A 1952 French movie called Nous Sommes tous des Assassins! had a strong anti-capital-punishment message: when it comes to an unfair penal system, we are all assassins. We have set up a society that generates criminals for many reasons based on inequity, and we are not all equal in the face of the law. The societal cullpability for inequities that can be avoided extends to many other areas.
This week, the Boston Globe ran a story on the glut of post-docs in the prestigious universities in Beantown. It bemoaned the long-term holding company that had been established, by which with the shrinking funding base in our current economy, many students with PhDs cannot get regular full-time faculty jobs and must take post-doctoral positions instead. These are useful and traditional, but had at one time been a short year or two in which new PhDs could learn new skills, publish their dissertation research, and establish themselves. Then, there were faculty jobs awaiting.
But no longer. The reason is that we have trained too many PhDs. But why is that? Some might suggest that the problem is that we've been doing our job but the country's inability to keep expanding the grant fund pool has failed us. That's a convenient way to look at things. But the truth is more sobering, and the finger of guilt needs to point not at the government, but at ourselves. This bottleneck to academic jobs is not just restricted to the snooty academic world of Boston. We are all the assassins of the hoped-for career path!
In science, everyone in a faculty job, especially at professional schools where salaries must come all or mainly from grants, has naturally been pressured to do whatever we can to get grants. Since that means spending most of our time writing them, we need staff to do the actual work (the research). That means post-docs who are better than grad students because they've got only time to work on our projects. And that leads to more grants, and the more grants we get, the more promotions we get and the higher our salaries, because we have to please our Chairs and Deans.
With everyone in a faculty job being pressed to see his/her status in terms of the number of publications, we need to spend our time writing papers and that also means having staff to help write them and to do the actual work we are writing about (the research). That means post-docs! The more papers we write, the more promotions we get and the higher our salaries, because we have to please our Chairs and Deans.
With everyone in a faculty job being judged by how many graduate students s/he trains, we still need to employ, or even require, graduate students to help the post-docs do the actual work (the research). The more students we train, the more promotions we get and the higher our salaries, because we have to please our Chairs and Deans.
With everyone in the grant agencies being judged by the size of their portfolios, they will want to fund those who churn out results the administrator can use to brag about what they are doing. That, too, means more, more more! The more churned out, the more promotions and raises the administrators get to advance their careers.
It's the system itself that needs changing. We're all smart enough to know that if each of us trains more than one new PhD we generate exponential growth in the science population. We are smart enough to know that exponential growth reaches a plateau. We are smart enough to know we are exploiting other young, innocent people by generating an unsustainable job market. And we are thus selfish enough to be doing what we are doing knowingly.
We are all assassins!