by $100m. During the stimulus talks, Obey and Harkin wanted $300m for NIH. Specter threw down a $10b amendment. And anyone looking at the public statements from the Administration, and Holden’s comments, can see that the Admin will gladly propose 3-4% increases for smaller science budgets and hold them up as “we’re the party of science” when in reality, the Big Boy in the room, NIH is either cut or held flat. Cake: I want to eat it.

    When the rubber hits the road, I’m confident most Dems will always be on board with an increase for NIH. They have BSDs in their districts and are naturally advocates for federal spending in areas like public health. But the liberal faculty’s obsession with this misnomer that the House will look to cut NIH at all costs is a fallacy. Republicans have been good to science, and continue to be. Sure there are more anti-science types than before, but not a preponderance of the Party. Even when you talk to Boehner and Cantor, they’re for NIH.

    The science community really, really needs to just talk more about what their doing. For a legislator, the press release of “I fund medical research” trumps “I cut medical research” in any party. British scientists were successful in getting a ring fence around their budget for the next three years while other programs may be at risk for cuts. We need to do the same and I think we’re closer than folks may think. We just need to push a little bit. From my experience, most folks on the Hill know more about the importance of NIH to our future as a country than folks in the extramural community would believe. They just need to hear it louder and more often to get our ring fence.


  11. WTFunds Says:

    This isn’t to say that the goal of this blog entry isn’t meritorious. It certainly is for good stewardship of the enterprise. But I’d be wary about diverting too much attention from Congress at this critical time. If Congress has to cut a bunch of mandatory and defense spending, medical research is one of those mom and apple pie programs that could be held up as a “productive and nonpartisan, commonsense (buzzword!) federal programs that we all can support.”


  12. “Stopping the pipeline may in the end be the overall least painful alternative.” Iagree since I would think the fundamental problem is that we’ve produced far too many PhDs. As a share of GDP, NIH funding isn’t particularly low. What we are experiencing is the aftermath of a poorly-managed funding increase in the Clinton era and beginning of the Bush administration that dramatically increased the PhD ‘birth rate’ relative to the increases in new positions and retirements. When the music stopped, there weren’t enough chairs.

    In the short term, I have no idea what to do.


  13. Industry Scientist Says:

    In the short term there has to be a cull, preferably at all levels. The first ones to go should be all the middling-to-poor seven-to-eight year postdocs who are simply hanging onto to their position by the good graces of their PIs and who simply aren’t good or motivated enough to earn a professorship. They should be out of academia anyway.

    Next to go should be the underperforming PIs, especially the old ones who simply get grants based on their reputation and are no longer productive. Both of these will free up some of the glut in the short term.

    For the long term, graduate schools need to become smaller, more selective and more rigorous in all phases, i.e. poor students should not be allowed to scrape by their quals/thesis proposal; they need to be let go before they get too far along. The simple reality is that the system simply can’t afford to keep everyone who has a glimmer of interest in science employed.


  14. As someone on the way out of Academia after a charmed apprenticeship that included a super postdoc position with a $1M budget over 5 years and early PI status, I wish there was more talk of non-university, alternative models of basic biomedical research.

    One doesn’t have to be a university professor to compete for NIH money. Why aren’t we passionately brainstorming about other ways to organize research, for example real non-profit research institutes that aren’t just vanity extensions of established big universities that are administratively and culturally operated as massive academic departments.

    Why aren’t academic life scientists creatively thinking about ways to exploit low-profit organizational models like L3Cs? Why aren’t academic life scientists talking about free agent models (a la Kauffman Foundation)?

    I know it’s easier for someone like me who’s not on the tenure track to preach about alternatives to 100% academia, or 100% industry for that matter. I guess those who’ve survived the Tenure Games can’t or don’t want to imagine a way to do the science they love outside of a university setting to which they’ve acculturated and effectively sworn fealty.

