Home » Grad school » My two cents on the overproduction of PhDs

My two cents on the overproduction of PhDs

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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Hello fellow readers! It’s me, finally writing about on a science/grad school topic. If you’re a fellow tweep or reader you already know that I love to stalk read the blog of Dr. Leigh. Turns out she’s writing about all things pharmacology over at Scientopia. I decided to go around Scientopia and read an entry or two there. Then, I saw an entry that caught my attention immediately. Rob Knop writes about the Overproduction of PhDs based on an article (great by the way, read here) written by a prof at U of K that appears on the Inside Higher Ed career advice section.

For a while I’ve been thinking that based on the huge amount of students that enter grad school right after undergrad, whether for a Master’s or a PhD, it seems to me that two things are happening: A) some of them don’t have a clue of what they want or are getting into and/or B) their profs have told them over, and over, and over again that the academic path is THE path to follow if they love science, and since many hands and minds are needed they’d better head over to grad school and MUST do a PhD and MUST become a PhD and land a tenure-track position in order to be successful.

That type of advice is partly why I based my decision to go to grad school. Back at my old school the “counselor” was a hack. Seriously. That woman had no clue whatsoever of what type of advice to give, other than give up on chemistry 101 if you’re failing or falling behind and either become a doctor (MD or PhD) if you’re doing a degree in science (biology or micro) because as a plain biologist you may get paid pennies and then go on and live like a hippie with long hair and unshaven legs. In high school I didn’t receive any counseling either. But I chose to do a BS in Biology because I’d always been intrigued by science and by the human body and I wanted to become a surgeon. Notice a chain of disasters? Luckily for me I a) enjoyed doing my degree, b) did internships in other schools during the summer to learn more techniques and get some hands-on experience on topics such as DNA fingerprint and blots and doing gazillion gallons of buffer.

When I started in college I wanted to eventually do cardiac surgery. I was (and still am) fascinated by the circulatory system and how it works and I wanted to become a good surgeon and save lives. But once I realized how clumsy I was (and am) and how scared I was of leaving instruments inside a patient or killing them by doing something stupid (and knowing I’d never forgive myself for it) I decided to go for something different. I didn’t want to become just a general practitioner. I wanted to be a surgeon, and if that wasn’t going to happen I still wanted to do something that involved helping people. Like, trying to find the cure for cancer or AIDS, or something along those lines. I also discovered that I enjoy speaking to an audience, presenting, and doing research. And based on that (and the fact that with a BS in Biological Sciences apparently nobody thought I could do a thing) I gathered my things and moved down South to pursue my graduate degree.

Like I’ve chronicled before, it has not been an easy path. And what’s worse, all those promises of a great job, doing what I love never really materialized. Be it because of distance or because I didn’t have all the proper qualifications, I decided to do a postdoc  at a lab that’s not even remotely close to my PhD topic and try to figure out whether I want edto become a PI or not. Whether a tenure track position is what I needed .And based on how this last year doing my postdoc has been, I’m inclined to say no. I am most definitely NOT becoming a PI.

And I say no for many reasons. Some of which I do not feel like discussing. now.  But basically, much like in the case of Prof Harris I do not feel OK with churning out tons of students whose job security is non-existent. I do not want them to be like me, or go through what I did. Of emailing at least 50 PI’s so that in the end only two or three could offer you a visit and maybe an interview. I honestly was not told of how hard this was. And while I asked my PhD PI for some advice, I embarked on this search all on my own. I asked around how other people got their postdoc positions. An incredible amount of people told me that they looked at doing stuff similar to what they’d done in their PhDs, and usually ended up with either a collaborator or even a competitor of their PI. Others, like me, whether for lack of available groups in their areas of expertise within their target geographical area or something different ended up doing a postdoc in whatever was left, or whatever was available. And am I truly passionate about my project? Most of the time no. I do not know if it’s because this is totally removed from my grad school topic of expertise or what, but I’m honestly convinced that work-wise I didn’t make the right decision. Life-wise yes, because while in a few months I’ll embark on the tedious job search once again, based on what I’ve lived I can be more stringent and more specific about my wants, needs and projects or jobs to take.

All this to say that partly due to bad advice and partly due to the humongous amount of equally qualified scientists available in my current area, my prospects for finding a better job do not exist. Nor is there the opportunity to work in something like what I had before because the market is super populated with equally or even better prepared people. And to realize this, once you’ve completed your degree, is a bitch. A BITCH!

I think this whole system of churning out hundreds of thousands of PhD’s who, no matter what institution, are having the same frustrations, the same hurdles and are being given the same advice is toxic. Success, if measured only by how many papers, grants and people you are able to attract. seems to be hurting the very ones that are being trained. And some PI’s can’t seem to say no to pretty much every person that approaches them. Yes, your project is extremely important, and yes it may push the field forward, but aren’t you a little bit of an overachiever by having 10 projects included in your grant. What kind of good, quality time are you giving your students when they barely see you or have to hunt you down and beg you to read a paper that’s been ready since mid-2008 and we’re in 2010? How is that success? Why and when did higher education institutions turned around from valuing discovery and an inquisitive and decided the ONLY way to measure success is by becoming a factory of “minds.” Really, grad school at points can feel like a sweat shop of brains.

