Is it ethical to encourage students to go to grad school in science?

Dr Shellie has run the job search gauntlet and — O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — has multiple appealing offers from which to choose.  Reflecting on the process, and her years of anxiety leading to this point, she says:

… I think that if your goal is to get a tenure-track job at a research university in a place you want to live, it’s hard to know your chance of success much in advance. Many smart people with excellent records do not get jobs. Which is too bad, since it can take 5-10 years just to get ready to apply — counting the time you spend in a PhD and a postdoc. And how are you supposed to predict your chances then — when you are starting grad school?

How indeed? I don’t think the situation for postdocs has improved since this article appeared in 2002. In biomed research, I would guesstimate that about 10% of postdocs end up with “their own lab”. Worse, this is not simply tough competition — so many personal/political factors enter into the success equation that you might as well roll dice as try to forecast your future as a researcher by any rational method. It’s my blog, so I’ll go ahead and quote myself:

The system is broken: there are too many PhD graduates and not enough real jobs for them. A postdoc is not a real job; even a tenure-track position, one step up the foodchain from a postdoc, is not a real job. A real job will not be yanked out from under you every few years, unless you or your boss can continually win funding — and when you get down to 20% funding levels, between politics and the sheer volume of work dumped on the granting committees, you might as well pick the names out of a hat. A real job does not leave you entirely at the mercy of your superiors, who can demand insane work hours from you, knowing that if you won’t sacrifice your life on the altar of their lab/department/whatever, there are ten other PhDs clamoring for the chance to do so. I’m no fan of the dismal science, but the law of supply and demand does seem to be consistent with observed phenomena here.

Now, that gloomy beginning notwithstanding, this is not another postdoc complaint post. (That one is in the works; I’m saving up links for it here and here.) Right now I want to take a much more positive perspective, inspired by Dr Shellie, who asks:

How should I think about recruiting graduate students, when I am encouraging them to pursue an uncertain career path?

This is a very good question indeed, and the best thing about it is that a newly-minted research professor is asking it! Is it really ethical (anyone? anyone? BuellerFree-Ride?) to encourage students into grad school, given that the standard “career path” is long, tortuous and more than likely to land the weary traveler somewhere other than that fabled destination, the faculty slot?

Another way of looking at this is to ask: is the system so irreparably broken that we should dismantle it — starting by turning away grad students — or can we work with what we have, and fix it?  I’m a meliorist rather than a revolutionary myself.  Further, if you want to be a PI yourself you’re going to have to take on grad students, and more generally if we want research to flourish we, as a community, are going to need grad students. 

So, since we’re going to continue to lure bright-eyed, unsuspecting college kids into the postdoc trap via grad school, what can we do to reduce harm?  Herewith some thoughts:

1. Inform, inform, inform.  Let ‘em know upfront what they’re getting themselves into. 

1b. Repeat, repeat, repeat.  They’re young, they’ll think “it won’t happen to me”.  We’re all bulletproof at eighteen.

2. Present alternatives, and treat those alternatives with respect.  Don’t be another type-A asshole in a labcoat who thinks, and acts as though, any deviation from the One True And Shining Path To Glory (why, research of course) represents complete failure as a scientist and as a human being.  Scientists reading this are nodding their heads, the rest of you are probably thinking huh? surely he exaggerates — but I assure you I don’t.  Throughout the community of science, at least in academia where I’ve spent most of my time, there is a powerful and pervasive assumption that research is the pinnacle of human endeavour and that a person would only do something else because they couldn’t make the grade in research.   This is not a conscious belief, it’s a largely unexamined background of feeling, something absorbed by intellectual and emotional osmosis from a peer group of self-involved, highly-focused people who have, given their material situation, a deep investment in believing they are doing something that sets them apart and above.  It is also, of course, utter and unmitigated horseshit.  Don’t perpetuate it.

