Another day, another report on the postdocalypse

April 13, 2018

As mentioned in Science, a new report from the US Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have deduced we have a problem with too many PhDs and not enough of the jobs that they want.

The report responds to many years of warning signs that the U.S. biomedical enterprise may be calcifying in ways that create barriers for the incoming generation of researchers. One of the biggest challenges is the gulf between the growing number of young scientists who are qualified for and interested in becoming academic researchers and the limited number of tenure-track research positions available. Many new Ph.D.s spend long periods in postdoctoral positions with low salaries, inadequate training, and little opportunity for independent research. Many postdocs pursue training experiences expecting that they will later secure an academic position, rather than pursuing a training experience that helps them compete for the range of independent careers available outside of academia, where the majority will be employed. As of 2016, for those researchers who do transition into independent research positions, the average age for securing their first major NIH independent grant is 43 years old, compared to 36 years old in 1980.

No mention (in the executive summary / PR blurb) that the age of first R01 has been essentially unchanged for a decade despite the NIH ESI policy and the invention of the K99 which is limited by years-since-PhD.

No mention of the reason that we have so many postdocs, which is the uncontrolled production of ever more PhDs.

On to the actionable bullet points that interest me.

Work with the National Institutes of Health to increase the number of individuals in staff scientist positions to provide more stable, non-faculty research opportunities for the next generation of researchers. Individuals on a staff scientist track should receive a salary and benefits commensurate with their experience and responsibilities.

This is a recommendation for research institutions but we all need to think about this. The NCI launched the R50 mechanism in 2016 and they have 49 of them on the books at the moment. I had some thoughts on why this is a good idea here and here. The question now, especially for those in the know with cancer research, is whether this R50 is being used to gain stability and independence for the needy awardee or whether it is just further larding up the labs of Very Important Cancer PIs.

Expand existing awards or create new competitive awards for postdoctoral researchers to advance their own independent research and support professional development toward an independent research career. By July 1, 2023, there should be a fivefold increase in the number of individual research fellowship awards and career development awards for postdoctoral researchers granted by NIH.

As we know the number of NIH fellowships has remained relatively fixed relative to the huge escalation of “postdocs” funded on research grant mechanisms. We really don’t know the degree to which independent fellowships simply annoint the chosen (population wise) versus aid the most worthy and deserving candidates to stand out. Will quintupling the F32s magically make more faculty slots available? I tend to think not.

As we know, if you really want to grease the skids to faculty appointment the route is the K99/R00 or basically anything that means the prospective hire ” comes with money”. Work on that, NIH. Quintuple the K99s, not the F32s. And hand out more R03 or R21 or invent up some other R-mechanism that prospective faculty can apply for in place of “mentored” K awards. I just had this brainstorm. R-mechs (any really) that get some cutesy acronym (like B-START) and can be applied for by basically any non-faculty person from anywhere. Catch is, it works like the R00 part of the K99/R00. Only awarded upon successful competition for a faculty job and the offer of a competitive startup.

Ensure that the duration of all R01 research grants supporting early-stage investigators is no less than five years to enable the establishment of resilient independent research programs.

Sure. And invent up some “next award” special treatment for current ESI. and then a third-award one. and so on.

Or, you know, fix the problem for everyone which is that too many mouths at the trough have ruined the cakewalk that experienced investigators had during the eighties.

Phase in a cap – three years suggested – on salary support for all postdoctoral researchers funded by NIH research project grants (RPGs). The phase-in should occur only after NIH undertakes a robust pilot study of sufficient size and duration to assess the feasibility of this policy and provide opportunities to revise it. The pilot study should be coupled to action on the previous recommendation for an increase in individual awards.

This one got the newbie faculty all het up on the twitters.


being examples if you are interested.

They are, of course, upset about two things.

First, “the person like me”. Which of course is what drives all of our anger about this whole garbage fire of a career situation that has developed. You can call it survivor guilt, self-love, arrogance, whatever. But it is perfectly reasonable that we don’t like the Man doing things that mean people just like us would have washed out. So people who were not super stars in 3 years of postdoc’ing are mad.

Second, there’s a hint of “don’t stop the gravy train just as I passed your damn insurmountable hurdle”. If you are newb faculty and read this and get all angree and start telling me how terrible I am… need to sit down an introspect a bit, friend. I can wait.

New faculty are almost universally against my suggestion that we all need to do our part and stop training graduate students. Less universally, but still frequently, against the idea that they should start structuring their career plans for a technician-heavy, trainee-light arrangement. With permanent career employees that do not get changed out for new ones every 3-5 years like leased Priuses either.

Our last little stupid poll confirmed that everyone things 3-5 concurrent postdocs is just peachy for even the newest lab and gee whillikers where are they to come from?

This new report will go nowhere, just like all the previous ones that reach essentially the same conclusion and make similar recommendations. Because it is all about the

1) Mouths at the trough.
2) Available slops.

We continue to breed more mouths PHDs.

And the American taxpayers, via their duly appointed representatives in Congress, show no interest in radically increasing the budget for slops science.

And even if Congress trebled or quintupled the NIH budget, all evidence suggests we’d just to the same thing all over again. Mint more PhDs like crazee and wonder in another 10-15 years why careers still suck.

63 Responses to “Another day, another report on the postdocalypse”

  1. AcademicLurker Says:

    And even if Congress trebled or quintupled the NIH budget, all evidence suggests we’d just to the same thing all over again.

    This is the most depressing aspect of the whole mess. People seem determined to learn absolutely nothing from the doubling fiasco.


  2. qaz Says:

    You do know that these numbers only work if you include humanities, right? Studies of STEM (e.g. the Toronto study, that recent Nature study that looked at STEM graduates in the UK and Canada) all find that the vast majority of STEM graduates are in satisfying good jobs. Our survey of our graduate students found 96 percent were in science- or science-related jobs. The key, of course, is that we count teaching at a PUI as a success, and running an industry-related research job as a success, and running a policy forum at NIH or a non-profit as a success. Only about 40 percent of our graduates are in academic faculty jobs, but the vast majority are very happy with their outcomes.

    We are teachers. We teach people how to think. That’s useful in many jobs. Are high-school teachers failures because every high-school student didn’t go onto become a high-school teacher? By your logic, every high-school teacher should only teach one student.

    Yes, I have a large lab of graduate students and postdocs. People who have gone through my lab run non-profit organizations with their science. Other ones run industrial research laboratories. Others are data scientists working for large companies. Others teach at PUI institutions (and are very active in the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience [FUN] and bring their undergraduates to SFN every year). Yes, some are faculty at R1 institutions with NIH funding. But all my kids are successes. And I’m proud of all of them.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    qaz: The way you tell it we should have no national reports on the horrible situation with postdocs, no disgruntled docs and no postdocalypse hashtags.

    Yet we do.

    Is it possible you are not thinking correctly about this whole thing?


  4. qaz Says:

    In my experience (which is anecdata), I have found three groups of disgruntled postdocs.

    First, I want to acknowledge the dire strait of graduate and postdoc situations in the humanities. These students do not have a lot of useful options in which they can use their training outside of academia. There are few jobs available for faculty in humanities, and humanities departments are being squeezed economically. Furthermore, they are shrinking, not expanding. As I understand it, a lot of the adjunct problem arises from the management/labor power mismatch happening in the humanities job market (too few jobs for too many people).

