Skip

Too many trainee positions in biomedical research
June 16, 2012 10:19 AM   Subscribe

The U.S. National Institute of Heath has urged steps to curb growth in "training" positions in biomedical research (report).

The report suggests removing graduate student funding from investigator-linked research grants, instead encouraging the hiring of staff scientists as permanent lab members and offering institution-linked training grants, amongst various other proposals.

There have been vastly more training positions than permanent positions in the sciences for a long time now.
posted by jeffburdges (39 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Shirley Tilghman's comment that graduate students are a "drain on the system" highlights her sparkling personality.
posted by sciencegeek at 10:36 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


So. Is unemployment our only growth industry these days?
posted by tommasz at 10:42 AM on June 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Unemployment and survivalism.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:46 AM on June 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not to mention the fact that after years of growth, most people are expecting NIH funding to taper off in coming years. And most research universities have bulked up their research infrastructure over the last 10 years to take advantage of what appeared to be a never ending boom in funding. Can anyone say bubble?

Look at this trendline! If we extend it out into the future, it's clear that the industry will always be growing!
posted by pjaust at 10:51 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the long term, this is a good decision. It simply doesn't make sense to train people in huge numbers for positions that don't exist. Replacing low paid graduate student labour with better paid staff researcher positions will also improve job prospects for future graduate students, so this attacks the narrowing job pipeline at two points.
posted by atrazine at 10:51 AM on June 16, 2012 [12 favorites]


I think the postdoctoral/staff scientist recommendations make sense to some extent, but yeah, I don't get the 'drain on the system' comment regarding grad students. It takes at least a year or two to get up to speed, yes, but grad students are only really overvalued if you count the ephemeral value of tuition, which only pays for classes at the beginning of a PhD. After that it becomes a weird sleight of hand for indirects. I also found it a little weird that this report was chaired by someone from a university without a significant biomedical research program- Princeton does some good research in specific areas but has no medical school.
posted by monocyte at 10:52 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


C'mon, guys.
Do you want more student teachers than teachers?
More student nurses than nurses?
If the goal of the training is to produce independent researchers, doesn't it make sense to have jobs for the researchers when they finish their training?

This is nothing but the age old story of using low paid or unpaid 'interns' as cheap labor. High time for reform, i say.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:55 AM on June 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


> the low pay and long training period may make the field unattractive to the best and brightest

Oh, I thought the best and brightest are people who follow their passions and don't allow money to be their primary incentive.
posted by polymodus at 10:57 AM on June 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is a fantastic direction in general, as it is probably a consensus opinion looking back at a previous Metafilter thread on science funding. And I've always been a huge fan of Shirley Tilghman and the directions she wants to take science; so even if that quote does seem slightly insulting, it's not really meant to give offense to graduate students. The "drain" attributable to graduate students has been systemic all the way from the top, from the way funding was awarded, and not due to graduate students themselves.

I do have one quibble:
NIH should find ways to shift the funding source for graduate students, most of whom are now paid out of investigators' grants, to training grants and fellowships. The reason: such programs provide higher quality training, and their graduates tend to be more successful than those funded from grants.
This seems to confuse correlation and causation; those who are more likely to succeed may be more willing to apply for these. At least my anecdata finds that to be more likely.
posted by Llama-Lime at 10:59 AM on June 16, 2012 [4 favorites]




"Drain on the system" should offend everyone, not just the graduate students. Somewhere along the line, administrators seem to have forgotten that the system is supposed to serve the people, not the other way around. A start would be to employ language that reflects that goal.
posted by polymodus at 11:04 AM on June 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


after years of growth, most people are expecting NIH funding to taper off in coming years. And most research universities have bulked up their research infrastructure over the last 10 years to take advantage of what appeared to be a never ending boom in funding

I always figured that the Bush era boost in NIH funding was a grasp at immortality by the baby boomers...eg "Holy Crap I'm 50 years old now, that means I will eventually die....UNLESS we spend all our money on biomedical research RIGHT NOW"

But seriously, good news that someone higher up gets that the "shortage" of scientists is really an oversupply.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:20 AM on June 16, 2012


I believe most field's "best and brightest" are people of high intelligence who acquire the necessary knowledge while retaining breadth, flexibility, integrity, and drive, polymodus. Our current system expels the broader more flexible people. Integrity suffers as well.

