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Too Many Biomedical Graduate Students, Not Enough Jobs 226

Posted by timothy
from the great-big-invisible-hand dept.
stillnotelf writes "ScienceInsider is covering a National Institutes of Health advisory committee report that details problems in the U.S. biomedical research workforce. Current policies encourage the training of large numbers of biomedical graduate students, as they are the cheapest labor available, but the research enterprise is not structured to absorb them into full-time scientist positions. The report's varied suggestions include removing graduate student funding from investigator-linked research grants (shifting it to institution-linked training grants instead) and encouraging the hiring of staff scientists as permanent lab members. This would reduce the number of trainees, but increase the proportion of trainees that maintain careers as researchers. ScienceInsider further notes that a National Research Council report 14 years ago noted a similar problem, but never motivated change."
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Too Many Biomedical Graduate Students, Not Enough Jobs

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  • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:05PM (#40341869)

    also get rid of unpiad and college only internships (paid or unpaid) We need to get rid of the idea of pay to work / work for free and pay full price for Credits.

  • by Lemmy Caution (8378) on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:36PM (#40342001) Homepage

    This society needs more income equality and public services, so there's less panicked rushing from one sector of the labor market to another.

  • by virb67 (1771270) on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:38PM (#40342007)
    This is true for most professions today in the U.S.. When the U.S. exported its manufacturing industry, vaporizing millions of well-paying blue collar jobs in the U.S., the middle class was told that these jobs would be replaced by even higher paying white collar or "creative" jobs for everyone--you just had to educate yourself. Well, people listened, and they educated themselves, and now they're finding out that they were sold a big fat bucket of bullshit. Just ask any recent law grad, or architecture grad, or marketing grad, or, yeah, bio-med grad. There just aren't enough of these professional jobs to replace the ones we've lost. There never was and there never will be.
  • by RightwingNutjob (1302813) on Friday June 15, 2012 @11:49PM (#40342035)
    Nope. Too many people were told "educate yourself" and heard "go to college and get a degree in underwater basketweaving." That's problem 1. Problem 2 is a persistent cultural cancer in academia that declares and academic job as the only kind of job there is. Maybe the problem is worse in the squishier sciences, but in engineering, you can't simultaneously have "not enough highly qualified candidates" for jobs that typically start at 70k+ and a glut of PhD's unless those PhD's restrict their jobs search to academia where tenure track positions are nearly nonexistent and post-doc the pay tops out at 50k. The solution isn't to change the funding model, it's to make students aware of the fact that the world doesn't begin and end at the borders of campus.
  • by sqrt(2) (786011) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @12:26AM (#40342181) Journal

    Economy be damned. We know how to fix it, we just choose to prioritize other things like tolerance for huge wealth inequality, low taxes, and lack of regulation.

    Turning the issue around and looking at it from the other direction; it would be hard to make the case that our civilization would be worse off with more highly educated individuals, regardless of their "economic" usefulness. Man does not exist to serve the economy, the economy exists to serve man and enable the nobler pursuits of humanity beyond the daily struggle for mere existence.

  • Thanks (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cratermoon (765155) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @12:40AM (#40342243) Homepage

    THANK YOU!

    Every time I read another article or book about how we need more STEM education in schools I want to pull my hair out and scream "HOW ABOUT SOME FUCKING JOBS THAT PAY?"

    Let's be honest, getting a degree in the sciences, math, or technology is hard. It takes dedication right from an early age in school where science and math studies are bastardized by political interests that insist on BS like "teaching the controversy", and even if you can get a good education, those interests play second fiddle to athletics and prom night.

    Then you go into college where you get weed-out classes and tons of labs that cost a lot of additional money over tuition, books, and room and board.

    After *that*, if you have the dedication, you do graduate work for an advanced degree and possibly post-doc work.

    After all that, *if* you can find a job, you get paid for a year's work about what a Wall Street broker makes during the time he's sitting on the toilet taking a dump, and forget about tenure-track educational positions, those are rarer than hen's teeth in the 21st century.

