Fascinating PhD experiment starts at JHU

Dec 11 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

On of the favorite hobby horses of Drugmonkey's is the Too Many Mouths at The Trough hypothesis. The tl/dr version goes something like this: Federal science budgets are flat-lined or dropping. The effect of this budget regression is compounded by the fact that a somewhat recent Time of Plenty injected a LOT of PhD scientists in the research track. Combined, the reality is that funding lines are in the single digits and are unlikely to recover any time soon. What's the solution? Reduce the number of PhDs entering the system.

But how?

NIH is unwilling to make changes to training mechanisms and seems rather unwilling to even acknowledge there is a problem at all. Okay, then how do we reduce the number of PhDs granted? It'll have to come from the institutions, right? It would appear that Johns Hopkins is starting the ball rolling to do just that.

The new strategic plan recently announced publicly aims to reduce PhD admissions by 25%, pay existing and incoming graduate students better, focus on hiring younger faculty, increasing faculty teaching and hire additional per course people.

Now, I can see the objection to the increase in adjuncts/per course personnel. Most universities poorly compensate these people and provide them no job stability at all*. However, the rest of the plan** seems pretty reasonable if you are facing the realities of running a college dependent on federal funding of research.

If anyone should see this as a good thing, it would probably be grad students. Better pay and the potential of better prospects after graduation. If you read the article linked above, however, you'll note that they are the ones that appear most outraged. In fact, it was pretty interesting to interact with a few on twitter. While there seems to be some recognition that overall PhD numbers should decline, there are issues with the plan at JHU:

And, of course, the faculty are pissed too:

I mean, dude, that's a LOT of free labor that is not going to be there in a few years. Indeed, I'm sure faculty see this as a raw deal. PhD programs should be cutting back at other schools!

And here's the rub: Who is everyone? Who's interest need to be taken into account here? In the short term I get the objection by the faculty. I don't really get the grad student objection, but imma gonna chalk that up to echo chamber and lack of realistic long-view. Maybe someone can clue me in as to how this is a problem for the grad students. But the real kicker is that the crux of this strategy is in the propagation. Will other schools follow the lead? If the answer is yes, then this is the first domino to fall in making science funding sustainable in this country. If the answer is no, then we have a real Tragedy of the Commons here.

Any way it plays out, I think it's going to be fascinating theater that may well have massive effects on science funding for the next generation.

*The Affordable Care Act is, however, mandating health insurance for per course instructors, so it'll be interesting to see what that does to hiring strategies. It may actually start to become more cost effective for university to hire full time lecturers, thus changing the landscape.

**As reported, I have no special knowledge of the machinations here.

30 responses so far

  • Chris Cramer says:

    Well, one small wrinkle, and some thoughts (as a participant in the brief tweet-out). I tend to agree with your reasoning above when it comes to science programs, which derive their funding in large part from federal agencies (and in some cases TA dollars).

    But, if I read the reporting properly, the impact at JHU is likely to fall most heavily on liberal arts programs. In those programs, the income is decidedly "funny". That is, there IS a grad student tuition, typically, but no one pays it (unless through a rare outside fellowship). Rather, the students are offered full INTERNAL fellowships, or at least multi-year ones. So, no income, AND the fellowship carries a stipend. That's REAL dollars, and budgets have not kept up (hence low salaries) as the source of that income was mostly raiding UG tuition and/or state funding (where available), and both of those have been under terrific pressure in the last few years. In many instances, the GS salary will be tied to teaching responsibilities, but that really should NOT always be regarded as exploitation or bad for UG students, because for many of these programs, training the next generation of professoriate has always been viewed as THE primary mission (with increasing awareness, at least at the smarter places, that alt-ac just can't be ignored, anymore). So, blaming faculty for not teaching is not NECESSARILY warranted when junior scholars teaching is a legitimate training exercise.

    The paradox, of course, is that in these fields, too, there is a Ph.D. glut (but not as bad as the life sciences, where NIH's sudden budget changes have caused maximum havoc). So, one has the paradox that using adjuncts is considered exploitation, but for many graduating students, adjunct opportunities may be the only ones available. So, I actually think Hopkins could do this all RIGHT if the intent is to treat adjuncts well (e.g., provide benefits, permit multi-year contracts, etc.) Those details, though, I've not seen in the reporting.

    The argument that grad programs need a "critical mass" to be viable can be debated. I know from experience with trying to CLOSE graduate programs that that mass appears to be as low as one student per year, at least according to the faculty involved. But, all snark aside, I think improved support to a smaller number of students is warranted in many fields and it will be interesting to see how it plays out at JHU.

