Grad school committees reveal true purpose

May 4, 2016

I suggest you assess the criteria used by graduate school admissions processes with an eye to labor issues.

How many of these are related to trying to get the best, most efficient, dedicated and smartest worker bees into the department labs?

How many are related to “we need these skills”?

78 Responses to “Grad school committees reveal true purpose”

  1. The Other Dave Says:

    I’ve been on the admissions committee for three different grad programs, and based on my experience, no one cares what your undergrad degree is. We look to see whether you’ve had the sorts of classes needed for advanced study in the subject, and whether you’ve participated meaningfully in any research as an undergraduate (if you haven’t, your application is dead).

    “Neuroscience” is very broad anyway. Some neuroscience programs might want biochemists or physicists or chemists. Others might want mathematicians. Others might want behavioral psych people or sociologists or even philosophers.


  2. geranium Says:

    We admit the students who show the best evidence of intelligence, curiosity, drive, and commitment/understanding of academic science. We need to see that they had some research experience, because without it we don’t believe that the candidate necessarily knows what they are getting into. But that doesn’t necessarily mean skills.

    We don’t have so many excellent applicants that we can choose between somebody with outstanding potential and somebody who would be highly productive data generator. Is that what you are getting at?

    I’m generally on board with your criticism of the training infrastructure but highly skeptical that inequity plays out in decisions of who gets admitted at the grad school level.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    I am getting at the idea that you should have a thought in your mind when you select grad students on “research experience” or the type, location and success thereof. I would like all participants to think more about the labor issue when it comes to graduate school enrollment.


  4. geranium Says:

    Would it be fair to say, then, that you take the view that:

    Labor issues perpetuate inequities at the UG level, and so which students have “excellent” research experiences and accomplishments isn’t strictly a function of aptitude alone. Grad committees should be mindful of this and select students based on additional signs of aptitude, which can be hard because some applicants won’t have had much research opportunity. This may result in more wrong choices than in selecting on research experience alone, but that’s a cost we should live with because the purpose of grad school is mostly to maximize opportunity for the next generation of scientists, not to provide labor for the current generation.


  5. DJMH Says:

    Just because undergrads are *sometimes* not paid for research, doesn’t mean that research experience is somehow an exploitative requirement of admissions committees.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    Not today geranium. Today I mean to focus attention on how grad admissions practices may reveal what the faculty are really after.


  7. MF Says:

    This is an interesting (and entirely reasonable) take on admissions process.

    Our admissions committee primarily looks at the evidence that the student is committed to a research (academic or otherwise) career (hence evidence of research experience), knows what they are getting into (have had some experience interacting with graduate students and postdocs), and has interests that mesh well with the available labs.

    Therefore, if the student says they are interested in neuroscience as related to, say, neurodegenerative diseases, has some evidence of having done research and coursework in this area, and is clearly into this topic, but we have no-one who works on neurodegenerative diseases, we might think twice about accepting the student – not because we feel we need to provide the “hands” for the labs but because we are worried this will not be a good fit.

    Obviously, this process does not take the labor market into consideration (and I am afraid, we don’t really know how to evaluate what the market needs).


  8. jmz4 Says:

    I think geranium exposed the bias we’re all dancing around. Most grad admissions comittees assume that students should have done some research to show they, “know what they’re getting into.” The purpose of grad school is education. You should be taking those with most raw potential and teaching them to handle what they’re getting into. If you’re looking for people that come pre-educated you are either not confident in your faculty, or you’re (as DM suggests) recruiting them primarily for what they can do for you.

    Geranium says they don’t necessarily need skills, but I think a hypothetical neuro department would rather take a molecular biologist with 2-3 years of bench experience over an undergrad with an encyclopedic knowledge and ferverent love of neurobiology.


  9. DJMH Says:

    Grad programs pay these students to take courses and rotate in labs for their first year. Plenty of people enjoy reading about science but do not enjoy doing it. It is nutty to claim that a committee shouldn’t look for signs that a person actually wants the graduate student experience.

    What’s next, employers shouldn’t value whether someone has experience in childcare before being willing to hire them as a daycare employee? Even if that experience, as it sometimes does, came for “free” because the person has kids of their own or did a lot of babysitting younger siblings?

    Attack people for not paying u/g all you want, I support you; but it’s crazy to extend that frustration to claiming that admissions committees are only interested in little laborers.


  10. qaz Says:

    No grad program would ever look for graduate students with “labor skills” to fill technical slots. Many graduate programs start students off with rotations, which means that even if they were looking for skills, the program doesn’t know what lab the student is going to end up in and there is no guarantee that the skills that the program supposedly wanted would be used.

    The reason that graduate programs use undergraduate research as a criterion for admission is that having done research is the best first-order predictor of actually sticking it through a graduate program, and one of the largest criteria for programmatic success in NIH’s eyes is “completion”. Students who drop out in year two because they discover they can’t deal with the open questions and not having answers in the back of the book are marked as major losses in NIH’s books and mean big problems for getting training grants.

