So crazy it just might work

Summary: There are no bad ideas in brain storming! Let’s make grad students pay for their PhDs.

A post by Dr. Zen yesterday morning prompted a Twitter discussion about what’s wrong with the science training system. I’ve been an advocate of limiting intake into PhD programs by banning spending federal research funds on trainee salaries. This would put control over the number of trainees into the hands of funders (either through things like NIH F mechs or by earmarking separate, limited funds for trainees with research grants, e.g. 2 trainees per R01). I would further take the NIH out of the business of choosing WHO gets to do a PhD by allowing them to allocate the funds but have no say in who the PI hires or the program accepts. The main problem with this approach is that it is predicated on the assumption that NIH is competent to do anything differently and gives a fuck about the training pipeline problem, which 1) They barely acknowledge and have shown no willingness to address, 2) They probably don’t see as a problem.

What prompted me to rethink this is the question of whether taxpayer money should be used to fund science PhD training at all. Currently, the number of PhDs who will go on to use their training to conduct publicly-funded research is somewhere under 20%. The largest share of the rest will go to industry, and many more will not become scientists of any kind. I see no compelling reason the taxpayer should foot the bill to train a labor force that will fill the coffers of drug companies by selling the fruits of their labor back to the taxpayer who funded their education.

My proposal is that we make students pay grad student tuition and fees, like other professional higher degrees. If, like medical school or law school or architecture school, doing a science PhD put you in substantial debt, this would solve two problems: 1. It would limit the number of people seeking a PhD by making it a harder choice, rather than a default for people who couldn’t think of anything else to do, thus relieving some of the job market pressures PhDs face. 2. It puts the cost of training PhDs on those who will benefit from their work.

This sounds evil. PhD students already struggle in high CoL areas. But consider this… law students and med students incur large debt because they can expect careers that will allow them to pay it off. One reason medicine and law have such high starting salaries is the recognition that their new employees are normally starting their careers in substantial debt. In both these fields, what this means in economic terms is that hospitals and clinics pay for training their doctors and law firms pay for the training lawyers.

Right now, you’d be crazy to take that risk doing a PhD. But this would change… fast. The number of people doing PhDs would drop quickly to near the number who can find employment as scientists afterward. PIs can spend their grant money on research instead of on salaries. Best case scenario: postdocs become rare to non-existent.

There are a lot of possible objections to this.

1. Everywhere that there are people, we need doctors and lawyers. Less true of scientists, the market for which is more volatile and patchily distributed. Someone from a third-tier law school can still practice some kind of law somewhere. On the other hand, the medical and legal professional societies make some effort to regulate the numbers of trainees in their fields, and scientists could – very theoretically – do the same.

2. Many people with science PhDs do important, “non-traditional” work that might not support a high level of initial debt. Well, this is true of MDs and JDs, too. There could be debt reduction or forgiveness plans for working in the public or non-profit sectors, etc.

3. Who loses? There is a trade off for PIs and departments. Now YOU will have to compete for the best students, who will suddenly be much rarer, rather than them competing for you. You will be judged by career-outcome metrics for your trainees at the lab and department level. Yes, this could greatly exacerbate bullshit like pedigree, glam, and rich-get-richer problems as labor is concentrated in the most “desirable” areas, though I’m not sure these forces could be stronger than the are now. On the other hand, you will get federal student loan money coming in and not waste grant money paying people. But mostly, fuck you because you’ve been benefitting enormously from a shitty system for decades. As I’ve noted before, every attempt at labor reform ever – minimum wage, unions, parental leave, weekends — has been met with the same teeth-gnashing, hair-rending cries that it will reduce competitiveness and efficiency and woe betide us because nothing will ever be the same again with the peasants in the castle. On the other hand, maybe faculty salaries in the sciences would start to look more like those in medicine and law. That shut you up quick, eh?

4. Who else loses? A lot of people who would have done PhDs will not. Maybe we will get the “wrong” people. I don’t know, this doesn’t resonate for me. There is a danger that economically disadvantaged students would be more averse to taking on debt for grad school. However, these issues are addressed in some ways in medicine and law. Another argument is that having well-educated scientists out and about in the world is a good thing. It is, but I’m not sure the numbers were talking about here matter against the general population. If we want a scientifically literate population, the place to start is not having more people get PhDs. That’s like saying if we want incomes to rise we should have more bankers.


12 Comments on “So crazy it just might work”

  1. neuroecology says:

    Don’t most humanities phd’s have to pay for graduate school? And it seems like their job situation is even worse than ours…

  2. Neuroecology: Maybe there is oversupply in both, but the science oversupply is made worse by the available funding. Maybe employment in the humanities is bad for different reasons. Employment opportunities outside of academia for science doctorates may wider than for humanities doctorates.

