Search Results for "mouths"

Nov 04 2014

Pyramid Schemes, Mouths at the Trough, and the older you get the harder it is to remember anything (like your graduate experience)

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A while ago Eve Marder's article on the number of PhD admissions stirred up the natives. It's been incubating or brining or gestating (pick your favorite metaphor) in my mind for a while.

I've read that it's a lot like r- and K- selection. To increase your fitness in an r-selection scheme, and the number of your genes in the next generation, do you produce lots of offspring, invest very little in any of them, but hope enough survive to make it (think insects, or fish). Or, as a K-selection type, do you produce a smaller number, invest heavily in them (think whales and elephants)? Of course the point of fitness is leaving your genes to the next generation and any concern/investment/strategy for the offspring beyond survival is still about leaving your genes and your fitness. Needless to say trainees are not genes, and improving one's academic fitness is not necessarily the goal of Good People (though as is true of BSD's, YMMV).

One perspective of the olders is that the youngers are actually living this, and therefore in the worst place to judge. If it was true that the youngers were saying "don't limit admissions", one would be tempted to argue that they perceive themselves as being at risk. If the youngers were saying "do it to Julia", then one would be tempted to accuse them of arrogance (yes, limit admissions, but not me). Instead what I am hearing is the rational concern that verges on anxiety about the future. Their future. Their hopes. And no K-selected parent can ignore that. And, no thinking scientist who cares about the future of the field.

Part of Marder's arguments that irritated me were:

Admissions committees are bad at predicting who will end up deciding to stay in science.  ....I f we knew how to spot the 25% of our applicant pool ... [who will] become an outstanding scientist, .... might make it sensible to decrease the size of our incoming cohort. But it would be counterproductive and sad to limit our numbers and then effectively lose the creative, determined and possibly unconventional individuals who might not make it through a more restricted gateway.

It's not that I disagree. Admissions committees are political entities with multiple pressures and goals, many of which are not about the candidates. The problem with Marder's logic is that we should then admit everyone who wants to be a grad student. Why limit it to what we have now? There might be some great future scientist that we are ignoring with the current standards. I am guessing Marder would say no to that scheme. The argument against admitting everyone who applies is that admissions committees can make some decisions, and there are some people obviously not suited for a career in science. But are admissions committees, right now, only dealing off the bottom of the deck, only excluding those we know won't make it. Of course not. We are making hard choices. We are drawing a line. The question becomes where do we draw that line?

Getting into grad school (even right now) is a classic supply/demand problem in economics. While the demand for seats in grad school are higher than the available supply of those seats, that supply is fairly elastic. The real supply/demand problem occurs for faculty positions. We've set the supply for grad school at an artificial, predetermined level. This level, the line we draw, is determined by a number of factors, mostly funding, that have little to do with the excellence of the candidates and their potential for being scientists. It certainly doesn't think about the future much (all my grad students get postdocs).

I  still think the real issues go back to what happens to those trainees. Marder can argue that we celebrate all those who don't make it. She can say that it takes grad school to figure out if you have what it takes to make it. But that's not really thinking about the people in those roles. I've said before that it is a bogus and somewhat condescending argument that "PhD programs in biomedical sciences train you for many careers".  No one enters a PhD program because they think its a good way to become a high school teacher.  The question remains: is there a better path to the "" endpoints?

Yet, there is still validity in the argument it is not obvious who will be a good scientist at the point of admission. Previous research experience, if it is real research experience, is a strong indicator. One of the advantages of the British/Aussie/Kiwi scheme of doing "honors" as the fourth year in a three year degree is that there is a condensed year where it is possible for the student to figure out what its like and what they want.

The discussion about where to draw the admissions line needs to be an ongoing one. It needs to involve people all along the career pathway, not just the Eve Marders of this world. And to those who say that blogs/twitter/social media are a waste of time, I say: feh. It is one way those other career-stage people get a voice.