    The second group of people are those who are for whatever reason not going to make it in academia, but who refuse to acknowledge this. We saw this all those years ago with that person at Princeton who complained bitterly about not getting an funded after their special five-year postdoc/jrfac position who had essentially no publications. I have seen students who have great technical skills but can’t write or who can write but can’t manage a budget or who can do the technical work, but never finish a project. There is a specific and very complex skill-set that it takes to be a PI. Not everyone is going to be a PI. Academia is not for everyone. But some people consider anything else a failure.

    The third group of people that I see are those who are not actually looking for jobs everywhere, but are looking in very restricted places for whatever reason. At my BigStateResearchUniversity, we are the only research university in the area. If someone wants to stay local for family or other reasons, they are really stuck because it is very very rare that we will hire someone internally. I have seen other people who said they had applied to jobs everywhere and when I asked where, they listed four ILAF schools. I tried to explain that this was not a correct definition of “everywhere”, but the person considered anything else beneath them. Academia is not working at a fast food joint – academia is still (for better or worse) built on the assumption that you can move to the place that wants you.

    I am not saying academia is easy. But neither is anything in life. What we have seen is that once you reject the idea that doing something other than academia is a failure, people seem to find good and interesting things to do with their graduate training.

    Datawise, the national reports of a horrible situation that I have seen have either (a) mixed humanities and STEM postdocs, (b) been based on voluntary surveys (the gruntled don’t take the time to fill out those surveys), or (c) been individuals complaining as anecdote. When studies have been done quantitatively starting from unbiased data sets, they seem to be pulling up a different story (that Toronto study, the recent Nature study of UK and Canadian postdocs, our internal study of our graduates).

    I think that we need to communicate to postdocs better.

    One of the things we have done in my graduate program is to do a lot more career counseling and provide more options and networking to careers outside academia. (We have also made it clear that we do not consider these “alternative careers” because if it’s the career you want, it’s not an alternative.)


  5. DJMH Says:

    I have seen students who have great technical skills but can’t write or who can write but can’t manage a budget or who can do the technical work, but never finish a project. There is a specific and very complex skill-set that it takes to be a PI.

    One reasonable question is whether we are losing awesome scientists who can’t write worth a damn (or whatever the specific weakness might be) because the job description for PI encompasses unreasonably diverse skills: grantwriting, giving good talks, planning experiments, troubleshooting, crafting manuscripts, mentoring trainees, teaching (variable), etc; not to mention, being good enough at the bench to get to be considered for a PI job to begin with.

    Imagine the same organization in the film industry. Everyone would have to act for 10 years to prove their chops, and preferably act in a blockbuster or critical darling or two. Only after doing that could you be considered for a job as director, in which you are also responsible for producing the film (ie raising money), selling the film to festivals (marketing, i.e. giving a good talk), casting the film, and don’t forget writing the script.

    Also, if you’d been an actor for 10 years and NOT been promoted to this Producer-Writer-Casting-Director job, you’d have trouble finding more acting jobs.

    Who would join that industry?


  6. Almost tenured PI Says:

    So the authors of this proposal think that there will be fewer disgruntledocs if they limit postdocs to 3 years? Right now postdocs have the choice of whether to keep trying for research success or to move on to something else. Just imagine the complaining of all the postdocs who would be FORCED to give up their dream of a faculty job because they didn’t get their CNS paper within 3 years. And just imagine the new stress and anxiety that would be added by enforcing this arbitrary deadline. Only postdocs who come into labs where projects are established and half finished will be successful. Nobody will join a lab where they have to develop a new project or make a mouse or learn new techniques. In vivo experiments? Forget it, they take too long! Setting up and performing a screen? Too risky!! Attending seminars? Career development activities? Having a baby? Taking a vacation? Having a beer with your coworkers? Mentoring grad students in the lab? etc etc… No time for any of this when you only have 3 years!


  7. Grumpy Says:

    Have you seriously never encountered the postdoc who publishes pretty well and applies for faculty jobs in yr 4, gets no interviews. Publishes a few more papers and applies again in yr 6. gets a few interviews, including a you’re-#2-on-our-list, but no offers. Tries again in yr 7, one or two interviews but no offers. Now they are beginning yr 8, competing for industry jobs alongside fresh newly-minted pHds and rightly pissed off.

    I see it all the time, hard to say these people were delusional or being difficult. They did have a chance, just didn’t get lucky.

    I totally agree with DM and others about encouraging staff scientist jobs. I have several ppl in my lab right now who would love that role. Unfortunately best I can offer beyond the postdoc is soft money RAP. Lame.


  8. Jonathan Badger Says:

    One obvious problem with the “we need to stop training more grad students” scenario is, regardless of whether it would work, it just isn’t ever going to happen. It’s like the scenarios that some environmentalists propose where everyone will voluntarily give up buying new stuff for the good of the planet.


  9. qaz Says:

    Grumpy –

    Yes, I certainly have encountered such. There is no question that the worst is when you are so close to a dream that you can taste it and you keep getting a signal that you’ll make it, but never do. That’s horrible and frustrating. The question is how prevalent is this? How much of this problem is due to a college sports star not taking real classes in college and thus not being prepared for other options than playing in the NFL? We found that it made a big difference in our graduate program once we started providing more information about career options beyond academia.

    On the other hand, the job market in STEM academia is better than it has been in decades. However, I’m not going to deny that there is noise in the system. Without knowing details of your specific example, I don’t know whether the person was led on or just unlucky. Was this person location limited? Was this a person who wanted academia or nothing? Or was this a person who was told that they’d be a failure if they went elsewhere? Or was there a missing thing that all of these jobs were identifying but not telling them? Are there alternatives that the person was not aware of or had not considered? Clearly, this person saw industry as an alternative career/backup.

    In my experience, location limitations have been the largest problem. If I were to try to solve one thing it would be the location problem. The current human life cycle mates, builds families, and settles down just when academia is asking them to be the most mobile (as GS/PD). There are K-awards and programs (particularly clinical departments such as psychiatry for example) that typically expect the postdoc to transition to faculty within the same department. This is less common in basic science departments.

    I am 100 percent in favor of staff scientist jobs. But, again, I don’t want them to be alternate careers for the disgruntled postdocs who wanted to be professors and didn’t make it. I have seen lots of postdocs who don’t want faculty jobs (because they don’t want the responsibility or they love the bench and hate writing grants or whatever). I even saw a person get a faculty job, turn out to be a disaster at managing the lab, not get tenure (absolutely the correct choice), and go back to being a staff scientist at the lab he had been a staff scientist at for a decade before getting his faculty job. He did very well as a staff scientist, but was simply not cut out to be a professor.

    Diversity of options is the key. There are staff scientist jobs paid for by endowed chairs and other such permanent funding sources (think a big lab that needs an executive officer). There are research professorships that are effectively staff scientist positions where the person can apply for grants and run a pseudo-independent lab within an empire. There are core running and other positions where either a grant or a university is paying for it. More of these options is good. We can improve to make it better. But in my experience, the problem is not the postdocalypse but the fact that postdocs are not receiving good information.

