I had been writing this post, but had put it aside (honest). Yesterday Jenny posted about the same topic, so I’ll take a break from putting envelopes around trees, and finish what I was writing.
If you have been hanging around in the scientific blogosphere for some time, you get to read about several people who have been through the scientific mill, doing PhDs, and perhaps post-docs, but at some point finding they have to leave science. For some it is because they have fallen out of love with academic research, for others it is because of difficulties finding their next job. This is the problem that Jenny was worrying about.
As a PI I also see the other side: the pressure to acquire funding for research. In practice, this means getting bodies into the lab or in front of the computer. These will either be PhD students or post-docs, because they’re cheap. Students in particular. A large number of junior posts are thus created, but senior posts are few and far between. My impression is that this has got worse over the last 20 or 30 years. How did it get this way, and what can we do about it? I can speculate on the first, and wave my arms on the rest. And, this being a blog, I will simplify hopelessly. So be warned.
The problem, I think, is that the higher education system has evolved. Back in the old days (according to the ancient myths), the purpose of a PhD was to train the student to be a researcher: an apprenticeship in academia. Most students would expect to find a job in universities, or perhaps another government research institution or in industrial research.
But at some point, research became more professional1. This was linked to government funding: putting money into science because it was Good For The Country. A lot of the money was soft, so the most convenient way of using it was to hire students and post-docs. The effect was, of course, to increase the number of PhDs produced and Post-docs employed, without necessarily increasing the number of jobs available. Most academic research is carried out by universities2, who’s permanent funding usually comes through education ministries rather than the science ministries who give out research money. Between this and the short-term decisions about science funding, we have a recipe for inconsistency. If money is given to research councils on a short-term basis, it will be used to train PhD students, who then can’t find the permanent positions, as they are largely paid from the education budget (yes, this is horribly simplified).
Of course, the same thing happens at all levels: a lot of undergrads don’t have a career in the subject they studied for their degree3. But it is accepted that an undergraduate degree provides a more general education, so that one can go into a wide range of jobs: research, teaching in a school, managing a nature reserve, working in the city, whatever. But, because of its history as an academic apprenticeship, the PhD is seen more specifically as a step on the path of a research career, and mainly in academia to boot.
About here is where Leslie steps in. I must admit I know very little about Leslie as a person, and can’t be bothered to flex my google-foo. But he formalised a method that can be traced (via Fisher) to Euler and perhaps elsewhere4. The idea came from happy acturists, who were looking at changes in the human population. What they had done was to create tables of rates of survival and reproduction for different groups of people (coal miners, bishops etc.). With these, one can work out the change in population size, by solving one of Euler’s equations. With this framework we can estimate things like the stable population size given rates of attrition, how the population will change.
Where Leslie and his matrices enter into all this is that we can think of progression through the academic system in the same terms. Leslie matrices use discrete classes of individuals, so we could use the following categories: undergrad, masters, PhD student, post-doc, lecturer, professor, fossil. For each class there is a probability that any individual progresses to the following class. If they don’t they “die”: they become an accountant or perhaps work for a journal5. If we know the rates of entry and fall-out, we can calculate the numbers in each class. Now, if we could restrict entry and let everyone do what they want, we would end up with a nice, distribution if happy people: the drop-outs would leave because they realised that research wasn’t for them6.
But, unlike the systems Leslie (and Fisher) looked at, the academic system is regulated by external economics. There is a ready demand of
fools students wanting to do a PhD, and the number that can be accepted into slavery bondage our exulted ranks is determined by the amount of money the government has to throw at the research councils. Once they get their PhDs,what do they do? The system is geared towards them doing a post-doc, but that depends on the research councils now having the money to hiring them. And then many post-docs want a job as a lecturer/senior scientist. The money for that depends on long-term strategies, and to a decent extent on the education (not research) needs of society. So the drop-out is determined by what we can afford, not what people want to do. Hence the stress and sadness.
I think it’s clear that this crates a problem, but what to do about it? I think there are two general strategies that can be used. The first is the one Jenny was thinking of: reducing the intake of PhD students. Jenny’s suggestion of limiting the total number of students is one way of doing it, but it would take a lot of organisation and even more paperwork (I’ve supervised 2 students in Finland, so who will follow that now I’m in Germany?). Quite frankly, it’s too much hassle. And how does one, as a PI, decide when to pick your student? Get them early, and then ‘retire’ (just when you’ve worked out how to train students). Or leave it until later? And the good teachers are stopped from training once they’ve hit their quota.
A better approach might be to restrict the number of PhDs that can be registered for training in any year. This is easier to organise (much less bureaucratic memory needed), and also means that there can be competition so that the best teachers can train more students (OK, this is somewhat idealistic).
The problem with this is how one get the extra science done. Jenny wants to have more permanent junior positions. This is possible, but I think there are two problems. The obvious one is the cost effectiveness. This would need data to decide upon: I’ll leave it for there. The second problem is that it changes the structure of science careers: we would have to create the whole career structure for this new strand of scientists. I guess the Civil Service’s system of Scientific Officer/Senior Scientific Officer etc. could be adapted. The far-reaching effect of creating a new strand of scientist could be interesting: a new class system would be created.
The alternative strategy is to allow more junior researchers to leave research. We have to realize that a large proportion of students leave the university system, for example going into industry (think BIG EVIL PHARMA). But many will leave research. If we accept this, then we have to re-position the PhD as a more general education. This means training students in more than just research skills (a couple of people on Jenny’s thread mentioned that this was being done). But it also means cultural shifts, with academic research not being perceived as the acme of professional development. We, as senior academics, have to be happy to be training students (and post-docs) for a life not just beyond academia, but beyond research.
The questions I’m throwing out are not things I can answer alone, obviously. They get to some of the deeper parts of the scientific culture, and how it has evolved. The more I’m in science, the more I’m aware of the tension between the old culture, where a scientific field was small and (in many ways) amateur, and the newer professional science we have now. Science has to adapt, and the culture is one that in many ways seems conservative (how many of you had to write your theses as a monograph, rather than as a collection of papers?). I’m sure we’ll muddle through, but only because of the difficulty in changing the culture by diktat.
In the mean time, we still have a duty of care to our students and post-docs to ensure that they are not just left on the
sidewalk pavement, but are helped to find a suitable job and career. Ha! Cheap words and good intentions – I hope I can live up to them.
1 I think this is largely a post-war phenomenon. The whole professionalisation of science looks fascinating, and seems ripe subject for a semi-academic book. Perhaps someone has written one.
2 He writes, having been employed by 3 research institutes and only one university: and for a time was in a non-teaching institute in the university.
3 Cue jokes about English major flipping burgers.
4 I haven’t followed up the history of this.
5 Although I know of a couple of journal editors who were resurrected back into academia.
6 This would include my brother, who did his PhD on reclaiming coal from coal tips – something my mum, the daughter of a Yorkshire coal miner, found hilarious – and now works developing UK passports.