    You can argue that graduate students are personally underpaid, but generally, graduate students are very expensive for the labor they provide (because of tuition and training). In practice, graduate students are time-sucks not time-gains for 2-3 years and then only provide practical science gains for 2-3 years before being forced to leave to go on to something else. For the price of a graduate student, I could buy myself an already-trained postdoc or a technician who will stay forever. The idea that graduate students are being used as cheap labor simply doesn’t fit the data.

    DM – do you train graduate students? have you ever had graduate students in your lab? because your discussion of graduate students as labor just doesn’t make sense at all. Moreover, your description of graduate education doesn’t fit any university setting I’ve ever seen. Given the accuracy of your description of grants and study section, and the inaccuracy of your description of graduate education, I’m calling you out here.


  11. qaz Says:

    Moreover, the “research experience” that grad school admission committees want is people who have formulated research questions and gotten some (if limited) experience in the open-questions problem of dealing with research. First, admissions committees rarely care whether the research was even in the field of study (a physics research experience can get you into a neuroscience program). Second, no admission committee would ever ask what technical skills were used in that research. In fact, the kiss of death for an application is to accidentally make it clear that you were a glorified technician, washing dishes or just doing what you were told. What admission committees are looking for is some (if limited) experience in formulating scientific questions.

    If this were a shadow clue to labor skills, then they would care what technical skills the kids have. But that is never part of the discussion on admissions committees.


  12. dsks Says:

    “I suggest you assess the criteria used by graduate school admissions processes with an eye to labor issues.”

    *chuckle* That question is likely only ever going to evoke answers along the lines of: “Well, OUR graduate committee only considers the best, the brightest, the most intellectual eleventy-minded critical thinkifying future science wonderbrains for the program! We’d NEVER make a choice based on getting a hold of any semi-competent warm-bodied bench jockey we can lay our blue nitriles on, no sir… &c”

    Of course, then you look at the size of the neuroscience graduate pool in this country and… well, either the world is glut with a truly staggering neuroscience potential, or a sizable fraction of the faculty serving on neuroscience graduate recruitment committees are full of shit.

    (In fairness, they might not know that they’re full of shit. They might honestly believe that their program is primarily concerned with advancing the careers of the specialist of the special snowflakes in that particular field. But numbers is numbers, folks.)


  13. geranium Says:

    DM if your underlying point is that some faculty view students as labor for getting their science done, well we don’t have to parse grade school admissions to ferret that out. Yes of course faculty see students as labor for getting science done!

    Who else* is supposed to do it? Students get paid and they get trained and along the way they are supposed to be contributing to new knowledge. They could not do that without the immersive environment of a lab that already has forward momentum.

    I rather feel like making the argument that students should be *more* directed in the research they do, to get them to productivity in ~1 year instead of 2-4 years.

    *Staff, staff, staff, yes I would like to see the training and workforce revolutionized and more permanent, stable positions created. But that’s now how it works now and grad admissions reflect that.


  14. PaleoGould Says:

    In departments where students are needed for teaching, all that you need is a slightly fallow year in applications and the labor discussion ceases to be covert.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    Of course they believe their own BS, dsks. qaz is putting on a master class in that on this very thread.


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    geranium- see comments from qaz.


  17. Grumble Says:

    When I have a prospective grad student sitting in my office, I ask her all kinds of questions about the research she’s done. Why did you do it that way? What did that experiment tell you? Did you consider X alternative explanation? What are the limitations of the method you used if you’re interested in Y? Where would you go next with those experiments if you were still in that lab? If you had a million dollars to work on a related problem, what would you do?

    I find this to be a very effective way of assessing someone’s aptitude for research. If they haven’t already started thinking about these questions, then they aren’t thinking deeply. They aren’t even thinking at “good technician” level. I predict that they do not belong in grad school because they have already squandered an opportunity to learn. They would also make terrible labor. I don’t really see the conflict. It’s not as if there’s a group of students who would do well in grad school but who would make terrible lab staff. Doing well in any apprenticeship means having an aptitude for the work.


  18. another young FSP Says:

    It’s not about filling TA slots.

    Undergrad TAs are a lot cheaper than grad student TAs. They aren’t appropriate for all classes, but good undergrads are qualified to assist with the entry level classes. Even professional TAs are significantly cheaper than grad students – not only does the department not have to pay their tuition, but they can work twice as many teaching hours each week as the GAs, so fewer salaries over the same number of classes.

    The administration often suggests that hiring more undergrad and outside TAs and pushing GAs to grant support would be a great way to bring down instructional budgets.


  19. Grumpy Says:

    Grumble, you ask prospective grad students the million dollar research direction question, really?! I find most postdocs do a crappy job answering those sorts of questions (“I’d do what I was doing before, only a little better or for a slightly different application”). And at least one of those I still hired and they went on to do excellent work and get a fancy R1 faculty position.