    I'm not done yet -- if you do manage to go though all that, you end up a field where the very basis of your work - the scientific method and things like evolution and global warming - are just punching bags to idiot politicians who won't hesitate to destroy your reputation and career if your findings don't square with their personal fantasies.

    If the US is serious about science, math and technology, they'll stop harping about needing more education and start paying attention to revitalizing the field's job prospects and respectability.

  • by AthanasiusKircher (1333179) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @12:58AM (#40342323)

    Ever hear of the phrase "over-qualified"?

    THIS. A person with a Ph.D. -- whether it's in biomedical science, philosophy, or English literature -- is generally viewed by employers as a "researcher." If a person with such a Ph.D. applies for any non-research job (academic or not), he will have to convince interviewers that (1) he won't cost too much, (2) he won't be bored and is actually interested in the job, (3) he's not going to bolt for a better job the minute he can find one, etc. Often it's hard to even get an interview, since potential employers assume that you're just not going to be a good fit.

    Same goes for someone with a 4-year degree applying for a job that only requires a high-school diploma. etc.

    There are those jokes about philosophy Ph.D.'s working at McDonald's or waiting tables, but the reality is that overqualified people often have significant trouble landing a position unless it's low enough to be considered "temp level" or the kind of thing that high school kids do part-time.

    Yes, many will eventually convince an employer to take a chance on an "overqualified" candidate, and they can then work their way up to a reasonable salary. But I know young people who have multiple master's degrees and years of experience, but have ended up out of work for well over a year waiting for a reasonable job to come along -- and by "reasonable," I mean something that would at least put them into the equivalent of an entry level position for a bachelor's degree in their field (or, frankly, any related field).

    For Ph.D.'s, the stigma tends to be worse. Looking outside of academia is fine, but trying for professional jobs outside of high-level research is often quite difficult.

  • by ATMAvatar (648864) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @01:00AM (#40342333) Journal

    The crux of the issue with allowing unpaid internships that provide nothing of value to the company and paid internships which do is this: prove the intern's work provided value. If a record company or Hollywood studio can bill a blockbuster success as somehow a multi-million dollar loss, you can bet that any company that wants to exploit unpaid interns will easily be able to "prove" that they got nothing of value.

    The distinction between the two works just fine in an environment with mature adults, but the business world is a bunch of two-year-olds screaming "mine!".

  • by Brannoncyll (894648) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @01:01AM (#40342339)
    There are other aspects of academic jobs that many scientists (such as myself) value more than the salary. I could quite easily leave and work for a finance company as a quantitative analyst, earning 3 or 4 times my current salary, and many in my position do just that, but in doing so I would have to give up my freedom to pursue my ideas to go work for someone else. I enjoy my job too much for that.
  • by Pausanias (681077) <(pausaniasx) (at) (gmail.com)> on Saturday June 16, 2012 @01:18AM (#40342403)

    Nobody wants to admit it but slashing funding for postdocs is the right answer. Right now it's so easy to get a postdoc job that professors consider themselves a success if their students get a postdoc position. meanwhile, if you're supervising a postdoc who can't get a tenure-track appointment, it's considered "moving on to the industry" and no big deal.

    If we cut funding for postdocs, this has several benefits. 1) the bottleneck is moved to the grad student level, and fewer grad students will apply; 2) those who would have left academia after their 3rd postdoc wind up wasting less of their life at low pay; 3) the lack of slave labor will cause us professors to actually do the fucking research ourselves rather than being remote grant writing machines as some of my esteemed colleagues have become; 4) more tenure-track jobs will be created from the savings if the grant system adapts by turning into UK style block grants which fund entire departments rather than (often competing) individuals.

