The supposedly undiscussed elephant in the academic room

Oct 30 2011 Published by under Postgraduate Training, Tribe of Science

Some commenter is under the impression that we academics are avoiding discussing the pipeline problem in science. No, not the part that leaks women, nor the part that screens out underrepresented minorities.

The problem of the sheer volume of PhD trained individuals.

Personally, I hear less discussion than I think is necessary but the notion it is undiscussed is ludicrous.

I have been astonished by at least one program I know that has not seriously discussed the notion of shrinking yet. Amazed. But I also know other programs are talking about the issue.

But for blog discussion purposes, here's my position. I think all PhD programs should admit 20% fewer students, starting this cycle. No weasel room for the "top" programs to claim they get a special exception either. ('cause that is what they are going to do, you betcha)

Slow down the flow, people.

78 responses so far

  • leigh says:

    interesting idea. thinking back to my grad school, i was one of three in my entering class. during a big year there were maybe 8 clueless first-years wandering around the labs. but this makes me wonder if there are field (mine is fairly small) or school specific factors in my observations. perhaps, for instance, the umbrella biological sciences programs are cranking out a relative fuckton of admissions offers? i dunno, i never applied to or dealt with any of those myself. but i do see that a lot of the competition out there (and there are plenty of them) have somewhat more general degrees. yeah, i know that's all speculation.

  • qaz says:

    This is only a problem for those who feel that the only thing a PhD is qualified for is to be another NIH PI. Once we get over that, there is no issue at all. People can get a PhD and then go on to do other things too. Some of those other jobs require PhDs (certain industry jobs, certain policy jobs at DARPA and IARPA), others would be helped by it (wouldn't it be great if our politicians or business leaders actually understood science?), others wouldn't be helped, but aren't hurt by it (is there a problem with a police-person having spent some time getting a PhD?). Maybe we should start seeing PhDs as time well-spent thinking and learning rather than just as time in the minor leagues. (I'm not saying we need to require a PhD for cops, but do we really need to say they can't do that? Any more than we would say someone can't spend time playing college football or minor league baseball or any other paying job?)

    And for those inevitable comments from our hosts (CPP and DM), I see LOTS of students in lots of programs who come in saying that they want to get a PhD but do something other than become a PI. (OK, most want to be teachers, not cops, but I actually did know someone who wanted to be a police officer [interested in forensics].) But we have to hide them because NIH training grants judge us on whether we have made more PIs. I find this strange because we've spent so much time saying that grad students are underpaid and "cheap labor", so why does NIH insist that the only successful use of their funds is to train students to be PIs?

  • biochembelle says:

    Undiscussed? Hardly. Never saw the final numbers but Yale planned to cut admissions by 10 to 15% last year, and Stanford & Northwestern were looking at more modest cuts in '09.

    I came out of a PhD program not so long ago-and I agree that admissions numbers should be and, in reality, will have to be reduced in the current economic climate. I think that the approach to admissions decisions will have to change as the number of slots is reduced.

    I have met several people during my years of training who realised 2 or 3 years into the program that they didn't need a PhD to achieve their career goals. Yet most kept on going because there was some sense that they couldn't throw away n years of work. I've wondered if some of this might be averted by better undergrad advisement or more stringent admissions or different program structures (e.g. moving away from direct-to-PhD programs). Addressing this issue might also help with the pipeline overload.

  • biochembelle says:

    This is only a problem for those who feel that the only thing a PhD is qualified for is to be another NIH PI. Once we get over that, there is no issue at all. People can get a PhD and then go on to do other things too.

    Yes, people can get a PhD and do other things. But sometimes they don't need a PhD to do those other things. If someone wants to work as a bench scientist in a biotech or pharma company, s/he might well be better off (e.g. find more openings) with a BS or MS degree. We should change perceptions of what a PhD is good for, but we also need to change the perception that every scientist needs a PhD and the stigmas occasionally associated with MS degrees.

  • Agreed. It will also provide more jobs for Ph.D.s and bio graduates (M.S. and B.S./B.A.).

  • In my experience (as a former college level adviser and former high school teacher)...

    A college degree is approximately the same level of education as a high school diploma of 20 years ago. A master's degree is approximately the same level of training as a technical 4-year degree of 20 years ago.

    What we need is a degree plan beyond Ph.D.

    No, I don't know if I'm actually serious or not.

    BTW: Part of the problem is that Ph.D.s are taking a lot of jobs that would have otherwise gone to lower degrees... because there are so many. Recently the Austin, TX ISD laid off 1300 teachers. They laid off the majority of expensive teachers (i.e. those with Master's degrees). My child's day care center recently posted for a kindergarten teacher. They normally would have gotten 10-20 apps and 1-3 years experience. This time they are getting 200 applications, the majority of which have master's degrees and 15+ years experience.

    So, now all those people with bachelor's degree MUST get an advanced degree just to be competitive in the job market. And those with Master's degree must get Ph.D.s just to stand out.

  • Morgan Price says:

    Would this be good for taxpayers or just for people who already have a science PhD? Would replacing grad students with more experienced but expensive labor (i.e., less of it) really lead to more or better scientific progress? And why should the universities be the leaders in reducing the number of PhDs, shouldn't the first step be for the funding agencies to reallocate all the money from training grants and scholarships?

  • TP says:

    Drugmonkey,

    This is a wonderful blog post. It shows maturity, munifence, and wisdom. One can only hope that you blog followers and, most importantly, the people that can actually effectuate the necessary reforms get the message.

    There are very difficult days for government-funded science in the near future. A big of the problem lies in an unbalance between supply and demand. Currently, too many PIs are competing for the available pool of money. This situation is largely the result of a system that encourage the training of too many PIs because these are earlier seen as cheap labor in form of graduate students and postdocs.

    Precisely because I support government-funded science, I wish the much needed reforms with regards to the number of trainees would have been implemented earlier. I am afraid that the policy and decision makers were--and still are--terribly behind the curve, and that, as a result, there will be much suffering in your field for years to come. Maybe we all can learn our lessons from these dark days in science, reform, and avoid repeating this situation. I am doubtful, however, as I see that the policy and decision makers believe we should "stay the course:"

    http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/01/despite-dire-budget-outlook-pane.html

  • neuromusic says:

    I agree 100% DM that this is *not* an undiscussed topic.

    I think that the 20% cut is a nice idea, but it comes with other barriers, such as decreasing each PI's likelihood of getting a grad student by 20% and therefore, productivity by 20%.

    Still, I think that @qaz notes a bigger problem with the mismatch between the goals of students and the ways that programs are measured.

    I'm a 3rd year grad student in neuroscience and a number of my colleagues who are finishing up are looking at options in consulting... but not telling their advisors for fear of retribution. And one colleague who came into the program without ever having planning on a career in academia or research won't tell anyone... again for fear that she will lose access to resources.

    Is this fear unfounded? Yes, absolutely. One colleague who took an internship with McKinsey was then told by a mentor that he should not accept an academic fellowship he received to present at a select conference because "he wasn't committed".

    So, yes, a cross-board 20% drop will help the numbers look better, DM. But it won't fix bigger problems with matching PhD training to career goals and career opportunities to PhD training.

  • neuromusic says:

    fix: "Is this fear unfounded? Yes, absolutely." Should be "Is this fear unfounded? Absolutely not."

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Part of the point, neuromusic, is to force PI's who have depended on grad student labor to find other ways. By creating more technician jobs, for example. And yes, this will change some short and long term operational plans and structures. But I do not think it necessarily cuts into productivity. To the extent it does, we need to see that level of exploitation of the labor force as an evil that needs to be eradicated. Just like when child labor restrictions, 40-hr workweek and other labor protections were put in place last century.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    What we need is a degree plan beyond Ph.D.

    We have this. It is called "postdoctoral training". The PhD is not really the minimum qualification for (the vast majority of) faculty jobs at present.

  • This issue has received an airing in the UK recently as a result of a campaign by the grass-roots organisation, Science is Vital (of which I am a vice-chair). The campaign aimed specifically to look at the issues faced by early-career researchers — i.e. postdocs. It seems likely that these issues are the same in the US.

    Our call for evidence (brief accounts of peoples' experience) generated nearly 700 responses, which were summarised in report that was presented to the UK Minister for Science David Willetts earlier this month. (Have a look at the Executive Summary or feel free read the entire report.)

    Much of the problem is, as others have noted above, one of over-supply and part of the solution is likely to be curbing of the number of PhD entrants into scientific training (though I'm not entirely sure that's the right answer - see below). This reduction is already happening for reasons of budgetary constraint in the UK. In part also, the pressure generated later on, as mature postdocs face the increasingly difficult challenge of landing a 'permanent' position, could be relaxed by better programs of career advice for PhD scientists. Too many have unrealistic expectations of their chances of becoming a professor in the long run. The Royal Society estimates that only 0.45% in the UK do so.