    I’m generally just happy when a prospective grad student seems to want to work hard and get meaningful results/papers. I’m on our grad admissions committee and I find that UG research is important primarily because then you can read their advisor’s LOR and see if they thought the student wanted to work hard and get meaningful results/papers.

    I think my theory colleagues look for stuff like brilliant and creative in LORs though.


  20. Disillusion Monster Says:

    Interestingly, I have been in both sides of this. And lots of this still does not make sense to me, the issue of background of the prospective graduate student in the eyes of the admissions committee.

    I am not a tenure- track academic like most who may have posted above. But I do have a lot of experience running a successful academic neuroscience lab (500-600k per year direct costs, ~3 publications per year). I used to work in a physician scientist neuroscience lab for 8 years as his lab manager, during that time we have trained/work with lots of students (medical, Medical Scientist Training Program, biomedical engineering, neuroscience).

    While my boss had final say, I played a significant role in admitting these trainees into the lab, as I would be the one working with them on a day to day basis. Whenever possible, I use research experience/publications as the first indicator of dedication for the trials they are about to experience. Its a much better indicator for future performance than grades and test scores. Having a background in neuroscience is definitely a plus, but not a deal breaker, it just makes teaching concepts a bit easier.

    Interestingly, when I went to apply for bioengineering graduate programs with neuroscience emphasis, I get the classical “we are sorry but slots are full, you are very qualified” rejection. I am co-author on 19 publications (reviews and original research), crossing both bioengineering and neuroscience journals. This seems strange to me. When I ask a senior professor/ former collaborator as to any insight, he can only offer “we are sorry but slots are full, you are very qualified” is a frequent thing.

    Yeah, so I can figure out lots of things in neuroscience, but this concept of PhD program admission continues to to elude me.

    P.S. Drugmonkey, your site is an inspiration. I can honestly say that without your blog, I would not have gleamed enough current meta information to help my former lab get their first R01. I constantly referred entries on this site to grad students while I was still back in lab, emphasizing that they will need alternative career choices than “tenure track neuroscience professor”, but they all seem to have sparkle in their eyes and placed all of their eggs in that basket.


  21. Grumble Says:

    “I find most postdocs do a crappy job answering those sorts of questions ”

    I’m not looking for a beautiful, well-thought out million dollar research plan. I’m looking for some excitement about the line of research they’ve participated in, which includes evidence that they’ve done some thinking ahead about what sorts of projects their (and their PI’s) work might lead to. For instance, a student who worked on a project characterizing some signaling molecule might say something like, “Well, my PI is thinking about figuring out how this pathway affects synaptic plasticity, so she’s going to spend a lot of money on an ephys rig.” And then I’d ask some questions to see if the student has thought at all about what ephys experiment to do and how to do them.

    The answers reveal whether the student has thought *at all* about where to go with the project. They reveal whether the student has paid attention, whether the student is interested in the project the student herself chose. You’d be surprised by how many kids don’t do much of that kind of thinking. I want students who THINK and who are EXCITED by the projects they choose to take on. I do not want slugs.


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    I’m on our grad admissions committee and I find that UG research is important primarily because then you can read their advisor’s LOR and see if they thought the student wanted to work hard and get meaningful results/papers.

    Yep. “Work hard and produce publishable data”. Sounds like you are oriented towards recruiting labor, just as I am suggesting.


  23. Grumpy Says:

    Interesting, I’d love to attract those sort of students too. I didn’t think there were enough of these child research prodigies out there to fill a whole lab with them.

    I didn’t really do much of what you are describing until about third yr of grad school, after I’d gotten enough results to write my first paper. Then again I didn’t follow the standard Professor track path (GED, no-name liberal arts college, not too much research, etc).


  24. Grumpy Says:

    DM, I don’t really understand what you are suggesting. Can you spell it out please?

    I’m guessing you misinterpreted my point. IME, working hard and wanting to get meaningful papers is as strong of a predictor for grad school success (good papers, lead experiments start to finish, abundant job prospects) as I’ve seen.


  25. jojo Says:

    The model in my postdoc adviser’s lab is an interesting (more “traditional”?) contrast to this discussion.

    Students email him regularly, asking to work on a project only tangentially related to his work on System Y (the rest of us – currently postdocs – are in funded positions on system X). He has had no funding for system Y in a long time, but he’s famous for it. Because it’s a biology dept., he has up to (I believe) 2 TA positions his graduate students can use to fund themselves. If he’s interested in the student and thinks they’ll do well, he’ll invite them to interview.

    Accepted students that work on System Y get a ton of freedom and he is not an author on all of their papers. I think as a result those students which do not leave are very independent, though some of them do struggle a lot with the too much freedom issue. I’m not sure I understand how he could be “exploiting their labor” except to the extent that courses do need TA’s and it’s part of his job to continue to advise students.