There is an ocean of difference between money being your primary incentive and choosing to give up any hope of ever owning a house, raising kids, retirement, etc. All these postdocs must eventually find non-academic employment, better they do so before 30 rather than after 50.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:23 AM on June 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


Because of course, the only positions of any real value in science are academic positions. I feel about this the way I felt about George Whitesides when he argued the same thing.

Dear everyone: it's highly unlikely you will find employment in academia. It's highly likely you will receive greater compensation and more reasonable work hours outside of academia. Academics should keep their eyes on "training" rather than trying to compete with national labs and corporate R&D for staff scientist positions.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:25 AM on June 16, 2012


But...I thought we were in the middle of a "STEM skills shortage"!
posted by Ralston McTodd at 11:29 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, I thought the best and brightest are people who follow their passions and don't allow money to be their primary incentive.

There is a difference between it being anyone's primary incentive and it playing a part in their career choices. The people I know who decided not to pursue careers as scientists did not do so because they wanted to make huge amounts of money, they did it because they wanted to be able to afford to buy a little house and have a family. They did it because they didn't want to find themselves hitting the steeply narrowing neck of that career funnel at the age of 30.
posted by atrazine at 11:31 AM on June 16, 2012


Chekhovian: "But seriously, good news that someone higher up gets that the "shortage" of scientists is really an oversupply."

I don't know much about the job market in the physical sciences, although I've read some of the previous posts with interest, so forgive a possibly dumb question: is it possibly both? I wonder if the people who 'make it' in academic or pure research tend to fetishize it and push their students into pursuing that field as opposed to working in industry or for government.

I know in my (quantitative, social science field) that nearly every views working in outside of academia after completing a PhD as a last resort or like you failed in some capacity (unless you work for one of the REALLY big places and make the accompanying big bucks). That seems really weird to me.

I guess my point is that it seems like it's possible that academic positions that rely on grant funding face an oversupply of postdocs while simultaneously being true that industry/government can't find qualified applicants. One would expect the latter two groups would pay more in order to entice the postdocs, but maybe for a lot of people you can't put a price on pride. If that's the case (again, if, this isn't my field!) then it seems like that's an issue of culture at universities and they need to take a look at what messages get sent to grad students.

on preview, I guess a bunch of people said some of this.

All that said, I'm writing this in order to procrastinate packing so I can move to start my doctorate, so...yeah.
posted by dismas at 11:34 AM on June 16, 2012


Is it possibly both? [a shortage and an oversupply]

My general impression is that industry research jobs are more obtainable than academia certainly, but not exactly anything easy to get either (especially in the current economy). The sad story I hear is that if you do a post doc though,you become virtually unemployable in industry, as you're now overqualified compared to a new phd but also probably just as unskilled in what the company actually does.

At least thats what I've heard from a couple friends, hopefully I'm wrong and it isn't generally true.

the people who 'make it' in academic or pure research tend to fetishize it and push their students into pursuing that field as opposed to working in industry or for government.

Another story I heard is that when a prof is reviewed for raises and such, the first factor they look at is how many of his students have gone on into professorships themselves. So that would tend to motivate profs to push their students into academia wouldn't it? Though I suspecnook kolkka prof would ever admit being so incentivizied.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:46 AM on June 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man I love this swipe select iPad hack, but damn does it sometimes fuck up my text entry. Sorry.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:48 AM on June 16, 2012


Another story I heard is that when a prof is reviewed for raises and such, the first factor they look at is how many of his students have gone on into professorships themselves. So that would tend to motivate profs to push their students into academia wouldn't it?

This has been my experience. At times, friends who have mentioned an interest in industry to their advisors have subsequently found their mentorship decreased significantly.

The sad story I hear is that if you do a post doc though,you become virtually unemployable in industry, as you're now overqualified compared to a new phd but also probably just as unskilled in what the company actually does.

