Time to be honest with students

There was a discussion on Twitter the other day about PhD overproduction that took a few unexpected turns, and it all started with this:


OK, fine. “Life is what you make it” is one of those things that is both trivially true but can also be deeply oblivious if you are, say, talking to someone with a terrible illness or the victim of an accident or a crime. Not every situation we find ourselves in life is “what we make it.” It is also oblivious in the context of, say, Boomers who lived through the most ginormous, unrepeatable economic expansion in US history saying it to GenX or Millenials. Bootstraps, kids! (If I never get smug condescension pretending to be “advice” from a Boomer again in my life, it will be too soon.) But this is not Hope’s context. In the context of graduate education, yes and no. Your PhD “experience” is in large part what you make it…and I hope this is what she meant. Your career prospects are only under your control in a weak and limited fashion… they are in large part what you find various job markets to be 10 years after you started graduate school, not anything you made or are able to make.

“PhD is a fishing license” seems to be what set Drug Monkey off.


As you can imagine, this then became what Twitter does best: #Angry. First, the fishing license analogy became overextended. Then the usual “academic lab work exploits trainees’ desire for unattainable positions” vs. “no one has promised them anything, many reasons to do a PhD.” These positions are natural enemies, but are also non-mutually exclusive. There are many labor markets that are both inherently exploitative and also the best/only opportunity available. College athletics is both a route to education funding and often highly exploitative, for example.

Furthermore, no malice or scheming is required on behalf of individual managers to contribute to exploitation, which will arise naturally from an excess of labor and an absence of regulation. Where most of the blame lies is with the failure of regulators: when things like the Tilghman Report (PDF) are commissioned and written and greeted with denial and open resistance, or when the NIH refuses to even acknowledge the existence of the vast majority of postdocs (those not paid by NRSAs) in their analysis of the trainee pipeline, or when SfN’s solution is to beg industry to keep hiring our discarded postdocs. Oh, and maybe teaching? Or be a science writer! Policy something? All the #alt-bullshit.

However, whether you agree with Hope’s sentiment or not (which can be read in a more sympathetic light not as aspirational or inspirational but as a warning about the likelihood of getting what you want), it bears almost no relation to the tone of PhD program recruiting materials, and it does not change the fact that most people who are both highly qualified and have the desire to run academic research programs will not get that opportunity, and that is a shameful waste of talent and training. Even if you argue that academia is meritocratic*, a meritocracy that leaks more talent than it keeps is still fucked up. The ideal meritocracy has objective criteria for merit, and it rewards all those who meet those criteria. We have a meritocracy that takes a small, essentially random subsample from a huge pool of essentially equivalent meritorious aspirants. At best, the meritocracy we have is the one from Glengarry Glenn Ross: “Third prize is you’re fired.” Even if you came in third out of a thousand.

Finally, at least from the point of view of most public funding agencies, training working scientists is explicitly the purpose of funding their PhDs**. So the idea that you should be 1) preparing them for a wide range of careers, or 2) not making an implicit commitment to producing research scientists is at odds with the intentions of the people who are giving you the money (at least for most publicly-funded scientist). I see no reason for the public to pay for job training for the consulting, pharmaceutical, and patent law industries, which is where I have seen most people go outside of academia. Perhaps private corporations who hire these PhDs should be required to pay back the NIH? Ha ha.

Free markets, including labor markets, work best when regulated*** and when information is maximized. When information is withheld or avoided (How many students and postdocs are paid for by the NIH – RPGs included? What are your PhD graduates doing 10 years later?), that’s dishonest and helps create the conditions for exploitation.

So what do I do? I’m a new PI. In my funding ecosystem, I will explicitly be judged on whether or not I am training people, i.e. have graduate students doing the work. When I met a group of senior grad students here, one out of about 7 or 8 said they were planning to do a postdoc. When I asked what recent grads actually do, they said, “They all do postdocs.” These students have learned what their prospects are like, but they are not being given the tools or opportunity to change course. They aren’t sure what their options are, but most of them probably know a hell of a lot more than the faculty, most of whom have never set foot outside of academia.


* It’s not particularly. 

** By it’s own stated logic (“help ensure that a diverse pool of highly trained scientists”) the NRSA program shouldn’t even exist. RPGs are paying for producing far, far more highly trained scientists than any F-award.

*** “Free” and “regulated” also not mutually exclusive, libertarian dipshits.


3 Comments on “Time to be honest with students”

  1. “I see no reason for the public to pay for job training for the consulting, pharmaceutical, and patent law industries, which is where I have seen most people go outside of academia. Perhaps private corporations who hire these PhDs should be required to pay back the NIH?”

    I’d like to push back a bit on this comment. I don’t know about you, but I’m firmly in the “education is a social good” camp. I find the current state (and cost) of our public education system positively depressing, and think that it would be good for the welfare of the country to have a more educated citizenry. Would you agree? If so, I’m not sure why there would be a stark dividing line between “undergraduate degree” and “graduate degree”. I tend to think that, given what we DO spend money on, increasing the public knowledge of advanced studies – even if that population is a small subset – is a good thing.

    (see also: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2013/12/does-americas-future-contain-elite-public-universities.html)

  2. rxnm says:

    I agree with that in principle, but I don’t think investing in the tiny percentage of people who get PhDs (who are already highly educated by societal standards before they even start) is necessarily a good value compared to investment in earlier stages of public education. We don’t expect the public to pay for training doctors and lawyers…instead, those professions offer (or for lawyers, used to offer) a reasonable expectation of the means to pay back the training costs. So those industries DO pay for training their workforce, indirectly.

    In terms of earlier stages, I think undergraduate education should ideally be free and private universities shouldn’t exist.

  3. […] who, as it happens, are unbelievably motivated to come up with excuses why their continued overproduction of PhDs year in, year out, is not any sort of […]

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