    However it is important to bear in mind that becoming a prof should certainly not be seen as the only successful outcome of PhD training. Again this is a point touched on in the comments above. To my mind it is difficult to know what is the correct level for a modern technological economy. I would imagine that it is on the increase. But even if one were only to maintain current levels, it would be important to (re)train PIs *not* to regard all PhDs as scientists in training — they should take on board a broader sense of the training that their charge should be expected to gain.

  • katiesci says:

    Morgan Price, it may indeed move science forward faster. Yes, there would be less people doing the science but if they were staff scientists and techs they would be more experienced than grad students, not have the burden of taking classes/ comps/ applying for fellowship, and thus have more time for real science.

  • leigh says:

    ffs, we don't exactly have a scientific labor shortage just because we reduce the number of grad students.

    also, what Katie said.

    also, better lab continuity (over people who stick around a few years and then leave).

    also, more income tax paid by people who make more than scraping-by grad student stipends. and fewer tuition dollars charged, making for fewer education credits (paid for by the collective taxpayer). this will, of course, hit the bottom lines of universities though.

  • Metalman says:

    A PhD is a training in research, in evaluating evidence, formulating hypotheses and applying critical reasoning. We need MORE people with those skills working outside academia (Finance and Government spring unbidden to mind).

  • Isabel says:

    Completely disband the useless, destructive NIDA. Stop pouring billions of tax dollars into enforcing anti-cannabis laws, and with the money saved, expand the NSF, and **fund a lot more REAL science***

    more LIES:

    https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions#!/response/what-we-have-say-about-legalizing-marijuana

    Propaganda is not science.

  • Joe says:

    Numbers of grad students in the biomedsci umbrella program I am associated with have fluctuated a lot in the last few years and it is because of tighter NIH funding and much less state support for the univ. We currently take about half the number we took six years ago. A faculty member just didn't want to risk taking a student when they weren't sure if they would have funding for them for 5 yrs. With much less state support, there was no money that the chairs could finagle into stipend money for the desperate. So we cut the number of grad students we allowed in.
    At the same time we have been creating a professional development program for the PhD students to expose them to law, business, entrepreneurship, policy, outreach, and extensive teaching training. Of the grad students I talk to about it, easily half are planning to go to industry. There is no stigma associated with that except in certain labs.

  • My institution is doing everything it can to *increase* the number of graduate students in our umbrella biomedsci program, including spending its own money on stipends and tuition to decrease the burden on training grants and RPGs.

  • DJMH says:

    Seems fairly obvious that NIH's stated goals of having the highest percentage possible of trainees continuing in academic science are not sustainable.

  • whimple says:

    People can get a PhD and then go on to do other things too.

    Sure, people can do eight years of training as a carpenter, and then try to be a plumber instead too. If only the training a PhD student received was aimed towards the non-academic jobs 90% of them will wind up doing, there'd be no cause for complaint.

    For what it's worth, at our institution we do have the odd champion of this kind of approach: teach people skills that will make them be in demand for non-academic jobs post-PhD and charge them tuition for this training instead of paying them a stipend. It hasn't got much traction so far, but I think it's worth thinking about.

  • anon says:

    I don't see how shrinking the PhD scientist pool will benefit anybody. If there is really a $5 return to the economy for every government dollar spent on science and science education, how can we afford to not support its current size? At the rock talk blog, here: http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2011/10/17/how-do-you-think-we-should-manage-science-in-fiscally-challenging-times/, one apparent consensus to resolving the current fiscal crisis is to rethink indirect costs. It's understandable that F&A costs are needed for infrastructure and all that, but some Universities have taken these costs way too far.

    It just seems ass-backward to think that the answer is to reduce the number of PhD scientists. That is NOT progress. As some have suggested here, it may be more productive to also rethink the education of trainees and to support them in a way that ensures appropriate employment once they get their degree.

  • anon4 says:

    I think there are two things that are going on. First, PhDs are being over-trained. As others have pointed out, many postdocs really don't need a PhD. We have two that PDs that are over-paid techs-they don't think about the science in any form and should have been let go a while ago. They could have been kept as techs where it would have been merit based raises instead of payline raises. It's irritating that I'm a NRSA PD and they make more then me and have less skills then the undergrad I work with.

    The second is one that was mentioned but not expanded--not everyone needs to go to college. I went to a state school for my PhD and one of the departments was meat sciences. Most of the kids that were in my class were going back to the farm to take over it when their parents retired. Why does construction supervision require a BS/BA? There are many vocational and technical schools, as well as apprenticeships that have and could easily serve in these realms.

    It's also time to stop thinking about PhDs going to industry as an alternative. In many of the workshops we run with our PD Association, many of PDs just don't get how to translate the skills they have to industry. This should change at the basic level of science at the BS level. More mentorship of undergrads could prevent the flux of PhDs into graduate school.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The "consensus" about indirects comes from people who have no idea what in the hell they are talking about. Indirects are an easy target but nobody ever seems to do the math.

  • Katharine says:

    So presumably since there will still be rotation in good old tenure track positions (just an onslaught of applicants) because people eventually do in fact die and there's always going to be people moving, what the hell does an applicant have to do to claw their way to the top?

  • Katharine says:

    Nobody discusses THAT. Do they?

    (Also if anyone has advice for someone who will be a first-generation PhD (not technically first-generation phd student because Mom was a PhD student once upon a time but she was in the social sciences and she didn't finish), I would like said advice.

  • Joe says:

    Katharine,
    "what the hell does an applicant have to do to claw their way to the top?"
    Publish good stuff, learn to give a great talk, and get a K99.

  • "what the hell does an applicant have to do to claw their way to the top?"

    Publish a paper in a high-impact journal.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Katharine,

    As it turns out, people discuss "THAT" quite a bit. I've collected pretty much all the advice the internet has to offer on just that subject! Take a look at my tenure-track job search advice aggregator for all your clawing needs.

  • Grumble says:

    What on earth are you smoking, to propose a 20% cut in PhD admissions? That's not what we need. What we need is a greater investment in publicly-funded science so that American businesses have more opportunities to take advantage of advances from the basic sciences, and thereby remain competitive in the global marketplace.

    A 20% cut in grad students would accomplish the opposite. What, exactly, is the "problem" that your 20% cut is going to solve?

  • whimple says:

    Indirects are an easy target but nobody ever seems to do the math.

    The administrators have done the math. They know they make out like bandits on the indirects. That's why they went on such a crazy PI hiring binge during the NIH doubling. It wasn't because of the directs. What else is there?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    My department did not have a PhD program, only an MS program. I was glad we didn't have a PhD program. Almost all of our MS graduates got appropriate jobs, or went on to PhD program or professional school elsewhere. So we had a very successful MS program. I think in some areas where our students went to work, a PhD was considered an overqualification. Also, I think if we had had a PhD program, it would not have been very successful.

    It was pointed out a long time ago that there was little correlation between the number of PhD positions available, and the number of PhDs produced.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    In current climate this will not create more jobs, but will merely match the decreases in government funding. Not expanding programs when and if budgets ever improve would create jobs for different people or existing Ph.D.s

    Not an easy problem to solve- kind of like carbon emissions. In this case you can decide which schools are China/India and which are the US.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    The claim that scientists don't discuss the excessive production of PhD's is patently untrue. Clearly, your troll commenter is not a scientist.

    Moving on: Reducing next year's admissions to all PhD programs by 20% is a good start. However, it's only a first step. Universities award too many post-secondary degrees, period. They do it for the same reason they lavish inordinate attention on sports and pay football coaches more than science professors. It's a profitable scheme for them.

    Universities could indirectly reduce the number of PhD's by reducing the astronomical number of bachelor's degrees awarded. The best way to do this is by raising the standards of college admission and making the bachelor's curriculum more difficult. How is it that kids these days get into a four-year university without knowing how to do algebra? Why don't all four-year universities require all college students to take a year of statistics in order to graduate, regardless of major? Why do four-year universities admit so many students who can't communicate coherently? Why are so many general education requirements useless? Why do we have so many universities in the first place? It needs to be a lot harder than it is at present to earn a bachelor's degree, let alone a PhD.

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    This question:
    Why don't all four-year universities require all college students to take a year of statistics in order to graduate, regardless of major?
    is answered by this question:
    How is it that kids these days get into a four-year university without knowing how to do algebra?