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Dec 21 2017

12 Months of Mistress of the Animals

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Okay, this is a thing. I've not done this before, but since IBAM is doing it, so shall I. It's the 12 month review of blog posts. It's the first line and a link to the whole post of the first thing from each month.

December: No smoking almost everywhere.

November: Medical School funding is one part of the problem that is driving the issues with career pathways, also known as the too many mouths at the trough problem.

October: I went to NYU to give a talk.

September: One of the hardest things to learn is how one’s effort translates into output.

August: I have frequently written about problems with trainees and what to do about Problem Trainees.

July: I am sorry, but I am actually doing science!

June: Sometimes the current incarnations of culture wars  spills over into the NIH grantsmanship (grantspersonship?) arena.

May: Power often corrupts and absolute power often corrupts absolutely, but the greatest corruption of all comes from withholding power, which grants victory to tyrants. -- Shlomo Riskin

April: When I was at MRU, I lived near the hospital and walked to work.

March: First, a word about exhaustion.

February: Wally wrote: (edited a bit for space, but go read the whole thing) I love being a postdoc – ... we don’t always have choices as to where we live.... Further, some of us belong to minority groups and living in some places in the US (where costs are often far cheaper) is just not particularly safe.

January: This post is my attempt to reduce my grumpiness index.


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Nov 01 2017

Thoughts on Medical School Funding (part 2)

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Medical School funding is one part of the problem that is driving the issues with career pathways, also know as the too many mouths at the trough problem. This is a follow-up to an earlier post,  but looking from a perspective of how the administration deals with its faculty.

Medical schools aren't poor. And they have different needs. But most of them have a "we must grow or we will die" philosophy. This need for funding has produced some market and intellectual distortions of its own. It used to be there was a push for more researchers to bring in more overhead. This is how BSD Medical Schools work. Some hard money/internal support is given to chairs to hire new people. Then you've got three years to bring your salary in, move off the hard money, so they can hire someone new, and start the process again. This is one way the private medical schools grew.

But now it has become more clear to most high level administrators, even at MRU schools that NIH isn't what it used to be. And while they may be able to hire Big Guns with multiple grants or patents, they're not going to be able to build a huge faculty based on NIH. I saw the turn towards clinical income at my old MRU. If you give clinicians a (for them) low base, and make their salary dependent on the clinical income they generate, a "commission" scheme if you will, then some of them are going to hit the ball out of the park. This is called incentivizing your staff. It doesn't work well for the researcher/teacher.

Medical schools are a bit different then when I was in a basic A&S Biology department, and there was always more teaching that could be done. Medical schools have a small curriculum, number of courses taught, and even if there are PhD students, there is  just not the need for non-majors intro courses (I taught one that had three sections, and an enrollment of about 1500 students. It's about as much fun as a colonoscopy, but it lasts longer and maybe of less ultimate social good).  When I started, med school faculty could teach 2-4 lectures a year, and have a grant that covered 20% of your salary. And those of us that did lab teaching, on the order of 50-100 hrs/term were looked down on. This can still work at the large, BSD/MRU places that have 100's of basic science faculty, so long as they are bringing in 60-80% of their salary.

There is a new scheme being floated around my less than MRU. The idea is to have "researchers" who would bring in "nearly all" of their salary, and "teachers" who taught in multiple courses, but all year round, especially lab courses and small discussion sections, who would have at last 20-30-ish contact hours a week.

One of the ways in which this is being enacted or "actualized" is to give some additional hiring decision authority to chairs, who in medical schools, tend to serve at the pleasure of the Dean, and not be elected / chosen by the faculty. The chair can use their (now even more) precious seed money to favor areas they want to enhance, often their own colleagues, at the expense of other areas (ok, you guys need help in teaching that histology/anatomy/physiology/neuro lab? you got it!). I've heard every possible bad argument why this is not Conflict of Interest. Aside: our focus on financial COI means that other forms do not get the scrutiny they deserve.

