I was at the ISSCR (International Society for Stem Cell Research) in Stockholm last year. At the meeting, there was a talk by the winner of their Outstanding Young Investigator Award, Paul Tesar.
Paul's research seemed perfectly fine, but it was his presentation style that really stuck out. He kept mentioning the people in his lab who worked on projects. As he did, I noticed there were a large number of graduate students, especially for a lab that was relatively young (about six years old at the time). So while the talk went on, I checked out his lab's webpage. And holy shit was it terrifying - this guy has five current graduate students plus one who's graduated.
Let's be clear - Paul is not a dumb guy. In fact, as I'll explain, what he's doing is rather savvy. Grad students are a well-established source of cheap labor. As I've said before, there's an old joke in research: What do you call someone who will work 60+ hours a week for less than minimum wage? Answer: A grad student.
Let's look at the grad student phenomenon on a macro scale, from the professorial point of view. Prefessors are pretty much entirely removed from the lab. Their job is to promote their work (and themselves) in order to gain tenure, grants, cushy consulting gigs, etc.
Nothing wrong with that, but someone still has to do the research. As you'd expect from a group of driven, competitive people, research is essentially a competition about who can do more with finite resources. To really excel, you need an economical, highly motivated/highly skilled labor force you can control.
In addition to the low cost of each student (I started at $18K a year; I would never have worked for so little under any other circumstances) there's a retention benefit - if they leave early they get nothing - that gives the employer/mentor a degree of (shall we say) control over the student and the near-certainty that they won't bolt before 5-6 years have passed.
Paul's taken the idea one step further, it seems. Bringing in a big pack of students can be useful - they can teach each other skills and techniques, making the effort to train them fairly low on a per-student basis. By leveraging this economy of scale, Paul now has a bolus of data with which to promote his work (and himself), win awards, and propel himself towards tenure, grants, cushy consulting gigs, etc.
Now you may be thinking, Good for Paul. Shut up Noah, you jealous douche. But what you think isn't important (unless it's the douche part... you really think I'm a douche?), it's what other academics think. Every new professor wants to be in Paul's shoes five years from now. So they all emulate him by bringing in half a dozen fresh-faced grad students.
And now you start to see the issue. It simply isn't a sustainable dynamic, and hasn't been for some time. Paul's averaging about one new grad student per year. At the same rate, he'll produce 40+ PhDs over the course of his career. No matter how great a mentor he is and how great/motivated/brilliant they are, some of them are going to wind up seriously underemployed BECAUSE EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT AND HAS BEEN FOR SOME TIME.
This is a dirty secret of academia. Everyone knows it. We discuss it privately, but no one wants to put it on blast, least of all those who need a neverending supply of graduate students to run the mill. By the time they hit the job market, Paul Tesar will have tenure. Well, fuck it, someone needs to tell it like it is.
Shit In The System
To use an appropriate analogy, let's talk about plumbers. Plumbers and PhDs are very similar, in that they both use the mentor-apprentice relationship to train students. If every plumber took a new apprentice each year, and then the apprentices-turned-plumbers did this, we'd be shit deep in plumber (there's a sentence I thought I'd never write). However, plumbers seem to understand cause and effect better than researchers, probably because there's not so much to be gained by having a shitload of apprentices in the plumbing world.
The dynamics I describe are well-known to every scientists. Calling out tenured or tenure-track profs for perpetuating the cycle is silly, as they're just responding in a way that benefits their own interest. One can argue that the grants-based system is the fault or this issue or another, but let's be realistic: most of this is government and, as such, will be slow to change. In the meantime, the real victims are the students and young postdocs. These people will be part of the education bubble, only instead of paying buttloads for a useless degree, they'll have slaved away a decade of prime earning years for a degree that doesn't pay out. That is a tremendous opportunity cost by any measure or reward.
What about so-called "alternative careers" in science?
My "exponential PhD problem" is presupposed by the assumption that everyone who goes into science stays in academia and proceeds to train the next oversupply of scientists. Obviously people go into other careers (like me). Surely other job pools can sop up academia's moist excesses.
Second choices are a sometimes-bitter necessity in this field. I can't prove this, but I believe most people entering grad school start out wanting to be profs. Most of them get this desire beat out of them after fighting the bullshit that goes with a tenure-track position and are left wondering "what else is out there. To use the plumbing analogy a final time, they're spilling out of academia like water pouring from an overflowing toilet. Problem is, the bathroom floor's covered and the hall's starting to fill up.
There's this myth that you can just go into industry and make piles of money working for a pharma company. That can be true, but getting in is more competitive then you might think (especially for PhDs). There were over 200 PhD candidates for the job I got, which fringes into PI numbers, and this was nearly a decade ago. Think things have gotten easier since then?
The second-tier science jobs (as far as research prestige - not trying to minimize anyone) are currently in the process of being saturated. I've see sharp increases in the pedigrees of salesmen and product reps in recent years. CROs are being more picky. I get emails from job seekers all the time. It's tough out there.
To do my part, I've effectively stopped accepting students into my lab, but this will have very little effect on the flood of entering students who think the picture is nice and rosy. That's why I'm not writing this for scientists; I'm addressing anyone (parents and young people) who thinks that getting a terminal academic degree is an easy ticket to a fat paycheck. Because it isn't, despite what the last five or so presidents have claimed.
The Society for Neuroscience (which represents any kind of PhD that studies the brain) was kind enough to publish why science is a bad idea. They put it right in their annual meeting attendance statistics: There are 1.5 trainees (postdocs and students) for every regular members (and not all members are PIs. I also ignored nonmembers, which would probably skew the statistic even further). That's terrifying if you're a trainee - if each member has a thirty year career, there'd be 310 job openings each year, one for every 39 trainees. It's still one in ten odds if you consider only the postdocs.
Still looking for more punishment?
Here's the NIH's projected budget for 2016. The NIH is the National Institutes of Health, the biggest medical research organization in the US. $31.3 billion represents an anemic 3.3% increase from the previous year. Excluding construction and management, let's say 85% of it actually goes out in some form. After indirect costs (to leep the lights on and the administrators paid) maybe 60% of that is left over to pay scientists and buy test tubes. That's about 16 billion left. Seemingly plenty, but let's hold off on that conclusion for a moment.
How many hands in the pot? Let's take a conservative guess: The US produced 32,827 science and engineering PhDs in 2010, representing a 3.2% increase from the previous year and a 20.4% increase decade over decade (these are NSF stats, by the way. See that big increase resulting from all the grad-student pushing?). Extrapolating backwards and assuming a 40-year career, there are approximately one million uber-nerds out there. Not all of them do science, of course, but then again, I've left out the massive influx of foreign students, postdocs, and professors who compete for this pool of funding.
What's that back-of-the-napkin math work to? (desultorily stabs calculator for a few seconds) $16,000 per scientist. That's almost nothing. With ever more hands in the pot and anemic growth, we're going to start to see some very ugly things happen in the near future: Academic fraud is going to increase, labs will shut down, and someone will probably kill themselves because they couldn't get a grant. Under these circumstances, there's not a lot to recommend this path as a solid career option. Not anymore.
OK, I'm scared enough. What should my kid do?
Tell your kid to be a plumber. A computer will never take their job. They will never starve, either; I paid my plumber $129 an hour, eighteen times more then my hourly rate in grad school.
Note: I'm focusing broadly on biomedical research, but this can be generally applied to math, physics. Less so to many branches of engineering with broad private-sector tie-ins.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.