    And this question:
    Why are so many general education requirements useless?
    Is related to this question:
    Why do four-year universities admit so many students who can't communicate coherently?
    If GE courses were demanding, they'd have to fail kids who can't write essays so good, and that would, like, you know, not work. Cuz they pay tuition and stuff. 99% LOL. Anyway, humanitees is subjective, so how are you supposed to say teh essay isn't OK enough for a C?

    Also, to be blunt, state legislatures, donors, and funding agencies aren't pushing universities to weed kids out. They're pushing universities to raise graduation rates. If you're at an elite school, yeah, you write an "Intellectual Merit" statement on how tough your programs are. But if you're at a non-elite school, you write a "Broader Impact" statement about how many kids you got through in STEM majors. If that means that you give a degree to a kid who can't write a coherent paragraph and can't do algebra, hey, at least you increased the number in the STEM pipeline!

    I was a scholarship student at a school where most of the kids were rich. Freshman year I was surrounded by aspiring scientists and engineers and medical doctors. Sophomore year, I was surrounded by people majoring in business, social science, humanities, film, and lots of other things. The kids who got a lot of C's and D's in freshman chem, calculus, bio, and physics mostly switched out. They majored in something else, and they got out in 4 years. I don't know exactly how the conversation went that got them into a different major, but somebody talked some sense into them. And, to be honest, at a school with rich alumni, maybe they were better off majoring in business instead of science. I don't know that all of these rich business majors graduated with a strong grasp of statistics or strong writing skills, but at least they weren't in STEM. They were somebody else's problem. The system got that part right.

    Now I teach at a decidedly non-elite state school, one that--how shall I say?--gets more grant money for the Broader Impact statement than for the Intellectual Merit statement. When I see a student having problems, I go into our database and check on their grades. I see students who started in math classes way lower than calculus, now they're in their 3rd year and still taking a lot of freshman/sophomore classes, they're still getting a lot of C's and D's (but also some B's, I should add), and graduation is nowhere in sight. Nobody has sat them down to Have A Talk. They aren't majoring in my subject; it is just a service course for them. Consequently, I often don't know them well enough to have the You Should Not Be An Engineer talk. And, to be honest, as an untenured prof at a place that is (to some extent justifiably) proud of graduating so many STEM majors from non-elite backgrounds, I don't know that I should have that talk with them. But somebody should, at least in some cases.

    It is tempting to say that the best way to serve our under-served and under-represented students is to graduate them in STEM. Sometimes that is true. OTOH, we have decent enough programs in other fields, and many of the students who are floundering in STEM would probably do well in something else. I say this not because I think that STEM is inherently harder than other subjects, but because I believe that if something isn't working you should try something else and see if it works better for you.

    At the rich kids school that I went to, students who aren't cut out for STEM are quickly steered to those decent programs in other fields. It's in their best interest. But we don't do that, for reasons that are sometimes noble, sometimes self-interested, sometimes right, and sometimes wrong.

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    BTW, I don't think that every floundering student in my non-elite school should be sent across campus to become somebody else's problem. Some students are victims of economic circumstances and get great grades when their circumstances ease up. I can identify these students pretty easily: When I talk to them in office hours they show a lot of bright flashes, and the performance-limiting factor for them is that they work a lot of hours, so their homework doesn't display the same brilliance as our interactions. Or it shows brilliance on those occasions when their work schedule eases. Other students blossom over time. Still others are geniuses with their hands but are horrible at theory.* Still others just love science and would do even worse at any other subject, and as long as they can pull something together I'm OK with giving them a B.S. (I would never send them to a graduate program, however.)

    *Some people point to those students and say that we need to de-emphasize theory in favor of experimental work. I say that we need to balance theory and experiment, because theory is the synthesis of many different experiments, and this synthesis is a crucial component of science.

  • BugDoc says:

    Right on, DrugMonkey. This is a no-brainer. For all those people who go on about how Ph.D. training shouldn't focus just on academic tenure track faculty positions, here's a newsflash: only ~15% of Ph.D. students in the biomedical sciences eventually go on to TT track positions as it is. Everyone else already is heading into other career tracks, and it's not like those jobs are lying around for the taking either. Talk to anyone lately about how easy it is to get into good teaching positions? patent law? industry? science journalism? None of these avenues are wide open any longer. We are training too many Ph.D. scientists. I'm glad to say that our program is finally cutting back this year's admissions after years of large student classes.

    Is the PhD program an excellent way to learn critical thinking? Absolutely. Does it equip you to move right into decently paid non-science positions without yet more training? No. If our goal is to offer the PhD program as training in critical thinking, it doesn't need to be a 5-6 year research program supported by the taxpayers. There is no reality based argument for maintaining or increasing the size of PhD training programs other than getting more hands in the lab than can be supported by training grants.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The time-waste is the thing. All well and good to like broad education but to take 5-8 years out of the young adults' work life? Recipe for national disaster.

  • Susan says:

    All well and good to reduce programs in the future ... but we're working with a seriously lagging indicator, already. The Clinton NIH doubling produced a lot of training slots and eventually PhDs, many of whom have been languishing in ever-prolonged postdocs since. There's a bubble of us out here, right now, with nowhere to go, indicated by the rising # of years of postdoctoral "experience" once (if) we do get faculty jobs.

    Not that I have any answers, but - reducing PhD slots today will only take effect in 10 years or so, really.

  • Susan says:

    ps - "zomg! no one has ever thought of this before!" has been the introducing text of many newbies to many interweb discussions, ever since Al Gore gave it to us.

  • drugmonkey says:

    There is more than just the one goal at hand here Susan. It is about restructuring the entire labor pool in academic science. Some of those effects could be immediate. If these graduate students are needed for their labor, then those jobs must be filled by techs or postdocs. Some labs are very grad student heavy, some postdoc heavy and some tech heavy. I see all sorts just in my narrow subfield. I'm suggesting that we need to decrease the graduate-student dependence of labs. Some of the gap can be filled by tech positions- this is an improvement because it offers more of a real job to exactly that population that might have entered grad school- immediate post-graduate science majors. It launches them, without the 5-7 years of delay, into a career actually doing science. It does so without the fake promise of a good shot at tenure track prof-dom down the road.

    In many cases it is not (much) more expensive to the extramural grant- many Unis charge tuition and fees to the grant. The loser, of course, is the University which no longer gets these fees...they'll have to make do with the overhead charged to the tech's salary.

  • survivor says:

    While I agree that the current market says that there are too many folks trying the NIH PI thing, I do not see any evidence that there are too many Ph.D.s in the life sciences.

    I speak to biotech companies constantly who can not find the Ph.D. trained workers they need and are forced to bring folks in from other countries to fill their jobs. One employer recently told me that without the H1B program, he would be completely unable to meet his workforce needs for biomedical scientists. The overall unemployment rate for biomedically trained Ph.D.s is 1/5 to 1/10 the national average for this reason and all of the Ph.D. level graduates from my program from the past 10 years are either employed in the profession or stay at home moms (by choice).

    What I do see is the result of the constriction of Ph.D. level admissions due to the NIH funding uncertainties. This is a group of well qualified US citizens that are not able to gain admission into graduate school (some were on our program's wait list until the start of classes this fall and were still hoping for admission). They will not be able to fill those jobs in the field that require the Ph.D. and more H1Bs will be necessary. This seems like very poor economic policy to me and just continues the erosion of US competitiveness.

  • pablito says:

    "While I agree that the current market says that there are too many folks trying the NIH PI thing, I do not see any evidence that there are too many Ph.D.s in the life sciences."

    That fits with my anecdotal observations of colleagues and trainees over the years. A PhD with decent skills and abilities can usually land a good job in the biomedical sciences. The catch is that it probably will not be their dream job or in an ideal location.

  • biochembelle says:

    Ten years ago the National Academy of Sciences recognized a potential problem with the PhD supply line. Straight from the report (p 29):

    Recommendation 2-1. There should be no growth in the aggregate number of Ph.D.s awarded in the basic biomedical sciences.

    Given the current employment opportunities for ba­sic biomedical scientists and the forecasted growth in the workforce, the present number of approxi­mately 5,400 new basic biomedical Ph.D.s a year is more than sufficient to fulfill anticipated national needs at least until 2005.

    In the years since, there was a boom in biomed PhDs. There are not droves of PhDs lining up at unemployment offices (of course, many wouldn't be eligible to start with, thanks to fellowship classifications). But the ratio of postdoc employment has gone up. PhDs are staying in or taking 2nd and 3rd postdocs. I have met/heard of those who are starting their second decade as postdocs. Even postdocs lasting >5 yrs are not uncommon now.

