Thursday, January 10, 2019

Too many post-docs! (I wonder why.....)

A recent report, in Nature discusses a glut of post-docs, that is, PhDs who went on to post-doctoral research position(s) with the idea that it was a prep for an actual permanent faculty job, but who then can't find that pot at the end of the promised rainbow.

This has been a growing problem and it has not been a surprise nor closely guarded secret.  Nor is the reason any sort of secret. It is due to the academic system that rewards more: more grants, more publications, more citations, more graduate students, more lab activity.....  It is the score-countable itemization of faculty worth that has taken over our universities, gradually, almost without our being aware of it, during the past few decades.  Universities and their faculty gain their career rewards by satisfying the More-manic criterion that we have allowed to crowd out actual substance from our university culture.

Score-counting has perhaps always been with us to some extent, but nowhere near what it has become.  In part, this was the evolution of convenient computer-countability, as well as the push to oust the Old Boy system and to open university careers, promotions, tenure and so on, to make it more fair. This was done, and it was good.  However, it was also obvious to administrators (including promotion committees, chairs, deans, and so on) that their careers could be advanced if their bullying of those beneath them on the status totem pole could be seen as 'objective'.  This, of course, opened up careers for the for-profit publishing of annual citation-count books, etc., to turn academic life into a score-based kind of game (this started 30 or more years ago, if slowly....).

Now we're in Objectivity's safe, politically correct full-swing, and it's everywhere, polluting the properly more contemplative and abstract nature of serious-quality academic careers.  It is, of course, very, very, very good for administrators (as can be seen by their proliferation over recent decades), suppliers of gear, and so on.

Colleges and universities are now deeply into a Malthusian pattern of growth which is reaching, or has reached, the inevitable saturation point. It was foreseeable.  Paired with the inability to enforce a mandatory retirement age (also nicely serving the alpha baboons in the system), and universities' need for Teaching Assistants (i.e., a bevy of minimally paid graduate students) so the Professors don't have to sully themselves in classrooms, we seem to be exceeding our academic ecology's capacity, at least if we think in terms of what is fair.  We have seen it coming, of course, because we, the faculty, have made it so.  Maybe, perhaps hopefully, inevitable retirements and attrition will help, but by how much?

Yes, it is we, the academic System, who have only ourselves to blame.....but why do that!?  Reform could harm our cushy careers, after all.  Let graduate students beware.....

1 comment:

David J Littleboy said...

Academics, in every field, has always been a Ponzi scheme. At least in my lifetime. I remember people (well, the MIT radio station) singing M I T P H D N O J O B to the mickey mouse song back in the late 1960s.

The basic structure of the scam is that in a steady-state universe, the number of tenure track positions a professor creates is exactly equal to one: the one s/he opens up by croaking. But every professor creates large numbers of PhDs. Even the most unproductive of professors creates five or ten PhDs over their career. (And the academic universe, while undergoing occasional periods of expansion, is pretty much steady state pretty much all of the time. MIT and Harvard, for example, have roughly the same number of students today they had when I was in college in the early 1970s.)

Even worse, it's a cult. You can't get a PhD unless you can persuade your Prof, and all the other Profs on your thesis committee, that you really and truly believe that the only morally acceptable state of existence for a human being is as a tenured faculty member. Any hint that you think otherwise and you are out.

Thus the near infinite supply of postdocs willing to work 80-hour weeks for peanuts.

It'd be funny if it weren't so sad.