    Maybe it’s important to tell the postdocs in a 50-postdoc lab at an ILAF that they are not all going to get faculty jobs, but what I see is that the grad students and postdocs at BigStateResearchUniversity who could make it are not trying because they are being scared off by the horror stories of the postdocalypse.

    In my experience, many people who say they don’t want to be faculty are those who would be great professors and would manage wonderful labs, but are worried about running a big show before they see themselves as ready. There is, of course, a lot of data that confidence is correlated with things like gender and class and culture. It will be important to ensure that the staff scientist track is not a second-class citizen track with effects on the gender, class, and background distribution of faculty.

    In my view good communication is the key.


  10. Almost tenured PI Says:

    Grumpy, I also have to wonder what specific limitations the postdoc you described had in their job search. Having now been involved in one way or another with about a dozen different faculty searches at an R1 school in a not-so-desirable town, I find it hard to believe that someone competitive enough to get interviews three years in a row was not able to get a job. It’s perhaps not so hard to believe, however, if the person you’re speaking of had serious location or institutional prestige requirements. We interview a few people per open position, and they’re almost all reasonable candidates. If we interview them, the job is really theirs to lose. The ones who get the offers are the ones who express the most interest and excitement, i.e., indicate that they’d be willing to move here and actually accept the job. The jobs are out there. They’re just not all at Harvard or NYU. And is it really the responsibility of the NIH or the scientific enterprise at large to make sure everyone can get a faculty job in Boston or New York?


  11. Grumpy Says:

    The example I gave wasn’t a specific person, it was a combination of stories of 5-6 of my friends from grad school who really wanted a TT faculty position, were very talented and would have probably done it well, but just didn’t get an offer. All of them got interviews, but varying numbers and spread over varying number of years.

    There are plenty of reasons one could retrospectively say why they didn’t get the job. One was not a great speaker, one was kind of hyper/borderline abrasive, one was not fully out of the shadow of their postdoc advisor, one was looking in a narrow geographic location, etc. But IMO it’s silly to try and label a reason and use that as an excuse to avoid the statitical reality that a large number of good (some even great) scientists will not be able to get research-intensive jobs in academia.

    I agree with pretty much everything Qaz wrote. It does seem like the machismo of you-must-move-in-between-career-stages has gradually lessened in my field. But the reality is that there aren’t enough valued senior positions to make it work yet.


  12. Baltogirl Says:

    What qaz says. All of it.
    One other thought- shouldn’t there be a huge number of academic jobs freed in the next decade as the baby boomers retire? I wonder though. My dept has shrunk the number of faculty positions in response to lack of grants coming in…wish someone would keep track of this.


  13. Cytokine Says:

    “just had this brainstorm. R-mechs (any really) that get some cutesy acronym (like B-START) and can be applied for by basically any non-faculty person from anywhere. Catch is, it works like the R00 part of the K99/R00.”

    You pretty much described the NCI and NIAID K22 (PAR-18-467 and PAR-16-434). What’s nice about the K22 is that it’s awarded to proven post-docs based on the project that they plan to do once they’re in an independent faculty position. Looking in RePORTER at K99s awarded FY12-15 at the three large ICs, about 40% of the K99s never transitioned to the R00, and of the R00s about one third were awarded to the same Institution as the K99 (large majority of those don’t have any subsequent funding, but that could because the individual left after the R00 ran out or they’re still applying for funding). In contrast, within the same period (FY12-15) over 75% of the individuals awarded K22s from one NIH Institute during have since received independent NIH funding (R01, R35, or a DP award).

    While unpopular, I’m a strong advocate of abolishing the K99/R00 and reinvesting that money in F32s and K22s instead.


  14. A Salty Scientist Says:

    One obvious problem with the “we need to stop training more grad students” scenario is, regardless of whether it would work, it just isn’t ever going to happen. It’s like the scenarios that some environmentalists propose where everyone will voluntarily give up buying new stuff for the good of the planet.

    Yes, it will not work to ask programs to voluntarily stop taking on grad students. The environmentalist analogy is good one, because the government can pass laws designed to combat “the tragedy of the commons.” Right now, the NIH incentivizes graduate programs taking on more students. They could shift funds to R mechanisms by phasing out training grants and limiting the amount of direct costs that can be spent on graduate student tuition.


  15. Pipsqueak Says:

    “While unpopular, I’m a strong advocate of abolishing the K99/R00 and reinvesting that money in F32s and K22s instead.”

    One big difference here is the citizenship requirements. K99s are open to all, but K22s are citizen/green card only. I got lucky enough to get an NIAID K99, and it was quite possibly my only route to independence, because I was extremely location restricted.

    So, sure, abolish the K99 in favor of the K22, because that training phase is a farce – anyone who gets a K99 will be just fine without any further training. But don’t forget to modify the citizenship requirements of the other career dev routes to let *some* of us foreigners compete.


  16. zuzix Says:

    “The question is how prevalent is this? How much of this problem is due to a college sports star not taking real classes in college and thus not being prepared for other options than playing in the NFL?”

    It is very prevalent. Really not seeing it requires considerable effort.

    I am fed up with the NFL analogy in the context of support in STEM. NFL players are judged based on how they actually play, having been playing the game for years. A person applying for their first independent position is only just starting to play “the game.” Until that moment, the PIs of the labs where they were trained were playing it for them. Even if you want to argue that students and postdocs somehow do understand the hidden complexities of a PI’s work, until they start applying for funding themselves, it has been a purely spectator sport.

    For the fun of it, let’s continue with the NFL analogy a little longer. The skills of NFL players are correlated with their performance. Therefore, when some players are selected over others, the selection criteria are very clear.
    What exactly is being selected for, for TT positions? What kind of people are
    we trying to select? Teachers? Administrators? Scientists? Managers? All of the above?
    I review enough grants and papers to know that there are no universally skilled
    people, and that all applicants have a lot of misses.

    In life sciences, we have ~50% of female students, then ~30% of female postdocs, and then only ~15-25% of female faculty. So all of them lacked that magical combination of skills? Or rather, are the current approaches to training in STEM simply sub-optimal for anyone who doesn’t fit in? If we’re comfortable with STEM PIs being so uniform in terms of gender, are you equally comfortable with the uniformity of skin color and educational pedigree? By defending the current training practices and selection criteria, we also defend the reasons leading to those statistics. The numbers published by the NSF about the state of the STEM workforce tell me that there are significant biases. I want to know the sources of these biases and until I do, I’m not going to agree with the idea that “only the best of the best stay in science.”

    NIH and other federal agencies should have stepped in a long time ago to fix the problems with the current training.
    The idea of limiting the postdoctoral period of a researcher’s career to 3 years is excellent.
    The NIH should also:
    – completely ban funding student or postdoc training on any mechanism other than T, F, and K;
    – strictly control where and how students and postdocs are trained through Ts, Fs, and Ks, with an eye on diversity, because who is trained matters a lot for who will be trained in the future;
    – institute a matching program for postdoctoral researchers similar to the one used for MD residencies.

