Too damn many trainees...Oh shit I might be one of them

May 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

So lately there has been much talk about the fact that we are training too damn many PhD's for not enough jobs and what to do about it.  I'm pretty sure this isn't the first time that this topic has surfaced, I imagine that it is even pretty cyclical in nature.  The chilling fact and the tough pill to swallow as a trainee is there are too many of us.  I mean it.  Look around the lab and see how many of us there are, we outnumber our PI's by at least 2-3 to 1.  And think of how many trainees pass through the lab over our PI's career.  That's a lot.  It doesn't take Big Blue to compute that the odds of one of us getting a PI's job is pretty slim.

So what are our options, to keep on keeping on or train less of us. Okay but if there are less of us, who is going to do the work? My boss isn't rolling up his sleeves and going back into the lab. Maybe hire some of us reformed trainees as technicians, but that costs too damn much. That option pretty much was the first to get jettisoned overboard, not unless the NIH chips in with some type of mechanism to help fund career bench-level scientists.

Maybe our bosses should train us for alternative careers. Yeah right, what the hell does my boss know about being a patent agent or a policy specialist (I mean he can barely stand committee work).

Some people espouse that maybe a sustainable model of consistent funding for labs would help to keep the machine running but start to cull the herd of our glutton of trainees. This is utter bullshit. We are but mere humans and fall prey to one of our basest desires: laziness. If I know I'm going to have a lifetime R01 funding for my lab, why would I work that hard, its not like I can secure more funding. Competition may knock some good people out of the game, but it also rewards the innovative and productive. Sometimes. But critics say this sustained model of funding works for Janelia Farm. That's great but you are taking one small scenario and trying to apply it to everyone. You know what we call that, trying to catch lightning in a damn bottle. Its not really going to work either.

Others suggest that we need to increase funding. You do understand that increasing research funding, in my opinion, will not make the situation better but rather exacerbate the problem. More money means more work for labs and that means more trainees, not less. So we are right back in the same situation. Cranking up the funding is acting like a ratchet that gets locked into only-forward progression each time the funding crank has tugged on.

Do I have any suggestions?  Um no, I'm a dumbass grad student. Do I think we need to reform the PhD? Hell if I know. I have no real astute observations or insight that could be of benefit to anyone. I'm but a mere pawn in the game.  Maybe I will find some measure of success or maybe I will be crushed under the same terrible wheel that has ground to dust those that have come before me and surely those that will come after unless this situation resolved.


The scary question that I ask myself is that if we triaged half of all trainees, "Would I make the cut?"

I gotta go get a drink

35 responses so far

  • AHamdi5 says:

    Actually, some universities are addressing this problem (in a passive manner).

    One option is to establish a technology transfer office, and utilize PhD students to perform the grunt work of invention assessments, technology briefs, and industry analysis and targeting. It provides an opportunity to obtain familiarity with the patent process, with the view that one could become involved in the patent process in the future.

    Another option is corporate sponsored laboratories and fellowships. Yes, having corporate funding can lead to conflicts of interest, but it does offer insight to PhD trainees on research reporting and the goals of research in a R&D setting. And a lot of novel research techniques have yet to be investigated to translate into the rest of the world.

    And there is a longer list of passive methods universities use ... but as a fellow grad student, I know I need to go and finish grading my exams and prepared for my research proposals.

    • Yeah but if my boss is paying me out of his grant funds, he wants 100% of my focus to be on his research, not playing around with patent searches. And the Tech Transfer offices, don't want to kick out money for us to work.

      Fleeing to industry is not quite what it once was, since many industry folk have been laid off in the great economic downturn of my generation. And honestly who is going to take a noob PhD over an experienced researcher willing to work for less than their going rate because fuck it, they have a mortgage and a kid in braces.

  • AHamdi5 says:

    Ahhh, yeah, my bosses are paying me, but I get them to understand, I'm taking the extra 10-15 hours out of my own time each week. And the extra experience, networking and pay would help soothe my mood about my own research. Then again, I'm rather lucky to have two advisors that are willing to let me sort out my own plans. (Also, I think tech transfer offices prefer PhD students vs. outside labor, since we are a billed at a lower rate and the various protections on intellectual property are already in place as university employees)

    And yes, industry as certainly taken a hit. And they prefer not to hire noobs ... but they would be willing to pay a qualified researcher to train (read: use) noobs for their own collaborative research, and reap the benefits and pay a lower rate. And then post training, they can decide to retain the best ones, if the need arises. But so accurate on the exploitation of current researchers working below rate.

    Another idea I have heard flipped around is the idea of a second wave a big science/suitcase science national laboratories. The big US national labs are ran by the DOE and offer recourses for large scale collaborative projects, especially for physicists, chemists and engineers. This second wave would be a primary growth focus on biotechnology collaborations. Granted, this idea seems to require start up funds that are ultimately kicked out by the government ... and this current climate doesn't look to be the most friendly to that idea. (Hell, the entire topic alone can generate an entire conversation alone. Where does government funding go? Did it kick start the technology revolution? Or did it ride the coat tails? Could the same happen in biotechnology? Etc etc).

  • "If I know I'm going to have a lifetime R01 funding for my lab, why would I work that hard, its not like I can secure more funding. Competition may knock some good people out of the game, but it also rewards the innovative and productive."

    Does this blinding bit of insight come from Libertarian Review? This makes the same assumptions as "people behave morally because they're scared of prison." In short, if being a research scientist means you don't have intrinsic motivation to explore, then by all means knock out everything that might maintain a modicum of continuity.

    Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

  • namnezia says:

    I disagree, GR, competition does not necessarily result in more innovative research as it does in business. I think more abundant funding and less competition for the funding would result in better research and less stress. As you mention, look at all the HHMI labs.

    As far as too many trainees, how many of your peers are seriously planning to stay in academia? Many people (at least in our graduate program) are not, not because they are disgruntled, but because that's what they are choosing to do. We encourage PIs to allow their trainees to participate in activities that would allow them to get practical skills applicable beyond academic research (ie. teaching seminars, business fellowships, etc.). It should easily be manageable to both work in the lab and participate in these as long as one is not fucking around. Grad students not interested in remaining in academia, I think should demand time to participate in these activities.

    • Nam,
      I agree that competition to the extreme is bad, but the lack of competition for a guaranteed R01 can make research stagnant. I see HHMI as the exception to the rule, not the rule and they are completely different than NIH who funds projects not people.

      As far as trainees intending to go into academia, how many of them aren't planning on it because they are quite well aware of the poor jobs situation. Its almost becoming ludicrous now for trainees not to be considering some type of alternative career because that TT job is moving further and further out of reach.

      A seminar here or there really doesn't prep someone for a job. So while the PI may give someone time away from the lab for a few seminars, is that really going to train them for an alternative career. My PI would balk at the notion that I spend any significant time away from the lab and many of the other PI's that I have met would too.

      And I agree with you that more $, less stress would be better for research, if you aren't expanding the trainee pool beyond current levels. But that is a big if, and that remains to be seen. And that's also if we ever get some significant increase in research funding.

      • namnezia says:

        What kind of training would you suggest then? By seminar I mean a semester or year-long course where actual teaching is involved complete with teaching critiques, etc. Although this sounds time consuming, it is usually the most motivated students that enroll in these and it doesn't really impact their labwork.

        Short of enrolling in a Master's of education program or MBA, I don't see how much more a PhD program offer in terms of training in alternative careers.

    • gerty-z says:

      I agree w/ Nam. I am just starting up and really want my peeps to crank out research data. But part of my job is to make sure they have access to training for these "alternate" careers. Especially since the vast majority will be going into one of these careers. Not only do I encourage my students to partake in these "extra" activities, but I also try to get them going with the networking. After all, many of the folks I went to grad school with are now working in industry, policy, patent offices/tech transfer, business consulting, publishing, etc.

      Also, the HHMI model does not remove competition. Those appointments are renewed every 5 years, and it is not a rubber stamp.

      • I agree with both Gerty-Z and Nam. In my PhD cohort, at least 50% entered without plans to seek an academic career, and I'd guess about 75% did not look for academic jobs after graduation (but all found something to do). Why should we cut off the supply of PhDs, especially in fields with strong industrial demand? My fear in cutting the number of PhD slots is that we will screw over the already disadvantaged in society, making PhDs the sole province of the economically privileged (not that this isn't already an issue).

        There is also only so much an advisor can do--students need to take responsibility for their own careers. None of my current students plan on an academic career, so I have been talking to them about what they think they want so I can try to use my network to help them get there, and also tailor their experiences appropriately.

  • More MS students, less PhD's. Those MS students will be able to demand better pay because they will have a higher level of training, and they can fill the slots the PhD students would have taken up.

    Some days (fewer and farther between now that I have a permanent position that I enjoy) if I had to do it over again, I would have taken this exact route.

  • MitoScientist says:

    Let's be real here, if you're one of the trainees that has the insight to be thinking whether you'd make the cut, you almost certainly would.

  • becca says:

    "Let's be real here, if you're one of the trainees that has the insight to be thinking whether you'd make the cut, you almost certainly would."
    That is the problem with people that never really read the Dunning-Kruger data, but just listened to the quip. The truth is, most people who think they are below average think they are above average, and most people who think they are above average... also think they are above average, but their error % is lower. And academia selects for confidence- 94% of college professors think they are above average teachers.

    The attitude I aim for is this: it takes luck to make it. Unless you have some objective performance measurement, don't assume failure (either your own or other peoples') can be attributed to lack of talent. But there are things you can do to slant the odds in your favor to an appreciable degree (i.e. it's a game of poker, not a pure slot machine), if you don't play you can't win, and you have to be able to recognize how to use what you get.
    Mostly, I get all depresso and sad when I think about this 'glut of PhDs' because I've never been as good as I wanted to be. But I'm working on not doing that.

    • namnezia says:

      becca: "The truth is, most people who think they are below average think they are above average, and most people who think they are above average... also think they are above average, but their error % is lower. "

      This makes no sense. What do you mean?

      • becca says:

        Read "clarification" below. I was typing while thinking about thesis edits, and came out quite bagarbled (even more baraggled than usual).

  • ... it takes luck to make it.

    Those who are truly good, make their own luck.

  • If we didn't live in a society that made it hard to just exist and raise a family on anything below median income, this wouldn't be a problem.

  • [...] on the heels of my diatribe and others, Genomic Repairman has a post up about it, where he opines about the obviousness of the numbers game, the non-novelty of the whole situation, [...]

  • Renee says:

    Too many people and not enough jobs period. I think this is an issue that pretty much everyone at any level of education and in any field faces. I look at it this way: getting what you want professionally takes an enormous amount of hard work and sacrifice and a stroke of luck at the same time. I know I’m not anywhere near the top of the pile; I know there are many doctoral students that are better/brighter/harder working that I am. But I also know some who wouldn’t put in any extra effort to save his or her life. My plan is to keep going at it as hard and wisely as I can, remain as flexible as possible and with luck, things will work out in the end.

  • Em says:

    Thanks for bringing the Nature article to my attention, and making me think about the job situation (!

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