  • by mcelrath (8027) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @01:33AM (#40342447) Homepage

    No way, "biomedical" is far too narrow. These recommendations are valid across all the sciences. I think the solution is simple: abolish post-docs (fixed-term contracts for scientists), and reduce the number of grants for grad students, replacing both with "permanent scientist" jobs. We've created an indentured underclass of scientists who have neither the job stability, nor funding to actually do science. Instead they're beholden to the latest shiny object everyone else is fascinated by, because that's what will get them the next post-doc. The entire system is organized around training professors, not doing science. Like any field with 10 times more applicants than jobs, the primary activity becomes culling the herd, not selecting the best science. As any professor will tell you, it's about finding ways to veto candidates, not selecting the best one. So we end up with everyone playing follow the leader, and searching for ever low-hanging fruit, and no one in all of science is in a position to make a long-term commitment to pursue a difficult idea.

    Yeah, grad students and post-docs are cheap, but they can't actually do science. They're our best and brightest, and we only allow them to do other people's science. You better hope that the PI with 10 minutes today to think about his project between meetings has the right idea. Because, you know, people with 10 minutes between meetings are the best ones to think deeply about things and decide the best course of action. We'd be better off if we inverted the hierarchy in science. We need to give people in their late 20's and early 30's the majority of the power in the field, because that's when our minds are sharpest, and we are most capable. Hire them into permanent positions, and promote from within instead of heavily recruiting from outside.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @01:55AM (#40342539) Journal

    we just choose to prioritize other things like ..... low taxes

    Everyone wants low taxes, mate. That's not a class struggle thing.

    And for that matter, does it really bother you so much if someone has more wealth than you?

  • by the gnat (153162) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @02:08AM (#40342587)

    Some of the graduates may not have the greatest critical reasoning skills, but surviving in such a program most definitely requires significant determination and dedication.

    Equally advantageous: extreme mismanagement at all levels.

    I spent five years in one of the most prestigious biomedical science graduate programs and somehow managed to get a PhD (I say this not to brag, but to make the point that they'll give just about any asshole a degree). I have seen countless graduate students and postdocs coast along for years with no results to show for it, without any action from the supervisors. Sometimes bad luck is a factor - even the most talented scientist can be helpless when faced with an intractable experiment - but a good manager knows when to cut his/her losses. A good manager also knows when to say, "perhaps grad school isn't a good environment for you. Maybe you should quit now with an MS and go do something more useful with your life." A good manager realizes that when someone stops showing up for months on end, it's time to fire his sorry ass and hire someone useful, or buy more equipment. An HPLC never shows up at 3pm because it overslept after eating too many pot brownies. (True story!)

    What makes this really depressing: most of the people I went to school with were far above average intelligence and capable of doing excellent work with the proper motivation and management. There are lots of exceptionally bright men and women in their 20s slaving away in laboratories on soul-crushing projects, supervised by an odd mix of micromanagers, passive-aggressives, and absentee landlords (for lack of a better term). Most of us are utterly unsuited for graduate school, either in theory or in practice. Only a fraction are cut out to be full research faculty, and even some of these I wonder if they'd be happier doing something different. (The remainder, I seriously wonder whether they'll be fucking up their grad students' lives in 20 years.) Most of us go to grad school because that seemed like the logical route at the time, and we enjoyed learning and experimenting. After 5-6 years of largely wasted effort, almost none of us would still recommend grad school to our younger selves. I still feel bad about a few of the younger students who didn't get the brutally honest advice they deserved, because we didn't want to hurt their feelings.

    There are probably a few sub-fields where it is possible to stay on the cutting edge and be employable for years after graduation - next-gen sequencing, perhaps. But I get depressed every time I go to meetings and meet students and postdocs with IQs well above 120 slaving away on projects that are probably useful but certainly not world-changing, and who will probably end up with one or two papers in Journal of Molecular Biology, and eventually need to find jobs in their chosen fields. What jobs? Even if you're the most badass electron microscopist in all of New England, what does that prepare you to do other than perpetuate the cycle of mismanagement at another research institution? Assuming you can even get the job, of course; even a top-tier journal publication doesn't automatically get you anything when you're competing with several hundred other postdocs.