This is a disservice to the medical students. Yes, the teaching professors may be far more acutely attuned to the medical boards, and far more devoted (and incentivized) to giving medical students an education with which they are happy, judged as they leave medical school. But the people who are doing research bring a different perspective, and one that is valuable not just to the future clinicians in their student-hood, but to what they will do when they become physicians.

And... that will bring us to part 3. Stay tuned.

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Jul 19 2017

Thoughts on funding and support for medical schools (part 2): Learning from Dental Schools

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Everyone, at my little almost-MRU, at other real MRUs, etc, says "Higher Education is in crisis". Yet, in my over 40 years experience, higher education is always in crisis. There is always a fiscal problem. And while everyone says "really, truly, NIH was in trouble now", and there are numbers to back it up right now, there have been other times when NIH is In Trouble. [aside: one of the issues olde fartes, greybeardes, and blue hairs are not inclined to worry, is that this wolf has been called over and over and over. That doesn't make the response "this happened before" right, factually or morally. But it may explain part of that response].

This situation reminded me of when I was a newbie faculty member in a Dental School. Back then, the distant past, before you were born, most likely, Dental Schools were In Crisis. Historically, going back to the 60's, Dental Schools had never gone the "NIH" route as it was called back in the lush days of 30% paylines. And as a result, they were much smaller than med schools, in budget and number of faculty, and, in general, research scope. Medical schools had hospitals, but Dental schools had clinics. As a result, as I pointed out here (part 1), they were much more tuition dependent, especially at private schools with no state subsidy. That is one reason why some dental schools closed in the 80s & 90s. Here is an article about dental school closings, but in the context of the future of Vet Schools. That there were more seats in dental school than total applicants, meant that the classes were being filled with people lower and lower on the admissions list. Whether these people would be "good" or "bad" dentists was not, to my knowledge, ever studied.

Since then, some new dental schools have opened. These are not necessarily scholarly places, but places focused on training people to be dentists. The folks I know who teach in them are teachers, first and foremost. Seed money? Lab space? Not so much.  The ones that closed were more scholarly places, including Emory, Northwestern, Georgetown, Wash U, Loyola, Fairleigh Dickinson. They were private schools, with no state subsidies, and budgets to balance. There was, and still is, lots of talk about demand to be in the profession as a driver of professional school success. Those discussion are informing the future of law schools right now. For medicine, that demand will always be relatively high, and acceptance rates relatively low.

I do not think that the causal root of any crises in medical schools will have the same basis as the historical basis of dental school crises. The problems in medical schools (and likely universities in general) will more likely come from the other parts of the equation that add up to total income. If NIH budgets are being cut, if the state universities are looking at reduced subsidies, those parts of the equation are going to be the problem. Now, there is talk that NIH funding will just be held at previous levels, and thus may or may not translate into problems for med schools. After all, its the same, right? But if that money is sequestered into Olde Fartes, and not supporting younger people, then growth will be absolutely impossible. If more and more young researchers enter the system, as the Big Dog schools feel they must "grow or die", funding at previous levels will be a problem.

There was talk, back in the mid-90s, well after I had left the Dental School where I started, that the closing of some schools had eased the pressure on others. Will some medical school close, too? I have heard scuttlebutt that one of the second tier medical schools in my state is in sufficient fiscal trouble that the State Legislature is considering just that. It won't be from lack of students and demand for the profession. It will be from the other parts of the equation, including, as many of my wonderful readers have pointed out, the expansion of the administration, and the costs associated with that (but you know, I heard the same damn thing in 1986 at the Dental School).

So implications for us ants on the ground? Well, to start with, closing schools means even less jobs. It means more people leaving the system earlier on, and less mouths at the trough in the Asst. Prof. instar. We are back to the argument about where the sorting and selection should occur. Less students? Yes that would likely mean fewer people later on. The argument that everyone should have a shot a being a researcher, a professor, etc, has defensible points. Admit them all and let , who? how? at what point? sort them out? But if the limits aren't imposed at the levels before tenure, they most certainly will get enforced there. And frequently enforced by people who, while they are very sad you didn't get funded and therefore tenure, in the end make decisions based on the fiscal health of the university.

