More on not enough faculty positions

May 16 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

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

  • Ola says:

    Personally I've worked with and come through labs that churned out 30, 40, 50 trainees in the career arc of the PI. I know for sure I don't want that - it's unsustainable, not to mention ethically problematic. However, at the other end of the scale, since becoming a PI 13 years ago I've trained 3 PhDs so far and have 2 more graduating in the next year. Should I stop at "replacing myself" those 5 times, and just not take any more students until I retire in 15 years? The question: what IS a good (ethical, sustainable) number of PhD trainees that a bioscience PI can reasonably expect to have in their lab' during a typical career? Is 5 too many? How about 25?

    Ignoring all the "independence/R01 at 42" malarky, let's say a reasonable career time-span for a PI is 25 years (from 4o to 65, YMMV). Assuming each student takes 5 years, and they overlap on a rolling basis, that would mean hiring a new student every 2.5 years. 10 students total over a 25 year span. Is 10 a reasonable number? Even if only 1/3 of them stay in academia and the others go to alt-careers, that's still more than replacement economics.

    I think what you're proposing here is a far more conservative approach. Maybe 5 students over a 25 year PI career, which in reality means no more than 1 student per lab at any given time. I'm OK with those numbers. I just wish someone had told me this when I started out, so I could have rationed them more evenly over my career span!

  • David says:

    "But no one starts a PhD program thinking "Oh, this is a good path to an alternative career"."
    I know it's been talked about before, but what about starting with no longer calling a non-TT job an "alt career"? A PhD can led to many careers and most are good careers (likely better than an academic career from the sounds of it).

    More than half the people I went to grad school with started their PhD with a non-academic position in mind. Granted, that was an engineering department, so maybe there are fundamental differences. But it seems that if we recognize that there are so few academic jobs, and so many candidates, instead of denigrating the folks who choose to pursue other opportunities we should encourage them [I'm not suggesting that you are denigrating anyone, it seems to be a universal issue].

    • potnia theron says:

      Never meant to be denigrating. The reason for "alt" is that for many years, the majority did do TT. Now that it is changing, the wording will change. (and yes engineering is very different in one direction, and Humanities in another).

      • qaz says:

        The majority has not done TT for decades and decades, even in the humanities. Basically, not since the baby boomers filled it up in the 1970s.

        In our graduate program, we have made it clear that we don't want anyone going into an "alternative career" - where "alternative" is the career you don't really want. If you want to go into industry, then TT is your alternative (yes, this happened, particularly back in the old days - ask some of your senior professor colleagues). If you want to go into TT, then maybe industry is your alternative. We try to help students steer themselves *towards* a career instead of away from one. Importantly, we never call non-TT "alternative careers". Because, if you do it right, then it's not an alternative.

      • David says:

        Completely agree and it's what I (poorly) stated as a "universal issue". But in the guise of being part of the solution, the folks who think that non-academic careers are just as worthy as academic careers should stop using "alt" when talking about non-academic careers - to help (hopefully) pull the academics that MedicineWoman mentions.

      • Janne says:

        It's possible at one time a majority of students got started on tenure track. But has there honestly ever been a time where a majority of grad students actually ended up getting tenure? At least since the birth of the formal academic department. I can't get the math to add up.

    • Janne says:

      I agree with this. In my department (cognitive science), I think most people, me included, really saw grad school as a temporary thing before returning to regular work. Motivations varied: one guy with a robotics company wanted a PhD in a related field (autonomous robotics was an active research area) to be taken more seriously in business; a woman who had worked for years with autistic children wanted to formalize what she'd learnt; I saw it as a unique chance to geek out on something esoteric before returning to an IT job.

      In my case I kind of failed to leave after graduating, and ended up doing robotics and neuroscience research for fifteen years before I finally switched tracks. Most people I know have left science by now, whether they intended to pursue it as a career or not. And I don't know any of them think it was a waste of time. I know my current job was only possible because I have both research and IT experience. Far from a waste, it's what got me to where I am now.

    • Eli Rabett says:

      Key to this is that the field supports an industry as is the case for engineering and chemistry. Physics and biology not so much although this may be changing for biology.

      OTOH there are a hell of a lot fewer chemistry jobs due to globalization in the US.

      You also have to factor in immigration and emigration.

      • David says:

        At the risk of opening a can of worms, if physics and biology do not support an industry, should those grad programs be scuttled? If your only reason for existing is to be basic science labs, which are only supported by the gov't, wouldn't it be more efficient to have those positions under the gov't (say at a national laboratory).

  • Joe says:

    How's that grant mechanism to fund career staff scientists working? If you decrease the number of grad students, you need another source of labor and you need it to be affordable.

  • Microscientist says:

    At many institutions, PhD students are essentially free to the PI because of training grants, departmental funds etc. In contrast, post-docs are quite expensive. The lab where I did my post doc was not large, but had 5 graduate students, one technician, and one post-doc. I was only the second person to ever do a post-doc in the lab because of the cost.
    That many bodies were needed for all the projects we had going on, so we needed the hands for the labor. So how do we solve this problem while maintaining a reasonable cost labor pool? One idea would be to flip the funding so that post-docs are more subsidized by training grants etc. while fewer PhD students are funded. But this would mean setting up permanent career tracks for post-docs, and eventually the cost of those would sink a lab. Same for subsidizing technicians. My husband is a career technician and we worry about him pricing himself out of job.
    All the professions (MD, DVM, DDS etc) all closely regulate their number of graduates to prevent oversupply. Maybe biomedical sciences should do the same?

