Friday, October 10, 2014

The post-doc glut: who's responsible? We all are!

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!


Anonymous said...

This commentary is quite meaningless, because it does not point out the real flaw. Teachers /professors /scholars had been training students in various societies for thousands of years, and in all such systems, teachers got rewarded for training more students as well as better students. So, if the system did not fail in the past, why is it failing now? What is so unique about the current situation?


Ken Weiss said...

I'm referring to graduate and PhD students. I think most scholars taught few if any grad students and most universities were not growing. Many grads probably taught high school or something. Many traditionally scratched out a living, became clergy or military etc. historically. I'm no expert, of course.

In any case, US universities greatly expanded after WWII and I think much more after the Viet Nam era. The expanding population and funding pools etc. contributed.

Even in my day, there were the routine jokes about classics PhDs driving taxis. The big expansion has been in the sciences and 'paying' areas, I think.

Regardless of these points, and the facts would be ascertainable, clearly the explosion of funding sources contributed to the production of PhDs etc. I have witnessed this directly myself. Soft-money salaries and the growth of overhead etc. contributed.

Clearly universities are shrinking or coming under pressure as (1) state support shrinks; (2) the student pool may be shrinking; (3) grant pools are not increasing much if at all. In some areas, such as the humanities, they don't bring in much money and Deans are replacing retirees with (say) chemists or business profs. More universities are trying to become status operations ("Research1"s) and are growing their graduate programs (but not, I think, by increasing faculty).

In addition, we don't have mandatory retirement. People are living healthily longer.

Whatever the mix of causes, it does not seem to be imaginary that we are producing more than there are jobs for. Maybe the retirement/death/disgust of faculty will lead to lots of vacancies and the crisis will ease.

To me the bottom line is that we know what we've been doing, and are doing, and we can't seem to stop or slow down voluntarily. Whatever the cause, should we be continuing to train so many? I think not, but I have no good solution for how to taper back--which universities would be restricted from taking new grad students, for example?

Anonymous said...

I would argue that the real flaw is centrally planned science controlled by few agencies, whereas everything else you point out are the symptoms. The central planning agencies dictate that everyone needs to work on curing cancer or some other disease and spreads a large amount of money to support its 'mission'. Over time, the few projects with the blessing of central planning agency survive and we get into this monoculture of every other postdoc working on p53 gene, amyloid plaque or GWAS. That lack of variety is the real reason for post-doc glut, not the training itself. I do not see how a society can get hurt by training people with advanced skills or by letting competent 70 or 80 year old persons continue to work. The transmission system controlled by central planning agency is broken.

Shut down NIH, NSF and a few other agencies, and you will see free market clean up the problem within years.


Ken Weiss said...

Reply to Anon
If the same money is just moved to some other 'cause', even if it is investigator-initiated RO1s and not big-science except where that's really warranted, the problem won't change.

What needs change are the real aspects that are responsible and are so via the university self-interest and empire building mentality.

First, stop paying faculty salaries on grants. Expect faculty to work for their university, not NIH, and to put in a substantial role teaching (those students can then do research in the private sector, or practice health-care professions, etc.).

Second, greatly pare back overhead and put restrictions that prevent the incentive to grow.

Of course, 'more' is the only word the 'developed' world seems to understand, so that's a major problem. Second, as I adverted to in an earlier comment, how we pare back equitably without just letting the big, rich private universities hog all the action (or, explicitly deciding they'll do what's needed and the rest need to pay attention to their primary educational mission), is the question.

Quotas and such have advantages, but also serious societal and equity limitations. So gradually tapering back seems to most likely, fairest, way to go....somehow.