    An employer having trouble finding PhDs? Either they seriously need to work on recruiting or they're looking for something highly specialized. I know PhDs who left industry because their jobs were either outsourced or cut entirely. I looked for positions outside academia not so long ago, as have others I know. The story is the same - open positions in biotech and pharma are mostly for BS/MS-level people with a few for PhDs with substantial industry experience (e.g. the pool that's been let go in repetitive rounds of cutbacks).

  • Fem says:

    Well, after sometime of thinking about the problems in science, and actually trying to work it out with a science puzzle approach I've realized that the main problem is simply money. Call it 'the missing link' or the main node of all the problems holding most progress in the so advertised century of knowledge.

    Money, the economic system, and availability of work for all 'elephants in the room' that become adults (with any type of degrees or none) are the issues to be reorganized.

    Any way you think about it those are IT. MDs, nurses and clinical techs would run out of jobs if the populations becomes stably healthy, for example. And we all are aiming for that. So they would need jobs to pay debt and living expenses.

    PhDs, masters and college degrees have more applications than a long pipe line of tired and aging MDs in deep debt.

    So what is needed? work, work and work, so why is it not happening?

    Do a post and that, and I'll come back!

  • What needs to happen is the shitteasse institutions filled with shitteasse PIs who wouldn't even be part of the NIH extramural system were it not for the doubling give up trying to obtain NIH grants and stop admitting PhD students. With all those losers out of the way, the decent productive segment of the extramural system can move science forward.

  • whimple says:

    With all those losers out of the way, the decent productive segment of the extramural system can move science forward.

    Those losers have no effect on the number of PhDs produced. The number of PhDs produced is a simple function of the overall size of the money pool distributed each year, and how that pool is allocated between students, postdocs, techs and faculty. If you want less PhDs, you either cut total funding, or force reallocation away from PhD students in favor of postdocs, techs and faculty.

  • drugmonkey says:

    My institution is doing everything it can to *increase* the number of graduate students in our umbrella biomedsci program

    Classic tragedy-of-the-commons behavior. You should oppose this.

  • anon says:

    "The "consensus" about indirects comes from people who have no idea what in the hell they are talking about. Indirects are an easy target but nobody ever seems to do the math."

    Let's see the math, then, DM. Explain why some institutions within the SAME city have a widely disparate indirect cost. Maybe the NIH should adopt a policy similar to that of the NSF - cap the grant size to total cost regardless of the institution. They already do this for some awards.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are they the same size? Do they have the same source of real estate, taxes and capital costs? Do they have the same mix of expensive/inexpensive experimental models? Did they both *request* the same rate? What mix of Federal versus other research support do they have? Trainees?

    There are many factors one can imagine before having the slightest notion of the details in the negotiation.

    What I meant, however, is that scientists rarely even tot up the total costs of running their own lab in their area, should it come to that. *All* costs. And then figuring out where some entity is picking up the true costs, in public institutions this is quite often the State. Real estate and building construction is no cheap.

    Now, you can argue about the Fed/Other partnership and who *should* pay which costs. But you should start from an understanding of the true market rate to get those studies completed.

  • survivor says:

    There are disparate indirect cost return rates for different colleges at the same university in the SAME city that share all research support infrastructure. I do not buy the argument that one of these colleges has different costs. Or if they do, grants should preferentially go to the institution WITH THE LOWER COSTS. if priority scores are equal. That is what is done in every other competitive government bidding process out there except for biomedical research.

    If the costs of running one university to support research are really 2-3X more than another, then the less efficient operation should be scaled way back until they can get their costs down.

  • whimple says:

    That is what is done in every other competitive government bidding process out there except for biomedical research.

    It really is bizarre that the NIH awards grants on the basis of scientific merit without regard to cost. There seems to be broad consensus (anecdotally) in the reviewer community that the grant scoring process can't distinguish differences in scientific merit between grants in the best 20th percentile. That being the case, why not start paying applications in the best 20th percentile in order of increasing cost (direct + indirect) starting with the least expensive and going until the money runs out? I wonder how many more RPGs would be funded using this strategy than the current awarding by priority score strategy?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I do not buy the argument that one of these colleges has different costs.

    Why then, pray tell, do you figure that Federal accountant type negotiators do, in fact, buy the arguments? What is it about your (I assume relatively uninformed) viewpoint that is superior to those who have the responsibility for making these determinations? Do you figure that utterly manipulable morons work for the Fed and are just rubberstamping whatever any University demands?

  • survivor says:

    Yep I sure do!

  • Mela Nidreya says:

    Asperger's syndrome is on the increase, and it is also the number one cause of Ph.D.s in Caucasoid males.

    Maybe that explains it.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Or maybe the elite cobags who are decreasingly productive with their 3rd and 4th R01s can go down to two?

    There is also an infrastructure argument that CPP always ignores. The bubble blew up much bigger at soft money places than at hard money places- places where there are limits based on teaching loads and other requirements on the total number of positions. If everyone takes an equal haircut, institutions that have combined undergraduate/research missions will suffer more that the med school octopus filling its slimy beak at the doubled NIH trough. Consider myself successfully trolled yet again.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Has everyone seen this article? "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard)". Heh. 40-60% of U.S. undergraduates switch out of science majors, and we still have too many science PhD's?

    This didn't escape my attention, either:

    Professor Chang says that rather than losing mainly students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with lackluster records, the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where he believes the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students.

    “You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”

    But at least the Berkeley student has known how to do algebra since grade school and started her college career with a math class no lower than Calculus I. I am exhausted by the idea that disadvantaged students are assisted by a less rigorous curriculum, so long as they get STEM degrees. No, they're not. They're just made less able to compete for good jobs. Better to shut down all the lower-tier universities and divert their funding to the top-tier universities than to keep swindling kids out of forty thousand dollars like this. That would sharply curtail the production of PhD's, too.

    (Though, sarcasm aside, that might leave us with the same problem on our hands if the ratio of PhD's to available faculty and industry positions remained the same.)

    Back to work.

  • becca says:

    And why, pray tell, is someone who had all the benefits of excellent preparation in math, who chooses to major in English just so they could get the fanciest uni name possible, a more worthy potential-scientist than someone who had no guidance whatsoever as to what to take, did not have the opportunity of going to a high school with excellent college prep, who is the first in their family to attend college and did so without a dime of parental assistance, and who worked in the field for 10 years, including in a Nobel prize winner's lab, to become an expert in molecular biology before trying to go to grad school?
    (yeah, Carebear went to a Cal State system school. and he has insaneo debt. But paternalistic and patronizing pontificating about how we need fewer college grads does not pay it off.)

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    This is veering off-topic, which is my fault. But I'm not going to take this lying down:

    who chooses to major in English just so they could get the fanciest uni name possible

    Whoa. This isn't what I did. This isn't at all the reason why I didn't major in science. This isn't what my friends and acquaintances who majored in liberal arts because they honestly had zero interest in science--hello, Phi Beta Kappa best friend from college!-- and who went on to get high-paying non-science jobs did, either. Thank you for trying to insult me, however, with a slight you borrowed from those New York Times commentators who insist that all liberal arts majors are lazy, trifling and idiotic brats who can't hack math and science and waste their college careers partying.

    a more worthy potential-scientist

    Ack. I'm not interested in irrelevant conversations about what people "deserve". I'm also not interested in attempts to shame me for being who I am.

    than someone who had no guidance whatsoever as to what to take

    I had next-to-little guidance. My guidance consisted of "Go to a top school! Your worth as a person depends upon it!" The End. You haven't the faintest clue what my road to college was like. You have no idea what I endured once I got there, either.

    who had all the benefits of excellent preparation in math

    Again, I take issue with your indignant and ignorant characterization of my college-preparatory education. What arrogance.

    yeah, Carebear went to a Cal State system school. and he has insaneo debt. But paternalistic and patronizing pontificating about how we need fewer college grads does not pay it off.

    We do need fewer college grads. Specifically, we either need fewer universities or drastic improvements to the academic quality of programs at most U.S. universities, starting at the undergraduate level. That would probably result in a reduction in college degrees awarded. (It might indirectly result in fewer PhD's, too.)

    Now, you can yell, "Ooh, look, a lowly English major!" all you want. It's not going to shame or scare me out of my opinion. That is because I've reached this conclusion for rational reasons: When disadvantaged kids receive low-quality degrees because lower-tier universities who care more about football than academics make fortunes selling them, they are not only saddled with crushing debt but also the inability to compete for decent jobs in a shrinking market against graduates from better universities. This phenomenon also reinforces stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of disadvantaged people-- especially those who are black and Latino.