    The complaints about Deans and back-room deals are hard to evaluate without being there. However, as someone who has played on both sides (and also done faculty governance), I'll just say that many academics define adequate consultation as: you came to my office after I ignored all your invitations to participate in other venues and you then decided to do things exactly the way that _I_ want to do them. Also, shared governance tends to imply a willingness to share in all decisions EXCEPT those that involve balancing intractable budgets without invoking money that magically appears from "somewhere else" at the University.

    PröfLike probably knows most of this already, but wanted to add to the context in case others find useful.

  • drugmonkey says:

    This "we're an *elite* program so we should not cut" is exactly the problem. every freakin' PhD program thinks they are awesome and those other guys should cut back.

    Kudos to JHU for stepping up in the lead.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Chris, I pretty much agree with everything you said. I'll be watching to see what details trickle out as this unfolds.

  • This is only at A&S depts, not the medical school. The amount of NIH money there is much smaller than at the medical school. Talk to me when the medical school does this.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    While that certainly sucks, the fact that it is happening at all is a big step. NSF is under the same pressures as NIH.

  • I cannot disagree with the idea that the modern "academy" needs to change. The question, though, is how? Personally, my votes at the polls are for re-doubling the NIH and NSF budgets. Sure, that is probably unrealistic in today's political climate, but that doesn't mean one has to say, "Hey, if the change I want can't happen, I guess I'm okay with a change in the opposite direction, because change is change!"

    Thus, that said, what do I really think of the JHU plan? Fortunately, I have been uniquely privy to the details of the plan since it was originally leaked about a month ago. Only addressing how it came about and the way it was designed (i.e. content and overall goals aside), it was pretty much a perfect example of mob-style cronyism. It'd be hard to NOT call many of the dealings bribery or extortion (e.g. Dean: "We'd be willing to think about not cutting your program as drastically as others if you give us your support before we unveil the plan to everyone."). Students were left in the dark about it, and the desire to rush it into practice, despite what contrary (and false) suggestions might be floating around the interwebs, was uncalled for. Therefore, it's going to be pretty difficult for me to like the plan no matter what it actually proposes.

    Regarding the content, I simply disagree with the concept that fewer PhDs should be awarded BECAUSE there are "too many mouths at the trough." As stated above, I'd love to widen the trough, but for the sake of this debate, let's assume that can't happen. What should happen instead? Let's take a page out of the masterful Ethan Perlstein (@eperlste) handbook: get everyone on the same page that a government-funded academic career is not a realistic option for even half of people completing graduate studies, thus they need to be prepared for alternative careers in industry, consulting, writing, administration, secondary education, finance, law, etc... Just because you have a PhD in genetics doesn't mean you have to BE a geneticist, nor does having a PhD in anthropology require you go on to BE an anthropologist in the true academic way we think of post-PhD career tracks. And furthermore, the JHU plan sabotages the few and lucky currently at the trough, as well as makes reaching that trough less and less appealing to those still aspiring to get there, because they can forsee being overworked with fewer resources at their disposal if the JHU plan goes into effect there or elsewhere in the country. In the end, I'm just not sure the JHU plan fixes anything other than makes the "academy" seem better organized and more efficient to outsiders. To insiders, it will likely directly result in less work getting done for the same amount of money, and it will generally make us a less educated country.

    And to clarify my comment on the "top institutions" -- I think changes like those proposed in the JHU plan risk having a few schools end up as martyrs, when instead several universities should work together to devise plans that spread the pain. I truly believe that there could be a downwards spiral if single institutions try to conquer these problems on their own. First they reduce their graduate student body, then the professors for whom they work struggle to produce relative to their peers at more stubborn institutions, then the struggling professors get fewer grants, which already pay for fewer students and their work, etc... It's analogous to the recent minimum wage debate in SeaTac, WA. Certainly the national minimum wage should go up (I agree with almost everything Robert Reich says: http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/watch_robert_reich_explains_why_the_minimum_wage_should_be_raised_20130317), but having one county implement this at a time simply gives the stubborn neighboring counties a huge competitive advantage, incentivizing being that last to change. I simply feel that there's a lot to lose by making changes such as JHU proposes, especially given the amount of great work that comes out of such a "top" institution. I'm not criticizing the output of "non-top" institutions, and I certainly have no desire to force cuts from the "bottom" up because I don't agree with the plan in and of itself, no matter where implemented.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    David, Not only is another doubling unlikely in the near or semi-near future, the result of the last one are being felt still and is why we are where we are. If you subject any system to boom and bust cycles, the results are ugly and favor phenotypes that unapologetically devour resources as fast as possible. It's a shit model for moving research forward.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Once you invoke Rumperlstainskin you automatically lose your firstborn argument.