  3. neuroecology says:

    Zen, maybe and maybe, I guess…

    You would expect, though, that if employment opportunities were wider outside of academia for science doctorates the oversupply should actually be WORSE in science. But if you look at the number of people applying to academic job postings, my impression is that there is more competition for humanities faculty jobs than science faculty jobs.

  4. Dave says:

    One big problem. You clearly do not know the dire jobs situation facing most law grads these days:

    It is as bad, if not much worse, than what most PhDs face.

  5. rxnm says:

    I’m aware of it… my understanding it is driven primarily shady schools that do not produce employable grads seeking student loan money.

    As to the degree of the problem. I would be very, very surprised if the % of law school graduates in this country who were not practicing law after graduating/clerking was remotely like the situation for scientists. The article you link says that there are 2 aspiring lawyers for every job. Every postdoc I know would kill for those odds.

  6. Dr Becca says:

    neuroecology – Humanities grad students where I did my PhD did not have to pay, and got a meager stipend (far less than the science PhDs got). But they were expected to teach a LOT, the result of which was an average graduation time of ~8 years.

    “Someone from a third-tier law school can still practice some kind of law somewhere.” This is not really true, and goes beyond just “shady” schools. If you went to a poorly-ranked law school (say, below #60), you will MAYBE be able to find employment in the city where that school is, because some local alum at a shitty firm has heard of it. But good luck taking that Brooklyn Law degree anywhere beyond the Tri-State Area. Also, the crappy schools cost just as much (~$50k/year) as the good ones.
    Differences in magnitude of unemployment percentages between JDs and PhDs are, I would argue, more than made up for in the crippling debt these people are now in. Only those who land excellent jobs in prestigious firms can ever entertain hope of paying off their law school loans in their lifetime, and people with non-fancy degrees don’t get the fancy jobs. At least PhDs emerge (mostly) debt-free and relatively employable, even if it’s not their number-one dream job.

  7. jipkin says:

    “Currently, the number of PhDs who will go on to use their training to conduct publicly-funded research is somewhere under 20%. The largest share of the rest will go to industry, and many more will not become scientists of any kind.”

    Source? And what’s the time point here?

    Does the research PhDs do during training and as postdocs not count as federally funded? How much money is being spent to “train” students vs pay them for the research that they’re doing while they happen to be labeled as “trainees”? If you decrease the students, and subsequently decrease the postdocs, then who does the work with the leftover money?

    Been toying with the opposite viewpoint lately:

  8. Dave says:

    Without trying to make his about law, this site is amazing:

    Like Becca says, one could argue their situation is a lot worse because of the horrific debt these guys end up with.

  9. rxnm says:

    NIH’s data on the trainees it has funded through F mechs (a minority of the total) says 23% are in tenured or TT positions. This is against a strong downward trend, so we can presume the figure for recent PhDs is well south of 20%. 18% are in industry research and 6% in government.

    It is disingenuous for the NIH to limit the postdocs it “supports” to those with F-awards, when a far greater number are supported on R01s. It could easily require reporting on trainees funded through research grants. My guess would be that F-supported trainees as a population do better on the academic job market than non-F, but there are no data on that except surveys with serious sampling problems (when you look for recent PhDs to take a survey, you of course find postdocs and others in academia first).

    The law school number someone quoted was that there are 2 JDs for every job… those odds should sound pretty good to biomedical PhDs, however I don’t know the source.

  10. The Other Dave says:

    This is a pretty good idea. I like it. I definitely see a of students who go to grad school because they don’t know what else to do, and many of those students gripe about their stipends, and I can’t think of a student who griped about his/her stipends that actually succeeded (e.g. continued in science for much longer after completing the Ph.D.)

    The problem is that these aren’t just Ph.D. students, they’re cheap labor. And as long as there is a need for cheap labor (and there always is) — especially cheap labor that perversely sticks around for 4-7 years — then there will be people and programs willing to pay for it. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a tech or postdoc. Students aren’t expected to make a living wage, after all. They’re just ‘students’. (har har).

    So… Your plan is easy to say and easy to like, but I don’t see how it will ever come to pass. Any ideas?

  11. rxnm says:

    Ha… yes, no ideas on how to make it happen. It is hard to imagine anything other than cosmetic shifts in NIH policy happening regarding anything. The Cull is unofficial policy, and in addition to wrecking this generation, it will likely incidentally severely reduce trainee intake when it becomes clear even to starry-eyed 22 year olds that this is most likely a dead end.

    My least favorite thing about humanity… generally amazing, intelligent, and kind as individuals, but in any numbers >10 we might as well be bacteria for all our brains, cultures, and institutions protect us from the tragedy of the commons. Just add more LB and start then next boom/crash cycle.

  12. fish says:

    PIs can spend their grant money on research instead of on salaries.

    This is unlikely to be true. The main driver of the current broken system is that graduate students and postdocs represent very highly trained, highly motivated, but poorly paid employees. Thus the drive for ever larger graduate programs. Once you dry up the grad student/postdoc pipeline, salary costs shoot trough the roof for research…

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