What would credential-less academic science look like?

May 19, 2020

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?

9 Responses to “What would credential-less academic science look like?”

  1. jmz4 Says:

    I think people would be a lot happier, generally, without the psychic burden of the need to “move on” to advance your career. It’d probably also stop a lot of subpar stuff from getting pushed out because someone needs to graduate, and there would be left stuff on the cutting room floor if there was more continuity within labs.

    One thing that would have to be considered is, if you retain the current lab-attached structure of the workforce, what happens when older professors retire? Presumably you’d have a lot more senior/expensive people in the lab that might have trouble relocating.


  2. bacillus Says:

    My first job out of my undergrad was as a research assistant in a UK govt lab. Because UK PhDs are entirely thesis-based, I was given the opportunity to write up the work I was doing for my supervisor and submit it to a national degree awarding institution. It cost me 50 quid to register, Meanwhile I got paid as an employee of the state with pension benefits etc. This was nearly 40 years ago now, so not sure whether this is still a viable career path. Interestingly, the same institution had many lab chiefs who had started work as “lab boys” in the 1940s stright out of highschool at aged 15-16. They worked themselves up the merit ladder, taking part-time degrees as necessary. I’ve always thought that merit beats credentialism any day of the week.


  3. wheresreason Says:

    I’m not sure what you’re suggesting actually changes anything. Things currently are performance based with a credential component that depends on the performance. You can stay a tech forever if you want to and your salary will increase over time, although not enough. Cut the administrative bloat, pay people more, and ensure access to health care benefits.


  4. jmz4 Says:

    “Things currently are performance based with a credential component that depends on the performance. ”
    -No they are not.

    “You can stay a tech forever if you want”
    -No you cannot. The labs that have strong funding records that you would seek out for this kind of position are the same labs that have PIs that are nearing retirement.


  5. wheresreason Says:

    “No they are not.”
    You’ll have to elaborate. People that end up running their own labs have performed, invariably. There are obvious disparities and issues with nepotism, of course, but I can’t see how getting rid of the credential system would change that. A lot of good undergrad techs that fall in love with doing research do move onto graduate study, they make crap money which is what the original tweet is saying, and we should certainly pay them more.

    “No you cannot. The labs that have strong funding records that you would seek out for this kind of position are the same labs that have PIs that are nearing retirement.”

    Sure, but why would getting rid of credentials change this? You’ll still going to have to go a lab that has the funds.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    It is very rare for someone in academic science to start as a tech, receive no additional academic credentials and end up as the sort of lab head that we associate with the Professor title at present.

    The presumptive career path for PhDs is not one that has a clear expectation of stable, continued employment at the non-lab-head level for the duration of the person’s likely work career. “Postdocs” are supposed to be temporary. 3 years. 5 years. Not “you’ll be here until you retire”. If that happens, it is by fortune and not by design.


  7. jmz4 Says:

    “You’ll have to elaborate. People that end up running their own labs have performed, invariably.”
    Performance isn’t the limiting factor in who gets faculty jobs, at least in my experience. The other stuff does (e.g. nepotism, amount of support in the lab, name ID of lab, buzziness of topic/technique, etc). While everyone who gets a faculty job might perform at a given level, not everyone who performs at that level (or higher) gets a faculty job. Thus its false to say something is “performance-based”. Performance is a pre-requisite, at best.

    “but I can’t see how getting rid of the credential system would change that. ”
    It wouldn’t too much, probably. Perhaps if the jobs currently done by grads and postdocs weren’t building towards a shiny credential at the end, people would be more comfortable switching jobs (like they are at regular jobs). This would mitigate some of the “bad luck” elements of the current system (e.g. you got stuck halfway through a postdoc when you realized your boss was terrible). This would cause/magnify a host of its own problems (portability of research, “poaching” of talent, hot fields getting overcrowded, cold ones getting deserted, etc), but they’d be problems for the PIs, not the postdocs and grad students.

    The main change I’d like to see to the biomedical workforce is that either the NIH or the universities take responsibility for postdocs and grad students as employees, rather than this weird trainee/contractor hybrid the currently are.


  8. Microscientist Says:

    As a PhD married to a self described “old salt lab manager”, this is an interesting proposal. I can see the grad school step being awarded based on publishing some first author papers. Now – how would this work if you are working on a project in industry that won’t be published? I ask because I got my start in the 90’s biotech boom. None of that work has ever seen the “light of day” in terms of being published. It’s all sunk in some patent application somewhere. But it was actually very good work.
    Then you would move up to applying for your own grants? This would be the post-doc phase. We would need to really open up grant mechanisms so that more people could apply- post-doc funding mechanisms now are very time limited and there are few of them. Assuming you got a grant or two, then you could apply for a job as head of your own lab.
    My husband loves science but has no interest at all in writing grants. He’s happiest at the bench, troubleshooting the actual experiment. He’s a much better scientist in that regard than I am, but he hates reading papers and being “up” on the literature. I worry that this system would even further limit people like him- and we need both.


  9. Jonathan Badger Says:

    I’m currently a staff scientist in the intramural NIH program after being a soft-money PI at universities and research institutes for many years. I quite like the position (I’m only technically required to do work myself but in practice mentor grad students and postdocs) without being required to find funding. This is a very rare position outside of the NIH intramural program, I realize.


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