    Incidentally, I don't expect you to understand a damn thing about having to live with the latter every damn day. That's because being a white person who marries a brown person and has a brown child doesn't magically confer upon you a first-person understanding of being brown in the United States-- for all you seem to think otherwise.

  • becca says:

    The fundamental truth that I think you've missed is that 'colleges' in our society do many things. The uses you see for college (as an intellectual proving ground? to the most rigorous training possible? as a way to thin the herd?) is not necessarily the only valid use (see also: creating an educated citizenry, fostering a far superior basis for social interactions than high school, transitioning adolescents to independence, providing job skills...)

    My points are:
    1) "lower tier" universities serve useful functions. It's laughable to simultaneously claim to give a rodent's posterior about opportunities for minorities and disadvantaged people and advocate getting rid of such places. Especially if all you've got to offer is a platitude about "academic quality".

    2) Whether it comes from you or CPP "if only we got rid of the losers, there'd be plenty for all the awesome scientists like me!" is an irritating attitude. When coupled with "I'm awesomest because I worked the hardest" it's also pretty deluded.

    As an aside: "Go to a top school! Your worth as a person depends upon it!" is admittedly a somewhat flawed message (at least I see it that way, although possibly it was well-intended?), but rest assured it is a very different message from "all those college educated idiots think they are so smart, and don't know their ass from their elbow. They're all afraid to do Real Work (that Real Men [tm] do)". I'm not pretending to know what it was like to grow up with either message (frankly, they both baffle me), but I do think that someone growing up with the former should understand just how far someone growing up with the later had to come- and appreciate the role a Cal State institution served in getting them there (a role Berkeley likely wouldn't take on today) before decreeing that they should be dismantled.

    Look, not everyone has opportunities to learn algebra (yes, even algebra) before college. The problem as I see it is much more in getting people the opportunity then in denying them options to compensate for being in that situation.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    providing job skills...

    You ignored all the comments in which I make it clear that more rigorous training leads to better job skills, and that this is my main concern with respect to post-secondary degrees.

    1) "lower tier" universities serve useful functions. It's laughable to simultaneously claim to give a rodent's posterior about opportunities for minorities and disadvantaged people and advocate getting rid of such places. Especially if all you've got to offer is a platitude about "academic quality".

    Your dismissing my concerns about academic quality as a platitude doesn't make it so; it's going to take more than your self-righteous irritation for that transmutation. The primary function of any university should be to provide an education that will not only intellectually challenge its students but also make its students employable. A university education is now too expensive to be sought without the latter objective by students who aren't independently wealthy.

    You honestly think that my preferred objective and the additional objectives of "fostering a far superior basis for social interaction than high school" or "transitioning adolescents to independence"* are equally valid? In a world where college graduates have forty thousand dollars of student loan debt? This minority from an originally working-class family disagrees with you.

    2) Whether it comes from you or CPP "if only we got rid of the losers, there'd be plenty for all the awesome scientists like me!" is an irritating attitude. When coupled with "I'm awesomest because I worked the hardest" it's also pretty deluded.

    I never made these arguments. I don't think I'm the "awesomest". PhysioProf and I are not the same person.

    As an aside: "Go to a top school! Your worth as a person depends upon it!" is admittedly a somewhat flawed message (at least I see it that way, although possibly it was well-intended?), but rest assured it is a very different message from "all those college educated idiots think they are so smart, and don't know their ass from their elbow. They're all afraid to do Real Work (that Real Men [tm] do)". I'm not pretending to know what it was like to grow up with either message (frankly, they both baffle me), but I do think that someone growing up with the former should understand just how far someone growing up with the later had to come- and appreciate the role a Cal State institution served in getting them there (a role Berkeley likely wouldn't take on today) before decreeing that they should be dismantled.

    No. That's not what you said. Stop being dishonest. You didn't ask me to "appreciate" your partner's perspective. You insulted me. You mischaracterized me as a spoiled princess who majored in English to avoid the challenge of majoring in science while securing a degree from a fancy university and who doesn't deserve her current position in a biomedical sciences PhD program because she's not as, ahem, awesome as your partner. A totally unbiased opinion, of course. And you haven't apologized.

    You've also made some straw-man arguments, but I have to go instead of rebutting them. I don't have time right now to make it clearer that my argument against the proliferation of universities in the U.S. and their lack of academic rigor has jackshit to do with my failure to appreciate how far your Awesomest Partner Who Is So Much More Deserving of the Chance to Be a Scientist has had to come. I don't have time to explain why you don't know how far I've had to come. I only have time to bite my tongue before I think any more about how out of line you are and respond accordingly.

    *The assumption that college even does these things for misfit kids with parents who either never went to college or who never went to an elite school-- I've got one of each, by the way-- is problematic in itself. But I don't expect you to know anything about that.

  • becca says:

    Can you define academic quality? Can you get a faculty group of 50 to agree to it? (If so, you might consider a career in academic administration, because I understand it is no easy feat. I mean really. Have you ever seen a curriculum overhaul discussion? It's worse than a parking committee meeting!)
    Do you have any data, any data at all, that can demonstrate that "rigorous educations" add ANY more value than as a 'branding'- a way to signal that someone has been "approved" by the elites?

    As far as employment is concerned- the largest projected growth area for the economy is "semi-skilled" type work. Home health care work, medical assistants, and nursing aids. Network systems and data communication analysts (many of these jobs are require AS degrees, they are not the higher level CS stuff) . You know who educates these people? Community colleges and other distinctly non-elite institutions. It drives me NUTS when people talk about higher ed as though R1s are IT.
    Yes, we will need more software engineers and physicians too, but there will always be far fewer people at the top.

    (Keep in mind, no level of preparing students for the actual job opportunities that are out there will fix the fact that jobs tend to be crummy these days. I see the real problem as the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny few [a small subset of the 1%] and the stagnation of everyone else. Really- the higher ed problem is the high blood sugar of the metabolic syndrome of our country. It's going to perpetuate the problem, and it's one place we can/should target for intervention. But it's not the root cause. Complaining about 'too many college graduates' doesn't resolve the fact that the working and middle classes are getting screwed.)

    I don't want you to "appreciate" my partner's perspective (you'd need to ask him for that). What I'd like you appreciate is that categorically stating that Cal State educations are worthless and that Berkeley students deserve all their funding is offensive. Because there are worthy students in that system that you look down your nose at for their lack of math background, of all things.
    Not that you're likely listening at this point, but I'm not trying to say you don't deserve to be where you are. But you know what? There are people that have it worse than you, and I don't think much of your 'solutions' for them (what do you think will happen to those who don't get into an elite school under your proposed scheme???)

  • Funky Fresh says:

    There are people that have it worse than you, and I don't think much of your 'solutions' for them (what do you think will happen to those who don't get into an elite school under your proposed scheme???)

    *Sniff* *Sniff*

    Do I smell some privilege that needs checking?

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Becca, you've Gish-galloped me. I fear my response must be long as a result.

    Can you define academic quality?

    You are the person who first used the phrase. But, sure, I'll define it for the purposes of this discussion. Academic quality describes a post-secondary education that intellectually challenges students and makes them employable. For example, a U.S. bachelor's program of high academic quality requires its students to learn material they didn't cover in high school. Consequently, courses in such a program are taught as if students have already learned algebra, geometry, introductory biology, physics and chemistry and enough English grammar and composition to write a coherent five-paragraph essay. No class in the program is taught as an exorbitantly expensive remedial class, and the program doesn't include classes featuring drawing, performance art and postmodernist exercises in stream-of-consciousness writing as general education requirements.

    Note that California State University requires its first-time freshman applicants to have completed high school courses in Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, introductory biology, introductory physics and four years of college-preparatory English (i.e., English courses on 19th and early-20th century works in the "classical" canon that emphasize standard grammar and essay composition in assignments). This isn't an honors college preparatory curriculum. This is the bare minimum for admission to a four-year institution. Yet Cal State requires it.

    Theoretically, that means Cal State teaches classes as if students already know everything on the list. In reality, Cal State offers courses in grade-school math. See an example here. As a number of lower-tier universities, it's failing its own standard. Or it's making money by charging several hundred to a thousand dollars as "in-state" tuition for a course that a California resident can take at a community college before applying to a four-year institution for $36 a unit. Your pick.

    Can you get a faculty group of 50 to agree to it?

    Probably not. Was I even talking about the logistics of implementing these changes? No. Does that mean I can't have an opinion about what changes need to be made?

    Have you ever seen a curriculum overhaul discussion?

    Actually, yes. Something else you didn't know about me. Not in the capacity of a faculty member, though.