    Sadly, I still haven't figured out what to do with the degree that took most of my youth and nearly all of my sanity. I never had any ambitions towards faculty posts, fortunately, but there aren't a ton of jobs in industry in my field either. I still work in the same field in academia in a full-time researcher position, which is relatively stable if you ignore the fact that my employer is $14 trillion in the red and counting. I'm probably marginally more employable because I managed to pick up very good programming skills along the way, but still, if I want to move into software engineering I'm either going to be competing with CS PhDs, or settling for bachelors-level jobs. Every time I read my alumni newsletter from college I cringe, and think "Jesus Christ, why didn't I just sell out like everyone with a brain?"

  • by cortex (168860) <neuraleng@gmail.com> on Saturday June 16, 2012 @02:14AM (#40342599)
    According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Biomedical Engineering [bls.gov] is one of the fastest growing occupations and has a median income of over $80,000. I think that this NIH study, which was run mainly by people in academia, doesn't fully account for the jobs in industry.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 16, 2012 @03:49AM (#40342879)

    So, the solution is to cut back on public services and go back to the era of robber barons? I'm sorry, but conservatives really need to spend some time in school, specifically history class so they understand why their views are so incredibly stupid.

  • by mysidia (191772) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @04:10AM (#40342953)

    you can bet that any company that wants to exploit unpaid interns will easily be able to "prove" that they got nothing of value.

    Hang on... if the unpaid intern provided nothing of value; it would be irrational for the company to have brought them on in the first place.

    Obviously companies do get something value. Free contributions to anything that the company does, or free contribution to development of anything the company will use is a benefit.

    It makes perfect sense for the governmetn prohibit not paying interns at least a minimum wage for any time during which they are requested to provide a service to the company or doing any kind of work for the company.

    If they are receiving instruction, then it makes sense anything they were paid would not include time they were receiving instruction or demonstration but not doing any work or executing the performance of any task.

  • by DangerFace (1315417) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @04:39AM (#40343017) Journal
    And this conversation, right here, is the perfect example of Poe's Law [wikipedia.org].
  • by DaveGod (703167) on Saturday June 16, 2012 @08:11AM (#40343501)

    also get rid of unpiad and college only internships (paid or unpaid) We need to get rid of the idea of pay to work / work for free and pay full price for Credits.

    Hmm. I work in an accounting practice, we occasionally get "interns" of two kinds.

    Firstly, people who are in the break between high school and university, or who are considering a career change. The folks are mainly looking to see what it's like. There's also an element of being able to put study into some context and have an edge in future interviews. Employers feel like they're taking a gamble on someone who has no idea what the work is like, or what they're getting into, so it's a significant advantage. They are what I consider an internship is supposed to be about.

    These folks are usually in for about a month and it's unpaid. It does feel like a tough month of hard work for them, because it's all new and we give them a taste of a range of things. The firm's pretty good about that actually; at the time it's daunting for the intern but it is exactly what they were hoping for and need.

    What they're not doing though is producing anything of value. Sure they'll complete things, like a bank reconciliation, but they'll take maybe a day to do it. As the senior it'd take me about an hour to do the same thing myself, and I'll have spent at least that hour showing them what to do and then another hour checking it and bringing it up to standard for the file. Yes, per unit of productivity, interms end up a hell of a lot more expensive than seniors. It looks like work, feels like work, but it isn't contributing anything. What they're doing is basically a college exercise, just in a practical setting and without having to pay for the one-to-one tuition. It would actually be more efficient for the firm to treat it more explicitly like that i.e. give them photocopies and put what they do in the trash while I do the real work for the file, but it's important to convey the sense that they're contributing to the file, to a real-world thing that has importance, ramifications, standards, is part of a larger project... After all they didn't come here to do an exercise out of a textbook.

