So how do we fix the Ph.D/Postdoc glut?

I think that at this point everyone in academia (except funding agencies?) is aware that there is a glut of Ph.Ds and postdoctoral researchers, and, at the same time, budgets are being cut back and departments are hunkering down.  Nature published an editorial in 2011 pointing out the issue, with some contentious points made in the comments.  I’ve seen posts across the science blog-o-sphere about the issue, Mike the Mad Biologist posted recently, there was post-doc-alypse-gate (I got in on the initial twitter hash job (still ongoing), Ethan Perlstein wrote a post and then Prof-like Substance weighed in), but as of yet I haven’t seen a post discussing how individuals can help counter this problem, it’s all institutional.

Clearly there can be a role for individuals in putting together their grant proposals, but it’s not clear to me what people can be doing individually.  After all, we make many arguments for both individual and administrative change to plan and adapt to climate change, but in the case of the Ph.D glut it seems like we’re leaving the solution to the funding agencies and leaving our role out of it.

I’m writing up my first NSF grant proposal, so I’ve become keenly aware how difficult budgeting can be, and Ph.D students are a cheap labor force.  The question I have is, at an individual level, how can we confront this problem using our grant proposals as a tool?

Do we apportion money for work to the tenure-track professors at the expense of grad students?  If we do that do we then fail in our mandate to train?

Do we artificially inflate the Ph.D salaries?  The only thing that does is raise Ph.D salaries.

One clear solution is incorporating breadth into the role of a Ph.D or post-doctoral researcher.  Ensure that there are training opportunities within the grant proposal.  We’re working with breadth in our proposal, a large, trans-disciplinary team that is focused on skills development within the discipline.  There is considerable focus on assessing core concepts and developing teaching materials, while at the same time tackling challenging problems in paleoecology.  It’s not ideal, but by reaching out to other disciplines, and by focusing on developing teaching materials to a broad audience we can provide our grad students with a broader set of skills.

Of course, the government may have solved the problem for us. . .

So here’s my solicitation for your help.  How do we use the grant proposal to help combat the Ph.D glut?


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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

13 thoughts on “So how do we fix the Ph.D/Postdoc glut?”

  1. I will admit to finding this whole teaching/training mandate that is a fundamental part of the grant awarding and ranking process is just exacerbates the whole problem. I’m just familiarising myself with NSERC’s process and from what I hear from colleagues is that training is a big part of how your grant application will be assessed.

    But what are we trading these people for? The dole queue?

    In the UK things are a little different; tied PhD projects to the grant have to be wholly independent in the sense of not being dependent upon the grant our vice versa. The PhD project is obviously related to the grant but is more an add-on.

    However, we were being continually pushed to take on more PhD students, particularly foreign ones that bring in highs fees, to help the departmental bottom line.

    The whole landscape is fundamentally broken. We need a longer-term approach to the whole academic treadmill. That stems from funding universities and grant awarding bodies far more than they currently are so that there are more post doc and faculty positions across the board to allow for job progression. A longer-term approach to funding research positions so that it is a valid career path; why should the teaching /faculty route be the only one that offers any semblance of job security and an ability to plan financially for the future?

    I would even go so far add to say we have a moral responsibility to not take these people’s money and train them for a job that all too often doesn’t exist.

    1. Yes, it’s a good point. When I mentioned training I was thinking about broad-based training so that the students have more options coming out of the program, and, potentially, more breadth should they stay in academia.

      It’s a big mess, and the point I was trying to make was that if you give Ph.D students a range of options (not keeping the training focus on one technique) and opportunities for making connections outside of the discipline, then they have a better chance down the line.

      1. Agreed; Generic, transferable (research) skills should have far greater emphasis in grad student training. Being someone who teaches stats and quantitative ecology/palaeoecology I often come across students, especially PhD’s, who have spent 2-3 years slaving away on the minutiae of diatom taxonomy or the intracacies of method development for some newfangled geochemical method. And then haven’t bothered or don;t have the time to learn how to analyse their data properly.

        However, if there is only a pot of money of a certain, fixed size with which to hire new faculty then simply training more and more PhD’s, no-matter how well-trained in a broad range of skills, will just exacerbate the situation. Just because there is a financial market to train people doesn’t mean we should do it without reform throughout academe.

    2. Do we artificially inflate the Ph.D salaries? The only thing that does is raise Ph.D salaries.
      I don’t get this statement. You noted grad students are cheap labor. You want to decrease the number of PhD students, decrease the number of slots available. There is X amount of money available to pay graduate students. If each student costs more guess what there will be fewer students in graduate school. Do the same for post-docs. Part of training grants should be an assessment piece. Those that do well continue to get grants.

