Saturday, September 23, 2006

Academic follies, encore

I know this is a horse of indeterminate liveness, yet I cannot resist flogging it some more.

Over at the Daily Transcript, there are two posts [1, 2], and associated comment threads, about "The Academy", at least in the life sciences, that are worth reading in their entirety, especially the comments.

[What, you're still reading this ? Fine.]

The summary: postdocs complain about the long hours, low pay, and lack of a life outside the lab required to even have a shot at a faculty position, never mind the insanity then required to achieve tenure. The response of a couple of professors, stripped down to its essentials: "Stop whining and suck it up, because we've got plenty more people where you came from that are willing to sacrifice everything. You should be grateful that you get to work on what interests you, with other smart people".

The first bit of the response is amazing not only in that it's addressed at highly educated, skilled people [not that it's something that should really be said to anybody] but also that they're willing to be spoken to and treated that way. And the defenses of academia in the second bit of the response are the standard "But look at the benefits !" justifications for the insane state of affairs, and stick in my craw every time I hear them.

"You get to work on what you want": Well, really, you get to work on what the funding agencies will give you money to work on. And, increasingly, these agencies are funding not individual investigators, but rather large, multi-investigator projects; see these posts about the decrease in funding rates and funding inequities between Big Biology and individual investigators, leading to what has been called a lost generation of individual researchers. So, it seems like there's a pretty good chance that, to survive, you may have to attach yourself to one of the mega-grants and end up working on something that's not exactly what you want to be doing. That's probably even more true if you're a junior faculty member, in which case you'll probably end up somewhere fairly low down on the author list of the published papers, which in turn isn't great for your career.

"... work with other smart people": Yes, that's definitely nice. But I'm always reminded of a simple numerical fact: most of the smart people in the world work somewhere else than wherever you currently happen to be. So that's not a good enough reason to put up with the execrable conditions.

... and from what I've seen, there are at least the same amount of bureaucracy and stiflingly boring tasks and meetings in academia as there are in industry. The only difference is that they're called "committee meetings", and probably drag on forever because nobody really has the final say over anything.

The other thing that I don't understand is why there is such an oversupply of PhDs [at least in the life sciences] who want to become academics. The possible reasons I've come up with so far are:

- a lack of awareness of alternatives, maybe due to being given bad career advice
- that the vast majority of them think of themselves as the PhDs of Lake Wobegon: all Above Average, and so the grim statistics don't apply to them
- such a pure, burning desire to explore the mysteries of Nature that, damn the torpedoes, any other course of action is inconceivable [and that word means what you think it means]. In which case, hey, go for it. But is that really the case for the majority of people ?

Don't get me wrong: I strongly believe that we need research universities and institutions, and basic research. I'm just amazed at the self-flagellation people are willing to inflict on themselves in order to join the academic club. And I wonder how long this pyramid scheme can keep going.


Anonymous Andre said...

Don't forget the cult factor:

10:15 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Interesting read. I guess I'd group that under lack of awareness of alternatives/bad career advice.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Tozier said...

Quoting Yoda: "There is another."

Way, that is.

I think I know what it is, too. More in a bit.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous Jesse said...

Dunno if you're still reading this, but there are a few reasons that there are so many life sciences postdocs looking for so few faculty positions.

First, there are too many life sciences postdocs.

Second, doing a postdoc is a necessary step for an academic career and a useful one for an industry career, and a position is easy enough to find, so lots of people do one even if they aren't sure they want to be a professor.

Third, the only job the academic biosciences culture sees as worthwhile is a professor position.

In turn, and this gets long...

For good graduate programs (let's say, better than 60th percentile on some magic scale), graduate students are essentially money-making for the department. The expense of the first couple of years of a PhD program (tuition and stipend) is usually covered under a federal training grant, often from the NIH. (Granted, this is only true for US citizens.) At a lot of schools, that tuition bill is huge, and graduate student classes in the life sciences are often nothing more than a professor, a table and chairs, and access to internet journal subscriptions. There aren't many lab classes. Lovely profit.

The next couple of years, the grad student either has outside funding (from the government or an outside funding body) or their principal investigator is paying them (from their grant, which comes from the government or an outside funding body). They're in a lab and they're learning the field, even if they're not producing. The school is still charging them some large amount for tuition, even though they're not taking any classes. Essentially, they're getting training in bench work and getting paid very little, and the money is coming from somewhere else, and there's the pure profit of tuition on top of that.

As the student goes into their later years as a PhD candidate, they finally know what they're doing and are producing some results. Their salary is still paid by outside sources. Now they're making about half what a technician would make, and they're much more useful than a technician. A senior graduate student is more useful than a junior postdoc because they're cheaper, and because they've been in the lab so long that they know where everything is, how to do everything, and who to ask if they need something. Professors hate to see senior grad students go, because it would take a tech and a postdoc to replace them, and that's about 3-4 times the salary.

OK, so grad students are little money-making machines for schools. They expand their PhD programs, sign up anyone remotely qualified, and, yes, profit. Now you have a glut of young PhDs. (You can see a corollary to this by looking at the exams for PhD candidacy. They're getting easier and easier. You don't want to throw someone out of grad school if you can help it.)

Now, when you're a new biosciences PhD, what do you do? You can go to academia, industry or "other". Some people really want to be academic professors. Some want a 9-5 job that pays well and lets them do some science. If you're tired of science (and nothing can kill a love of science quicker than a few years of bench work) you can go for that "other". It would include things like journalism, patent law, teaching, stuff like that. A lot of people go those routes for any number of reasons, but the two major ones I see are more money and less bench work.

So if you want to stay in science, it's academia or industry. Unless you have some sort of special skill (you can run an expensive machine, for example), you're just a faceless PhD to industry. Industry likes to hire master's degree holders for their grunt work -- they're less uppity. Your professor's reputation and contacts won't help you very much. The best way to get industry experience is to have industry experience. The next best way to get into industry is a good academic postdoc.

A postdoc used to be what smart people did between grad school and their first professorial position. They also used to be a year or two long. A postdoc position is easy enough to find, pays better than grad school, and your PhD advisor can probably help you get one. Now you can pay the rent while you're deciding what to do with your life. A postdoc can be the snooze button on a scientific career.

Yes, there are ambitious, intelligent postdocs who are training for a faculty position. They're immediately distinguishable from the rest of the postdocs, even if the rest of the postdocs can't necessarily tell the difference. The problem is that the number of faculty positions isn't increasing, but the number of applicants is increasing. Quickly. More postdocs, and more foreign applicants. So, to get that faculty position, you need to be brilliant, utterly dedicated, somewhat lucky, and well connected.

The situation is complicated by the attitude that smart people stay in academia and people who go to industry are failures. Academic advisors are usually academics, and their legacy is partially determined by what their students and postdocs go on to do. (The history of molecular biology can be mapped as a series of academic family trees. If you want to stay in academia, you marry into (do a postdoc with) one of those family trees.) There is plenty of good advice on how to get an academic career, and a distinct lack of good advice on how to get a non-academic career.

Jeez, that got really long. Sorry about that. Drop me a line at the email address at my weblog if you got this far, would you?

Jesse (PhD, cell biology, 2002, postdoc now)

8:17 PM  

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