    If so, you might consider a career in academic administration, because I understand it is no easy feat.

    I have no interest in a career in academic administration.

    Do you have any data, any data at all, that can demonstrate that "rigorous educations" add ANY more value than as a 'branding'- a way to signal that someone has been "approved" by the elites?

    This is a posturing question. First, a college education that doesn't mostly consist of glorified high school courses, patronizingly easy assignments and useless general education requirements is more intellectually rigorous than one that does. "Rigorous" hardly need be in scare quotes. Second, the rest of your question chiefly functions as a portrayal of yourself as the champion of the oppressed and not as an earnest query. Haven't you assumed the answer already? What exactly do you mean by "branding"? Who, exactly, are the "elites"? Do you mean members of the upper class, or are you including as punishment uppity scions of the lower classes whom you attempted to shame out of their opinions such as myself?

    The only good point amid all that sneering is the one about data. No, I don't have enough data that clearly supports my position that I can link to in the time that I have left to blog. Yes, it is still a good point.

    Incidentally, I know a number of professors and students in meatspace who agree with me about the need to make college curriculums more rigorous. One of them is a Cal State professor.

    As far as employment is concerned- the largest projected growth area for the economy is "semi-skilled" type work. Home health care work, medical assistants, and nursing aids. Network systems and data communication analysts (many of these jobs are require AS degrees, they are not the higher level CS stuff)

    Where's your data for this? Because I've read somewhat differently in The New York Times, Forbes, Business Week, Science, forecasts on the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and in other results returned by various "best careers" Google searches that I conducted earlier this year. For example, I've read that software engineers, who necessarily have CS degrees, are now vastly preferred to IT employees with less formal education.

    Community colleges and other distinctly non-elite institutions. It drives me NUTS when people talk about higher ed as though R1s are IT.

    Straw-man argument. I discussed four-year institutions. I think that most students should make up college preparatory deficits at community colleges before they apply to four-year institutions. I also think that kids who don't yet have the emotional maturity or the social skill set for college should take community college classes until they're ready and able to study. There is financial aid available for community college students, and community college costs less.

    Yes, we will need more software engineers and physicians too, but there will always be far fewer people at the top.

    Yeah. There are always far fewer people at the top. Most of them went to better schools with more challenging classes.

    I see the real problem as the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny few [a small subset of the 1%] and the stagnation of everyone else. Really- the higher ed problem is the high blood sugar of the metabolic syndrome of our country. It's going to perpetuate the problem, and it's one place we can/should target for intervention. But it's not the root cause. Complaining about 'too many college graduates' doesn't resolve the fact that the working and middle classes are getting screwed

    Where's your data for these five assertions?

    I don't want you to "appreciate" my partner's perspective (you'd need to ask him for that).

    No, you rather passive-aggressively berated me for not appreciating (i.e., remorsefully praising his struggles as greater than my own) your partner's perspective in your second reply to me. After you pretended that you hadn't passive-aggressively said that I don't deserve to be in grad school like he does.

    Because there are worthy students in that system that you look down your nose at for their lack of math background, of all things.

    Straw-man arguments. I'm not talking about worthiness. You are. I don't look down on these students. I said they weren't prepared for college. They're not. Then I insulted universities for using them as cash-cows. Thanks for playing, though.

    What I'd like you appreciate is that categorically stating that Cal State educations are worthless and that Berkeley students deserve all their funding is offensive

    What I'd like you to appreciate is that telling me my education was the best when it wasn't, telling me that I was too lazy and too stupid to major in science when I wasn't, telling me that I had more than I had when I didn't, telling me that I don't care about opportunities for minorities when I'm a motherfucking minority who thinks that minorities should get a more intellectually challenging education as a direct result of my experience, offering a judgment of my parents' very culturally specific philosophy toward education when I never asked you for one and telling me that I don't deserve to be in grad school is offensive. It's your prerogative to make all these statements. It's my prerogative to tell you to fuck right off with them.

    I'm not trying to say you don't deserve to be where you are

    Yes, you are. I had no idea you were this passive-aggressive until today. I also had no idea you resented my admission to graduate school so much.

    But you know what? There are people that have it worse than you

    Jesus Christ Almighty, not the Oppression Olympics--! Becca. I don't play Oppression Olympics. Of course there are people who have it worse than I. I've never argued otherwise in the whole history of my life. Seriously, this is a rebuke I usually get from white and Asian people who hate any discussion of racism against blacks. It's usually just as relevant to what I've actually said, too.

    Guess what, though? There are people who have it worse than your partner. And it is sure as hell not up to you to decide which one of us "wins".

    Not that you're likely listening at this point

    You have some nerve. You've insulted me, mischaracterized me, and mischaracterized my arguments. You didn't even read the comment that you started flaming me for carefully. You stalked into this discussion with your hands clapped over your ears and your nose firmly in the air.

  • Jackie says:

    I wonder if Juniper thinks that grad students should be allowed to take “remedial” classes (i.e., courses that they should have had as undergraduates prior to commencing grad study in a particular field) as part of a grad program. Perhaps they should not formally be admitted to grad programs until they’ve taken all prerequisites? Or maybe they should be forced to attend undergrad-only schools?

    Obviously, what counts is where you end up by the time you receive the diploma, *not* where you start. In that sense, I support “rigorous” standards … for graduation. Whether you want to do your remedial work in a CC or a lower-tier 4-yr school is a choice that should be left up to the individual adult. Clearly, if enough people choose the CC option vs lower-tier 4-yr school, the latter will not fare well and the “problem” will take care of itself.

  • becca says:

    "Or it's making money by charging several hundred to a thousand dollars as "in-state" tuition for a course that a California resident can take at a community college before applying to a four-year institution for $36 a unit. Your pick."
    OR it's providing an additional option to underprepared students in a very cash-strapped state in which people can't even get into the CCs because there aren't enough seats in them (in part because they are so committed to keeping tuition low, which I applaud the intention of).
    (http://usas.org/2011/10/12/budget-cuts-never-heal-la-community-college-students-demand-justice-from-wall-street/)

    "I think that most students should make up college preparatory deficits at community colleges before they apply to four-year institutions. I also think that kids who don't yet have the emotional maturity or the social skill set for college should take community college classes until they're ready and able to study. There is financial aid available for community college students, and community college costs less. "
    Great idea, except for see above. Shall we dismantle Berkeley to fund the CCs?
    (side note- this is sarcasm. Although I'm open to talking about dismantling the prisons to fund the CCs- DM had a figure on that if I remember right).

    ""Rigorous" hardly need be in scare quotes."
    Not because I don't believe rigor exists, but because there is not a strong consensus on it.
    Get an English major at Sarah Lawrence arguing with an engineer from Caltech. The former will be appalled at how little writing the later did, and the later at how little math the former did. The writing of engineers and the math of english majors is frequently considered to be lacking in rigor, even if the schools are good (this is not necessarily accurate, as I am sure you are aware).
    Moreover, I can tell you from personal experience that the "rigor" in introductory courses in a particular elite (top 5) department can be substantially equivalent to the "rigor" in introductory courses at a community college.

    So ultimately, I have little patience for people decrying the "rigor" of educational environments they actually have no direct experience with.

    "Incidentally, I know a number of professors and students in meatspace who agree with me about the need to make college curriculums more rigorous. One of them is a Cal State professor."
    Oh, I'm sure you do. There's a whole local conservative talk radio station program devoted to decrying the lack of rigor of other people's educations, round these parts. It's not that there's no truth to it, it's just that such people seem to rarely think about the underlying social structures might be impacted by people snarking at each other about how little other people deserve a good job.

    "Does that mean I can't have an opinion about what changes need to be made?"
    Of course not! I have scads of opinions on curricula. But I come into discussions about higher ed with the explicit recognition that my opinions are not universal, and that there are profound and important divisions about what the expected "purpose" of higher ed is. Big flagship landgrant state schools, the type I have spent way too many years in, actually serve many masters. They are complicated institutions, and it doesn't get any simpler if you start to consider different types of 4 year institutions. Trying to make some of them go away- particularly the ones that serve more disadvantage students- doesn't really help.

    "Where's your data for this? Because I've read somewhat differently in The New York Times, Forbes, Business Week, Science, forecasts on the website of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and in other results returned by various "best careers" Google searches that I conducted earlier this year. For example, I've read that software engineers, who necessarily have CS degrees, are now vastly preferred to IT employees with less formal education."
    And have you never thought to stop and examine the motives of people writing these news stories? How there are cultural memes about education being The Way to a good life that need supporting or else the middle classes get uppity when they realize that upward social mobility has been decreasing ?
    The National Bureau of Labor Statistics is one source that all those popular media articles draw from. Go take a look at table 2. http://www.bls.gov/oco/oco2003.htm#occupation
    Now don't get me wrong- there will be job growth in educated occupations. Two of the top 10 jobs require at least a Bachelors*... but 8 don't. The popular media is consistently misleading on this.