      1. Right, the problem with the Ph.D glut isn’t just too many Ph.Ds, it’s also a lack of TT positions (or non-academic positions) for them once they defend, and, a lack of broad training opportunities. I feel like simply paying a Ph.D student a higher salary doesn’t address their immediate prospects once they leave the lab. I think that providing them with breadth of opportunities, supporting that with the extra money that might otherwise go to salary, is probably a better use of scarce funding.

      2. As a PhD student, I have a clear interest in higher PhD salaries (even though I am better-paid than most thanks to a scholarship, and any reforms would come after my graduation).
        That disclaimer aside, paying PhD students higher salaries / stipends is not a bad thing. Life-outside-of-work stresses are a major reason for delays and extensions in PhD programs, as well as withdrawls or simply failures. Taking some of the financial pressure off would make the process of getting a PhD significantly less stressful, leading to better performance in the lab.
        It’s quite galling to look at one’s take-home pay (after deductions, and after tuition and other pay-us-to-work-here fees) and compare it to other lab costs, such as the price of new or replacement equipment, or consumables costs. When my stipend was $20K/year, I cost my advisor’s main operating grant an additional $100K in costs associated with my field work. Shipping samples home from the field site cost $5K, and analyzing those samples for the boring, basic parameters that consititute background data for my study cost several tens of thousands of dollars more. The cheapest item on the budget appears to be the worker/”highly trained personnel”.
        I’m not arguing for a doubling of salary (though that would have obvious and immediate effects both on the individual students and on the number of students), nor am I arguing for some kind of functional link between salary and project costs. I would like to point out the feelings raised by a simple examination of one’s position in the financial stream flowing through a typical laboratory.

        Training in transferable skills is an obvious good idea. How difficult or expensive would it be for (e.g.) an academic department to bring in for a day a seminar series or workshop of graduates with non-academic jobs? Can the people who got a PhD then went to work for Du Pont or the Ministry of Natural Resources or whatever be enticed to spend a day talking about careers?

      3. The problem right now is there a glut of PhDs relative to the market. The way the US economy is set-up, it can’t take advantage of those resources (amazing what happens when productivity gains mostly go to the top 1 %). Breadth of training isn’t going to help in that reality.

        What jobs are PhDs missing out on due to the lack of broad training?

        When the economy was humming along, those who entered graduate school around the time I did were able to go out and find plenty of jobs outside of academia. Yes some worked in biotech & pharmaceuticals that used their direct Ph.D. skill sets. A large number went into consulting and policy, which did not use their lab skills but did make use of their communication and critical thinking skills. Others went to get an additional skill set (e.g., a J.D.) before entering a career.

        Now biotech and pharmaceutical jobs are being cut as are positions related to consulting and policy. Academic jobs are also being slashed. The US with its GOP House of Reps and Rockefeller Republican in the White House is not going to be correcting this anytime soon.

        Welcome to the new normal. If there is a glut of PhDs decrease the numbers graduating with PhDs or fight like hell to change out society. Reallocating funds to broaden training isn’t going to help in the environment we exist.

  2. Thanks for linking to my postdocalypse post. It was the most-read post on my lab website, and now the long-tail of pingbacks is materializing. I clearly struck a nerve, and I’m actually glad I did.

    How will scientists, especially young scientists, adapt to the new funding environment? I would think that not being 100% dependent on government grants is a start. Diversifying research funding streams with crowdfunding and getting paid personally for science blogging are two ways I can think of off the top of my head.

    I don’t have all the answers. But I know that sustainable solutions going forward will come from experimenting more with altfunding, not less.

    1. Thanks Ethan. I agree with you that dependence on government grants can be a problem, but there are certainly issues around that, as I’m sure you’re aware. For example, I suspect that long term support through alt-funding might be more difficult for less applied research.

      The real issue that I see here is that, regardless of support from altfunding, without permanent positions, the Ph.D students that get trained have nowhere to go (although they may gain considerable skills from learning how to crowdfund their projects!). The point I was trying to make was how do we actually structure our grant applications/project/labs to address the issues around the Ph.D glut?

  3. Could it be that the mid term solution would be to progressively hire less PhD student and post-docs. Maybe a dual measure like cutting admissions into science programs while at the same time raising the minimal wages for grad student and post-docs? PIs should be forced to hire more science professional (research assistants, research associates and less slaves (PhD student and post-docs). It will be painful to adapt to these realty at first but will be healthy for the long run.

  4. Science is evolving into one big Ponzi scheme and science is suffering. About 50% of the newly tenured professors at R1 schools have fewer and less marquee publications than the top tier of postdoctoral scholars. It is what it is.

    1. About 50% of the newly tenured professors at R1 schools have fewer and less marquee publications than the top tier of postdoctoral scholars. It is what it is.

      Is this true? I suspect it’s not given that you’re talking about a turnaround of six years for a fundamental change in the process of hiring. It’s also a pretty difficult group to define. What is the “top-tier” of post-docs?

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