    Meanwhile those of us that work on System X (which he has had funding for) are under a bit more scrutiny to produce. I think he did hire me because I have a specific skill set he needed, which I’m fine with. This seems normal to me, at least for postdocs.


  26. jmz4 Says:

    “Who else* is supposed to do it? ”
    Not so long ago most PIs still did bench work.

    That’s good that you’re looking for evidence of passion for science and aptitude for independent thinking. Just bear in mind some people take research positions for the experience, not necessarily because they are into those questions that particular lab is addressing. I knew exactly what I wanted to work on in undergrad, but I couldn’t find a directly relevant lab until my postdoc. So if you asked about VeGf, i’d be likr “meh”. But, that’s not exactly something I’m gong to tell a grad program I’m interviewing with, so I might give a response that lacks the enthusiasm of genuine interest.

    Also, more to DMs point. It seems like all the PIs here are talking about picking the winners. That is defined as those who will (coincidentally, I’m sure) be the best workers. Some of you are making the point that they will be the ones most able to “survive”, and pat yourselves on the back for your considerate foresight. What about making your programs less harrowing? What about demphasizing publication and productivity in favor of rewarding ingenuity and innovation? What about *actually teaching them* the things they are expected to acquire by osmosis as a tech?

    Grumble makes the point that seeking out undergrad experience is a sign of passion for science, and that’s why he liked to see it on a CV.
    So do you think they would be equally sanguine with an applicant who organized a science fair? Who writes a blog about the history of science? Or one who volunteers to teach AP bio labs?

    I think Grumble makes a good point. Those are the exact characteristics we want in scientists (imagination, blue sky thinking, etc). I just question how much any of that is tied to knowing how to do a miniprep, and acknowledge that there are cynical motives for thinking to the contrary.


  27. DJMH Says:

    Really DM?? You think that somehow it is a public good to accept students who won’t publish papers because they don’t really like bench work? Completely independent from how that affects the PI’s productivity, DM, you are always the one reminding us that if it isn’t published, it didn’t happen. I can’t fathom why you would suddenly be defending the student who turns out to hate bench work, slacks off at it, and doesn’t publish. I don’t want that person in my grad program, regardless of whether or not they are in my lab, because it is a waste of *science*.

    There is no earthly reason to want someone in a 5-year job that they are going to dislike.


  28. Philapodia Says:

    “I can’t fathom why you would suddenly be defending the student who turns out to hate bench work, slacks off at it, and doesn’t publish.”

    DM likes to be a shit disturber. This line of conversation smells a bit like a psychological experiment to see how far people will go to prove their point.


  29. drugmonkey Says:

    DJMH- why do you assume everything in life boils down to single factors and simple cost-benefit causal chains?

    The fact that I wish to point out a particular dimension of a complicated situation doesn’t mean there are not other dimensions.

    Of course the excuses and defenses are so popular and heartfelt by ppl like you and qaz because they are, in some part, true. Of course.

    What perplexes me is why you cannot admit that labor is also very much a part of this graduate “training” picture.


  30. Grumble Says:

    DM’s line reinforces your take on it, Philapodia:

    “Yep. “Work hard and produce publishable data”. Sounds like you are oriented towards recruiting labor, just as I am suggesting.”

    It’s as if working hard and producing data were not part of what makes a good student. As I wrote above, working hard and producing something is part of *any* apprenticeship. I have not the slightest moral queasiness about filtering out these students who show signs of being unable or unwilling to work hard and produce data.


  31. Grumble Says:

    “So do you think they would be equally sanguine with an applicant who organized a science fair? Who writes a blog about the history of science? Or one who volunteers to teach AP bio labs?”

    I rarely if ever see applicants who have that sort of CV. However, occasionally someone comes along who has started a company or a nonprofit, or something along those lines. I view that kind of initiative pretty highly. I’d still want to know whether the applicant has an aptitude for research, because learning how to do research is what grad school is about. So I’d still be interested in knowing what sort of research experience they’ve had, and I’d want them to have had at least some – although I’d be more inclined to give them a break if it wasn’t as important to them as their other initiatives.


  32. jmz4 Says:

    “There is no earthly reason to want someone in a 5-year job that they are going to dislike.”
    The fact that you call it a job means you expect them to be laborers, not students. If a student wants to take my mol bio course, I don’t tell him no, because you haven’t demonstrated an aptidude for molecular biology by taking a prior molecular biology course. Making having done bench work a prerequisite for entrance to a program that ostensibly teaches you to do benchwork is almost as ludicrous.

    Also, I get that that the current system works a certain way, and changing it to be different is beyond any one of us. But I do think the Socratic method being employed here is good at getting us to notice parts of the system to which we have become innurred.

    Grumble, fair enough. I know people sitting on admission committee that would consider it a distraction.


  33. Anonymous Says:

    I guess DM must be faculty in a dept. like mine. Here, most faculty recruit students based on the specific skills they bring that will help them be good worker bees, churning out pubs for the PI (we don’t have rotations). These folks don’t hide that they do this. Clearly, for them the less time they have to spend training students the better. I sometimes wonder why they ever became profs.


