Perpetuating the PhD pyramid scheme

This kind of thinking drives me up a wall – scientists who are unwilling to approach the PhD labor market from a scientific perspective:

Living Science: Looking out for Future Scientists, Eve Marder, eLife:

I wonder at those who think they can predict which of our graduate applicants is likely to become a great scientist, and am dismayed by the hubris of those who think we should restrict access to PhD programs to a select few…

Ever since I can remember (and that is a long time), there have been wise heads who have counseled that we should drastically decrease the size of our PhD classes because there are not enough academic faculty positions to accommodate all of the able and interested candidates…

While these authors show a deep understanding of how increased competition for positions and funding have deleterious effects on the biomedical research and teaching enterprise, every time I think about substantially restricting access to graduate programs I wince…

There are some who argue that students who finish their PhDs (or spend years as postdocs) and then move into other careers have wasted their time. I disagree…

Society would be enriched if more of the people making decisions in industry, law, medicine, education and politics had lived through the rigors of a PhD program, and knew first-hand how difficult it is to extract knowledge from our imperfect measurement and analytical tools…

Marder argues that if we shrink programs, admissions committees will be less likely to take in non-traditional applicants, who are the kind of people science needs.

While, as one who majored in music, I agree that admissions committees shouldn’t dismiss non-traditional applicants, I call bullshit on this disturbingly prevalent idea that, even if you don’t get a job in science, you can still think of your PhD as a good life experience, training you in general analysis skills that you will put you in high demand for non-science jobs.

The truth is that a life science PhD leaves you poorly prepared to get a job doing anything else:

1) Grad programs put very little emphasis on developing writing skills – you maybe write 4-5 documents (proposal, 2-3 papers, plus thesis) over seven years of grad school, with very little feedback on quality of the writing itself.

2) Life science PhDs lack quantitative and computer skills – your physicist or comp sci peers will leave you in the dust when it comes to filling non-science ‘quant’ positions in industry.

3) Life sciences PhD programs are terrible at helping their students establish career-building networks of contacts outside of academia

It’s clear where the priority is – doing the lab work, so you and your PI can publish, so that you can attempt to compete for the increasingly scarce academic jobs.

Having said that, this would all be fine if there were some incentive structure to make PhD programs and applicants responsive to the labor market conditions – such as more systematic job placement and salary info. As I’ve written about before, economists have studied the life sciences PhD labor market. As scientists, if we’re going to talk about how to restructure grad programs, then we should look at the evidence. The evidence says that the PhD labor market is dysfunctional:

Inefficiency arises from the fact that substantial resources have been invested in training these scientists and engineers. The trained have foregone other careers – and the salary that they would have earned – along the way. The public has invested resources in tuition and stipends. If these ‘investments’ are then forced to enter careers that require less training, resources have not been efficiently deployed. Surely there are less expensive ways to train high school science teachers than to turn PhDs who cannot find a research position into teachers. Yet this is exactly what a recent report suggested. Many of these PhDs may not even have characteristics that make them good teachers. Surely there are better ways to create venture capitalists with a knowledge of science than for PhDs to become venture capitalists – or better ways to create journalists who write about science than for PhDs to become journalists. Yet such careers are often put forward as appropriate alternatives for new PhDs. There is also the question of incidence, the term used by economists to refer to who bears the cost. The current system may be “incredibly successful” from the perspective of faculty, as a recent report described it, but at whose cost? It is the PhD students and postdocs who are bearing the cost of the system – and the U.S. taxpayer – not the principal investigators. (Paula Stephan, How Economics Shapes Science p230-231)

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

14 thoughts on “Perpetuating the PhD pyramid scheme”

  1. I am running up against this now…as a postdoc in the life sciences that has soured on academia and needs to figure out something else…but what. I am poorly prepared for nearly anything else. I blog (so writing experience? I’ve even guest blogged a few places), but that’s about it. I do like education/teaching and think I’m OK at it, but not sure how well I’d adapt to HS. And of course, I also 90% blame myself for my lack of preparation which is also not helpful in figuring out something else clever to do with my life. I don’t know, I hope I’m grateful for my science training in some ways, but as you say, maybe better ways of getting the skeptical/critical thinking mind while training for something else along the way. Hard problem to solve not least because there is really no incentive (except among Ph.D.s and Postdocs) to solve it. Hopefully my brain is up to something new…it has to be.

    1. On the positive side, there are opportunities out there, but generally you have to find them yourself. Sometimes university-sponsored workshops help – they’re something, but not enough.

