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View From The Trenches

Rik Myers Rmyers at molbio.uoregon.edu
Sat Jun 17 19:51:08 EST 1995

Hello friends. The following is a summary of a symposium I participated in
to discuss the perception of Grad Students and post-docs of the current
state of science and science training. The notes that follow were composed
by Eliene Augenbraun with some input from me and John Fetter.

Rik Myers

"View from the trenches: how do dost-docs and graduate students view the
current scientific climate?" at the American Society for Biochemsitry and
Molecular Biology (ASBMB)/ACS Biochemistry Division meeting in San
Francisco on May 22, 1995.
Audience of ^1000. Also incorporated are some discussions/clarifications
after the public debate.

Reported by Eliene Augenbraun, Rik Myers, and John Fetter 

Howard Schachman, NIH ombudsman, presided. (His function: To meet with
people at universities and pass on concerns to the NIH leadership.) 
He thought the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on reshaping
graduate education did not go far enough to revamp our graduate educational
system. The makers of the report sent out a poll for comments to over 1000
scientists and administrators at all levels in academia and industry, but
received only a 10% response. He believes in limiting the number of PhDs,
making the training more flexible. After crossing the country and listening
to hundreds of administrators, faculty, postdocs and grad students, he
found that postdocs are the most disatistified constituency.

The panelists spoke for 5-10 minutes each about their own experiences or
commented on policy issues. Two were going into industry research jobs. One
was a grad student soon to be starting a postdoctoral fellowship. One was a
6th year postdoc who has been seeking an academic job for 2 years. Another
will be a Science Policy fellow after 2 years of postdoc; she helped found
a postdoctoral association at her institution. 

M. Amaratunga just got an industrial job. He showed some overheads, and
gave some advice about finding an industrial job, like being strategic
while a grad student and setting up industrial contacts ASAP. 

Jim Onifer: He had a good biotech job at a young small company, but the
company folded. Recently he found another job after 6 mos of unemployment.
He went to job fairs, talked to headhunters. Job fairs were helpful in that
at least you got to meet people who might remember your name. Headhunters
were not directly helpful in getting him a job, but he did get useful
advice on how he was presenting himself. Talk to as many people as possible
who might know about the availability of a position. Find out as much about
the company and the research that you can.

Rik Myers, postdoc at U. of Oregon in prokaryotic molecular biology:
Postdocs are frustrated with the difficulty in finding positions. Many
positions seem to be for applied research in health or bioremediation.
Seems to be an experiment in social darwinism where many intelligent young
people are thrown together and the cream rises. Unemployment may be low,but
it's because everybody goes on to do a postdoc. It's a myth that most
people go on to academic positions. Alternative paths should be respected.
The work in the lab is driven by the goal to get your grant and publish
papers, and this may not be in the best interest of the students. 

Eliene Augenbraun: She agrees with the NAS report that we need to collect
more data about careers. It young scientists to find career information.
Some people say we should not worry so much about post-graduate employment,
that it will always work out, but it doesn't always work out. It pays to be
strategic as a grad student/postdoc. If anticipating a career outside of
academia or industry, lab research alone is not enough. Time to participate
in other activities and flexiblity during training would help us pursue
alternate careers. The NAS report didn't address the problems of women and
minorities. Eg-training takes so long that by the time you have a permanent
position it may be too late to start a family.

John Fetter, finishing up as a graduate student at Michigan State; moving
on to a postdoc: Graduate students may not be so concerned about careers
until they talk to postdocs. Then they find out about the competitive job
market. There don't seem to be as many academic positions as applicants.
Industry is downsizing. Some companies hire postdocs like temp workers.
They're cheap labor, but they don't keep them. If you go the academic route
it appears to be very difficult to get tenure, especially considering the
funding problems right now. Graduate school and postdocs are taking longer.
After all the training, pay and benefits are not comparable to other
fields. It at least seems easier to find positions in the bioscience field
than in others such as physics. NIH could sponser some grants to bring
employers and those looking for work together over the internet. There seem
to be some already available, but this could bring better organization to
them. This would also provide good statistics on the supply and demand.


_About the NAS report, Reshaping graduate education_ The reason EA was not
deeply upset by it is because it is better than she thought it would be.
She did not expect scientists who are highly successful in the current
system to advocate changing it dramatically. And, though the Executive
Summary was a defense of the status quo, the body of the report recommended
some substantial changes. She hoped that career data will be examined for
gender and minority disparities. 

RM noted that "you get what you pay for." Most graduate students and
post-docs are supported by research training grants to their institutions
or research grants to their P.I.s; subsequently their training emphasizes
research skills. As a consequence, there is a glut of trained researchers
and few young scientists trained as science educators, public interest
science consultants, science policy shapers, legal advisers, etc. Research
funds should be diverted to support educational training grants. In
addition, grad student and post-doc support on research grants should be
limited to reduce the tendency to treat young scientists as contract labor.
Reducing "training" support through research grants may have the
side-effect of increasing throughput.

The panelists agreed: (1) that graduate school and postdoctoral training
should be shorter, and training money should go directly to the trainee or
institution, not to the mentor; (2) the need to collect data on career
trajectories, but they strongly urged the collection of salary and benefits
data, as well as the separation of postdocs from other job categories. 

(For an example of how postdoc data would change employment figures see C &
E News, May 29, 1995, p 46. "If the excessive period of time [in
postdoctoral study] is taken to be more than four years...that would be 10%
in postdoctoral positions four years after the PhD plus the unemployment
rate of 2.5% to equal 12.5%. If you use three years as the cutoff, then
that's 17% plus 2.5% and that comes to 19.5%.") 

_Pessimism versus optimism_
An audience member totally disagreed with the panel. He thought we were all
too pessimistic about the situation. He thinks a lot of other people are
worse off than us.