  34. Anonymous Says:

    And I’m with Grumpy. The million-dollar research plan question for a *prospective grad student* is just ridiculous. Of course, I guess it’s a good preview for the student about the level of BS he will be expected to dish out in a particular lab, and probably the type of grandiose shit he’ll have to withstand in return.


  35. AnonNeuo Says:

    What if a prospective grad student wrote their personal statement about how they wanted a PhD so they could pursue a career in science policy, publishing, or non-profit admin? Or would this never happen because all applicants know the committees are looking for hard-charging scientist types?


  36. grumpy Says:

    AnonNeuo, i saw one along those lines this year. One committee member brought it up explicitly as a liability. Others talked her down. In the end it didn’t matter because the grades, test scores, LORs, etc. weren’t up to par.

    But yeah, I would recommend a prospective grad student to eliminate that from their statement. And I think that’s a little f’d up.


  37. DJMH Says:

    The fact that you call it a job means you expect them to be laborers, not students. If a student wants to take my mol bio course, I don’t tell him no, because you haven’t demonstrated an aptidude for molecular biology by taking a prior molecular biology course.

    Show me the part where this person gets paid to take your mol bio course, and I’ll agree with you.

    And in any case, you DO limit who can take your mol bio course: it’s called college admissions. And it’s all about “aptitude” for learning….as demonstrated by prior learning. “Oh but that’s unfair!!!!” I don’t hear you saying.


  38. Grumble Says:

    “The million-dollar research plan question for a *prospective grad student* is just ridiculous. Of course, I guess it’s a good preview for the student about the level of BS he will be expected to dish out in a particular lab, and probably the type of grandiose shit he’ll have to withstand in return.”

    Thanks for posting. I needed my daily reinforcement that one can post as clear and succinct an argument as possible on the internet, and someone will still come along and misinterpret it.


  39. Eskimo Says:

    I remember interviewing for graduate school at UCSF (early ’90s) after majoring in chemistry for undergrad. At that time, I thought I was going to be a structural biologist. One of the faculty advised me I should tell his colleagues that I’m interested in some specific areas of biology, rather than in a technique (X-rays or NMR). I thought that was sorta faking it because I had a thin knowledge of biology, but I knew what techniques I wanted to learn. After choosing somewhere else for graduate school, I ended up joining an immunology lab.


  40. drugmonkey Says:

    DJMH- show me the part where Professors have the same degree of influence on University undergraduate admissions as they do on grad program enrollment and admission to their own labs for “training”.


  41. drugmonkey Says:

    [in full disclosure I should point out that I know a very motivated young undergrad-to-be that I am going to try to direct into DJMH’s lab for exploitation. :-)]


  42. grumpy Says:


    Are you trying to say that UG admissions is some kind of morally pure process devoid of any willful ambition? Because there are some NCAA football stars and legacy family kids who might agree with you.

    Actually I honestly don’t understand what is the point you want to make here. Please do me a favor and identify explicitly:

    a) what is the thing you have a problem with.
    b) what you think we should do to fix it.


  43. drugmonkey Says:

    No, I’m trying to say that my audience has a less direct role in it.


  44. drugmonkey Says:


    The problem is too many mouths at the academic research funding trough. I want us to create far fewer new mouths to fix it.


  45. grumpy Says:

    DM, thanks gotchya. Not sure if I agree with you, but here’s another funky professor thing to get your blood boiling.

    Same grad admissions committee: more than one prof expressed concern that we need to let in more students so all our favorite grad elective courses will reach minimum student enrollment requirements.


  46. drugmonkey Says:



  47. jmz4 Says:

    “And it’s all about “aptitude” for learning….as demonstrated by prior learning. “Oh but that’s unfair!!!!” I don’t hear you saying.”
    The SATs are a major factor in undergraduate admission, and they are meant to measure aptitude, not effort.


  48. DJMH Says:

    jmz4 – You have to be kidding me.


  49. Morgan Price Says:

    “I want us to create far fewer new mouths” — Part of the problem is that graduate training is so oriented at creating new mouths. If PhD programs are training science policy analysts and entrepreneurs and high school teachers then why is the training so narrow? Where are the internships in industry or government or schools? And why so long? Why is a single first author paper and a a year or two of research experience (after classes and rotations) not enough?


  50. ProdigalAcademic Says:

    At ProdigalU, there are no rotations, and PIs have to pay grad students the moment they start their first year. This is why we look for prior research experience, since paying a student for one year and having them decide research is not for them gets very expensive. This, BTW, was very common at GradU, but first years were paid by the department, so it didn’t penalize PIs. GradU was a lot less picky about prior research experience than we are at ProdigalU. I am not sure it serves students well, though I think that one year at grad student pay is not much of an opportunity cost.

