job searchPosted: July 9, 2012
If you’re a PhD student or postdoc and don’t want to end the day drinking, avoid the Tilghman Report (pdf). Even if you do want to end the day drinking – and why not (in this heat, I recommend a Gin Gin Mule) – just avoid it. Lots of online chatter about the PhD oversupply problem, including in the mainstream media. See, for example, the Washington Post: U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there.
Stephan, the Georgia State economist, calls the post-doc system a “pyramid scheme” that enriches — in prestige, scientific publications and federal grant dollars — a few senior scientists at the expense of a large pool of young, cheap ones.
“I’ve listened to this stuff on the news about how we need more scientists and engineers,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ We’re here. We need something to do besides manual labor for another academic person.”
Also see the most recent of many discussions about this over at DrugMonkey and Mike the Mad Biologist. It’s clear that the status quo benefits current PIs and their institutions a great deal – labor is cheap and you can have as many as you can and want to pay for. Their work advances your career. In fact, the goal of hot shot scientists is essentially to have labs of trainees that run themselves (managed by “senior” trainees), while you jet around giving talks, marketing the work, and obtaining more and more grants. Clearly there is a positive feedback cycle of trainees, prestige, and money for PIs, while for the vast majority of trainees there is only disappointment.
My main interest here (completely selfish) is how this changes the dynamics of the job market. There are more and more postdocs because of the huge increase in biomedical research budgets prior to the financial crisis (allowing PIs to “hire” more and more PhD “students”). This was already a supply problem, but the financial crisis has created a demand problem – fewer positions, less research funding – and exacerbated the supply problem by creating a huge backlog of postdocs who have stayed off (or perennially on) the job market for the last several years, hoping things got better.
So, who gets the few, coveted tenure track research faculty under these conditions? My impression and those of many is that these market dynamics have led to what is essentially a peerage system. The trainees of the most prominent scientists get jobs. Period. So, based on a comment I made over at DrugMonkey, here is a flow chart to check yourself before you wreck yourself: