Science Professor makes what I think is an entirely accurate assessment of the misery of many in the biomed academic world (emphasis original):
However, much of what I have learned, although fascinating, has been second-order compared to this:
People in the biomedical sciences seem to suffer a lot more than those of us in just about every other STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] field.
…My data: 87% of my blog-related e-mail is from unhappy, bitter, troubled, distraught biomed grad students, postdocs, technicians, and early-career faculty. Others write to me with problems, but these tend to be of the “I’m frustrated with my advisor” sort rather than the “I’m being tortured, abused, deported, sued, and I fear my academic career is over” sort that I routinely get from biomed people.
I specify biomedical rather than the life science in general because, as far as I can tell, the ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot seem to be reasonably content, or, at least, not more stressed out or bitter than your average chemist, physicist, or engineer. No, it’s you people doing the important disease-curing research etc. who really seem to have the most difficult academic lives of all.
Of course there are happy biomed people. I can think of at least 2, maybe 3. And I hasten to admit that I don’t really understand much of what I read in some of the biomed blogs, especially all the posts focusing on NIH R2D2 grants or whatever. So maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but the e-mail data nevertheless indicate that something is going on over there in the biomedical departments.
Having been both on the “ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot” side and the biomedical side, this really rings true.
The basic problem stems (so to speak) from too many biology Ph.D.s and not enough funding, leading to an immensely cutthroat environment–and one that is psychologically damaging to boot. Yet, despite a massive surplus of biomedical Ph.D.s, there still is a culture that places the academic tenure track above all else–and in my experience, it seems much stronger, much more inviolate than in other STEM disciplines. If you leave the tenure track, you are viewed as a partial (at best) failure.
So why does this dysfunctional cultural paradigm exist? I think it has to do with two things: specialization and Ph.D. training. When you go to Ph.D. school in biology, especially biomedical sciences, you learn a great many difficult techniques requiring lots of skill–it’s not for dummies at all. The problem is that most of the skills you learn are only useful in…the biomedical sciences. Most don’t learn enough ‘generalist’ skills, such as high level math or serious programming skills, to have other career alternatives if academia doesn’t work out. Worse, many of the skills they learn become obsolete. A decade ago, sequencing was a Ph.D. activity, or at least, an activity supervised very closely by a Ph.D. Now, it’s largely automated, and the machines are mostly run by technicians with bachellors degrees. So even within biomedical science, for some Ph.D.s ‘up or out’–moving to a managerial position (i.e., becoming a PI)–is the sole option.
The way around this is to give those who go to Ph.D. school training that allows them to survive outside the biomedical tenure track. But one reason that won’t happen is the shortage of funding (feedback’s a bitch). It isn’t in the career interest of those doing the training to have students do many things that aren’t related to the success of their lab’s–their PI’s–research program. At some point, students have to start to produce for the lab.
It would be more productive if all of the letter writing that went on in defense of re-re-submissions of NIH proposals were directed at this problem instead. But that would mean recognizing the inherent instability of the current academic biomedical research structure.