    We are not super-picky about what sort of experience it is, just that they have been in an academic lab and see what academic research is like. We’ll happily accept someone with a short research stint and other sorts of life experience pretty readily, since it shows they have decent time management skills (which many of our all-academic students lack). We’re also not real picky about what kind of undergrad degree our applicants have, as long as we are pretty sure they can pass the required number of courses at ProdigalU. Success in pretty much any area of science usually means they will do fine in our courses.


  51. qaz Says:

    All of you who see graduate students as “cheap labor”, why do you have graduate students in your lab? At my U, paying for a graduate student costs more than a postdoc or techs because of tuition costs and other fringe burdens. Graduate students have other obligations (classes, etc), which takes them out of the lab. Postdocs arrive with a lot more training and can become useful far earlier (even assuming they are learning something from you to add to their knowledge base and skill set). And techs don’t have to leave. In my experience, graduate students finish enough of a project to get a thesis, but usually leave stuff incomplete when they leave (final paper[s] not published or extra analyses not done, for example), which increases my work burden. As cheap labor, graduate students are a terrible choice. Simply put, they are not actually cheap.


  52. Grumpy Says:

    Qaz, dunno about your institution or med schools or anything. But in the traditional departments im aware of (physics, chem, EE), a grad student costs about 50-60% a postdoc in total costs, fully loaded. So in a simple sense they are cheap.

    But yeah if you factor in stuff like time for training, courses/exams, risk of being unproductive, etc, it is not a trivial decision even from the utilitarian point of view.


  53. qaz Says:

    At my institution, a grad student take-home pay is close to 50%-60% of a postdoc, but the grad student costs closer to 80%-90% of the postdoc when you factor in tuition, student fees, and is probably more expensive than a postdoc when you factor in lost time (like classes and other obligations). In fact, one of the deals we often tell graduate students is that when they defend the thesis, we can transfer them to a “postdoc” position, keep the cost to the PI the same, basically giving them the tuition and student fee dollars that usually go to the institution, effectively giving them a raise while not changing the PI’s costs. It’s a strong incentive for students who are slow in writing theses.


  54. L Kiswa Says:

    At our flyover land R1, having a graduated PhD student is a big part of the tenure decision (my mid-tenure review…”must get more PhD students”). Just about the only thing that will get those of us without a PhD grad through will be a strong letter from the chair indicating there are students on the way, but not quite ready to graduate. Our leaders openly talk about how the number of PhD students in a group is a good measure of the PI’s success/progress — since it’ll be tied to their ability to publish and bring in dollars. Those of us who sponsor postdocs note that the same might be true of postdocs, at which point we are reminded that number of PhD graduates count towards grad program rankings, not number of postdocs. Its no coincidence that there are very few postdoc professional development opportunities, travel grants, etc., yet there are a lot for the grad students. Things are bit different in the life sciences, where there is much less pressure to generate PhD graduates and the role of postdocs is valued.

    Like Grumpy says, in my field (physical science/engineering), a postdoc costs ~1.5-1.7x more than a PhD student — so yes, we are kidding ourselves if we do not admit they are cheap labor.


  55. jmz4 Says:

    I mean, you’re right, that there are parallels, but yes, the (supposedly) SAT does not reflect any coursework learning, scores are highly correlated with intelligence (by Iq, so grain of salt.). The questions (supposedly) test reasoning at a very basic level. The college board maintains it is uncoachable for that very reason. Undergrad admissions committee I have been in see it as a sign of high intelligence, even if the GPA would seem to suggest otherwise. It indicates a *capacity* to learn, which is why some colleges pay so much attention to it.
    GPA is much more like what we do with undergrad research experience. Except virtually everyone applying had a chance to build a solid GPA, not everyone gets a chance to have the kind of research experience you are describing. So assuming someone without it won’t make a good PhD candidate is rather unfair, yes.
    But more to the point it shows what grad programs are really interested in. You’re thresholding on lab experience because you’re interested in training more lab workers. Unlike DM, I’m not sure it’s because of some cynical attempts to drive their own bench science, though I don’t doubt that kind of Prof exists. What I do see in it is a general unwillingness to consider career trajectories and what the actual teaching you are doing is for.

    The vast majority of your students will not end up in academic science, or even doing benchwork. It is time grad school, and, perforce, grad school admissions, to start acknowledging this in meaningful ways. You should be teaching them (not just letting them learn) to think like scientists as well as how to do science. Admitting only the ones that demonstrates the skill set you find convenient is either, as DM suggests, a mark of true intentions not to teach, but exploit. Or it is a mark of not thinking deeply enough (as a department) about what you hope to teach people.


  56. drugmonkey Says:

    qaz- what % of the labor in your lab has been by the same technicians on a career path that takes them to retirement, with associated raises? What % from constantly turn over early career “trainees”? Why % of trainee-years have ever been floated by dollars other than your grants? What % *could be* vs tech support % (to account for practices beyond your own, as relevant). What % time can you gap trainee staff costs by attrition when you’d be loathe to layoff a life-long tech employee?

