I’ve read a number or articles recently about a big problem in academia, particularly in biomedical research—the overproduction of PhDs and resulting pool of underemployed researchers. Here are excerpts from two of them:
Postdocs fill an essential, but little-known niche in the scientific pipeline. After spending 6 to 7 years on average earning a PhD, they invest more years of training in a senior scientist’s laboratory as the final precursor to starting labs where they can explore their own scientific ideas.
In the Boston area, where more than 8,000 postdocs — largely in the biosciences — are estimated to work, tough job prospects are more than just an issue of academic interest. Postdocs are a critical part of the scientific landscape that in many ways distinguishes the region — they are both future leaders and the workers who carry out experiments crucial for science to advance.
The plight of postdocs has become a point of national discussion among senior scientists, as their struggles have come to be seen as symptoms of broader problems plaguing biomedical research. After years of rapid growth, federal funding abruptly leveled off and even contracted over the last decade, leaving a glut of postdocs vying for a limited number of faculty jobs. Paradoxically, as they’ve gotten stuck, the pursuit of research breakthroughs has also become reliant on them as a cheap source of labor for senior scientists.
Biomedical research training traditionally has followed a well-worn path. After college, people who want to pursue an advanced degree enroll in graduate school. The vast majority of biology graduate students then go on to do one or more postdoc positions, where they continue their training, often well into their 30s.
Their progress is very poorly tracked; the leader of a national report on the state of postdocs has called them “invisible people.” The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the country. Salaries vary, but rarely reflect their level of education. The NIH stipend ranges from $42,000 a year for a starting postdoc, up to $55,272 for a seventh year.
The problem is that any researcher running a lab today is training far more people than there will ever be labs to run. Often these supremely well-educated trainees are simply cheap laborers, not learning skills for the careers where they are more likely to find jobs — teaching, industry, government or nonprofit jobs, or consulting.
This wasn’t such an issue decades ago, but universities have expanded the number of PhD students they train — there were about 30,000 biomedical graduate students in 1979 and 56,800 in 2009. That has had the effect of flooding the system with trainees and drawing out the training period.
In 1970, scientists typically received their first major federal funding when they were 34. In 2011, those lucky enough to get a coveted tenure-track faculty position and run their own labs, at an average age of 37, don’t get the equivalent grant until nearly a decade later, at age 42.
Not all of these students want to pursue academic careers — but many do, and they find it tough because there has been no equivalent growth in secure academic positions. The growing gap between the numbers of PhD graduates and available jobs has attracted particular attention in the United States, where students increasingly end up stuck in lengthy, insecure postdoctoral research positions. Although the unemployment rate for people with science doctorates is relatively low, in 2013 some 42% of US life-sciences PhD students graduated without a job commitment of any kind, up from 28% a decade earlier. “But still students continue to enroll in PhD programmes,” Stephan wrote in her 2012 book How Economics Shapes Science. “Why? Why, given such bleak job prospects, do people continue to come to graduate school?”
There may be too many PhD graduates for academia, but there is plenty of demand for highly educated, scientifically minded workers elsewhere. So some scientists propose that the PhD should be split into two: one for future academics and a second to train those who would like in-depth science education for use in other careers.
Biologist Anthony Hyman, director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, is one of those who thinks that a split PhD might work. Students in the academic-track PhD would focus on blue-skies research and discovery, he says. A vocational PhD would be more structured and directed towards specific careers in areas such as radiography, machine learning or mouse-model development.
Some scientists call for more drastic measures — cutting down the number of people who pursue a PhD.
Siphoning off more students into master’s programmes is one way to reduce PhD numbers, says Bruce Alberts, professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the department of medicine at UCSF. A master’s can offer advanced scientific training that is sufficient for many careers, as well as a taste of research, in one or two years rather than the four or five eaten up by a typical PhD. “In an ideal world, everyone would go in for a master’s,” Alberts says.
Engineering fields have not suffered the postdoc-holding-tank problem that bio fields and, to a lesser extent physical sciences) have had. I believe that this has been because of several inter-related phenomena:
- The PhD in engineering is only for academics and a few blue-sky researchers. The degree needed for a top-notch industrial job is an MS (or, sometime, an MBA). Most grad programs in engineering produce far more MS students than PhD students.
- Engineering students can get good entry-level jobs with just a BS, so there is little pressure to go on immediately to grad school, unlike biology, where there are huge numbers of BS students chasing relatively few (and not very good) jobs. Many bio students, seeing that almost all the interesting jobs are advertised for PhD holders, feel compelled to go on to grad schools.
- Undergraduate engineering programs are less subject to grade inflation than other fields—engineering faculty see passing a student in a course as certifying that they are at least marginally competent in the subject, not just that they’ve spent time in the presence of people who knew what they were doing.
Because a BS in engineering still certifies a reasonable level of competence, the BS degree is still recognized as suitable for entry-level jobs, and an MS reflects a higher level of specialization and competence. This allows the engineering PhD to be reserved for research and teaching, rather than becoming the entry-level degree it has become in bio research.
It will be very difficult for biology departments to undo the damage they have done to the academic system—draining the postdoc holding tank into real jobs will take a decade or more, even if bio departments reduced their PhD production to sustainable levels. The huge glut of PhD-trained biologists will keep salaries low and discourage biotech companies from hiring BS-level bio students for any but blue-collar technician positions. Perhaps the best thing university biology departments could do is to undo the grade and credit inflation that has been happening over the past three decades and start failing significant numbers of students, rather than being the STEM major of last resort for those barely capable of doing science. This would reduce the glut of biology students and raise the quality of those who do finish BS degrees. In a decade or so, biology departments could make the BS become the working degree for biotech industry, reducing the training time for biotech workers by over a decade.
Quite frankly, I don’t expect biology departments to raise their standards and choke off the flow of cheap postdocs. NIH funding is arranged to make postdocs be the preferred researcher (cheaper and more productive than either grad students or faculty), and biology research labs have become structured around the postdocs. Universities (particular ones with med schools) have made the “soft-money” researcher, whose job exists only as long as there is a grant to pay it standard. The disposable researcher has become the norm, just like disposable plasticware has replaced glassware in the labs.
I think that there will need to be some shakeups in the federal funding of research to break up the postdoc factories and encourage universities to return to the days of small labs with faculty actually running their own experiments with just a handful of students. A few things that might help are
- limiting PIs to no more than 2 federal grants at a time,
- limiting the size of grants to no more than is needed to support a technician and a handful of postdocs or grad students,
- greatly increasing the number of grants (not necessarily the total $), by breaking up the current scheme of big grants into many little ones, and
- requiring that grant-seeking institutions pay at least half the salaries of any non-student researchers from non-federal sources.
Changes like that would force universities to convert a lot of soft-money positions into permanent faculty positions (in order to have enough PIs to submit grant requests), and would force the funding agencies to spread the grant money out over a much larger pool of researchers (rather than focusing it all on a handful of golden boys). There would no longer be an incentive to have huge numbers of inferior “hands in the lab” as grad students or postdocs, and students and postdocs would get more attention from faculty as labs shrunk and faculty became focussed on research and teaching instead of grant writing and administration.
Of course, it will never happen—those who run the funding agencies like having a postdoc holding tank full of cheap labor and think that grant writing and grant administration is far more important than research or teaching. They’d rather be responsible for a pointless but huge “moon shot” project than for hundreds of small projects, some of which actually advance science.
It has become my belief that the real purpose of federal funding for science is to slow down the progress of science and engineering so that politicians can keep the world from changing too fast—they might lose power if things change too quickly.