This has not been my experience. I did a two year postdoc (Go Blue!), followed by a half-hearted academic search (two-body problem). I recognized very quickly that staff scientist positions in academia leave you at the tenuous mercy of funding grants, such that losing your position in short order is a very real possibility. My industrial job search went quickly and successfully, and my post-doc helped that. It was not treated as two years of job experience, but it was weighted as closer to one year, which helped my salary negotiations.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:53 AM on June 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


My general impression is that industry research jobs are more obtainable than academia certainly, but not exactly anything easy to get either (especially in the current economy). The sad story I hear is that if you do a post doc though,you become virtually unemployable in industry, as you're now overqualified compared to a new phd but also probably just as unskilled in what the company actually does.

At least thats what I've heard from a couple friends, hopefully I'm wrong and it isn't generally true.


At one conference, a kindly older industry veteran took a liking to me and gave me the advice that postdocs are essential for industry and academia, because industry certainly isn't training anybody anymore.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:02 PM on June 16, 2012


imho, as a scientist, it will improve the standards of research significantly to have professional staff. An enormous amount of research is currently being done by people who will only do one or two start-to-finish research projects in their entire lives. Meanwhile we have a hell of a time finding hires that don't need their hands held through each step of the process and understand that research is actually a job. It's kind of insane if you think about it that way.
posted by fshgrl at 12:03 PM on June 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Disclaimer: I don't do biomedical research. But I have friends who do!
posted by fshgrl at 12:04 PM on June 16, 2012


An enormous amount of research is currently being done by people who will only do one or two start-to-finish research project

Wonderful isn't it? You have the hardest problems being worked on by the least skilled, and should any of them show any huge skill, then they get promoted away from doing that which they have learned.

Its at least cheap in the short run I guess.
posted by Chekhovian at 12:15 PM on June 16, 2012


Part of the problem is that people entering into science at the undergrad level are often aiming at other (med/dent/vet) careers; grad school becomes a default for people who didn't make the cut for whatever reason. Often these are smart, industrious people, but you can still tell that science is just not their main passion. Most of the biology labs I've worked in are about half-full of disappointed people killing time while they get the next phase of their life figured out. That's sort of a waste of resources.

It would make a lot more sense to identify fewer people with a genuine flair for research earlier, groom them more thoroughly, and give them more material support.
posted by biochemicle at 12:18 PM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thrilled to see support for formal staff scientist positions.

Let's face it, not everyone who has a burning passion for basic research wants to run a lab. A passion for academic research does not equal a desire for a faculty position. I know plenty of brilliant people who would be delighted to have a low-but-stable salary in someone else's lab. Hell, I would have taken one of those options in a shot if I had been able to find one. But now I suffer through the endless meetings that a faculty job appears to require. (Oh god, the day-to-day meetings. Why did no one warn me about all the meetings.)

As for reducing the number of trainees - I'm having trouble sorting my feelings about this. Fundamentally I agree, but I also feel odd about trying to turn people away from science.
posted by synapse at 12:41 PM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a little suspicious that part of this is about the NIH wanting to pick the winners. If the PI cannot fund students, and students have to go to the NIH to get funding, that puts much more of the power in the NIHs hands.

A person rather high up in the NIH told me a while ago that the K99 grants were about this on the new faculty level.
posted by overhauser at 12:50 PM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


biochemicle:

there were a few of us who actually wanted to do science. we put up with the premed students in undergrad and were not happy to discover that those who didn't quite make it into med school would be accompanying us to grad school.

maybe if premed students were put in a room far far away from anyone who was genuinely interested in science, it would serve biomedical research well.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:02 PM on June 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sciencegeek, that's my point precisely . . . people like you should be streamed into grad school and given funding commensurate with ability (rather than being bogged down in the crowd). Glad to hear you're making it work for you anyways.
posted by biochemicle at 5:20 PM on June 16, 2012


we put up with the premed students in undergrad and were not happy to discover that those who didn't quite make it into med school would be accompanying us to grad school.

Having been personally responsible for ducting a lot of those failed med students in grad school, by giving them poor marks in physics 101, I apologize to you Sciencegeek.