    • potnia theron says:

      I doubt that anyone could ever reach agreement on regulation of numbers. But, I've been wrong before.

      Training grants can support postdocs (I was the co-PI on one for years). If institutions realize that grad student stipend + tuition is in the same ballpark as a PD, then that might begin to change. That's part of the education that needs to happen.

      But that's what the tragedy of the commons is: some people can self-limit, but others will let their cattle or sheep graze the common land until it is desolate and barren and of no use to anyone. When you don't pay for what it costs, of course it will get used up.

  • Morgan Price says:

    PhD programs are still based on the assumption that everyone will become an academic scientist. Grad students spend way too long in grad school, they get too little exposure to other kinds of scientific work (i.e. internships), and way too many of them become post-docs. In principle all of these things could be changed. And NSF and NIH have the power to mandate these sorts of changes even if departments don't want to go along. Would this be enough to bring the system into some sort of balance?

    • Janne says:

      To be fair though, grad students are in their mid-to-late 20s. They've been adults for up to a decade already. Yes, they need to get good information about the realities of academic careers, and about what it takes to get there and what it takes to become employable outside.

      But they also do need to take charge for themselves. You can't just sit and wait for somebody to order you to, say, take programming or stat courses, or push for collaboration with a company to widen your skill set and network. You're an adult and need to decide for yourself what to do.

      It's no different, really, than people pushing to become professional musicians or artists. The reality is that most people, no matter how skilled, won't make it as a professional. The smart people make sure they get experience (even training) in teaching, instrument repairs or whatever so they have a fallback if/when they fail to live off their main career.

    • qaz says:

      This is wrong. It may be true that many programs are based on that assumption, but this is absolutely not true for any of the half-dozen PhD programs that I am involved in at my BigStateResearchUniversity.

      For example, our PhD program has a career facilitation committee, which brings in lots of people from industry and policy for the students to talk to, and some of our best people have gone on to major contributions to the world without going into academia. I tell the students that they need to go *towards* a career. If that career is academia, then great, we will train you for academia. If that career is industry, then academia is your "alternative career", and we will train you for that industry research job. We have alumni programs that bring back alumni from industry, policy, and elsewhere talking about what life is like there (at large companies, small start-ups, and consulting jobs, at NIH or NSF, or working as a science policy advisor for the governor). Also, academia is not all the same - there's a big difference between someone teaching undergraduates at a PUI, someone in a psychology or physics department at a Research University, someone in a clinical position in the medical school, and someone in a think-tank on soft money.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    There is a simple solution to eliminating the oversupply of PhDs in EVERY field. Close the University of California. Go look at the numbers, they are astounding

  • MedicineWoman says:

    In my experience, the solution to this problem is one of changing a culture, not training less people in science. I got my PhD in Biochemistry in the late 1980s, did a postdoc, and worked in industry for 23 years. I had always planned to work in industry. I learned about biochemistry from the people who discovered restriction enzymes, and heard at a young and impressionable age what a difference these discoveries would make in the creation of new therapies. However, when I told my postdoc advisor I had landed my first interview in a great industry lab, his response was “Oh, you don’t have to do that. You are good enough to go into academia.” I have recently started consulting on drug discovery at a very prestigious university. After 2 years embedded in the biology department there, I have realized that university culture and attitude toward working outside the ivory tower has not shifted much from my experience in 1990.

    We have always known that the vast majority of graduates from academic PhD programs would not be tenured PIs with full grant support. PhD scientists are pretty good at math. If PhD programs were marketed as training programs for scientists, as opposed to training programs for academics, and if the appropriate supports were in place to help students understand the difference, without judgement, treating all career options as interesting, viable, and exciting, I believe the “not enough faculty positions” problem would disappear.

    How does one do this? I think there are many options, some so well developed they could be copied outright. The Stanford SPARK program allows students and postdocs to become educated in the opportunities that science entrepreneurism bring. Other universities offer the opportunity to get an MBA, an IT degree or a JD along with a PhD. Including scientists from industry in the department’s regular seminar series, having internships and visiting scientist programs across the great divide of industry, biotech, law firms, and IT companies, panel discussions, mentoring arrangements, etc. are all good starts. I have participated in many of these types of programs, and they are always well-attended and filled with curious, intelligent students. They want to know their options, and many of them do not want to be professors. They love science and want to stay engaged and contribute to society with their knowledge. They are looking for plan A, not plan B.

    The barrier to success is the fact that academic science professors frequently treat all other science PhDs in non-tenured non-academic careers as lesser-than. Students and postdocs are impressionable, and they are influenced by the culture and beliefs of their mentors. They also mimic their behaviors in the hope of achieving their status. Choosing careers outside the academic path can label them as “failures” in their own eyes and the eyes of those they admire most. I don’t have a good solution for how to fix this problem, as it seems cemented into the DNA of academia. But a good start would be a careful consideration of the unexamined beliefs and unconscious behaviors of professors themselves. An education in science can lead to a rich and full life in many ways. If everyone projected that belief in a convincing way and provided as much mentoring down every path as they do down their own, we could support the next generation of PhD scientists to the fullest.

  • […] 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 […]

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