    Maybe once the prototypes of alternative models prove viability, there will be an exodus of academics and no one has to sacrifice on loving what they do and actually, ya know, advancing human health in the process. A guy can dream…


  15. DrugMonkey Says:

    There are in fact a ton of different nonprofit models…? Maybe you need to get out more? (Hint: they struggle and generally fold after a few years)


  16. Oh, you mean like assistant professor these days? Show me an example of a nonprofit, low-profit or hybrid model that sustainably couples basic and applied biomed research? I’d love to know if one existed, then I’m consider joining it.

    And if my hunch is right and it doesn’t really exist then it has to be innovated, and I’ll probably be that guy who tries.

    (btw, I’m starting to get out more. the academic echo chamber, even the snarky kind, is ultimately limiting).


  17. DrugMonkey Says:

    There are many small nonprofits that have been attempted. Some on philanthropy, some as the other half of a for-profit, some on SBIR grants. For-profit spinoffs. Etc. Really, there is a lot of diversity. Some have even survived for a long time, decades.


  18. DrugMonkey Says:

    So, you know, go for it! Who knows, you could be the next Salk Institute.


  19. bill Says:

    OK, I’ll repeat my suggestion from Twitter: start the inevitable cull with permadocs. Make anyone with > 2 postdocs, or >8 years as a postdoc, ineligible for NIH funding. Now, my numbers might need adjusting (3 postdocs? 6 years? 10? whatever) but my argument is this:

    1. These people are fucked anyway. A vanishingly small percentage of them are going to become PI’s and you’d be doing them a favour to force them to face facts.

    2. We already do this on the tenure-track: once you get your foot on the ladder, it’ s 6 years to review and then upwards or out; then another 6 years and the same thing. If nothing else, it puts career-qua-career first and foremost on the agenda and in the mind. Maybe you want people to focus on the science, but that’s what creates permadocs; at least there’d be no more “I didn’t know what I was getting into” whining of the sort Spiny Norman is so fond of excoriating around here.

    Obpersonaldisclosure: this would have done for past-me, since I did three postdocs over 10 years. I certainly didn’t give enough thought to career — I was operating on the “work hard on interesting problems and there’ll be a job for you somewhere” model that was sold to me as a grad student. I know, I know, failure of due diligence. Past-me would have benefited from hearing “two postdocs and you’re out” at the start of the game — I argue that such a rule is de facto in force, and we should just make it explicit. Past-me would also have benefited from being told “that’s it, we warned you, now fuck off or get a job as a technician/core supervisor/whatever, if you can find one”.

    As for present-me, I did fuck off to industry, and I don’t rule out returning to the academy but I’d want a decent level of job security and a decent salary, so I’m sure not holding my breath for offers! I like it where I am, and have some ideas (a bit similar to Ethan’s, see above) to get to somewhere I might like even better. But I have a lot of friends on the Ivory Hamster-wheel, and want to see things improve for them; and I retain from my time there the belief that academic science can be a wonderful thing. If only it could stop being such a fucking snakepit.


  20. ilovebraaains Says:


    Thank you for this post. It is exactly what I have been realizing as I learn more about science careers. Rather than whine, be a scientist. Learn what is going on, why it is happening and how to fix it.


  21. lurker Says:

    You have been on a roll these days, DM. Great blog and clarion calls to all to speak up! But who are we kidding other than ourselves that any real change will result from all this chatter behind the veil of this BTW excellent blog and all of us, me included, only go by our blog nicknames. Is the NIH brass really going to heed the public whimper in the biomedical research blogosphere arena when it’s amongst no-names and noobs and mid-career respectables like yourself but barely any BSDs?

    I’m heartened by the visible voices of MEisen and Benezra, and maybe have a shred of hope from Tom Pollard’s editorial in the glamor mag Cell for more political advocacy, but that is but 3 out of 1000 other BSDs out there, all the rest are keeping mum, maybe muttering how their giant non-modular grants are getting shaved, but going about their bizznass to churn out the ever more fancy papers and write grants and take care of their own. And besides, even with Pollard’s piece, he calls for “young scientists” to get more involved in speaking up for advocacy. Thank you, Dr. Pollard, with what time, when we’re busy trying to build any semblance of track record…

    You know who would get hold of Sir Francis Collin’s ear to make some real change? It could be the exalted greybeards of the National Academy. It could be the homebred and NIH-funded US Nobel laureates. It could be the BSDs dining from Uncle Howie’s trough. It could be the Deans of this and the University president of that. It could be all our Biomedical statesmen and stateswomen with the stature and fame as Tom Pollard, but as far as I can tell, hardly any unified public display of outrage or concern. Instead, they only quietly lament about how tough it is for everyone these days and how disheartening it will be to their army of postdocs for which most will never utilize the training that they devoted their lives to. So much empathy but so little action….