These problems are not new. I got a master's degree in a small, intense program at a good school that invested, in the beginning, in the dream of a faculty senior person. There were 3 faculty, one BigDog emeritus who had been enticed to retire there (from whom I took some of the best seminars of my life), and 10-12 graduate students, many of whom had turned down the big places to go to that program. It was intellectually exciting, and changed how I do science. In fact, I think had I not been in that program, I would have left academia. I was not ready for prime time at that point. But, as these things happen, the program fell apart, one jr prof left, Uni admin changed and declined to replace this person, so the senior person was ripe for recruiting, and left.  I went on to Big Name Place for my PhD, and everyone in that program landed on their feet. I give big props to senior person, who worked hard to make sure every student found a home somewhere (and a very large percentage of those students are still out there being scientists). The program was great, better than great, but without admin support it died.

So what are we to make of the administration? I do not know a single researcher/professor who does not have complicated thoughts and feelings about the administration. Actually, that's not true. I have a wonderful marvelous, now tenured colleague, here at almost-MRU, who would say to me: Potnia, my thoughts are not complicated or conflicted. I hate the fuckers. Ah. Part 3 to come. Soon. Real Soon Now.



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Jun 16 2017

Resilience and funding and the NIH

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@thenewPI has a new post up titled: Is resilience the name of the game in academia?

Go read it. I'll wait...


She talks about @doc_becca, who is one of my alltime favorite people on the intertubz. Heck, we've even met in IRL, and doc Becca is twice as impressive in person as she is on the web (which is not true of all of us). I don't want to dredge up problems, etc, but she been done wrong. Many people who are Good and Working Hard, and as Doc_Becca sez " I have done EVERYTHING I was supposed to...".

But we live in a harsh funding climate, are being pushed and shoved out of academia. We live in a climate that is particularly harsh for the young, for URM, for women, for people who tick off more than one box. And these people are being denied tenure by zealous administrators who think about the bottom line more than the content.

As I, and many we all respect (lookin' at you, DM and datahound), have said over and over, one of the issues, if not THE ISSUE, is too many mouths at the trough.  See here. and here. and here. (These are all good reads, and if you don't know them, they are also worth a minute or ten of your time).

Applications for NIH funding are rising faster than the money for those projects. There are lots of suggestions about how to diivy up the existing funds, limits on the oldies, bumps for the young. But these, in my view are not just rearranging the deck chairs. They are worse, because they distract from the real problem and they divert energy from the solutions that really need to happen. See also this set of tweets from Michael Hendricks.

But one of the points I want to get back to is something that NewPI does a good job of talking about: the problem is really not so much that NIH peer review is broken. Lots and lots of chatter on the Tweets and various other places that talk about how horrible peer review is. From NewPI:

Taking a look on the inside of NIH peer review earlier this year gave me some prospective. I don't necessarily think that peer review itself is broken. I enjoyed participating and found that everyone was fair, but I realized that the 10-15% pay lines introduce an element of pure luck which has nothing to do with your worth as a scientist.

DM has also said this: when you get to 5-10% paylines (my IC is at 9% for established investigators), you are looking at lots of things other than just how good the science is. The difference in the proposals at 9% and 11% maybe trivial in quality. And this is where NIH staff comes in, and there are massive issues there, too.

But back to peer review: some of these issues are random, wrt to you, but not in respect to other factors:  Are you the last proposal before lunch, the first proposal of the day, following a bruising discussion about another proposal? Is one of your reviewers "saving it up for another proposal" and thinking that they can't go all out and advocate for two?

These are not the hallmarks of a broken system, although it could be perceived that way. They are the hallmarks of a human enterprise, where human beings are making decisions, lots of decisions, and giving scores and trying their best. Me? I get tired at study section. I do my damnest to stay alert, to read every proposal's specific aims, every proposal's full reviews. For the proposals I've reviewed: I read the other reviews, I take notes. In short, I prepare for study section. And yet, I am sure I make mistakes. Despite myself.