    *(accountants and postsecondary teachers require a Bachelors and Graduate work, respectively. Keep in mind by "postsecondary teachers" they mean educators at places like University of Phoenix- the only sector of higher ed that is growing rapidly is the for-profits. Now if your rant had been about them instead of Cal State, we might be having a very different conversation... I think those in traditional institutions tend to sneer at them for the wrong reasons, but there is some real ugliness in what some of them do).

    My goal on "appreciation" is for you to appreciate Cal State type institutions. My partner is an illustrative example as to why they are useful. I don't give a rodent's posterior if you appreciate him (I do, and that's enough).

    "I see the real problem as the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny few [a small subset of the 1%] and the stagnation of everyone else. "
    Data source: the congressional budget office http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45044618/ns/business-personal_finance/t/income-top-percent-far-outgrew-others-report/#.TrqbTnJD5I4
    This is actually *income* rather than *wealth*, but the trend is similar.

    "Yeah. There are always far fewer people at the top. Most of them went to better schools with more challenging classes."
    *sigh* Most of them were from families that helped them get there. The underlying social structure we live in is not a meritocracy. Education is designed to fix this, but often instead provides window dressing for the inequalities.

    ". It's your prerogative to make all these statements."
    It would be. Except I didn't say them. In many cases, I said the opposite, you just don't believe me. Can't blame you, but I really think everybody following along at home can see where we're talking past each other, and I doubt it looks like I'm the (only) one with my hands over my ears.

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    I teach at a Cal State. We know that a lot of our classes aren't as rigorous as they should be. I do think that our A's mean something, but we know that a lot of our C's are no more meaningful than the C's that W. got at Yale.* I agree with Juniper that remediation would be better done at a CC, where it is cheaper, and where the faculty culture and hiring process has selected for people who are probably better at it than we are. We try to straddle these dual demands of having a respectable standard for a 4-year institution (both in how we teach and in the research that we involve our best students in) and the need to meet our freshmen where they are at and get everyone through. On Monday I taught a freshman lab (taken by a lot of sophomores, alas) where I'm reminding people how to calculate a % error (not the finer conceptual nuances of statistical inference, mind you, I mean |Expected-Experimental|/Expected and converting to a percentage) and then I reviewed a paper for a journal that most of you read. Talk about whiplash. Maybe that % error discussion should be done in an institution that selects for people who enjoy that level of remediation, and senior projects should be done in an institution that looks for people who want to run good labs but teach a bit more than their UC colleagues. (i.e. sort of the ideal model of an institution that balances teaching and scholarship) Instead, I'm supposed to run a good lab, teach more than my UC colleagues, do some of that teaching at the highest level and some at the level of "Here's how you calculate a percentage" level. Whiplash.

    The whiplash goes all the way to senior year. In my advanced class I have a kid who's already finished his final project and is just sitting at the back of the room playing with the simulation software to see what happens in weird cases, and I have a bunch of kids who are still struggling with the basics of the warm-up projects and haven't even thought about the final project. At least the project-based mode, as opposed to lecture mode, allows room for this wide range of styles. That smart kid in the back of the room is going to be fine, and he's going to publish a paper with me soon about something we're doing outside of class. I'm proud that I can provide that. I don't know what I can do for the rest of them, without totally boring him even more than he's already bored.

    Thing is, the political pressure on us is to admit students from the community and get them through, not to be selective, not to weed out freshmen, not to tell people to go to the CC for remediation. They talk about standards, but they judge us on completion. It is possible to strike a balance between the two, but they don't want a balance of standards and completion. They want completion. Full stop.

    I'm OK with letting everybody show up as freshman, passing those who meet a high standard, and telling the rest to do some catch-up at the CC before trying again. But that isn't on the menu.

    *Something to consider before we assume that it's only the non-elite schools that water it down.

  • Jackie says:

    @Untenured prof at a non-elite state school:

    “I'm OK with letting everybody show up as freshman, passing those who meet a high standard, and telling the rest to do some catch-up at the CC before trying again. But that isn't on the menu.”

    It’s also not a viable solution if going to a CC is not option for them.

    “That smart kid in the back of the room is going to be fine, and he's going to publish a paper with me soon about something we're doing outside of class. I'm proud that I can provide that. I don't know what I can do for the rest of them, without totally boring him even more than he's already bored.”

    The smart kid, as you note, will be OK with or without you – publishing w/you is just icing on the cake. I suggest you focus more on the other students (the greater percentage of your population?) who haven’t figured out how to learn on their own yet. This would be the lesser of the two evils. I am singularly unimpressed by teachers who are only excited about teaching those who least need to be taught.

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    1) If the CC down the road from my campus is not an option, how is my 4 year campus an option?

    2) The fact that the kid is smart does not mean he doesn't need the stimulation of interacting with a more experienced person. Do really smart and experienced scientists say "Oh, I've reached the stage where I can learn on my own, I'll just go in the corner and do my thing"? No, they seek out interaction constantly, in department seminars and journal clubs and conferences and workshops. That smart kid needs a teacher if he's going to learn even more and reach his full potential. And I do have a duty to him, even if he is in a better situation than his classmates, because he is still a trainee and I am still a teacher. Publishing a paper with me is not mere icing that I shouldn't have spent time on. It is a way for him to develop his full potential.

    I should note that one of the alumni of my lab is a student who, due to a variety of personal hardships, did horribly in formal coursework because he usually lacked the time to focus on classes. He did, however, focus on work in my lab (especially when I was able to provide him with a stipend so he didn't have to work as many hours in an off-campus job) and after publishing with me a PhD program decided to take a chance on him. Running a lab that provides opportunities for talented students isn't just something that I do for the advantaged. It is also something that I do for the smart but disadvantaged.

    3) I'm happy to teach the other students who are farther behind. Label the course as a sophomore or junior course and I would know exactly what to do for them, and I'd have fun doing it. Label it a senior course, put that smart guy in the room with those who are way behind, and either I go at their pace (and fail to meet a standard, something Juniper has noted the problems with) or I leave them behind (something you have noted the problems with).

    The project-based mode is actually the best compromise I've come up with so far. I have to pull teeth to get the lagging students to ask for help, but when they do ask good questions the trouble-shooting process is an enjoyable one-on-one teaching experience, and at the end I feel like they've learned something so my time was well-spent.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    OR it's providing an additional option to underprepared students in a very cash-strapped state in which people can't even get into the CCs because there aren't enough seats in them (in part because they are so committed to keeping tuition low, which I applaud the intention of).

    1. I'm a California resident. I'm registered to vote in California. I lived in the state for over a decade. When did you get to CA? Last year?

    2. There are fewer seats than applicants to every post-secondary school. This includes four-year institutions as well as community colleges. How does this refute my argument that it is more affordable for disadvantaged students to take classes that they should have had in high school at a community college? How does your polemical report about increases in CA college fees prove that four-year institutions don't offer the equivalent of high-school courses and saddle students with useless general education requirements for graduation simply because they make a fortune doing it?

    But I come into discussions about higher ed with the explicit recognition that my opinions are not universal

    So ultimately, I have little patience for people decrying the "rigor" of educational environments they actually have no direct experience with.

    My goal on "appreciation" is for you to appreciate Cal State type institutions. My partner is an illustrative example as to why they are useful. I don't give a rodent's posterior if you appreciate him (I do, and that's enough).

    *sigh* Most of them were from families that helped them get there. The underlying social structure we live in is not a meritocracy

    Except I didn't say them. In many cases, I said the opposite, you just don't believe me.

    Okay. Enough. I have to stop talking to you. I'm too angry. Becca, I don't want to talk to you anymore. You've made a few statements with which I agree. You've provided me with useful information. However, you've also insulted me, continued to insult me, lied about insulting me, and misrepresented my arguments*. You also lack the maturity to admit that you made your first comment to put me in my place and not in the service of the lofty goal of convincing me to appreciate Cal State institutions.** Anyone following our exchange can discern that "talking past one another" is not the problem. I am now too angry to respond to you constructively. So I won't reply to you after this post.

    P.S. The next time I come across you lecturing someone on "privilege", I am going to direct him or her to this conversation.