    In addition, it is time to start introducing requirements for institutions to support the salaries of PIs who choose to advise individual students and postdocs.
    Let’s say, for every graduate student a PI trains, the institution has to cover 2 months of that PI’s salary. In the case of a postdoctoral researcher, it could be 1 month of salary instead, on the assumption that a postdoc would require less guidance. After all, if we are really so invested in training future generations of scientists, then significant effort should be associated with it. This effort cannot be supported by Ts, Fs, and Ks, and at least in my plan, definitely should not be associated with Rs.
    If industry or a given institution want more students and postdocs then they are welcome to finance the training using non-federal funds. Similarly, if a PI wants to have more choices with respect to selecting trainees, they also are welcome to use non-federal funds.

    In other words, we should take as much control as possible from the hands of PIs and institutions. Unfortunately, both groups optimize their own short-term interests over the long-term development of science and technology. Some individual PIs may have good intentions, but they lack the skills and knowledge (see the point about the lack of diversity above) to properly advise their “non-standard” trainees. By “non-standard,” I mean pretty much any trainee who is not following their PI’s exact path.


  17. A Salty Scientist Says:

    Looking at the proposal more carefully, this would likely result in the rich getting richer. Five times more F awards almost certainly means fewer R awards, with the postdoc factory labs getting way more bang for the buck for their R awards (and they have less trouble getting the R awards in the first place). Junior people without a track record of training postdocs will be negatively affected.

    As we know, if you really want to grease the skids to faculty appointment the route is the K99/R00 or basically anything that means the prospective hire ” comes with money”. Work on that, NIH. Quintuple the K99s, not the F32s.

    This would certainly give the NIH more *say* in who becomes a faculty member. I would argue that increasing NIH influence over who wins a faculty position is less important than supporting current faculty members through R mechs. I concede that I may not be able to see through my own bias on this.

    I do like the concept of the R50 for the reasons mentioned. I’m sure we all know people who would prefer a career as a staff scientist if that were a stable long-term career option. And this could actually do something to alleviate the mouths at the trough issue, instead of just paternalistically weeding out postdocs.


  18. Morgan Price Says:

    The report claims that around 30% of biomedical PhDs are working in non-research non-academic jobs. They’re not all getting alternative jobs in science. Also, the report does not address the mismatch between the current PhD/postdoc system, with its decade of “training” (i.e., producing papers), and many of those science jobs, which are in research support or teaching. A decade of producing papers is reasonable preparation to be a PI or a staff scientist and unreasonable preparation for a lot of the alternatives.


  19. Ola Says:

    DM is right. If everything comes down to mouths/troughs, changing “time spent preparing for the big chow down” isn’t going to do much.

    On the upstream end, I’ve anecdotally seen lower graduate student numbers in many programs in the past decade. My own R1 medical center programs have collectively shrunk from >80/yr to $100k. Put all this together…

    2005: Junior TT faculty, $250k startup plus 50% coverage on starting salary of $65k. Assuming an R01 from day one, 50% indirects, 30% fringe benefits on the salary. Cost to instution over 5 years is $460k, in return for $625k income from indirects. A tidy 35% profit.
    2018: Startup $800k (conservative). Same 50% coverage on $90k starting salary. Everything else the same. Cost to the instution over 5 years is $1.09m. Return is 57% (or a 43% loss on investment).

    You can fiddle with the math to come up with your own numbers, but the reality is some time in the last decade the act of hiring a new TT faculty shifted from being a net gain to a net loss for the institution. Sure, there are some places out there still making it work (by paying shitty salaries, by insisting on high % faculty salary recovery from grants, by cutting benefits, by putting time limits on startup funds, by dipping into endowment), but the basic math doesn’t lie. Hiring new faculty is expensive.


  20. eeke Says:

    So let’s say we do cut back on the number of new PhD’s. Say, cut the number of incoming students by 50%. Would that be enough? Reduce the number of well-educated, fresh-trained scientists in this country. Turn talent away. If you’re an undergrad who wants to go into science, and the US suddenly offers restricted training programs, saying there’s no jobs here anyway, wouldn’t that be incentive to go elsewhere? Move to Canada, the UK, China, India..? Anywhere, pretty much, where the focus is on growth and innovation instead of shrinkage, what do you expect we’d end up with? Certainly not excellence. I have yet to see what your vision is here. I am in agreement with qaz. The argument that we should cut back on the number of new scientists seems short-sighted and foolish.


  21. NeurallySound Says:

    If time in a postdoc is capped at 3 years it shrinks the window that you can reasonably apply for and start an F32 to the first year without getting shafted by the payback clause. Add in time to collect prelim data, and that’s basically a single funding cycle you can take a shot at. It’s pretty mean to say that you need to fund yourself with an F32 that requires you to payback the first year or support, but then not allow the person to stick around to actually do the service.


  22. qaz Says:

    Morgan Price –

    How many of those 30% are working important jobs where they are using academic skills in non-research non-academic jobs? Neil deGrasse Tyson is not doing research nor is he in academia, but if he’d gotten his PhD from us, we’d be damn proud of him. One of my former students is vice president of some health care system. One of our graduates is a major part of NIH’s policy team. We’re very proud of her. Just because they are not in research or academia, doesn’t mean they’re failures.

    I certainly agree that the traditional training (work in a lab, write papers, take classes) was not great training for the range of jobs available. But it was never good training for being a PI (which is mostly about personnel and lab management). But it was ever thus, being a PI is not good training for being an administrator (ask any department chair or dean). The next level up is chosen to supervise people at a level you’ve mastered.

    However, current graduate systems are designed to teach more general skill sets. (And there is a movement to start making postdoc more training targeted rather than just getting papers out.) So what are those academic skills that we are teaching our graduate students?

    – how to make discoveries and think critically when the answers are not given to you
    – how to communicate those discoveries to people who are disinclined to believe you (past observations)
    – how to communicate a plan for a future project to see if it can be funded (future possibilities)
    – how to teach people new ideas and new things that may or may not be in your immediate wheelhouse
    and also, perhaps most importantly,
    – how to learn new things quickly

    These are all skill sets that translate to many jobs. The world is always changing. I have a colleague who runs a science-communication website that gets a million hits a month. When she was in college, the internet didn’t exist. A PhD is about learning how to learn and making us lifelong learners, which is a skill set that translates very easily.


  23. Jonathan Badger Says:

    “Just because they are not in research or academia, doesn’t mean they’re failures.”

    No, but it is important to not confuse correlation with causation. A very similar argument is made by liberal arts professors that like to point at physicians and lawyers who studied Greek literature or Chinese history or something. Yes, these people studied field X and ended up in field Y and did quite well. But did their study of field X have anything to do with it?


  24. Drugmonkey Says:

    The comment on NRSA “payback” is worth some additional information. I know people tend to freak out about the payback but my read is that it is very broadly construed.