3. Give a damn.  Your students are not fungible data-production units, they’re people with lives outside the lab, hopes, dreams, and all that crap.  You don’t have to get all touchy-feely if that’s not your style — just understand that some of your students will find that they don’t want your job after all — and that’s OK.  Some will even start out with other destinations in mind — and that’s a good thing.  Wouldn’t you like to see more people with solid research experience go into teaching, journalism, policy development, marketing, law, medicine and a dozen other vital professions?  Wouldn’t you like to see an ecologist become US President right about now?  Don’t take it as a personal affront if someone doesn’t make emulating you their sole ambition; take the time to consider what might be best for them.

I’m sure there’s more — comments, please!  For one thing, I am clinging still to the last forlorn threads of hope that I might be taking on students myself one day, and those putative students will need all the help I can get.

Finally, to Dr Shellie, an answer of sorts: if you’re asking yourself at this early stage whether it’s ethical even to take on students, then you are probably just the sort of PI who should be taking on students, and who will provide them with solid lab experience with which they can do whatever they want — even research.

8 thoughts on “Is it ethical to encourage students to go to grad school in science?

  1. Super commentary.
    I have a friend who conjectures that this constellation of issues is one of the reasons why (some) sciences have so much trouble recruiting and retaining women and minorities. We (women and minorities) make rational, economic decisions to say “screw this nonsense” and look for more lucrative and/or more personally satisfying endeavors in other arenas.
    People gotta eat and they gotta have a roof over their heads. And some of us don’t have a rich (or even middle-class) family or safety net to fall back on. It was not at all rational for me – given my options – to spend as much time living on peanuts in grad school as I did. The opportunity cost was huge and I still resent the hell out of it. What WAS I thinking?

  2. Excellent post — I can’t tell you how many times I heard it said explicitly that anyone who worked in industry couldn’t cut it in academia. Leaving academia was presented as a failure path.
    I still wish I’d known that it was even a viable career option — that as a woman in physics, I wouldn’t be doomed to spend the rest of my life surrounded by resentful, sexist creeps who thought I had no business being there, but that I could actually have gotten my PhD and gotten the hell out into corporate.
    I’m not sure it would have worked, that any of them would have even permitted me to pass or taken me on as an RA had I made it clear that I was going to take that path, though.
    So I got my MS and got out. And I’ll never, ever go back. And like you, I can’t in good conscience encourage any talented woman to go into the hardest of hard sciences. I’d talked to them about many other career options, but not that one.
    If it were seen as a viable and expected career path to get out and go into industry, then fine. But as long as physicists see themselves as monks flying in the rarefied atmosphere of physics outside of and untouched by the real world, and see anyone outside of that monastic life as a “lay person” (I still can’t believe they actually use that term!) and a lesser being, then no.
    They see entering physics as subtracting themselves from the world. And of particular interest to women and minority students, that means that they resent the hell out of women — who to them represent “the rude world” they hate and feel so uncomfortable in — going into physics. Their attitude is that they got INTO physics to avoid feeling like gawky idiots around chicks, and here the chicks are following them! DAMN it!
    I imagine other ethnic and racial minorities can tell similar stories. And despite this, we have idiots like that guy at Harvard saying that, with all that mess to deal with, the reason women aren’t in physics is because we’re just not smart or logical enough. *rolls eyes* I wonder how many physicists heard him, thought, “Finally, someone who says it like it is!” and resented having to not agree with him out loud. *sigh*
    And ITA with Medley’s comment about trying to do this from a blue-collar background. It was the worst choice I ever made to stay in grad school for that long. I have no family resources to fall back on either, and the time I threw away without making any retirement investment will haunt me in my old age.
    That’s not to say that corporate is perfect, by ANY means. I’ve experienced both the best and the absolute hands-down WORST sexist treatment there. But it beats being locked into it for 40 years while going through postdoc after postdoc and getting fired every two years. :-P

  3. hmmm, the 10% figure for post-docs seems mighty low — where I’ve been, it was more like 90%, so I’m guessing that across the field (biology at least) it must still be 30-50%. but post-docs are putting in longer and longer stints, and looking farther and farther afield for “their labs”….
    I certainly agree with the overall sentiment of your article, not least that professors need to stop making students feel unclean for considering other lines of work… (they already got the benefits of near-slave labor; why are they so invested in what those slaves do next??)