  • MorganPhD says:

    @potniatheron is making the best point here. If this is not the School of Medicine, then it really won't make for an interesting experiment.

    A fun thought experiment would be if we asked what would happen if we cut PhD student enrollment by 25% at the School of Medicine.

    Who replaces the graduate students in the short-term? Postdocs from other institutions that didn't cut their PhD students?

  • Alex says:

    If it doesn't apply to the School of Medicine it might not be an interesting experiment for biomedical researchers, but Hopkins trains people in other fields, and other fields also have PhD over-supply.

  • Interesting that JHU is doing this proactively. As someone from a 'not elite' school, my perspective is that the graduate program contraction is already underway downhere. In my dept, at least, our graduate program is contracting as the research \( to support students dry up. As a result, more of our students need the TA funds and that's a very limited pool of state \). Because incoming students increasingly need TAs for support, we've been able to accept much smaller incoming cohorts. Many of our available TA-supported slots go to our newer faculty so that they can get up and running (its a great sign for my dept that this is NOT a controversial decision). But this means that established labs do tend to be shrinking right now. Maybe my institution is unique, but I suspect that we are not the only ones with grant $$ drying up and thus experiencing a graduate program contraction.

  • atcgphd says:

    If this doesn't apply to the School of Medicine, it seems near pointless.

    Agree with drugmonkey & proflikesubstance - there are too many mouths at the trough. Of course I'd like to see the funding increase to accommodate a professorship for all, but look, let's be just a little bit realistic here.

    Certainly, increasing support for alt-ac careers needs to be part of the solution (we could start by not looking down on/slamming those who pursue them ... yes, Schekman, I'm looking at YOU. Your "they're not really scientists" slam on journal editors was totally uncool.)

    But at the same time, we need to look at models for decreasing enrollment in grad programs and moving that labor to full-time professional techs & staff scientists, who make a living wage, a la the Tilghman report. In the long run, this will be good for everyone ... PIs who will enjoy more continuity in research personnel, and who should have to spend less time training noobs, resulting in a more efficient enterprise; students and post-docs, who will have jobs to enter after they complete their training. The real (and difficult) question is, how do we re-structure funding to accomplish this?

    I submit that we must avoid the temptation to point the finger at the "other guy's" program ... because for one, as drug monkey points out, nobody thinks he (or she) is the other guy (or gal). Even if we were to attempt to identify low-performing programs via metrics, such an approach would be doomed to failure. Cutting off the 100 schools with the least NIH funding wouldn't create a utopian, egalitarian academy .. it would just create a new distribution, with the schools previously ranked 101st, etc., now at the bottom. After a while the "top" programs would look around and find they didn't have quite all the resources they'd like, and we'd be talking about the need to cut off the NEW bottom 100. It's an endless cycle, and not a solution. (If you haven't heard of it, look up the Matthew effect.)

    Then there's the separate problem that whatever metrics one might identify are bound to be fatally flawed - I, like many others, I suspect, can think of leaders in my field who got their PhD from Nowheresville U.

    No, the only solution is an across the board cut, combined with support for alt-ac and a shift away from free to paid labor (good on you for calling that one out, Prof-like substance). The hard way. The easy way never really works.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    There was an article in Bioscience, late 70s - early 80s, which predicted today's situation pretty closely. As I recall, they advocated cutting PhD programs to one per state, and thought that would still be too many PhDs. And, no, things are not going to get any better because there will never be another doubling of science funding.

  • MCA says:

    I think the grad student objection may simply be "If elite school A cuts its program, I have a reduced probability of getting in." Not the most forward-thinking, but technically true.

    For longer-term science funding, I propose acquiring "non-conventional funding" via super-villainy. Rob a few banks, sell some doomsday devices to unstable dictators, maybe threaten to blow up New York, the usual. At the very least, it'll be fun.

  • atcgphd says:

    But MCA ...that explanation makes no sense to me. Grad students at JHU are *already* enrolled in an "elite" graduate program ... why do they need to worry about getting into *another* one??

    I wonder, are they imagining themselves as future faculty with fewer grad students to exploit & abuse???

    Nah, surely that's too nasty an interpretation, right?

  • Alex says:

    If I had to guess, I'd guess that they don't fully understand the system yet. They are probably just thinking "Evil administrators don't want students to get PhDs!"

