There was a thread on the Twitters today complaining about graduate students being called trainees.

The conversation went in all of the usual directions.

Because, of course, the “hot take” is correct. We have increased the number of post-graduate trainees in doctoral granting programs so as to obtain cut-rate labor to service our biomedical science research laboratory work. Yes. Absolutely.

To service the work that our federal government is asking us to do, and paying us to do, via the NIH, NSF and a few other major grant-making entities.

Grants to not-for-profit Universities and Research Institutes are, of course, a way for the US federal government to try to get cut-rate labor to service its goals. By leveraging the power of calling middle management “Professors” to justify underpaying us for the job we are doing. (“Underpaying” is a concept I have on good authority from practically every academic I’ve spoken with about their satisfaction with their compensation.)

Getting back to the pre-doctoral exploit, however, their is this notion of a valuable credential being dangled as the additional compensation. The award of the PhD (and the presumed training that comes with it) is supposed to make up for any perceived deficiencies in month to month paychecks. And it does have value. This credential is necessary for many subsequent job categories that are perceived as being desired. Or at least more desired than the jobs that are available, or the compensation that is available, for those without this particular credential.

My question for today is, would things be better in academic science if, instead of the credential model we operated on the peformance based, resume building model?

Everyone enters this pipeline as a fresh faced bachelor’s degree recipient and gets paid as a real employee on technician wages. Just like our current tech class. From there on, advance to the first supervisory step (like the current postdoc stage) depends merely on performance, opportunity and drive. If you just put in your time, you stay a tech. And move up on that trajectory. If you take an interest in the broader science issues and do more than just put in your hours under direction of the higher-ups, more like what we expect out of current graduate students, well, at some point you are competitive for the entry level manager position. And you get some techs to direct.

Then again, if you want to move up to the next level, junior faculty-ish we can say, you have to produce. You have to produce and show you can “run a team and act in all ways like a PI save name” and….boom. You get to be PI.

From there, if you take the extra time to also teach classes, since we’re going to have the adjunctification of traditional teaching duties rolled into this re-alignment of course, maybe you eventually earn the title of Professor. If we still have that.

At every stage, the key is that you are more or less expected to be able to make a career at that stage if that is what fits you. Techs can remain techs. Job longevity. Steady raises. Benefits. Low level managers…ditto.

Look you still have to perform. Every workplace has turnover for competence and for fit. But then again I see checkout folks at my local Costco that I’ve seen there for well over two decades. Same job, presumably with incremental raises. No need to constantly run upward merely to stay in your job.

And I assume there are those who I saw two decades ago who have moved up in managerial tracks either within Costco or in some other retail business.

What would it look like if we de-credentialed academic science?