    This thread has shown that many, many PIs get value from the act of training, itself. You *cannot* substitute this value with techs. So make sure to add that value into your calculation of all this effort you pour into them. You are doing that for a different category of return- but it is assuredly a return.


  57. drugmonkey Says:

    some cynical attempts …..true intentions

    You are missing a key point. this is not at all about intentional malfeasance by Snidely Whiplash, PHD. At all. It is about a system in which we all play. Intent is irrelevant. It is about broadly shaped behavior under the contingencies at hand. My comments are about the reality of that system as a whole. It is a system that exploits cut rate labor to achieve a product. We all participate in this system to various extents. We can *choose* to do things to amplify, diminish or ignore the bad outcomes. But that requires awareness.


  58. qaz Says:

    Yes, there is more than one way to skin a cat (graduate student?). The ability to pay graduate students through TAships, RAships, training grants, and other processes are definitely part of the reason that the system works with graduate students. But that doesn’t make them cheap labor for the system. Moreover, that wasn’t the starting point of this discussion. You’re changing the targets here. The previous post and subsequent discussion was about using graduate students as cheap labor and this post and discussion is about whether admission committees true purpose is to get already trained students to do underpaid labor. That is a very different claim from either (a) there are more ways to pay for graduate students than just with your R01 grant or (b) that it is valuable to the PI to train graduate students. It also ignores the most important point that (c) it is valuable to the graduate student to get trained by the PI.

    I agree completely that this discussion should be about the system, but your initial post at the top of this discussion is about intentions – the title is “grad school committees reveal true purpose” and then goes on to argue about the intentions of admissions committees.

    Instead of talking intentions, let’s talk graduate processes. You say there are too many graduate students being trained. I say that cutting that pipeline off is going to have two very negative effects. First, it makes it much more likely that the only people who get trained are already trained children of scientists (or similar), which is going to hurt diversity terribly. (Because they are the ones who know how to navigate the system and don’t need second chances.) Second, a lot of kids (and they really are still kids when they leave college) don’t know what they want to do when they get out of college. Let them do graduate school (it’s not horrible pay) for a few years and then go on to do something else. (Finally, is it really fair to pull the ladder up behind you? That is what you are talking about doing – removing the chance for the next generation to become scientists by going to grad school.)

    You want to fix this? I say we need to change two things. First, make it OK to leave graduate school after two years, perhaps with a masters. Then, someone can try grad school out and leave. Right now, people leaving for a masters is marked as a strong negative for a graduate program. Second, make it OK to go do something else than R1-research faculty fighting for grants in the thunderdome. Right now, people still measure success by how many graduates have gone on to be research faculty.


  59. drugmonkey Says:

    Yea, qaz, it does count. Most emphatically so and especially when you are trying to play accountant to prove that this one graduate student situation you’ve cherry picked makes them just as expensive as a first year tech or postdoc. Grad students are statistically cheaper.


  60. drugmonkey Says:

    And yeah qaz, the ladder has to be pulled up *somewhere*. Your continued excuses for continuing to mint PHDs at a high rate is by simple math pulling up the transition ladder for the current postdocs. And for *faculty*, depending on how long you have been exhausting the commons like this for your own personal gain.

    I’ve stated very clearly that IMO cutting these poor suckers off before they have invested time is the most humane way. Your way isn’t. There are other things for postgraduates to do. Like take a tech job- which should be more plentiful once we cut off the graduate student gravy train.


  61. qaz Says:

    “The ladder has to be pulled up somewhere”

    Wow. I never would have thought you’d go all McKnight on us. Don’t let the riff-raff in? You sound like all the old baby boomers telling us that there isn’t any more room here. They were profoundly wrong then, and you are profoundly wrong here.*

    You do realize there will still be ladders for the privileged, right? You do still understand that son of McKnight still gets his faculty job and his R01, right? That your plan removes any chance for a first-to-college kid who doesn’t know xe can be paid to do research to ever become faculty, right? That the wonders of science will be closed to that kid who needs a second chance.

    I will continue to have faith that training people in how to think scientifically and giving them the opportunity to work at the boundaries of knowledge are both good things that I will continue to work hard to continue to do so.

    *I was going to say “I guess we have to agree to disagree”, but you have removed that from conversation, so I’ll just say that I am glad that NIH would never follow your suggestion here. Because it is profoundly wrong in its methodology, would only achieve the opposite of what you have been arguing for in this blog for a decade, and simply put, doesn’t fit the data. (This reviewer scores this proposal as a 9.)


  62. drugmonkey Says:

    Your ladder pulling also advantages the advantaged. If you don’t see that you are delusional.

    We cannot keep on as we have been. The population has to shrink. All you do is pretend we can cry loud enough to get Congress to throw more slops. It isn’t going to happen. It’s a plan for the status quo. Which isn’t good.