    * I almost never watch TV. I don't own a TV. I don't watch TV online. (I've seen all fourteen episodes of Firefly only because my boyfriend gave them to me as a gift.) I don't listen to conservative talk radio, either. (That's my father, not me.) When I do listen to radio, I listen to NPR. Contrary to your insinuations, I haven't thoughtlessly borrowed my opinions from jingoistic pundits who obsess over the "worthiness" and "merits" of the rich vs. the poor, believe we're living in the holy pages of the KJV Bible or Atlas Shrugged, and fail to consider the complicated historical and socioeconomic context of human events.

    Meanwhile, most of the acquaintances who agree with me about the need for more rigorous undergraduate (and graduate) curricula hold liberal political positions and vote for Democratic politicians. (Yeah. There are all kinds of things wrong with Democratic politicians, but my point is that the people who agree with me aren't the O'Reilly devotees you're making them out to be. Do you ever ask what someone's political philosophy is first?) They aren't heartless villains bent on depriving working-class students of opportunities "because they're undeserving". By the way, when did I ever position myself as someone who knows what a given person does and does not "deserve"?!

    'Course, your insufferably condescending cries of "And have you never thought to stop and examine the motives of people writing these news stories?", etc. compel me to think that you'll just ignore the last two paragraphs and continue to assume you're so much more righteous and reflective than the rest of us: Why, no, Becca. I'm just a dumb, lazy, brown English major who's spent her life on Easy Street and who chose her major just to easily obtain the fanciest degree possible. I never think about the motives of journalists, editors and owners of news outlets. I take all news reports at face value. How I wish I were as brilliant and deserving as you and your partner! I'm going to drop out of my PhD program right now. By the way, have you ever considered a career as a politician?

    There are several more straw-men arguments of yours that I haven't addressed, but, as you can see, it would take too long. I don't want my PI to kill me for blogging.

    **You really, really did not read the comment in which I linked the New York Times article for comprehension. Then again, I don't think you were ever interested in what I actually wrote.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    I wonder if Juniper thinks that grad students should be allowed to take “remedial” classes (i.e., courses that they should have had as undergraduates prior to commencing grad study in a particular field) as part of a grad program. Perhaps they should not formally be admitted to grad programs until they’ve taken all prerequisites? Or maybe they should be forced to attend undergrad-only schools?

    Jackie, the answer is that I don't know. Sometimes, I think that graduate programs should implement such a policy. It would screw me. I am selfishly glad that my graduate program doesn't have such a policy. (I'm not proud of that, but it's true.) Would it improve the academic quality of the graduate program, though? Would it enable my program to graduate more competitive research scientists? Maybe.

    I should mention that I never expected to receive an opportunity to enter graduate school when I did. I thought I'd have to take community college classes for five years or earn a certificate from a post-baccalaureate program before anyone would seriously consider my application. I had tried to apply to earn a second bachelor's degree; that is very hard to do in the United States and professors everywhere insisted that it was unnecessary due to the nature of graduate programs in this country (i.e, the course requirements of U.S. PhD programs). I was also strongly encouraged to apply to my program. It was like a miracle.

    *Something to consider before we assume that it's only the non-elite schools that water it down.

    Untenured Prof, I agree. My reaction to the New York Times article was a frustrated one. It is definitely not true that every class at an elite school is a challenging or useful one, and I did not acknowledge that. This truth weakens my argument for closing non-elite schools. (I don't go to an elite school any longer, by the way.)

    Thing is, the political pressure on us is to admit students from the community and get them through, not to be selective, not to weed out freshmen, not to tell people to go to the CC for remediation. They talk about standards, but they judge us on completion. It is possible to strike a balance between the two, but they don't want a balance of standards and completion. They want completion. Full stop.

    If I have come across as scornful of Cal State students or professors, then I'm genuinely sorry. I have grown used to thinking of non-elite universities* as greedy institutions that don't pay their professors enough, prioritize sports over academics for the money and sell overpriced degrees to largely working-class students who have to take jobs for which they're overqualified/they should be overqualified upon graduation. It isn't that elite universities aren't similarly greedy, but at least their students fare better in the job market. Hence my frustration.

    *I realize that I am using U.S. News and World Report rankings, and maybe no one cares about those.

  • becca says:

    "There are fewer seats than applicants to every post-secondary school. "
    Other CCs are not experiencing the same difficulties as CCs in CA.
    In IL and PA, it's pretty much sign up and go for CCs (I had zero trouble getting classes, minimal trouble scheduling them, but it's probably worse now than it was). Also, classes cost roughly twice as much per credit hour in IL and PA as in CA.

    Juniper- if I understand you right (and I may not, though it's not willful) you are advocating mainstream positions (education is a social equalizer, education should be rigorous), one much lauded by many Democratics. Positions held by many many people I like and respect. Which is why it was worth engaging with, despite being irate over your proposal about doing away with certain institutions I see as valuable.

    "Education should be a social equalizer" is a different statement than "Education is a social equalizer". We agree on the former, I'm pretty sure. I think even about the later statement, we more agree than disagree. We both see that the system is no longer working as it once did- more people with more degrees and less good jobs for them.
    You place the blame on watered-down education, I place the blame on the societal structures generally. The jobs are less-good across the board, except at the tippy top (CEOs, ect.).
    Since people have lamented over lazy and uneducated youth for thousands of years, and the idea of the American Dream- including fairly extraordinary social mobility- is a relatively recent (and, I believe, fragile) concept, I'm pretty sure I'm right about what has changed, and if we focus on what you suggest we'll screw over good people (certainly if we employ the strategy of tossing out Cal States we would screw over good people, at least for the next few generations).
    Of course, to a degree, both of us are probably right. Maybe you can't fix education without fixing poverty, and you can't fix poverty without fixing education, and arguing about which to start on first detracts from making real progress by analyzing them as intertwined. I believe that for K-12, I don't see any good reason higher ed is a different beast for those purposes.

    Untenured prof- I've heard of many of your problems from profs at similar institutions before. Getting pulled in many directions is common for profs- getting pulled so hard and so fast- well, whiplash is a very apt word.

    From what I understand, remediation (particularly in math) is hard for everyone, even CCs have trouble with it. I don't know anyone who doesn't wish it was someone else's problem. I wish I had a good solution, but I am very cautious about those who just want to throw more basic classes (that someone else teaches) at the problem. There's some data suggesting the more remedial math classes someone takes, the worse the college outcomes (controlling for initial knowledge, or at least initial score on a placement exam).

  • Untenured prof at a non-elite state school says:

    I'm aware of the remediation data. Thing is, above and beyond the things with "the R-word" stamped on them, there are a lot of other classes taught at what most would consider the high school level. Beyond the designated Remedial Math courses there's another year of courses that count for college-level credit in the administrative books, but are nonetheless below calculus.

    And then there's my freshman lab class (all too often taken by sophomores). It's designated a College Level Course, but I'm explaining that if the expected answer is 340 and you get 374, your % error is 10%, not 0.1%. I'm supposed to be teaching college material, but I'm busy teaching middle school math.

    Don't even get me started on slopes and intercepts of graphs.

    Sometimes I want to go beat up a middle school math teacher for not doing their goddamn job. Except I'm pretty sure that poor schmuck is under just as much pressure to pass kids along.

    And, for the record, some of the students I'm referring to here are white suburban kids from allegedly good high schools (whatever that means), and I know for a fact that some of them don't have to work outside jobs to pay tuition. Some of them even grew up in the same neighborhood as some of my colleagues, have known these colleagues forever (went to the same church, did Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts with children of colleagues, etc.), and thus are in no shortage of high education role models.

    When I see a student who is working 30 hours/week to support a family while taking a full load of classes, and this kid went to a high school with more metal detectors than computers, OK, I feel sorry for him or her. I'll hold as many extra office hours as necessary to help make up deficits. When I see white suburban kids who grew up around professors and can't do percentages, and some of my colleagues go on about how great they are (because they knew them as little kids), I want to scream.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Our local secondary and elementary school district is positively obsessed with math preparation at the moment. FWIW, utp@ness

  • drugmonkey says:

    Jackie and Juniper-

    Insisting that all entrants to a graduate program have the same canonical preparation in the same branch of -ology is sure disaster for a program and ultimately a field.

  • Jackie says:

    @drugmonkey:

    “Insisting that all entrants to a graduate program have the same canonical preparation in the same branch of -ology is sure disaster for a program and ultimately a field.”

    No kidding! That’s why I wrote: “Obviously, what counts is where you end up by the time you receive the diploma, *not* where you start.”

  • For fucke's sake, some of these commenters are so fucken long-winded, I had to go take a motherfucken whiz in the middle of reading.

  • tododias says:

    Incredible points. Solid arguments. Keep up the great work.

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