    For fulfilling the Kirschstein-NRSA service payback obligation, the following definitions apply:

    Research. Research is defined as an activity that involves designing experiments, developing protocols, and collecting and interpreting data. In addition, review of original research or administration of original research that includes providing scientific direction and guidance to research may be acceptable if a doctoral degree and relevant research experience is required for individuals filling such positions. Such research can be conducted in an academic, government, commercial, or other environment in either a foreign or domestic setting. In addition, when consistent with the cumulative amount, type, and frequency of research or research training experiences, functions that involve analytic or other technical activities conducted in direct support of research, as defined above, will also satisfy the service payback obligation.
    Teaching. Teaching is an instructional activity that takes place in an organized educational or other instructional environment. Activities classified as teaching are generally carried out in a formal didactic setting, but other activities will be considered if they are consistent with the certifying institution’s policy on the definition of teaching responsibilities. Such teaching can be conducted at universities, professional schools, research institutes, teaching hospitals, primary schools, secondary schools, or colleges. When calculating hours of teaching per week, it is permissible to include 3 hours of preparation time for each hour of direct instruction. Acceptable teaching activities must have a biomedical or health-related relevance.
    Health-Related Activities. This incorporates a broad range of activities related to the description, diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of disease from the most basic biomedical or behavioral research to the most applied or clinical research. Activities in fields other than those usually considered to be directly related to human disease, such as agriculture, environmental sciences, biotechnology, and bioengineering, also will be considered health-related.

    My read is that this is super flexible. But wait, it gets even better.
    All acceptable activities must be undertaken for periods that average at least 20 hours per week.

    For example, an individual who owes 12 months of service and can devote only 10 hours per week to service payback activities due to a disability will be required to engage in such service for 24 months.

    You only have to work half time at these activities and fully qualify for the payback. If you are only working quarter time, they’ll just give you two years to pay it back instead of one.


  25. drugmonkey Says:

    eeke Turn talent away.

    We are already doing this. All along the arc. Which not only turns the talent away but also wastes a lot of people’s time that they might better spend advancing in less over-subscribed careers.

    Certainly not excellence.

    oh bullshit. The idea that we have to sift the entire population through our training sieve to get the best of the best of the best is ridiculous. Excellence and discovery in biomedical science is mostly a function of the resources and the opportunities. It is not about rare unique genius individuals.

    The argument that we should cut back on the number of new scientists seems short-sighted and foolish.
    The argument that we shouldn’t is entirely self-serving, intentionally myopic and inhumane.


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    These are all skill sets that translate to many jobs. The world is always changing.

    So WHAT?

    qaz, you have the most elaborate sky castle set of fantasies all dedicated to defending your participation in this inhumane bullshit where we pretend we are “training” what is in fact our labor force. We do for the incontrovertible reason that we get their labor for cheaper than we’d otherwise have to pay for it.

    You need to wake the fuck up.

    Now look. We are all stuck with this system and those of us that are PIs all have dirty hands. I am not trying to claim I’m clean in this.

    But it is totally absurd to act like certain facts are not facts.

    People enter doctoral training in science because they want the sweet cushy job of professor in all of the various incarnations that exist in academic science. Sure, perhaps not all of them. but a damn sight more of them than can get those jobs. There is a demonstrable explosion of doctoral production that has more to do with labor needs of the powers that be (and I include the NIH in this) than it does to do with “training the next generation” or filling all these alt job types that somehow got by in the past without science PhDs filling them.


  27. drugmonkey Says:

    You pretty much described the NCI and NIAID K22 (PAR-18-467 and PAR-16-434). What’s nice about the K22

    The K22 is a special gladhanding intramural exit mechanism. It’s bogus to have special transition mechs for these people. Let them apply for K99/R00 against the general pool.


  28. qaz Says:

    Maybe the people you know at your institution all enter graduate school because they want some fantasy sweet cushy job of professor, but that is factually NOT what the majority of students entering our graduate program want. We have surveyed them from day 1 and they describe a host of career goals. We do an annual IDP with them and again they describe a host of goals, most of which are NOT R1 professorships. Sure, we find that they change their minds over the course of their graduate careers. Some learn to want to be academics, some change their minds not to be. That’s fine.

    It is a fact that most of our graduates (I cite our graduates because I have that data) have jobs they are happy with. (While I agree with Jonathan Badger’s correlation/causation point, we do not find that people regret their time in graduate school – so even if it is correlation, it’s not doing harm. I don’t think it’s correlation because they say that the skills they learned translate.)

    I also don’t know what sort of fantasy sweet cushy job of professor your students think they are going to get. As I have said above, what we find is that our students are scared off of chasing academia by the horror stories they have been told, even when they would be GREAT professors. We find that we spend our time trying to tell them it’s not as horrible as the postdocalypse says. In particular, women and minorities and students from non-academic backgrounds (first to college and the like) need to be told they CAN make it and they won’t be destroyed in the postdocalypse. Maybe the arrogant ILAF students need to be brought down, but BigStateResearch students need to be lifted up.

    In terms of costs of living, graduate students make the same amount as a new tech that just graduated college does. Plus they get training and tuition. Postdocs get about 50% more. That provides a reasonable living that certainly does fine in CityOfBigStateResearchU. Is it what they could get selling their souls on Wall Street? No. But I am also making 1/10th of what I was once offered on WallStreet 20 years ago. (And that’s after 20 years of raises at BigStateResearchU.) I’m OK with that. Because I like my job. So maybe you need to get your head out of your a** and look at actual graduate students and their outcomes.

    If this were about a labor force, I wouldn’t waste my time training graduate students for two years before they are useful. I would get rid of them and pay techs (who would cost me less because I don’t pay their tuition). Your labor force hypothesis falls flat on the facts. In fact, I have recently been seriously considering taking just permanent technicians (grown out of postbacs) rather than graduate students because it would be cheaper and they wouldn’t leave after finally figuring out what they’re doing.

    But I continue taking graduate students and postdocs because I am a teacher and I can teach them the ways of the force (science).


  29. Drugmonkey Says:

    Maybe the people you know at your institution all enter graduate school because they want some fantasy sweet cushy job of professor, but that is factually NOT what the majority of students entering our graduate program want.

    These days my frame of reference is mostly postdocs. Of which there are vastly too many for the available jobs. And they are pretty bent out of shape about it. I suppose it is possible that there is such a bottleneck of selection that your alleged vast majority of grad students who do not want professorial jobs, and my perception based on postdocs, are both true.

    what we find is that our students are scared off of chasing academia by the horror stories they have been told, even when they would be GREAT professors.

    Wait. which is it? do they not want the job or have we convinced them that they can’t win it and it sucks anyway so they had better do something else EVEN IF IN THEIR HEART OF HEARTS THEY ENTERED IT FOR THE PROF-NESS?

    If this were about a labor force, I wouldn’t waste my time training graduate students for two years before they are useful. I would get rid of them and pay techs (who would cost me less because I don’t pay their tuition). Your labor force hypothesis falls flat on the facts.
    Right. so why don’t you? because they have the potential in some cases to go on fellowships or other type of support off the books. AND because they work like beavers compared with techs. why? you tell me. c’mon. it isn’t that hard.

    In fact, I have recently been seriously considering taking just permanent technicians (grown out of postbacs) rather than graduate students

    I heartily encourage the shifting of balance of labor in labs from non-permanent “trainees” to more permanent career-length job categories. Please do this.