And what about insisting on the requirement of a bioethics course  prior to entering school,  then not having a single methodology (how to formulate a  sound hypothesis, how to test it, variables, statistics) course? Seriously. It seems as though some places are concerned with keeping the granting agencies happy and at bay, but don’t care about having their students and postdocs be proficient in all aspects of research, not just the pippetting and titrating parts.

I don’t know if the only solution is to stop churning out hundreds of thousands of qualified, yet out-of-work kids. I think our mindset has to change, and other things besides the classroom and lab need to be equally valued and respected. Good counselors, good professors who know how to teach (not only spit out 17 papers a year) and explain well  and investing in their training are good steps. And this fight to be the #1 school in terms of money and awards, or recruitment of Nobel Laureates needs to be kept in check, if not gone. Yes,  standard ways of measuring success are needed. But, is it really worth it to have no life and measure success in ways that make everyone crazy and have a bunch of professionals with no people skills or who are completly mediocre when it comes to explaining science to others? A commenter posted on Prof Harris’ entry regarding the academic life:  “My own experience is only one data point, but I also happen to work in a university (not a Ph.D. granting one) and am involved in faculty recruiting. I have to say, the vast majority of candidates we have do not have families or any type of romantic ties. The ones we hire move to our new city with little to no personal support. Some make friends and adjust well. Some clearly are very lonely, and I just can’t help but note how Ph.D programs make it impossible for people to have any type of non-academic life. As a system, it is unhealthy, and it would appear to produce an inordinate amount of unhealthy and unhappy people.” This also resonated with me: ” I get a fairly explicit mixed message from my teachers:
1) There aren’t many good (tenure-track research) jobs out there.

2) If I don’t get a tenure-track research job, I’m a failure, and my name will ever be a scandal and a byword and a source of discomfort to my teachers. If I have any plan B, I’d better not mention it!

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10 Comments

  1. Alexandra says:

    In my case doing a PhD seemed like the obvious step to take. Without one I could have been just a research assistant (not a bad job, but not exactly what I had in mind) and the 5 years of undergrad in a novel field would have been for nothing. Doing a PhD does help you become a better scientist, no doubt about it. The problem as you say is that there are so many of us, and if you don’t have that little something “extra” you will struggle a lot to find a job if you’re not flexible from a lot of points of view.
    I guess one of the reasons PIs hire PhDs is because we’re cheap. We do the same job as a research assistant and get paid half the money. Suppose you eliminate an entire generation of PhD students and substitute them with research assistants and lab techs. Would the science decline or stop? No. There are enough scientists in the world already and each year more and more graduate. Until the market will become overly saturated. And then… well, I really don’t want to think about that…

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Thanks for your comment. Couldn’t agree more, esp. with regards to the cheap labour. And it sucks. I think what’s happening with us is what has happened with layers, the dot com and doctors. Saturation, like you say, is what’s happening. And what’s sadder is that though we’re trained on something, the message you keep hearing is that if you’re not in academia, then you’ve waisted your time and money. And sometimes you hear that you can do other stuff, but unless you go (behind the boss’s back) to seminars and workshops on this, aint no way you get to learn about non-academic options. Of if you do you’ve got to keep it bottled up. It’s a lose-lose situation. Thanks for your visit and your comment!

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Thanks Alexandra! I did indeed agree and like it. And it was originally posted back in 2001, which makes me think this has been going on for more than one thinks!

  2. [...] about grad school this, job that. Maybe I’m in a funk. Who knows. But basically that last entry about the overproduction of PhDs has given me some food for blog. Especially now that I’m [...]

  3. [...] pseudo-rant was touched off by a series of posts on the overproduction of PhDs here, here, and here. Granted, the authors come from various scientific fields, each of which has its own issues in [...]

  4. [...] funk and talked about how United Airlines is THE suckiest airline ever! Wrote about the overproduction of PhDs. Also, this marked the beginning of my second year as a [...]

  5. Rita says:

    Hi there!
    Thanks for the post. It’s indeed sadly truth. Currently, I am finishing a PhD in Molecular Biology and I’ve been offered a job at a small biotech company working in clinical genetics. I always had my thoughts about working for a company or looking for a postdoctoral position. Considering the actual overproduction of PhD and satisfaction level in life, would you move to industry?

    Thanks

    Rita Quintana.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi Rita. Thanks for your comment. Congrats on the offer.

      I would have definitely NOT done an academic PhD, but you live and you learn and I definitely had to learn, so I had to go through it to know what I now know. I would have gone into industry, but then again, like everything, it would have required a lot of thinking and evaluation before, in my early years in grad school and even undergrad. But thinking ahead is not my forte, which in a way it helps explain why I made some of the decisions I made. I would’ve liked industrial experience, and/or managerial/administrative experience. I find myself liking admin type tasks more and more, and I think it’s great to have people in admin who know what it is to do research and the battles we face to do an effective job.

  6. [...] Hope, faith and persistence don’t feed a family. That’s just something I experienced (then again, I’m just a tiny data point in a huge landscape of numbers). Thinking things through, having a plan B, all the way to a plan F are good strategies. But even [...]

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