So what is a young person to do? Read TheNewPI's advice here about working with the study section. Read DM's advice and also here and here (and much more). Grantsmanship means looking at the system and doing what you can to come out on top. Read the damn instructions to reviewers and know what they are looking for and looking at when they read your proposal.

To those of you starting out: it's not an easy road. And yeah, resilience is gonna be important. But remember there are people out there who do want to help. There are people who will be on your side. Find them.

Resilience. Cleverness. Hard work. Desire.


38 responses so far

May 23 2017

What Trump doesn't know: Yad Vashem edition

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President Donald Trump [was scheduled] briefly visit Yad Vashem

Image result for yad vashem children's memorial jerusalem

Children's memorial

For those who don't know,Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It is a very powerful place.

Thematic and Chronological Narrative

Remembering the lost


I noticed this report from the Forward. Like is not the right word, but :

The Jerusalem Post took an uncharacteristic snarky approach and produced a video demonstrating what Trump will be able to cover in 15 minutes at the 45-acre complex. The paper quoted Israeli officials saying that an hour and a half is the “bare minimum” needed for a visit to the museum.

I visited in Yad Vashem. Recently. It shook me to my core. I could write about Auschwitz  and about my thoughts about Jews in Eastern Europe during the Shoah (search my blog for the tag "holocaust").

I could not write about Yad Vashem. Even now, one of things I remember is that my cousin came up to me and said something, and I thought or said "but we've only been here for an hour" and she said "we've been here for over four hours".

Yad Vashem was a place I did not, where one does not, know time. Evidently Trump is immune to not knowing time, no matter what pious and sanctimonious words he mouths.

10 responses so far

May 16 2017

More on not enough faculty positions

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Let's do a little math, before I start preaching.

Firstly, let's think about new jobs. These are back of the envelope calculations. Order of magnitude of the problem. For the purposes of discussion.

There are ~180 medical schools in the US. As for biology departments, according to Wikipedia:

As of 2012, the latest figures available in 2015, the US has a total of 4,726 Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions: 3,026 4-year institutions and 1,700 2-year institutions.

Now some of these schools have more than one "biology" department. Certainly medical schools have multiple departments that hire PhD's. But let's just say 5000 departments? 10000?

How many PhDs in "life sciences"? Over 8000 a year. Other sources (NSF) have other, even higher numbers: ~12,000.

So the number of PhDs each year, in life sciences, is about equal or greater than the number of departments. This makes sense: most of those (non-SLAC, non-CC) departments have multiple faculty, churning out PhDs. Even if every single department hired one more faculty person, that would still have an excess of many, many  PhDs.

Let's say that again, there are, roughly, each year, as many PhDs generated as there are departments that could hire these faculty.

I know people are waiting for "Boomers to retire", but I want to remind you that, again, that the youngest boomers are only 52. People do not retire at 52. Or 55. Or even 60. I'm mid-boomer, 62. When I talked to my chair about being on a 4-6 year retirement trajectory, he was shocked. I was surprised he was shocked. (but for me, damn there are other things I want to do).

I know people argue all the time about "alternative careers". I wrote about this years ago, when I started blogging with Mama Isis (and can't find the post). But no one starts a PhD program thinking "Oh, this is a good path to an alternative career".

Back to the problem. There are many reasons we, the mentors of academia, train people. Some of them are what economists would call "market pressures". We need trainees to survive. We need trainees to generate data to finish projects, write papers, get grants, and, well, survive. Some of us (yes, we all know these dudes, although they are not always dudes) who need trainees because their egos can't stand a small lab. They are competing for new students.

So what to do?

I think senior people need to make a commitment to finding trainees/support/help that does not involve bringing more mouths to the trough. I think senior people need to make a commitment to supporting the existing junior faculty in ways that do not require them to have enormous labs to succeed. This, in fact, will require education at the decanal level and above. NIH is the cash cow of many schools. Everyone needs to commit to education about NIH and the need to support research in the US, let alone elsewhere in the world.