  63. Grumble Says:

    “If PhD programs are training science policy analysts and entrepreneurs and high school teachers then why is the training so narrow? ”

    Because we profs know fuck-all about policy analysis, entrepreneurship and high school teaching.

    “All you do is pretend we can cry loud enough to get Congress to throw more slops.”

    Seems to me like a reasonable plan. How else do you get Congress to do something you want, other than to ask for it? (Well, assuming that one has no money for the obvious answer, which is “bribe it”.)


  64. JC Says:

    I agree that we are training too many people for academia and have been for many years. But grad school is not such a bad place to figure out what you want *really* want to do with your life – I dare say that most(?) students enjoy this time of their life. So wouldn’t it be better to focus on presenting the broader array of career options available to students and helping them find their own path? All while getting paid a modest stipend?

    I realize this sounds a bit fantastical, and maybe it is in some departments. But we’re starting to make such a shift here, if ever so slowly.


  65. DJMH Says:

    Admitting only the ones that demonstrates the skill set you find convenient is either, as DM suggests, a mark of true intentions not to teach, but exploit

    I reiterate that I have never preferred particular sub-field skillsets in grad applications; just evidence of having enjoyed basic research of some kind. Could be bunny-hopping; could be gene regulatory networks. I don’t study either; I just want grad students who have some sense of how research actually takes place.


  66. drugmonkey Says:

    Seems to me like a reasonable plan. How else do you get Congress to do something you want, other than to ask for it?

    Of course we should also advocate for Congress to add more cash into the research enterprise. It is just that it is insanity to have this as our major or sole strategy.

    I have never preferred particular sub-field skillsets in grad applications

    And does the evidence of the students in your own graduate program, or any that you have been around as a postdoc, suggest that your view is common? Or is the evidence of who gets admitted more in line with my contention?


  67. Bacon Says:

    “Or is the evidence of who gets admitted more in line with my contention?”

    What do you make of the results of the poll that prompted this post? All delusional or liars or both?


  68. drugmonkey Says:

    Or “respondants not representative of actual admissions committees”?


  69. joatmon Says:

    Our neuroscience graduate program alone takes 15-20 students each year. It perplexes me that no one is seeing or acknowledging the “too many mouth to feed” problem. More importantly, we are not equipping them with skills or anything to tackle diverse career options. Why? Why?!!


  70. Grumble Says:

    joatmon: Despite all the “problems” you identify, qualified people still keep applying to your program. Why? Why?!! do you think that is?


  71. drugmonkey Says:

    Hope springs eternal? Sucker born every minute?


  72. drugmonkey Says:

    joatmon- why not ask a few of the faculty? (And report back with their hilarious responses please)


  73. DJMH Says:

    And does the evidence of the students in your own graduate program, or any that you have been around as a postdoc, suggest that your view is common? Or is the evidence of who gets admitted more in line with my contention?

    I don’t know, honestly. In my sole grad admissions committee experience, there was some extremely modest effort to get a mix of students based on stated research interests (some molecular people, some systems) but everyone on the committee said up front that lots of students change their interests once they rotate so there’s no real point in trying to balance it at the front end.

    Now, even to have “what are they interested in” as a discussion point might seem like a sign of exploitation, but you could make the serious argument that if 20 molecular students join a grad program with 5 molecular-leaning PIs, there is going to be trouble finding labs to fit everyone, so it could be seen as ensuring the students can find labs.


  74. Namnezia Says:

    We recruit grad students in part based on their research interests because we have to place them somewhere. If they state that they are super keen on working on, say human neuroscience, and we have no human neuroscientists in our program then our program is not right for them. The goal is to maximize the number of options available for a given student so that they have enough labs they can rotate through and be able to pick a lab that suits them. Often a student won’t know what they are interested in, and that’s fine too, but at least they have to show they’ve done their homework and thought hard about what topics interest them and why. So if you call this exploitative, you’ve lost me here dude.


  75. drugmonkey Says:

    I would make just such an argument, DJMH.


  76. AcademicLurker Says:

    For the 2 graduate programs where I’ve been involved in admissions, it was as DJMH describes: evidence of some experience with research of any kind outside of a classroom environment was a plus. The subject area didn’t matter.


  77. Dusanbe Says:

    Yes yes yes. We have buried our heads so down deep that we define grad school success as doing lab work, getting results, publishing… i.e. successful fruits of LABOR that benefit first and foremost the PI. Heaven forbid the student learn through failure.


  78. Grumpy Says:

    Admittedly it was a little different back when I was in grad school, with majority of students interested in faculty positions.

    But nowadays the students in my Physics department recognize that industry is a likely and appealing option. They tell me that is what they want to do and i still encourage them to publish well and do a postdoc since that will help them get the best jobs long term.

    So DM, maybe the issue is that the grad students in your field are suckers. Or maybe their attitudes are changing and you are the one who is behind?


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