  30. A Salty Scientist Says:

    I heartily encourage the shifting of balance of labor in labs from non-permanent “trainees” to more permanent career-length job categories.

    I would just as soon end all T and F grants in support of R35s for staff scientists.


  31. NeurallySound Says:

    Just because the service payback can be paid back in a variety of ways doesn’t make it less shitty to require it and then tell the person they can’t stay to do it. Disability isn’t the only reason one might not have the time. If I’m transitioning from academia into another PhD level job I don’t really want to tell my new boss or my family “sorry, I need to go teach for a minute”.

    That could be fixed in a variety of ways that you yourself have suggested here, e.g. only allow one submission for training grants


  32. DNAman Says:

    They really should just get rid of postdocs all together. The idea that a 27 year old with a PhD needs more “training” is just ridiculous.

    “Postdoc” is just an excuse to treat a full time professional employee as a non employee at many organizations.

    What are you going to replace these postdocs with? The research scientist, because that’s what they are. If some want to use that position as a stepping stone to something else, that’s fine. If some want to stay in that position long term, that’s fine also.

    Also, on the subject of why students enter PhD programs . . . It really isn’t a bad option for many when you look at the alternatives. A BS in a biological science, despite being labelled a STEM degree, doesn’t really prepare you for a specific career, like engineering or accounting.

    Take a look at your students graduating with a BS and look at what kind of jobs they are getting. The best option I see are sales jobs, but if you aren’t into sales it is mostly lab technician or hospital work where you are competing with communtiy college programs that produce Medical Lab Technicians.


  33. drugmonkey Says:

    Neurallysound- you don’t seem to be grasping that almost any “PhD level job” that is even vaguely science related is going to qualify as payback.


  34. mathlete Says:

    My experience aligns much more with qaz than with drugmonkey. That could be though because I’m mostly just biomedical adjacent (in a Physics department). Some of us younger faculty are pushing for greater awareness of career prospects outside of academia, including inviting non-academic speakers, encouraging internships, offering/supporting career counseling, holding grad-student career fairs, etc. And we will continue to explicitly broaden the scope of grad school training so that it clearly leads to a variety of careers.

    And my one postdoc is transitioning to a research scientist now (with decent annual raises). As long as I have funding, they will too.


  35. Thorazine Says:

    I was curious about K22 recipients, so I took a look at current NIAID-funded K22’s. The good news is, it doesn’t seem to be a “special gladhanding intramural exit mechanism”. The vast majority of recipients seem to be from extramural labs. The bad news is, like all these “bridge to independence” mechanisms, it’s a rich-get-richer scheme. These people did postdocs in famous, well-funded labs – as you might expect, given that they mostly got this grant before they’d published anything significant from their postdoc work. (Of course, the K22 ought to select for these people even more efficiently than the K99/R00, since they’re appealing to people doing postdocs in labs where the PI is presumably not that fussed about the money their own lab would get from the K99 component.) And the recipients appear to be mostly male (though I admit I didn’t count).


  36. AZF Says:

    Unlike most people commenting here, I went through the alt-career transition. When I was finishing my postdoc, I realized that I knew how to: ask interesting questions, design experiments, do some simple analysis, write papers, write grants… that was about it. I didn’t have a CNS paper so I assumed (perhaps correctly) that a TT job was out of the question for me. I tried in vein to get an alt-career job after spending the previous 2 years of my postdoc attending all sorts of life sciences industry seminars, tech transfer seminars, writing seminars, even patent law seminars… I took business workshops, then was told I should probably go get an MBA because (this is a direct quote) I was not qualified to do anything outside of the lab. I ended up taking a research administration job – my future boss called me before the job offer to tell me that this is a job that admin assistants take when they are moving up. I was taking a job that I could have had right out of college because I didn’t have enough specialized experience to do anything else. I was devastated. But I felt like I didn’t have a choice because my only other option was to go be a soft-money scientist and I was pretty certain that was a road to nowhere.

    I am writing this because I think too many PIs delude themselves thinking that training with them leads to all sorts of fabulous alt-careers. In reality, those same careers could be had with a masters and entering the workforce instead. While I have done well since my 2010-2011 transition, I would probably be much more advanced in my career if I had left with a masters and entered research administration 5 years earlier. (I will say that I cherish my PD experience and am glad I did it – but I recognize that my PhD training was inadequate).

    If people are really serious about training for alt-careers there are ways to do that. I recently talked to a PI about setting up a lab-alumni network day for his trainees because most of his previous trainees are working in pharma. He can brand himself as a bridge to pharmaceutical industry, providing contacts as well as specific training to address current industry needs. Someone interested in science communication would do well to train with Dr. Danielle Lee or Dr. Raychelle Burks where they can actually get specialized experience for their desired career. But the idea that a single lab can properly prepare someone to do a whole range of different alt careers is naive and really out of touch of what those jobs are looking for and the extent of experience they require.


  37. drugmonkey Says:

    I have recently been informed that regional differences totally explain different views on what grad students expect and want as careers. I don’t know that I completely buy that.


    Do grads that gravitate towards Universities in one area of the country differ from those that land in another area?


  38. AcademicLurker Says:

    My perspective has changed since moving from a school of Medicine to a school of Pharmacy. Some of our PhD students take the academic route, but a large number go to the FDA (we have a good grad program –> FDA pipeline). Some remain in government, many others move to industry after a few years. It turns out that Pharma companies really like to have people who have FDA experience. Overall, I feel much less guilty participating in this graduate program than I did at my previous institution.

    @AZF: I had neither a CNS paper or a K99 when I landed my first TT job. Maybe things really have changed since the early 00’s, but I suspect that the “You absolutely must have CNS papers and a K99 or else don’t even bother applying” line is exaggerated.


  39. AZF Says:

    @AL – I think you are right but I had internalized that message and it was too late. When I meet with trainees now, I really try to encourage them to at least apply for TT positions if they have any affinity for academic science.


  40. jdp Says:

    @ almost tenured professor

    “Just imagine the complaining of all the postdocs who would be FORCED to give up their dream of a faculty job because they didn’t get their CNS paper within 3 years.”

    Hard to pull a CNS paper in 3 years time. Easier to politic your way to the front of someone else’s nearly-finished CNS paper.


  41. Almost tenured PI Says:

    (Midwest here) Grad students come into our program with the realistic expectation that they are not likely to ultimately become faculty. They are well aware of what the statistics are. On the other hand, the sentiment from many students is that the academic faculty route definitely seems like a nice job, and if they end up being lucky and successful enough, they might go for it. If you have this view from the start, you can avoid a lot of this postdocalypse nonsense.

    I took exactly the same realistic approach with my own career. I liked the idea of becoming a PI, but I also interviewed with McKinsey after grad school, and occasionally talked with biotech recruiters when I was a postdoc. Nothing gives you peace of mind like having options.

    Then when it came time to apply for faculty jobs, I did some painful introspection and recognized that I wasn’t the type of superstar that would get hired in one of the east coast or west coast cities. I could have very easily postdocalypsed* along, applying for jobs in NY and Boston year after year, but instead, I moved to bigStateU in the Midwest where I’m perfectly happy and doing awesome research.

    *Postdocalypse: verb; repeatedly applying for faculty jobs for which you are not competitive while ignoring all other career possibilities.