    When I look at this at a systems level, I think this is an awesome plan. OTOH, the fact that this comes from the administration makes me reflexively suspicious that there must be some downside that I'm just not seeing.

  • postdoc says:

    It's not clear to me how hiring techs, etc who cost money is going to work since the original problem is a lack of funds.

    And I certainly hope no one is suggesting that such tech positions are good alternative careers for PhDs- that is a job that requires a Bachelor's, not a PhD (If I'd wanted to do that, I wouldn't have gone to grad school).

    The simple fact is that we overproduce PhDs and should probably cut all programs by half. I think there is a serious problem with the way things function if a professor is utterly dependent on having an army of grad students to do their work anyhow

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's not clear to me how hiring techs, etc who cost money is going to work since the original problem is a lack of funds.

    It's pretty simple math - divert the training grant funds back into the general pool so that the modular budget can be increased to pay for staff.

    And I certainly hope no one is suggesting that such tech positions are good alternative careers for PhDs- that is a job that requires a Bachelor's, not a PhD (If I'd wanted to do that, I wouldn't have gone to grad school).

    I think you have a very limited scope of what a "tech" is, probably because they do tend to be people right out of UG in the US because it's not a career option. Like I said, a tech is a very different thing, more along the lines of a Research Scientist, in other countries.

    I think there is a serious problem with the way things function if a professor is utterly dependent on having an army of grad students to do their work anyhow

    I don't see a lot of PIs writing solo data papers, but maybe that's just my field. There's a difference in what aspects of running a successful lab are taken on by which people. There's no way in hell a grad student would be able to do all the work the PI does.

  • Dr 27 says:

    My school is cutting ~25% of the class. They'll go from nearly 70 students, to somewhere around 50 (we're in one of these melting pots/umbrella programs). When I was a student I remember that grad school (or my perception of it) was kind of a fall back plan if med school didn't work (mindset of an 18-19 y/o kid). Having gone through the PhD and having participated in my share of recruitment sessions (in and out of my school), I did get the vibe that other youngsters felt that grad school was a fallback plan too. Don't get me wrong, I've met a whole lot of great kids interested in going through grad school because they're excited about a project and love science ... but I've had my share of ones that have no clue of what they want to do, and fall into the trap of "free" money for doing research.

  • katiesci says:

    atcgphd, I think the students MCA was talking about were the ones applying to grad programs now, not currently in them. These students think they're special snowflakes who should OF COURSE be granted a position at the school of their choice and because they're special they don't have to worry about not getting an academic position at the end (if that's their goal) because of course they will. They're special. I had this to a tiny degree before getting into grad school but it wears thin once you see the real situation. But I've found that many of my classmates, in their final years of a PhD program, still don't understand the full extent of the problem (because they're not on Twitter and don't read blogs *ahem*).

    From my view, which I'll admit is naive, I think the benefits of paying techs and research scientists instead of students would be huge. Right now, most of the science in this country is performed by inexperienced grad students (including myself). It's not the most efficient system in the first place and when you throw in the lack of great jobs at the end for these students it really starts to suck. Science could move faster if it wasn't carried out by mostly temporary, inexperienced people. But where would the extra money come from needed to pay them a better wage than grad students get? That's beyond my current scope of knowledge.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Postdoc, some could consider me a tech, though I have a much more fancy title including words like 'facility director', 'operations manager', and director of awesomesauce struct bio facility at fancy pants uni in the south. The job description called for having a minimum of 5-7 yrs of experience and a bachelor's ... and I have 10 years of experience in my field (I count day one as grad student in my PhD lab as part of that) and I have a PhD and I got the job. I take issue with people referring to techs as glorified this or that.

    And like @PLS says: "There's no way in hell a grad student would be able to do all the work the PI does." To which I'd add that having a PhD level director of fancy pants struct bio lab at my school has made the life of my PIs a whole lot easier.

  • postdoc says:

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not denying the skills or usefulness of a tech (I'd probably offer up my first born for one!)- I just don't think it requires a PhD for entry level. Dr 27, your position sounds like more than one level up from that, and it sounds like your PhD experience counted as the requirement, but I wonder if experience as an entry level tech could as well? Seems to me that is a route to the job with less opportunity cost (financial I mean). Grad student stipends are not exactly stellar after all. If I wanted that type of job, I'd have started as a lab tech after my Bachelor's; I did a PhD to be the one setting the direction of the research.