Yet, expanding NIH is only kicking the can down the road. Supporting more trainees now, giving jobs to all the PhDs now will just mean this crisis will come back either come back in 10 years, if money is jolted into the system now, and current PhDs get funded, get jobs,  and start training an even larger next generation. Or if money is dribbled in, there will just be the continual pain that we see now.

It is not the scheme is unsustainable: it's just a matter of where the selection and sorting (in the evolutionary sense) occur in the life history of a scientist. Although my GenX friends (and yes, I have one or two who do not perceive me as the devil incarnate) will be skeptical, this was an issue debated as I was finishing my PhD in the early-80s. There weren't a lot of jobs to go around then, even to people (and yes, you may laugh heartily here), who perceived themselves as the cream of the crop (I didn't, but that had more to do with my identity at the time). Academia had undergone an expansion in the 60s, and those people were the Boomers of the time. They were hanging on to jobs (in our view) and didn't care that they were training more people than there were jobs. Places weren't hiring (imagine that). I remember long discussion about whether it was better to restrict entry into grad school, and let selection occur earlier, or to expand postdocs (in ecology/evolution/organismic science PD's were relatively rare at the time) and push selection down the road.  In those days (and to some extent now), in those fields, grad students were PI's, and lab or mentor affiliation was a weak tie, and certainly not necessary for the faculty, except as ego-props. The numbers of grad student admissions was more fluid, and often based on teaching assistant needs. I don't remember what I thought, except that I was tremendously relieved to get a postdoc.

But back to what to do? Please do not think that retiring the boomers will change the situation. Do you not think that the GenXers who do get jobs will see their survival as justification for doing what they need to do to survive? Do you not think the millennials who make it will turn into the boomers of 30 years hence? The boomers I knew back then were good people who would never ever ever abuse trainees, or promise things, or even inadvertently be part of the problem. We are all destined to become our parents, our mentors, and partly what we despised when we were young.

The solution? For me, right now, is to be aware, and work towards a change. Commit yourself to things be different, better. Reach out that hand, dammit.


21 responses so far

May 11 2017

Why do people become adjuncts?

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I don't know all the reasons, because I don't know all the adjuncts. But I know some.

Let's be clear about whom we are speaking. We are not talking about practicing professionals: doctors, dentists, lawyers, businessmen who come back and do some teaching, of various time commitments. Such folk have a variety of reasons for doing this, some reasons are even altruistic. But none of the reasons is money. These are the folks who make real money at their day jobs.

What we're talking about the ABD's, the recent grads, the young people who work for something like $3-4K per class, and given their hours, they make less than minimum wage.Indeed, most of the these folks would jump at a TT job. Most of these folks have been trying to get a TT job, and send out reams of applications, while trying to publish just one or two more papers. And, yes, an adjunct position is definitely a second-best option for the people I know.

So. A comment said that adjuncts are paid in a false coin: the promise of it being a stepping stone to a "real" job.

I disagree. There may be hand-waving and vague comments in that direction, but nothing substantial. Nothing that smacks of "promise".

Many of the people in adjunct positions that I knew/know, both IRL and in the blogosphere, have other considerations that prompted them to take an adjunct position: family issues (spouse, children, parents) that keep them from being able to take a job in the hinterland, a commitment to living in a Certain Place. Some I've known are married, with kids, and struggling to finish a PhD with no support, and need/think they need a job. Of course, people who can afford to stay in a postdoc position, often do. It certainly pays better than adjuncting.  And I have seem a few, by and large single, white, male, footloose and fancy-free, who can't find anything else, and are willing to try to stick it out in the system for a bit longer to see if they can get a job.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I think there are two things operating here, the first of which is choice. No one is holding a gun to anyone's head and saying "I will blow your brains out if you do not take this adjunct job". There is lots of information around about alternatives, columns in SCIENCE, and internet resources that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago. There is more than one choice being made here.  Choices that say: I don't want to move, I've commitments to this geographic area. Choices that say: I do want a SLAC, I don't want a SLAC, I want Ivy League, MRU, or I want to be in A Big City.