    Unpaid interns are very expensive in my time. They get a very good return for their time investment. That's probably why all the interns I've seen have either been kids of clients, or someone making a career change who would be an obvious asset if they do decide the work is for them and join the firm. To be fair, that's probably also the reason the interns are getting such good value, I have heard of other firms who basically sit them down and make them do the photocopying or churn through bank recs non-stop, so they are producing value and overall saving time/cost of paid staff whilst getting very little of value from it.

    The second kind were university students in the summer break. We've not done these for a few years now. They're paid not that much less than the juniors and for their 4-6 weeks they'll basically be new juniors. In other words horribly inefficient. Unlike juniors though, they go back to uni well before they become productive enough to return the training investment. It's basically a write off for the firm just on the prospect that maybe they'll come back after graduation, maybe if they go into industry they'll maybe put our name down when their employer tenders for a new accountant. I suspect the partners also used to think they were kind of getting some temps in during the busy season, but have cottoned on to the reality that they're a time-sink with a net burden on staff when things are already insanely busy. Maybe if they were unpaid and thus had a zero chargeout rate they might just about be worth it, but I doubt it and the partners do not consider that to be acceptable behaviour.

    There's one thing that makes me certain in my assessment above. When we do get an intern, if we're in the off-season folks who aren't busy are interested in the interns, it's fun being tutor. But if busy, all the seniors and

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 16, 2012 @03:55PM (#40346111)
    The problem is not fabricated. There is not a five-year backlog to getting a faculty position. At a top-50 research institution there will be 200-300 applicants for every professorship. Trimming the list to the top 30 or so is pretty easy, you look for Science/Nature/Cell papers, high impact/high number of publications, a pedigree that includes top labs (National Academy, Nobel Laureate, etc.) at top schools, and of course you look to make sure they got their own grants--no small accomplishment when the grant success rate is little better than the odds of winning the lottery. So to make it into that top-30 list you are required to have 5-10 years of post-PhD experience. Someone fresh out of grad school just cannot compete in the job market for professors, and even if they could they would not last long as a professor since they would not be able to bring in an R01 grant (basic NIH grant for professors) because they couldn't compete against their new-found peers. This is particularly true as the competition for grant dollars has never been more intense and failure more likely.

    Industry is not hiring. Pharma finally stopped the biweekly 1,000-person mass firings about six months ago. This is after the carnage of 2010 and 2011 where layoffs were five times worse than any previous year, which is saying a lot since they laid off 300,000 in the 2000's. Not only does no one expect those jobs to come back, every year we graduate an increasing number of life science PhDs. Naturally as supply (and unemployment) goes up, wages fall. A new Scientist II gets paid the same dollar amount as a Scientist I did ten years ago. You can find temporary positions in the bay area requiring a PhD, five years experience, and they'll pay you $20 an hour. No relocation. No benefits. And the position lasts six months. Scientists are viewed by companies as merely "expensive" cogs that are interchangeable and disposable. The trend of the future is one of no permanent jobs, only temps and contractors. Work three months to two years, then off to the next position (or back to unemployment). Introducing the PhD migrant worker: no wage too low.

    So why doesn't it change? Academia is utterly dependent on cheap and disposable workers: the PhD student and the postdoc. There aren't grant dollars to pay anybody more than a pittance. Actually there aren't enough grant dollars to pay everybody anymore so studies like the one in the TFA will generate a little bit of hand wringing and nothing more. Meanwhile pharma and biotech are as happy as pigs in shit: not only are their new hires vastly more experienced than they were ten years ago they cost much less too. These days we all know that who has the dollars runs everything, the corporations, the media, the legal system, the government. So when the CEO shrieks about a "shortage" of STEM workers, it's repeated by the politicians and the news media. Since scientists are a tiny minority that very few ever interact with there's nobody to rebut the lie so people believe it's true. Hell even the trade media and professional societies repeat the lie: everything's just fine, become a scientist says the American Chemical Society . So our universities continue to spew out thousands of life sciences PhDs at an ever increasing rate, and the machine merrily chews them up and shits them out.

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