    Go comment on the Rockey blog? Be a squeaky wheel on that cog that’s really a front facade to make NIH look like it cares? What you bloggers and us lurkers really think we’re going to stimulate any actual change by having our online conversations is really just us doing whatever helps us sleep at night.

    Unless the Axel’s, Buck’s, Blobel’s, Prusiner’s, Cech’s, Steitz’, Capecchi’s, Horvitz’s, Mello’s, Fire’s, Blackburn’s, Greider’s, Szostaks, say “HEY, NIH, YOU’RE FUCKING THINGS UP!” which they won’t because they all have their labs still going and their grants to protect, you, CPP, drbecca, bashir and the rest of the blogosphere’s chatter will fall on deaf ears……but you all are very very entertaining to read, so there is that!


  22. lurker Says:

    Or to paraphrase, unless more of the BSDs start swinging those dicks in unison at the NIH to do something about the problem, no amount of our squeaking is going to make anything substantially change.


  23. It could be the Deans of this and the University president of that. It could be all our Biomedical statesmen and stateswomen with the stature and fame as Tom Pollard, but as far as I can tell, hardly any unified public display of outrage or concern.

    You are delusional if you think the entities and interests those people represent aren’t lobbying the administration and the Congress *hard*.


  24. whimple Says:

    Yes, but they are just lobbying for MORE MONEY, MORE MONEY which a) is easy to ignore and b) doesn’t solve the problem.


  25. lurker Says:

    Exactly, whimple! CPP is delusional if he thinks the lobbying going on is anything else but give NIH more $$$ so the BSDs can keep the fucked up party line going without doing anything substantial about the pipeline glut, waste, and inefficiencies…. As long as CPP’s fiefdom is fine, all must be okay too, and the system works!

    My issue is not with CPP, his fucken blogge entries are fuckenne heeelairious, and my mimicking is but flattery. My issue is that the real leaders in all the biomedical fields don’t care enough to stick out their necks when they know that a whole bottom slice of the pyramid will be amputated soon. Shorter pyramid, but they will still be on the apex.


  26. […] Additional Reading on Fixing the NIH: The NIH must dismantle the corrosive competitive culture of science Shut off the PhD tap We are going to fix the NIH […]


  27. dsks Says:

    “OK, I’ll repeat my suggestion from Twitter: start the inevitable cull with permadocs. Make anyone with > 2 postdocs, or >8 years as a postdoc, ineligible for NIH funding. ”

    It would be smarter to cull based on productivity rather than years in the game. In the current environment, with the bottleneck as profound as it is, even productive postdocs entering their 5th and 6th years are struggling to find faculty positions. The cynics can say “Tough shit, that’s the game!” but anyone who takes tax payer bucks seriously must appreciate the senseless inefficiency inherent in the Logan’s Run-esque bumping off of highly skilled researchers in such a manner, only to replace them with staff that require time and money to train (obviously, how much of a pain this is depends on the techniques employed, but I’ve often heard colleagues lament the difficulty in finding and keeping good slice electrophysiologists for example)

    Instead of trying to throw more money at new PI positions (Michael Eisen’s plan), I’d sooner see a the grad school bar raised and further investment in the current crop of PIs, who are struggling to maintain labs with good staff because to do so requires skimping on the equipment and consumables that staff will need to succeed.