  42. JustAnotherPostdoc Says:

    I’m a post-doc at a big NYC school and I can attest that over half of the new grad students I’ve had the chance to interact with in the last 3 years explicitly state that they want industry jobs, not academic jobs.


  43. JustAnotherPostdoc Says:

    ‘These days my frame of reference is mostly postdocs’

    Maybe that’s your problem right there…

    In my experience (PhD granted in 2014), grad students who are certain they don’t want to do academic science largely opt out of doing a post-doc (the only major exception I know of being students interested in industry ‘basic research jobs’, who tend to hear that doing a short post-doc pays off for that job category).

    So if you’re talking primarily to post-docs who’ve started in the last, say, 5 years, you’re probably missing out on all the PhD students who were interested in alt-careers from the beginning. They simply aren’t doing postdocs.


  44. JustAnotherPostdoc Says:

    ‘We do for the incontrovertible reason that we get their labor for cheaper than we’d otherwise have to pay for it.’

    I think we would both agree that senior grad students and most postdocs are underpaid.

    Instead of shutting down the PhD pipeline, why not just institute a steeply progressive pay scale to address this more directly? IE say grad students get a pay raise of $10k each year starting in, say, year 4 or 5. And similar for postdocs, make them full employees (ie give them all the benefits of other institutional employees) and mandate annual pay raises of $5-10k per year starting at year 3 or 4?


  45. insect biologist Says:

    The doctoral students in the biochemistry program here at a Midwest land grant university seem fairly realistic about their career options. Surprisingly few are aiming for a faculty position at a major research university. Most of the PhD students want to find a research position in industry or, less commonly, a faculty position at a college or university that emphasizes teaching.

    This wasn’t the case when I first joined the department about 20 years ago. I’ve had to learn a lot more about various career options so that I can offer decent advice to the students.

    The postdocs here, however, are pretty much set on getting a position as an assistant prof at a research university. Some of them succeed.


  46. AZF Says:

    For all of you saying “it’s ok, our PhD students want to go to industry,” a genuine question: do you know how many of them get positions in industry? Do your graduates place in their desired positions? Because in biomed, vast majority of industry is in Boston or Bay Area, where they are competing with graduates of Harvard, MIT, Stanford, or like. According to glassdoor, each corporate job gets about 250 applications. Competition for these jobs is as intense as it is for TT positions.

    I was helping put together an education grant recently for my midwest university and we reached out to a pharma company headquartered right here in our backyard. They flat out told us that they are not interested in our graduates because they only recruit scientists from ivy league universities. It was depressing to hear because we have a lot of good people here who do very cool science.

    If you, wherever you are, trained 10 people who wanted industry positions, and 7 or 8 of them got them, you are doing something right by your students. Good for you and them. But I suggest some serious introspection if most of your trainees have not achieved their stated career goals and instead ended up having to do career acrobatics to salvage something of their professional lives.


  47. PhD holder Says:

    Why not dismantle the PhD programs altogether? This is an archaic and outdated system which doesn’t work like an educational pursuit anymore but rather just as cheap and serf-like bound labor. (Maybe, leave the ‘PhD degree’ itself for those who wish to defend it after having enough papers)

    In most other trades you start working after BSc/MSc and grow according to your achievements/etc. And some undergrads know more than quite a few postdocs.

    In Industry the most common path used to be going after BSc/MSc.

    The solution that would actually work (if implemented) is to simply convert all PhD students and postdocs from “trainees” into project scientists on the same wages without any term and age restrictions. Then the economic and labor movement laws would just kick in and adjust the whole system.


  48. insect biologist Says:


    Excellent point. I don’t know what percent of our students who are aiming for industry positions actually secure one, although I do know that many are successful.

    My experience is that the doctoral students in our department are not fully aware of just how difficult it can be to get an industry position. Same for faculty positions at undergraduate institutions. We (mentors here) don’t do an adequate job of communicating to the students that it is challenging to get a good position of any kind. There’s still a lingering sense that students who aren’t aiming for a faculty position at an R1 university have lots of “fall back” options, which is a terrible way of looking at the situation. The students who are successful at getting the types of positions they want (in industry, SLAC, etc) are the students who are working toward those goals from the beginning.


  49. drugmonkey Says:

    SLAC as “fallback option”???? What planet are these R1 Profs living on????


  50. drugmonkey Says:

    JAP- and we are still deeply oversubscribed in postdocs. So. Can we select grad students entrants that don’t ever want to be a lab head?


  51. Dennis Says:

    Academia simply has grown fat at the wrong places. Changing the system to have almost all the work done by ‘trainees’, so that each PI produces tens of people with hopes to become PIs, and who then train yet more PhDs, borders on a pyramid scheme scam.

    As a postdoc in the US, when I was still working hard for the chance of a PI position, I still advocated for fewer ‘trainees’ in academia: smaller grad schools, fewer postdocs, better pay for ‘trainees’, more permanent staff scientist positions, and a parallel industry-partnered career path (the latter is just what I’m used to from Germany). I advocated for people to – if in doubt if they wanted to be a PI – should go check out industry, first, rather than doing a postdoc. (I also would advocate to create more PI positions while reducing the average lab size – anything really to fix the imbalance of demand and supply of permanent research positions in academia)

    The two tweets appear to me symptomatic for the problem: They keep thinking the goal was to push postdocs to become PIs faster. It’s not. It’s pushing them out of academia. That’s a good thing.

    And everybody who goes around saying we shouldn’t change the system is crazy. Because not changing the system doesn’t make the situation stay the same. It makes it continue to become worse.


  52. aspiring riffraff Says:

    The ability to move anywhere is the single key thing to finding a faculty job. I had rejected 3 offers due to spousal work location restrictions. Spouses with 20 yrs of work experience just aren’t that mobile..


  53. LK Says:

    Many departments expect their faculty to be churning out PhDs. I just opened up our dept P&T guidelines document. One section provides a ranked list of measures of the candidate’s performance — 1) papers; 2) external $$$; 3) PhD students graduated … There are 12 other items on that list. “Postdocs mentored” does not appear on that list.

    Just about every senior faculty member in the college will be very happy to tell you that the best indicator of a TT faculty member’s performance = number of PhD students.

    This is a graduate program where most students enter with the goal of pursuing industry jobs. AFAIK, there are zero assessments of whether the jobs they eventually land ask for PhD level training. My understanding is most physical science/engineering programs operate similarly.

    The PhD machine is, unfortunately, alive and well.


  54. MF Says:

    I have been reading this blog long enough to internalize the idea that we should be training fewer graduate students. And yet, I continue to train some graduate students – mostly because they are still coming in (we get 10 application per slot), and I enjoy the process of training. Of the two graduates from my lab so far, one went into industry (although she originally wanted to teach at a PUI), and another is going to be looking for a teaching job at a PUI. Many students I interview for admission do not plan to be PIs at R1, and we recognize that and have many career development workshops for the various options. We have had a pretty good track record of students getting industry jobs, even though we are not at all in an industry hub and do not have a name recognition of a big school. With one of my students, I helped her and her husband with suggestions for the places where she could find a postdoc and her husband (also a PhD graduate of our school) a job in industry, which they did.