    The other issue that I think arises here is that competition at all levels has gotten intense; hence, these days, there are so many of us running around with PhDs that poof! let's hire a PhD to be a lab tech cause we can! Just in the last few years I've seen this in grad school admission in my discipline (where field work is a major part); if you've not gone abroad (needed to do the work) and done field work, often at cost, you're not getting into grad school. Well, doesn't that just perpetuate all kinds of socioeconomic biases. Let's recognize that by cutting down on PhD admissions what we are doing here is changing when the intense competition happens, not its occurrence. Mind you, better to happen before investing 5+ years in a PhD, but still.

    Of course PIs are on papers with grad students, but 1) I certainly hope some are projects they are mainly responsible for (ie, not totally carried out by students) and 2) this is precisely the system that perpetuates overproducing grad students- cheap labor. I'll bet you'd have to pay a tech more than a grad student as katiesci says. And if the bottom line is budgets decreasing, I don't see how switching to techs is going to solve this- it may be better for ceasing to overproduce PhDs and solving the who does the labor issue, but it will cost at least as much money, if not more.

    In the end, maybe I'm a little cynical, having been exposed to a few too many deadwood PIs.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The transition to more staff and fewer students is not an overnight fix. Remember folks, we're playing the long game here and there isn't a quick fix. By shifting training money into the general pool and increasing the modular budget to account for new salaries, you start things moving. Fewer PhDs are produced, reducing the Trough Pressure over time, allowing success rates to increase even when the federal commitment keeps up with, or mildly outpaces, inflation. It would have to be a cultural shift fueled by new funding dynamics.

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    'Would that federal money could keep up or outpace inflation...that alone would be an improvement

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Agreed, that would be a nice first step. This 5-10% budget reduction per year is pretty brutal.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    The key to understanding this is that the top quarter graduates about half of all PhDs across fields, the top half, maybe 80%. The bottom quarter much less than 10%, so the cutting has to start at the top. See the NAS reports for details.

  • ProfBC says:

    If NIH and NSF wanted to reduce the number of graduate students & post-docs, raise the minimum salaries/benefits without reducing the size of grants. PIs would initially freak out and there would be collateral damage but it would decrease the number of trainees. Admissions would become more competitive. Care would have to be taken that the reduction wouldn't privilege those from already privileged backgrounds. My guess is some programs would leap out ahead to get more funding to keep the same number of grad students meaning even less money for other programs. A number of graduate programs would become too expensive to maintain and would be shut down.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    The problem is even more pervasive than the above discussion...large G enrollment is critical to how the teaching gets done because students are TA's. Lowering G enrollment at some big schools would be extremely difficult if what I've heard from some colleagues about expected attrition rates and covering TA duties for labs, discussion sections, and grading.

    I'm at a small school and I feel like we do a pretty good job of keeping the groups a 'good' size for effective mentoring by the PI's. As a product of large G and PD groups I can say that my training was excellent, despite the bigger group size.

  • atcgphd says:

    I finally get why the current JHU grad students are unhappy!!!!


    1. The new, increased stipends will be given to new, incoming grad students, but current students are stuck with the old, lower stipend level. (IMO probably a very central source of discontent, duh).

    2. They're concerned about losing "critical mass" in some departments, especially departments that are already small.

    As someone who graduated from a very small department (basically I had no peers at all for the first three of five years), I kind of get this. It can be depressing to go through the grad school experience (in a way) alone. But it forced me to interact more with faculty, which I think was good for my intellectual development, and also made me less intimidated when it came time to introduce myself to field leaders, raise my hand at big conferences, etc. Ultimately it was good for me.

    And it would be good, too, I think, for the academy in general, if faculty treated graduate students with more respect; as junior peers - less experienced, yes, but still intelligent, and occasionally even right when the boss is wrong - rather than as the worthless, disposable, brain-dead sub-human side of some us-versus-them divide.

    I was really struck by this interview I read today with Henry Bourne (UCSF):


    "Now power in biomedical research is almost entirely in the hands of older established scientists. Scientists in the elevators at my institution, UCSF, now mostly have grey hair. When I first came here, you couldn’t find any grey hair in the elevators, and most of the faculty became assistant professors at the age of 28 to 32. I was 31. Young people got a licence, essentially, to venture out there and see what you can do. It’s now totally different now: you have to cross all sorts of minefields and hurdles to find funding opportunities and become an independent investigator. This is the major problem in biomedical science today—we are not taking care of the young people."

    So, in sum - small, even very very small, programs - IMHO, not all bad.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The current students are still getting a pay bump, just not as much as incoming students. I think they get an extra $4k/yr or something.

    And it is not clear how big the programs are that are slated for downsizing. Are the 100 grad students or 10? Obviously, the implications are different.

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