This week’s readings included some dire looks at life after the PhD: Kovalik (2013) on how easy it is to slip through the cracks of academia, and Johnson (2014) on the hyper-competitive life of the postdoc. Both were quite sobering. Johnson describes the problem in the health sciences where reduced government funding has led to situations where academic research labs are increasingly dependent on cheap labor (postdocs), who do most of the actual science, while the faculty jobs are increasingly difficult to find, because there are too many postdocs being cranked out to do the research. It was a somewhat frustrating article because while it hinted at how smaller labs could help correct this problem, it really didn’t explain how that could work. Would the problem just be harder to identify if there were lots of smaller labs, rather than fewer large ones? I like to think there is more to this idea of smaller labs, that are geared more to research. Perhaps they are more like projects with longer funding cycles than labs?

I followed one of Johnson’s citations to Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, & Varmus (2014) which painted a very bleak picture of federal funding drying up, and its impact on the research lab. The authors attribute this to many factors, but the primary one is an unending growth model that began after World War 2 with Vannevar Bush. It seems like a systemic problem that we can see reflected in our financial systems. But I actually liked this article because it ends with a list of recommendations that were at least understandable.

One of the things that the authors suggest is weaning research labs off of using grant funding to pay for postdoc positions and using funding that is oriented towards training:

To give federal agencies more control over the number of trainees and the quality of their training, we propose moving gradually to a system in which graduate students are supported with training grants and fellowships and not with research grants. Fellowships have the virtue of providing peer review of the student applicants, and training programs set high standards for selection of students and for the education they receive.

They also suggest that labs increase the number of full time staff (requiring support from the University):

We believe that staff scientists can and should play increasingly important roles in the biomedical workforce. Within individual laboratories, they can oversee the day-to-day work of the laboratory, taking on some of the administrative burdens that now tend to fall on the shoulders of the laboratory head; orient and train new members of the laboratory; manage large equipment and common facilities; and perform scientific projects independently or in collaboration with other members of the group. Within institutions, they can serve as leaders and technical experts in core laboratories serving multiple investigators and even multiple institutions.

As a staff person at the University of Maryland I feel good about these recommendations. But where I can’t help but wonder if there are enough training grants available, particularly in the field of information science. What are effective ways to make the case to your university that you need additional staff? I guess these may vary from institution to institution.

Johnson remarks on how learning to be a researcher as a doctoral student doesn’t always translate very well into the job that you end up doing when you get out:

The problem is that any researcher running a lab today is training far more people than there will ever be labs to run. Often these supremely well-educated trainees are simply cheap laborers, not learning skills for the careers where they are more likely to find jobs — teaching, industry, government or nonprofit jobs, or consulting.

This reminded me of this visualization I saw recently of initial career choices after receiving a PhD from Stanford University:

Click on the image for the full report. Wouldn’t it be great if all universities did this?

Maybe I missed it, but what Alberts et al. (2014) didn’t seem to address was the significant numbers of post doctoral students that head directly into business, government or the scary, gray unknown. Hopefully that unknown area isn’t unemployment! I have to imagine that a significant number of biomedical researchers go immediately to work in corporate labs. What impact does this have on the enterprise of open science?

The implication here is that doing a PhD must necessarily involve opportunities to gain experience with industry, government and non-profits. How can this be achieved while not compromising the independence of research? It reminds me of how important my internships were as a Masters level student.

References

Alberts, B., Kirschner, M. W., Tilghman, S., & Varmus, H. (2014). Rescuing us biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(16), 5773–5777. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/111/16/5773.full

Johnson, C. (2014). Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/10/04/glut-postdoc-researchers-stirs-quiet-crisis-science/HWxyErx9RNIW17khv0MWTN/story.html

Kovalik, D. (2013). Death of an adjunct. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 18. Retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/Op-Ed/2013/09/18/Death-of-an-adjunct/stories/201309180224