PhDs, Supply, and Demand

DrugMonkey says much more clearly what I was trying to get at in my NIH funding post (boldface mine):

We need to turn off the tap. Stop training so many PhDs.

This is going to hurt the many, many of us (and therefore the NIH) who depend on the undervalued labor of graduate students. This chart…from the NIH RePORTER site shows the relatively slow increase in NIH funded fellowships and traineeships compared with the more rapid increase in research assistantships (light blue). Read: graduate students paid directly from research grants. The more graduate students we “train” in this way, the more we need to secure more R01s and other R-mech grants to support them.

Spare me your anecdotes about how graduate students cost as much as postdocs or technicians (to your NIH R-mechanism or equivalent research grants). If they weren’t good value, you’d switch over. The system, as a whole, is most certainly finding value in exploiting the labor of graduate students on the promise of a career that is now uncertain to be realized. This is because the charging of tuition and fees is still incomplete. Because students have the possibility at some point during the tenure in our laboratories of landing supporting fellowships of various kinds. Because some departments still receive substantial Teaching Assistant funds to support graduate students (and simultaneously ease the work of allegedly professing Professors). And above all else, because we are able to pull off an exploitative culture in which graduate students are induced to work crazy hard in a Hunger Games style bloodthirsty competition for the prize….and Assistant Professor appointment.

The other missing part of this is political mobilization: scientists, compared to other government contractors, are dirt cheap. Many professors’ salaries are partially or wholly subsidized, and graduate students and post-docs are cheap compared to other skilled (and often unionized) labor for private contractors. Until pressure is brought to bear on NIH, which has no incentives to change the current system (if they actually gave a damn, they would have done something already), they will go with the cheap, if unsustainable, labor model.

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6 Responses to PhDs, Supply, and Demand

  1. EvoStevo says:

    Part of the problem in Science is that the technical track and the managerial track are the same track. Particularly in Bioscience, the Masters degree is under utilized by the discipline as a career trajectory. Engineering and several other fields have masters/certification structures that provide a workforce that is separate from the managerial/conceptual leadership. Also, the fact that you cannot get a job with a B.S. in biological sciences says volumes about the way our profession handles undergraduate preparation.

  2. Prof.Pedant says:

    I would take a different approach.
    1.) Increase research funding.
    2.) Increase the opportunities for someone with the ability to go to college/graduate school.
    3.) Bring unemployment down to a level that results in pressure to increase pay and benefits in order to retain workers.
    4.) Have a “National Investment Bank” that provides low-cost capital for small start-up businesses.

    This way there may end up being an ‘over-supply’ of people in a particular field, but those individuals will still have plenty of opportunities for employment. Restricting the number of people who can acquire a degree gives a lot of power to how the individuals who are allowed to earn that degree are chosen. And very few of the ways that we have for distinguishing one human being from another are unable to be used to the detriment of one group or another. (Additionally, a person who is one of the few allowed to study for a particular degree can easily start to think that (he?) is a pretty special person….and that so often does not work out well. Particularly when the assumptions of specialness are subtle.) I think we are better off with providing plenty of opportunities to everyone, sufficient opportunities that finding oneself living out ‘Plan B’, ‘Plan C’, or even ‘Plan Z’ for your life is still a mostly pretty good life.

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