"No Timmy, if you can't do the simplest, mildest, form of algebra based physics, you probably SHOULDN'T be a medical doctor. Certainly I wouldn't want you to be my doctor."
posted by Chekhovian at 5:25 PM on June 16, 2012


Another story I heard is that when a prof is reviewed for raises and such, the first factor they look at is how many of his students have gone on into professorships themselves.

I've served on academic salary committees and this isn't the case, at least not in math (another field where many Ph.D. graduates go into industry.)
posted by escabeche at 5:54 PM on June 16, 2012


Wonderful isn't it? You have the hardest problems being worked on by the least skilled, and should any of them show any huge skill, then they get promoted away from doing that which they have learned.

Also why I spend half my life in terror of f'ing up the budget on one of the many research projects I now "manage" instead of actually doing. I am a good scientist but I'm a terrible bookkeeper.
posted by fshgrl at 10:23 PM on June 16, 2012


half my life in terror of f'ing up the budget

There's a solution to that: just get huge amounts of soft money so you don't have to manage things well. Or just use it to hire a lab manager. One of my friends works in a group that pulls in O(a couple million/year). And they still got in trouble when they exceeded their monthly supply budget of $40k. Basically each of the 50 students was buying a liter of expensive protein only to use 1 ml of it for their work when one container would have been enough to supply more or less the whole group.

Science still thinks its the 60's when budgets were unlimited.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:31 PM on June 16, 2012


Oh, I thought the best and brightest are people who follow their passions and don't allow money to be their primary incentive.

Hmm, I find this kind of discourse quite destructive, in a race-to-the-bottom/"myth of genius" kind of way. I know plenty of people who are smart, talented, and quite capable of doing their jobs, who have switched careers and interests because they wanted the security of a stable career, and that was their primary incentive.

Additionally, I don't really respond to the idea of best and brightest. I personally find best and brightest is rarely necessary. Above average, and reasonably intelligent can and should get the job done in most cases, and deserves credit and respect for it. Championing only the best misses a lot of of worth; if we only relied on geniuses to run the world, we wouldn't have a lot of shit.
posted by smoke at 3:46 AM on June 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, there isn't nearly as much competition from Ivy league PhDs as you might imagine, polymodus. As a rule, they jump ship for the finance and corporate worlds the fastest since they get recruited most heavily.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:12 AM on June 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chekhovian, I don't know what kind of unprofessional labs you've been exposed to, but let me assure you that science does not still "think it's the 60's when budgets were unlimited." I can cite literally HUNDREDS of labs doing world class work that are desperately squeezing every single cent out of every dollar to keep funding their talented students and postdoc. Sharing equipment between labs and staff is common, to the point that people come in to test new ideas at 1 AM so as not to disturb the careful allocation of equipment time. There are students making less than 30K a year who pay out of pocket for reagents that the lab can't afford, but might otherwise carry their work forward.

A few years ago, the following joke made the rounds of a major scientific conference :

What's the difference between industry and academia?
In industry, you don't have to reuse your Kimwipes
posted by synapse at 10:59 AM on June 17, 2012


Let's face it, not everyone who has a burning passion for basic research wants to run a lab. A passion for academic research does not equal a desire for a faculty position.

This is why I chose a staff scientist position over a postdoc. I get to actually work on the interesting problems instead of attending meetings and writing grants all day. I'll won't completely rule out a move to a faculty position someday, but at the moment, I'm very happy where I am.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:53 AM on June 17, 2012


I'm the author of the post in the last link (and the community manger of that blog, which is how I just found this post, but I'm a long-time MeFite and super-excited to be linked on the blue!). The discussion thread on that post inspired a series of guest posts by people who did a PhD in developmental biology and then left research. Here's the summary.

Basically, all these people actually used their PhD, even though they did not end up running a lab. Yes, it's a training position, but there are a lot more things you can do with a PhD than the job your supervisor has. I personally never intended to become a lab head, but I did a PhD to explore my options and learn more about the world of academic research. If the number of biomedical PhD positions is to be cut, and students are only trained for specific research jobs, there'd better be a good alternative for all the people who do a PhD in preparation of non-lab careers (editing, patent law, education and biomedical ethics were some of the careers covered in the series we did).
posted by easternblot at 9:03 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]




« Older Gone West   |   "You won't never know whether... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post