    Seeing many successful alumni of our small school does make me wonder whether the need to limit the number of trainees is real or not.

    I had run my lab with just me and two experienced, highly paid techs for 3-4 years when I first started. One thing I found out is that it is pretty hard to find a tech who is highly tolerant to failure and open to uncertainty of new techniques and questions. With one of my techs (who works harder than most graduate students), any experiment with a brand-new method that she was not comfortable with was extremely stress-inducing for both me and her. So I had to be very careful in deciding what types of experiments to ask her to do vs. do myself. But I think if needs be, the technician-staffed lab can be viable, and I might switch to that again in the future, especially since with graduate students, productivity is relatively high only after 2-3 years of training (and by training I mean not only weekly one-on-one meetings etc. but also me doing experiments side-by-side with them). So maybe I should make that switch soon, even if just for the sake of productivity.


  55. qaz Says:

    ” I suppose it is possible that there is such a bottleneck of selection that your alleged vast majority of grad students who do not want professorial jobs, and my perception based on postdocs, are both true.”

    There is lots of good evidence that postdoctoral training is a holding pattern. In fields, where other options are available, the length of the postdoc changes with the availability of other options. We saw this very clearly in the boom-bust cycles in computer science. When there were lots of jobs, postdocs vanished from CS and top grad students went straight to faculty. When it busted, suddenly there were lots of postdocs. Similarly, you can look at the time-to-faculty for the baby-boomers (lots of faculty jobs, very short postdocs) to the gen-X (no faculty jobs, very long postdocs) to the millennials (faculty jobs reopening up, postdoc length decreasing).

    Moreover, postdoctoral training is not training for faculty. Being faculty is about managing people and budgets. Yes, as a faculty, I can look over a student’s project and guide them to ask the different questions, but my techs would never let me near a neural implant they’re building. The people I know who went straight to faculty generally did just as well as people who did postdocs. There’s some push now to provide classes for postdocs about managing and teaching, but I have to say that our graduate program already provides all of that. Some places are now providing “mentoring committees” for postdocs that look a lot like thesis committees. The general push I see in K99 grants is to make postdoc training look like graduate school. I think this is silly. I would argue that our graduate students could go straight to faculty. Most postdoc training is about building up a track record of papers to compete with other postdocs.

    There are certainly some cases where a postdoc can help you – for example if you are switching fields (say from computer science or physics to neuroscience), but most people don’t need it.

    I know that some places have argued that what the postdoc proves is that you weren’t carried along by your graduate advisor. (On the theory that if you do well in two places, it’s not them, it’s you.) I don’t really think this is a very good argument. I think there are lots of people carried by two places and I think it’s usually pretty clear if someone is faculty material from their graduate career. Certainly, that’s the belief of NIH (q.v. the K99).

    So, yes, I agree with you that postdoc is usually useless. Is it underpaid? Yes, but so is being faculty. Is it fun? Hopefully. Is it necessary? Probably not. Are the horror stories of location-limited postdoc postdocalypsing (verb, q.v. A.T.PI) scaring off people who we would like to be faculty? Absolutely.

    However, limiting the number of graduating PhDs is not the solution to this problem.

    Because lots of PhDs go on to do lots of good and important things.


  56. qaz Says:

    PS. On the SLAC issue, I had an interesting conversation recently with a colleague who teaches neuroscience at a SLAC. She said that ten years ago, they got 200 applicants for each spot, including people with multiple high-impact papers, but whose teaching statements were basically “sure, whatever”. She said it was really hard to convince her colleagues not to hire these “superstars”. She said that now, they get 20 applicants for each spot, but that these people really want to be teachers of undergraduates and have taught classes as graduate students/postdocs and have wonderful teaching statements.

    I think this is more evidence that the job market is opening up. Fewer people are seeing SLAC as a backup plan, allowing the SLACs to hire the people they really want to.


  57. Eli Rabett Says:

    In Eli’s experience a hidden issue with populating university faculties from under-represented groups is that students from those groups who make it even to the bachelors level believe they have a responsibility to help their extended families by taking the best paying job they can find.


  58. AcademicLurker Says:


    When I was on the job market (early 00’s) I heard often that SLACs 1) were every bit as competitive as R1 universities as far as TT jobs were concerned, and 2) were very good at spotting and weeding out applicants that looked on SLACs as a “fall back” option if their quest for a job at an R1 didn’t work out.


  59. Grumble Says:

    I’m 5 days late here and $1.5 million short, but:

    DM, would you rather live in:

    a society in which lots of people are highly educated in science yet can’t get academic jobs and therefore do something else of a technical/intellectual nature?


    a society in which few people are highly educated in science and as a result, there are many fewer technical/intellectual jobs because all the companies hiring technically literate intellectual types have moved to China and India, which are investing heavily in science and educating technical/intellectual types?


  60. drugmonkey Says:

    I’d rather live in a society where allegedly educated people don’t pose stupid false dichotomy options to try to muddy the waters when they don’t like the way a discussion is going.


  61. Grumble Says:

    Yeah, we can’t all get what we want. For instance, I’d like to live in a society where silly academic bloggers are not sooooo focused on one little problem that they fail to see the bigger picture.

    The very idea that we should reduce the number of people who are allowed to earn science PhDs is antithetical to both common sense and advancement of the economy. Your focus is on how students are allegedly exploited: somehow, we faculty ogres are fooling them into choosing to work for us for years at low pay with the promise of a nice cushy tenure track job at the end, only to pull the rug from under them at the last minute, cackling with glee as they scramble in their thousands for the 6 tenure-track positions available. Or something.

    Meanwhile, the reality is that these people leave academia, get high paying jobs that are often satisfying, and contribute greatly to keeping the American economy productive. I’m apparently not the only one who thinks so. MF said much the same thing above, based on her own experience.

    Let’s cut the crap here. We aren’t fooling ANYONE into getting a PhD. They know full well what the likelihood of getting a TT position is, and they sign up anyway because they like the idea of getting paid to get an education – which they can then use to land a better job than if they didn’t get a PhD. That is not exploitation. It’s actually the opposite – it’s providing opportunity.


  62. drugmonkey Says:

    They demonstrably do not “know full well”.


  63. Philapodia Says:

    Only 1 of my last 10 or so trainees had aspirations for an academic position, and that one was able to get a TT position. Probably only 1/3 of the students I interview for our grad programs say they want to be faculty. All of my current and past trainees had worked in labs as undergraduates and thought that the constant grant chasing and stress they saw their PIs deal with sucked, and they generally think that they could have a better work/life balance in a different role (industry/science writing, government, ect), but the PhD would significantly enhance their prospects in that role. Narrowly focusing on the PhD>PD>Faculty pipeline doesn’t really capture what a PhD can do for students, and culling PhD training harms other career paths that aren’t contributing to the “too many mouths at the trough” problem.

    And yes, getting advanced training in exchange for work is an opportunity, not exploitation. I’m still paying off my undergraduate loans, but grad school didn’t add to that debt and I would be paying off my UG debt for a lot longer if I didn’t have the reasonably well-paying job I have due to the PhD.


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