  4. Bob,
    I’m a PhD student in Geography with a wealth of real-world, professional experience. A couple comments first:
    1. I have been told the following in “real jobs” (and these are entirely separate instances):
    a. You aren’t pulling your weight. 11 hours a day just isn’t going to hack it.
    b. Sorry, there’s no room for negotiation. If you don’t want the job, I’ll just take the next resume off the stack.
    c. Congratualtions on the product going gold. But the company wasn’t able to find the next round of funding. Here’s your pink-slip. (got this twice!)
    It’s just as hard in the “real world” if not harder. The funding cycle in academia is long compared to the professional world. When you get research funding, you know exactly how long it will last and you know when you need to start looking for more. In the “real world”, your boss can yank your job out from under you in order to use remaining funds to keep him afloat (happened to an entire company I worked for).
    2. Present alternatives and respect alternatives. Nail->Head. My advisor has zero respect for my professional experience. That is the most likely point that will prevent me from completing my PhD with her.
    That said, I learned right away that I don’t want my advisors job. I don’t want a Research One job. I would prefer a teaching-oriented position at a smaller school. That means I can likely avoid the post-doc phase and because I’m coming from a department and advisor with very strong reputations, I have a degree of confidence about my chances of tenure-track.
    But I’m struggling right now with several dilemmas. First, I made more money in 2001 than I’ve made every year since – combined. Second, professional demand in my field is amazingly strong. Third, my field is changing wildly fast – in a way that hasn’t happened in over 3000 years. – and my advisor seems disinterested.
    On the positive side, and I’ll have to check Dr. Shellie’s post to see if I can contribute, in the past year I have experienced some significant intellectual changes. After just a year of really delving into the philosophy of a field, I find I can read faster (and more thoroughly), I write much better, and I can discuss a wide range of topics with much greater depth. When I was a professional software developer, my depth of knowledge was measured in APIs and language nuances. I found I could only share that knowledge with another software developer. What I have gained is knowledge that can be shared almost universally.

  5. excellent thoughts on mentoring.
    another question, should mentors begin the triage process? rather than just encourage and present alternative careers, should we actively say “ya know, you don’t seem like you are going to make it. you in particular should think about other things”. more nicely of course.
    i say this because i think the US scientific system has a tendency to shy away from real critique and evaluation until it is too late. i.e., the worst flaying you’ll get is on tenure review. maybe even the only flaying you’ll get, but you’ll get it then, have no fear.

  6. Yes Yes, all of that. Informe them of what they are getting into although I would say that what I thought I was getting into when I applied to grad school in 2001 interms of job prospects is not the system I am in now. In 2001, 2-3 years of postdoc was considered sufficient for a UK academic chemistry position. In 2007 we’re looking at close to 4-6 years, i.e. two postdocs.
    It is always ethical to inspire people to be the best they can be. A solid grad school experience should be wonderful training for any job in the future (slight concern about being overqualified for some jobs here but not significantly). The skills other than simple bench skills should be recognised. I think the system needs changing so that employers better understand what advantage there is to hiring a modern PhD. Perhaps the old notions that PhDs are acadmics with no place outwith the university or industry lab needs to be smashed up. A PhD is more than a simple statement that the person can do science. If employers better appreciated that then I think there would be less questionable ethics about encouraging people to go to grad school.

  7. it is wrong to name this bad business like science. This is not science, on one hand it is based on a fascistic system where authority and terror are the main forces to drive a self-deceived heer of postdocs to obbey and make the work out for the PIs sake. On the other hand, the scope of the research is so tiny and self-reduced that one can easily foresee that most of the job done is dead-wood, most of these researches unnecesary if not repeated only with slightly differences upon older ones. What then for this science is made? easy answer, for the benefit of the PI themselves who are counted and evaluated by the weight of published papers. The systems is broken… something is rotten

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