Some of these considerations are not frivolous, and they are valid life choices to make. We each decide what is important to us, and frequently our decisions look irrational or stupid to someone else who has made different decisions.  I'm not saying that its right, let alone a good thing, to make people balance two careers, to make people choose to be near family or take a job somewhere else or to ask a person of color, a LBGT person to move to place that is blatantly hostile to who they are, just because that is the only job there is for them. I also know that a choice to stay where one's spouse has a good job is a very different thing than the dilemma of a  POC or LBGT have to make. My point is only that there is some choice operating here, and no one takes an adjunct position without being aware of those choices.

The other operational consideration here, one more time, is too many mouths at the trough. If you are a faculty member, and over your lifetime, let alone right now in your lab, you've trained more than 1-2 PhD's who go into research, you are not part of the solution. This is true even if you are the Most Important BSD doing research to cure cancer, make disable children walk, or solve Global Climate Change. The reason there are not enough jobs, not enough grants, is because more people want these things than are available. Even if grant money flowed more easily, more frequently, and in higher aliquots, the positions available would be soft-money ones, that depended on continual funding, and not tenure track. It would be a marginal improvement, in terms of salary, but not in terms of security and future. Universities are not about the expand the number of TT positions.

So we've got adjuncts. Make sure your trainees know the score. Make sure the trainees in your department know the score.

19 responses so far

May 04 2017

Research for credit, adjuncts and abuses in academia

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A comment to a previous post said:

I did lots of research for credit, and always found it ironic that I was paying tuition to essentially volunteer. In some ways, research for credit is MORE problematic. Welcome to academia, where we vastly underpay people for their work (think adjuncts).

I responded that I think there are situations in which credit/no pay is appropriate: When there is teaching going on, when the student is doing a project that teaches how to do research, when it is not just washing bottles or cleaning animal cages. I think one diagnostic feature is that the teacher/prof is putting significant (more?) energy into teaching the student, than end product that comes out.

But the issue with adjuncts is more complex than this.

So to start:  I do not think that academics are particularly underpaid. I was just speaking with a physician friend, who view on academic physicians was quite nuanced. When I was in a clinical dept at MRU, there was quite schizoid views on the "job" of physicians. Many wanted to make significant amounts of money, which is by and large not compatible with doing  research. My friend said that she thought physicians needed to make a choice: to be academics, take the salary offered, and teach and do research and basically accept that you're not going to get all the perks of a private practice. And that if you did want to get "rich" you should eschew the academic route and just devote yourself to those private patients. The problem of course, is that people, physician people, wanted both.

The punch line from my friend was apt: I get paid plenty, and have what I need, as an academic physician. It is the psychological need or compulsion to have "More" that creates problems. Relative to private practice peers, academic physicians can/sometimes perceive they are not paid enough. I hear my readers laughing at "not enough" for people making > $100K/yr.

Which brings me to one of my favorite (attribution unknown) quotes: who is rich, and should be taxed more? Anyone who makes more money than I do.

Are adjuncts underpaid? If you asked my grandmother, who worked for pennies a day, less than minimum wage in today's dollars, she'd say you're crazy. You ask an adjunct who looks at tenure track people doing similar, if not the same, work for lots more, they would be adamant that yes, they are underpaid. It's relative.

But this comes to the question of why do positions  called "adjunct" exist? From the Administrator's perspective, adjuncts are cheap, very cheap, easy to justify to the bean counters  and make a difference to over all productivity. From an adjunct's point of view, it's a way to stay in the system and hope things get better. From an economist's point of view: adjuncts exist because there is a job offered at a particular wage, and there are people willing to do this work for this wage.