      One big problem is time – if you’re a postdoc, and maybe you’d like to teach, or write, or whatever, you have to accept a relatively low-paying entry level job after you’ve already done 7+ years of post-college training. If you’ve got kids, or hope to save for a house, etc., then forget it.

      1. Yes, agreed. Proactive is key- and I am starting to do that now. And I am (lucky?) to be single (perpetuating the monkhood of academia stereotype…givng my whole life to it for too long…no more) and so am flexible that way and live pretty minimally now; but yes, time is a factor. And it is frustrating to realize I’ll likely be starting from the bottom and Ph.D. after my name is unlikely to mean much in a new line of work…I still hold out hope for ‘science adjacent’ (and will likely always try to write in some form about science and its affect on culture, the issues w/ academia if they’ll ever get solved, etc.).

        1. Yeah, the key seems to be flexibility, and the ability to continue to work for low pay. Scientific Societies hire PhDs to write for them, but it seems hard to make a living that way – watching good science journalists pull together different gigs makes you realize how hard it is.

          1. I sit in awe still of those who do science writing full time. As well as anyone that’s made it out of academia from a postdoc/Ph.D. position.

  2. I actually think both of you are right.

    The problem is due to the fact that nobody is up-front about what the career prospects of scientific training are. “We need more scientists!” we have all heard that rubbish right?

    All we have to do is be truthful to young people about what the prospects are for biology and chemistry PhDs (near zero) and the truly dedicated will still go ahead without wasting resources.

    1. Agreed. I don’t believe in putting artificial and arbitrary caps on the size of PhD programs. We need to structure the system so that there are incentives for grad programs to respond to the labor market.

      Part of this is making more information available to applicants upfront. Life science programs suck at this, but others don’t – business and engineering programs (which compete for paying students), and econ PhD programs.

      But faculty should be aware of reality, and not just blindly continue with business as usual. They should be familiar with the evidence that’s out there about the labor market, and they should be willing to participate in reforms that will ensure their graduates are trained for the jobs they’re likely to get. That means putting more emphasis on useful programming and quantitative skills, and on industry internships.

  3. My thinking is somewhere that sort of splits the difference between Eve and Mike.

    I think there’s a general consensus that scientifically trained people *are* valuable, and that the skillset most PhD students have (well, at least those trained in the more health-adjacent fields, I’m sorry if you study protein folding or yeast mating) can be twisted to be valuable to the job market in non-bench research positions. I think it shouldn’t be a twist though; that graduate program should be altered to be smaller but also with the understanding that most graduates *will not* become bench scientists.

    When I hear people like Eve, I can’t help but read her own self interest in continuing the Ph.D pyramid scheme. When I read Mike, I think he’s being uncommonly pessimistic about the value of scientific training, and that pessimism more than anything hurts the career options for PhD graduates.

    1. I’m definitely with you on the idea that a PhD gives you valuable general skills. My problem is when the PhD is treated as merely an extension of your general education that began with the undergrad years. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be. You hit the nail on the head – a non-academic career shouldn’t be a twist.

      My pessimism is a direct result of my own experience, but I should qualify this a bit. I think PhD graduates actually have it better – postdocs are getting the raw deal. This is because you quickly become overqualified for any non-academic position you’re likely to get, i.e. you would have been hired to do the same job with less post-grad experience. The way things are structured now, there is very little guidance for postdocs on *when* and how to find industry jobs. Based on the experiences of my buddies in non-life science fields, it looks like biomedical programs are especially bad at this.

      1. The latter point fits succinctly into the “don’t do a second postdoc*” mantra.

        (*Unless there’s a very clear job available at the end of that second postdoc)

        1. Definitely don’t do a second second postdoc if you don’t know what you’ll get out of it.

          I’d say it’s time to start thinking in the second year of your first postdoc – if you’re not aiming for a faculty job, start looking for an exit strategy.

  4. Speaking as a PhD who doesn’t work in academia, I know how tight the job market is, but I also I know my PhD has opened doors for me that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. A PhD carries weight, even outside academia. The same isn’t necessarily true about a postdoc, however. One skill that’s necessary and not taught in your program is networking. I don’t know if that necessarily can be taught, but it’s essential to your exit strategy, whatever that may be. I think there’s no need to artificially limit the number of people going in to PhD programs, but there does need to be much better education of people about what to expect. It’s critically important that the people doing the career instruction aren’t only coming from within academia, to ensure a balanced perspective is presented.

    The world is so much bigger than academia vs. industry.

    Another successful entrepreneur and I gave a few talks to postdoc associations about our experiences:

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