Quite a week in the journals…part two

If you missed part one of this piece, you can find it here…now on to other matters.

There is a problem in biological and biomedical science right now; the number of trainees (mainly Ph.D. students and post-doctoral fellows) keeps going up, but the number of tenure-track and tenured positions at research universities has remained steady.

This has been recognized informally for some time, but a new report in this week’s Nature has backed it up with numbers, and the situation looks bleaker than anyone could have imagined.

While these figures refer to the US, the situation here in Canada is unlikely to be much different.

In 2005, US universities produced a whopping 7000 Ph.D.s in the biological sciences. Since 1981, the number of tenured and tenure-track positions in biological sciences at US universities has remained constant at around 20 000. During that same time frame, however, the percentage of biomedical Ph.D.s with tenure or in tenure-track positions dropped from 45% to under 30%. Moreover, there are three times as many Ph.D.s going into industry now (about 30%) as there were in the 1970s (about 10%).

And the most shocking statistic of all? In 1970, the average age for the first National Institutes of Health (NIH) independent operating grant was 34. In 2007, the average age is 42. This means that the average person graduating with a Ph.D. when they are 30-31 will have to wait over ten years to become a fully independent investigator. One wonders what they are doing in the interim.

It’s not all bad news, though. The percentage of Ph.D. holders still in a post-doc after 3-4 years dropped from 45% to 30% between 1997 and 2007, although the total number of post-docs grew during that time, from 25 000 to 33 000.

So what does this all mean for someone starting (or finishing) a Ph.D. in 2007?

First, for those just starting, you should be honest with yourself about your job prospects. I am a firm believer in the value of the journey; one simply cannot do a Ph.D. as a job training exercise. You have to love (I mean REALLY love) research, and you have to get value out of the process itself. That having been said, at some point you might need to eat and pay your bills, so considering your future job prospects might not be a bad idea.

For these people, industry should become a more and more important consideration. There are jobs out there in industry, and though you wont be a truly independent scientist (you will work on what the company views as being critical for the long-term financial solvency of the company), you will have a job.

For those people finishing a Ph.D. or starting a post-doc, again they should be considering industry carefully.

But all of this ignores the greater problems: we are training too many scientists and the funding agencies and universities aren’t doing enough to address the imbalance.

The blame lies, quite literally, at every level.

First, trainees have become far, far too complacent. Trainees work 60-75 hours per week, for VERY little money (most Ph.D. students here in Canada make far less than $30 000/year, although the government has gone a long way to addressing some of this concern through new, more lucrative scholarships and tax breaks for students), and they do the bulk of the research work. They write the papers (and sometimes the grants themselves!), but get very, very little recognition for this; perhaps a “Thanks!” at the yearly research retreat. Yet the influence they hold is not at all commensurate with the attendance their needs receive. Why? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they often fear that speaking out against mistreatment (or simple lack of respect) will jeopardize their career potential. Moreover, they know that their training is temporary, so there is little incentive to rock the boat.

This is the entirely wrong attitude. Trainees need to speak up and say “Enough is enough!”; demand better pay; demand respect. Until trainees are willing to stand up and say that this system doesn’t work, the system wont change.

Universities and research institutes are also at fault. They have made it far too easy to get a Ph.D. I mean this in both financial and intellectual terms. In financial terms, I’m all for giving out scholarships, but many universities have begun making these automatic, rather than merit-based. Why must every potential Ph.D. student be given free tuition and a stipend? Surely the good ones deserve this, but would we not be better served by halving the number of scholarships while doubling their value? This would encourage only the top students to do Ph.D.s, while making it financially untenable for those who are sub-standard.

This is related to my second point: too many sub-standard Ph.D. students. I’ve seen it with my own eyes; there are people getting Ph.D.s in major Canadian universities who will never, ever have the capability of being independent thinkers, let alone independent scientists. These people have to go. Medical schools have extensive interview processes to weed out those who simply perform well on standardized tests like the MCAT and those who will make truly excellent doctors. The process isn’t perfect, but it does at least help to ensure that only the best make it. Graduate schools need to begin doing this. Not everyone should be a Ph.D. student; it SHOULD be exclusive. It SHOULD be hard. And yet we have thesis supervisors and advisory committees simply moving people along the system, without saying “I’m sorry; you don’t have the necessary skills for this”.

I’m not saying that all Ph.D.s should be academics, but a person studying for a Ph.D. should have the capacity to do so. That is the level we should be aiming for. The reason we have so many Ph.D.s with respect to the number of tenure-track and tenured positions is that so many of the Ph.D.s are sub-standard.

But even good Ph.D.s are languishing in post-docs for 4-5 years, which, while not uncommon these days, is not common in historical terms, and is not the intent of the post-doc in the first place. The post-doctoral fellowship (PDF) was originally intended as additional (and optional) training for Ph.D.s looking to get a leg up on the competition. They traditionally lasted two-years, and would be followed by a transition into a tenure-track position. The PDF was intended as training, not as a placeholder, which is what it has become. This isn’t a huge deal for those of us who are entirely committed to becoming independent scientists, and most PDFs do it because they want to be scientists so badly, but the sacrifice is huge. If you are a PDF for 2-5 years, you are looked at as having been well-trained. Ironically, however, if you do a PDF that lasts longer than 5 years, people think there must be something wrong with you; why haven’t you got a job yet?

The answer is becoming clear: there ARE no jobs to get.

All of which brings us to the funding agencies. The primary thing the funding agencies can do is make funding of technicians an absolute requirement for all new operating grants; many independent scientists have come to consider trainees to be nothing more than a set of hands. The REAL role of the trainee is to be a brain; to be trained to THINK like a scientist. A new Ph.D should be able to design their own experiments (and write grants about them), teach the fundamentals of their area of interest (meaning a Ph.D. studying lung cancer chemotherapies, for instance, should be able to teach a first year cell biology course with ease…most would have a very hard time, indeed). Many new Ph.D.s dont have these skills, because they have been (a) moved along by their advisory committees and thesis advisors, who havent asked the hard questions, and frankly, (b) most have never been given the opportunity. The scientist asks the question, tells the trainee what to do, and then analyzes the results. The trainee should be doing ALL of this, not just the “hands” part.

So research funding agencies need to make sure that technicians abound, and are paid to do the work that they are trained for. This will allow the (now fewer) Ph.D. students and PDFs to do what THEY are trained for: to think.

Most research funders have one mandate: to fund research in a cost-effective way. The best way for them to do this is to get VERY well-trained Ph.D. students and PDFs to do what technicians should be doing, and to pay them half as much to do it. That way you get the brains and the hands.

This is abhorrent behaviour, and it has to stop. But it will only stop once students and PDFs begin speaking out. I guarantee that if the work in every research lab in the country stopped for even one week because of actions taken by trainees, the funders would take notice. This system cannot continue to exist. We have too many Ph.D.s fighting for too few jobs. Science is a wonderful pursuit, but not at the expense of food and a normal life.

We need unified actions; trainees, universities, and funders need to recognize the problem, and need to sit down to try to solve it. Otherwise we risk having skilled, intelligent minds leaving biological science altogether.


3 Responses to Quite a week in the journals…part two

  1. […] Ergo Propter Hoc – After this, therefore because of this « What would you expect? Quite a week in the journals…part two […]

  2. […] Moments after submitting this, I ran into this post on the massive surplus of Ph.D.s in the […]

  3. […] Many new Ph.Ds dont have these skills, because they have been (a) moved …article continues at edge100 brought to you by cancer.medtrials.info and […]

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