And so once again we return to the mouths at the trough problem. If there were a shortage of professors/teachers / people who could and would teach college courses (supply) relative to the number that need to be taught (demand), then wages would rise. But there is an oversupply of teachers. There is a supply of people who will do this job at this wage. They may get used up and quit, but right now there is a near endless supply of such people. Universities are churning out of PhDs who are willing to do that teaching at that price, so from the administrator's point of view why offer more money? (yes, there are arguments about quality, about commitment, about long term development, but they can be countered,  we are not trying to persuade administrators at this point, and this post is already too long). There is similar logic for postdoc salaries, but see previous parenthetical comment.

The solution seems obvious: stop training so many PhD students. Or be honest with the ones you do take in. Actually, it's more than being honest: think about exponential growth. If jobs for professors are in a "replacement" mode at best (ie no growth in positions), then within a lifetime, a prof should produce ONE replacement for themselves. If a prof produces even two, and those two produce two each, in 10 generations there will be a thousand (2 ^10 = 1024). And if all those people are writing one NIH grant a year, let alone one every cycle, then of course the number of submissions is going to go up exponentially.

So to come back to the beginning: are academics underpaid. If you want to make lots of money, academics is probably not for you. But everyone in the system now has a responsibility to understand the implications, the long term implications, of their actions.

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Jan 25 2017

the value and cost of doing a postdoc

Published by under Uncategorized

There has been lots of talk on the intertubes about this topic. Much of it has been from folks near the decision points. At my end of the age spectrum, I'm seeing it a bit differently. My perception isn't more right or wrong. It's just different.

So to start, it is import to remember there are choices being made here. As my father used to say to me: no one's holding a gun to your head and saying "be a postdoc or I'll blow your brains out" (or something like that, his exact words fade with time). But, as a good economist would say, The more information you have, the better decision you can make. Be informed about the future. Real numbers about who makes it and who doesn't. PI's let your trainees see what is involved in making sausage. Trainees, get beyond your views (good and bad) about what PI's actually do. And get beyond both your imposter syndrome and your special snowflake syndrome. Neither serves you well as this point.

Arguing that it's not fair to work that hard and not get paid like people industry is fatuous. That's like arguing that gravity isn't fair as you fall out of the tree. The world is. There are parameters, and guidelines and rules and a couple of laws. Anyone making a decision about what to do with their postdoc is (relative to the rest of the world) in a fairly privileged position.

I'm not saying it's an easy choice. Or in fact one that everyone can make in their own best interest... Family, commitment, children, all of these compromise that decision. Let alone fair. Somebody will have more money, brains or good looks and be making a different decision or have the option of a different decision. Being a scientist is  bloody hard work. Hard. Work. I'm not saying you don't work hard. I am sure you do. But its hard work in a Red Queen Context.

My concern here and now is that we (the people picking postdocs) are selecting for wealthy individuals who can "afford" to do this, and keep their lifestyle. We who have some control over the "fairness" may be, could be, aiding and abetting an unfair situation. When all the FLSA stuff was happening and people were looking at raising postdoc salaries, I heard junior colleagues agonizing. If I raise the salary of this NSF postdoc, I will have to cut my experiments. (Remember that NSF grants are an order of magnitude smaller than NIH). Those junior faculty are just trying to survive, too. What angered me, too, were the senior colleagues with five postdocs who decided to let one go to cover the raises of the others. That's a hard decision, keep five at a lesser wage, or drop one, and raise four up? The answer, to those of us who believe that the problem may be too many mouths at the trough, is that you don't hire five postdocs in the first place.

So young padawan, here is the world. You can make a lot more money doing something else. I know lots of people who did. Or you can make less money doing science. It's a hard road. There are no guarantees for those walking it.

 Note after writing: Ola had a comment on the managing people post that says similar things, in a different way. It's worth adding here:

As others have said, as a junior prof you need your ass at the bench and then every other waking hour is writing grants. If you're not submitting 5-6 grants a year for the first few years, you're not doing it right. Yes it sucks! You have to teach, run a lab, manage people, do department politics crap, mentor people, manage money, write papers, and have a life outside the lab possibly including young children. In short, you have to be all of the things to all of the people. This is not new, this is part of the job and has been for as long as anyone can remember.


19 responses so far

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