_On getting an academic position_
Another person spoke about the difficulty of getting an academic position.
He thought networking was very important. He finally knew the right person
and got a position. He also said professional societies need to take more
initiative in documenting the job situation. You can get an academic
position if you are persistent enough. Now he's got to worry about getting

_The role of culture in science_
There was some discussion about role models. Students come to consider
Professordom to be the only acceptable career because the only professional
scientists they know are professors. And professors have traditionally
trained graduate students to be clones of themselves. This is no longer
possible or desirable. Less than half of newly trained S and E PhDs remain
in academia. Other highly talented, motivated people apply their scientific
training to solving important societal problems. Are those who succeed
outside academia still considered successful scientists by their academic
peers? Unfortunately, they are often not considered successful, often not
even considered scientists. Having appropriate mentors outside academia
would help. Professional societies, private foundations, and federal
agencies could help by giving honors and awards to highly worthy,
non-academic, non-traditional, and even non-research PhDs. Their career
achievements are just as inspiring as discovering an important biological
principle or initiating a new academic discipline. 

_Length of training, and age at which first independent_ PhD degrees are
taking about 30% longer now than they did 10 years ago. (So are we 30%
better trained or 30% dumber?-EA, off-stage.) Postdoctoral fellowships are
taking 3-6 years in the biomedical sciences. Shortening training is
extremely important. The NAS report suggests several mechanisms.

RM thinks the increased "time to escape" is a symptom of treating grad
students and post-docs as contract laborers. Professors hold onto trained
students to get more publishable results out of them, not to increase
student knowledge (junior students are a burden, senior students are
productive). The payoff for the student is a thicker publication list, but
the entire process is ratchetting up. Students are expected to publish more
to be thought of as succesful.

Other suggestions (a lot of discussion after panel): The institution should
be held accountable for advancing students and postdocs in a timely manner.
Graduate students and postdocs could sign contracts with the institution,
in which such timing is specified. Flexibility to "stop the clock" could be
provided for reasonable circumstances (like chidren or illness) but not
just because the mentor wants to squeeze one more paper out of the student.
Mechanisms to manage conflicts between mentors and trainees unfortunately
are necessary. After postdoctoral training is complete, the postdoc could
"graduate" into a research associate position. Research associates should
have the ability to apply for RO1's, more independence, and more prestige
than they have currently (like the industrial two track system).

_Women in the pipeline to academia_
Shortening training would help, as would more flexible approaches to grants
and tenure. As things currently stand, women frequently must choose between
an academic career and child-bearing. More liberal paternal leave policies
would also help women in this regard. 

RM wondered if the high rate of female student attrition could be reduced
by the presence of more female role models in academia and other training

_Should we encourage young people to study science?_ Audience member: what
should we tell students about the [employment] situation? We shouldn't
discourage them since we can't predict the future. 

Another audience member thought that since other careers are so much more
likely to lead to employment, that she encourages them not to study science
but some other field, before they have the chance to fall in love with what
they cannot have. Someone else suggested that since science is a noble
endeavor, they might still go through their training without a job at the

Panelists pointed out that knowing that you need to develop a non-science
career at the end might make your graduate years a lot different.

RM: you can tell students that the skills they learn are important even if
they go into another career, but that you don't necessarily have to become
a scientist.

EA still encourages young people to study science, but that is different
from encouraging them to try to be professors, which she does not encourage
them to pursue.

_Teaching graduate students and postdocs to be strategic about their
It is never too early to be strategic. Unfortunately, different careers
require conflicting strategies. It is important that good advise be
available at every step to every trainee. Committee members from outside
academia would help.

RM: Some people fear turning graduate school into some sort of Vo-Tech
college. However, training to better understand the universe and training
to support oneself need not be mutually exclusive. 

_Funds for retraining_
For many PhDs caught in endless postdocs, the cost of retraining is
prohibitive, and comes after 14 or more years of scientifc training. The
availability of grants for retraining would help mobilize this pool of now
demoralized talent.

_Data on employment trends_
RM: Ask journals that carry employment ads to follow up on ads: how many
applicants, how many interviewed, why the person selected was picked, etc.
(See also About the NAS report)

_Selection criteria for graduate school_ Even during these trying times we
must pay attention that those who are underrepresented in science (women,
minorities, and those from lower socioeconomic strata) are still actively
recruited and that some remain in academia. Graduate students should be
selected not only for laboratory productivity but for flexibility and
creativity, so that they will be able to confront changing career

_Where do we look for leadership?_
Audience member: We need to focus on why we do science, on all those
positive discoveries that we bring to the world. She asked the panel about
where we look for leadership.

Another audience member (Jeremy Berg, faculty advisor to Hopkins Postdoc
Association) emphasized the need for constituencies to organize themselves
(post-docs, etc), to send representatives to the administration, to get
involved with solving policy problems. Administrators and faculty generally
want to do the right thing, but may not know what the right thing is.

Several young scientists across the country are organizing various types of
groups, to represent the needs of young scientists to professional
societies and institutions. Several young scientists (including biologists,
chemists at the ASBMB meeting) are starting to organize an umbrella group
at the national level. When the audience was asked how many thought this
was a good idea, there was a large show of support. 

EA: It is important to find advocates at the university level to provide
guidance, especially for those seeking alternative careers or who want to
reform the current system. She thinks there is a need for us young
scientists to provide our own leadership, and so would like to organize a
national organization of postdocs. 

RM emphasized the need to work on the grass roots level. (Discussion
afterward: National org could help formulate training and employment
policies; also help alleviate immediate problems, eg by providing group
insurance and retirement plans, especially for those unemployed or
eliene at charm.net	Eliene Augenbraun

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