    Basically, slow down the influx of grad students and give PIs the flexibility and incentive to hire and keep good bench science staff. Assuming the postdoc/staff scientist in question is happy being paid a maximum of say $60K a year as an NIH-supported research assistant prof, and understands that renewal of funding is contingent on evidence of productivity, then it shouldn’t matter how many years they’ve been doing it. PIs are project leaders, of whom only a few spend time at the bench. It’s thoroughly insane to that pretty much the entire edifice of scientific progress rests on the backs of a group of workers we insist are mere “trainees”.


  28. Bill Hooker Says:


    it would certainly be smarter but it also requires that you measure productivity, which puts us right back in the middle of the existing mess, with the Glam Hounds and the play-it-safe approaches and so on.

    I feel bad for the productive (we know it when we see it, beancounters be damned) postdocs in their >5th year who are facing the axe under the Permadoc Eradication Program, but DM’s point all along is that the pain has to land somewhere. I honestly think that the current generation of permadocs are so screwed already that there isn’t much more pain involved in axing ’em. (Remember I was one of ’em.)

    So I explicitly chose metrics that aren’t related to productivity and our current difficulties in defining and measuring that. My idea is to put the inevitable weed-’em-out filter a bit further upstream, and make sure everyone knows going in that a postdoc is a limited-term proposition (N years, n positions, whatever the best numbers turn out to be).

    This would, I think, have the added effect of throttling grad school applications a bit, because it would make the career path explicit: you get one, maybe two grabs at the brass ring, and if you miss we throw you off the merry-go-round. Maybe not; I know I thought I was bulletproof at 22 or whenever I started grad school.

    But what it doesn’t do, that setting the filter directly at grad school admissions would do, is limit the number of kids who get to do a graduate degree and take a look inside science to see if that’s for them. It’s not clear to me that we can predict who will make a good scientist before we even let them do a little science — even though I’ve complained about how bad it is, I still think the filter will work better if we have more information with which to make choices. (Maybe we could make postdocs harder to come by, as well. Then you’re filtering on grad school performance — tough love, but better than filtering on, what, undergrad work?)

    What it also does is put the “limited number of tries then we throw you off” pressure earlier in people’s lives. Grad school might be a bit penurious compared to some alternatives, but as others have pointed out it’s actually not a bad gig for people at the age when they generally do it. It’s when you’re in your twenties and thirties and forties and still living hand-to-mouth that the feeling of betrayal starts to really set in.

    I don’t *regret* my third postdoc (the second was a clusterfuck), but I do think I’d have been better off if I’d been firmly pointed away from the academic ladder after my first.


  29. Bill Hooker Says:

    One more thing dsks, a point of complete agreement:

    PIs are project leaders, of whom only a few spend time at the bench. It’s thoroughly insane to that pretty much the entire edifice of scientific progress rests on the backs of a group of workers we insist are mere “trainees”.

    Absolutely, and it’s just as nuts that we don’t give those “trainees” any explicit training in project management when (if) they make the transition.


  30. Mike White Says:

    Many of the issues would likely be sorted out by requiring programs to provide more honest career advice at the beginning. As Bill said above, too many of us are told early and often that if you prove your independence, successfully get a fellowship, and “work hard on interesting problems and there’ll be a job for you somewhere,” which is bullshit.

    Maybe I’m slow, but it took me three years into a postdoc at a top-rated department to realize that this advice is wrong. Now, six years in after moving into a completely new direction, the science is really kicking ass, funding and papers are steady, except now I’m an old postdoc who will inevitably be viewed with suspicion. I would have approached my first three years in a completely different way (including more consideration of other careers) if I had a better sense of what it takes in terms of CV to compete for a tenure track job.

    Give postdocs and grad students (and undergrads) accurate career info early on, and let market forces work their magic – people will make better decisions. This can’t just depend on the gut feeling of the advisors; it needs to be more systematic. As Paula Stephan writes about in her excellent book “How Economics Shapes Science”, compared to many other graduate programs (medicine, business, economics), biomedical PhD programs really suck at systematically tracking and caring about the career outcomes of their students.


  31. Mike White Says:

    One more thing: without good career advice, simply cutting postdocs off after three or five years is like telling med school graduates ‘you get two chances to pass your board exam and then you’re done’, but without actually preparing them to pass the board exam.


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