The Disposable Scientist

I happened to read this very interesting article from The Economist with title “The disposable academic – Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time“. The article details in accurate terms the current condition of post-MasterDegree formation and professional development in the field of academic research. I invite you to read it, and I will sum up for editorial purposes. The point being made is that, simply speaking, obtaining a Ph.D. is increasingly becoming a waste of time. I agree in part, but more on feelings. If you look at the hard numbers, the point is clear.

Some time ago I registered a web domain, “disposablescientist”.com/org, with the idea of detailing witnesses and opinions about the situation of Ph.Ds and Postdocs around my network. The project never went online, not because I did not find anything to report, but because my time is limited and I decided to invest more time on ForTheScience, considering the good results I’m having. The situation the article on the Economist details is, indeed, very accurate. All around me, friends and colleagues detail a situation which is, unfortunately, rather sad. What are the root causes ? I think there are many.

The first cause I think is saturation. It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not even impossible, to obtain a tenure position in research. This is not only because it’s a very competitive environment among the peers, but it’s also because, not unlike a children’s game, all the available chairs are already occupied and the remaining players have no choice to stand up and leave the game. To increase the complexity, reductions in budget mean that when a professor retires, in most cases his position is closed. Kind of taking away the chair. Academia produces way more Ph.Ds than it’s able to absorb. Selection sooner or later must occur, and defending yourself during a job interview after you dedicated 15 years of your life studying obscure details of a DFT functional may be a problem. Considering the situation, the selection may well occur earlier. What is the lesser evil ? A 24 years old rejected at the Ph.D. admission or an unemployed, overspecialized 40 years old with children and old parents ? You decide.

The second important cause is money. This point is very broad, and encompasses a lot of sub-points which, in the end, all go back to the root cause of the hard cash. Research requires money: labs require instruments, tools, products, and disposals of wastes.

This stuff ain't gonna pop out of thin air

Disposing a one liter bottle of acetone (the same stuff in nail polish) costs many, many times more the price of the bottle of acetone itself. Until a few decades ago, people just threw the stuff down the drain, which is horrible and I am totally happy that things changed, but was definitely less expensive. I am not advocating the drain-option, I wouldn’t even think about it, but the point is that research has become more expensive. Returns, on the other hand, decreased, because we realized that the world, the body and the universe are very complex, and understanding them scales very badly. The more we dig in, the higher is the price to pay to evaluate small effects (or the network of effects) that are crucial for further investigation.

Materials, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. People are way more expensive. On this regard, other factors must be considered: need, and organizational scale. The need is related to the rapid shift of direction that scientific research may have today in response to political decisions, or new scientific findings. These shifts tend to favor “on-demand scientists” that may be useful for a given project, but may not be useful tomorrow when shift has changed, hence the per-project contractual situation. Specialization has become so extreme in science that it takes a lot of time (so money) to form competences. It is therefore difficult to recycle yourself towards other skills, not only because it may be time consuming, but because without sufficient reputation and proven experience in a field, it’s hard to stand out against the opponents in the race for money. In addition, if you consider that new skills can be taught and put into practice by cheap Ph.Ds, instead of full developed researchers, it makes economical sense to follow this strategy: a lot of disposable Ph.Ds.

Now, it may be objected that professor incomes are too high, and hard to maintain for 30 years of activity, and the budget must keep into account such high salaries. Maybe it’s a valid argument to say that tenure positions are overpaid, but we also have to remember that someone with the ambition of becoming a tenured professor had to invest a lot of time and take a lot of risks in specializing into a discipline with little or no “recycling value” in case of layoff or failure to obtain a tenured position, as pointed out before. To this, you must also weight in the stress of having basically no chance of settling down somewhere before you are 40, while in the meantime you basically live in crappy accommodation, constant relocation, awful services, facepalming immigration bureaucracy, general uncertainty and more.

Call it home

The scale issue is also interesting: in recent decades academia scaled up in size, and as any other company that grows, it became a streamlined, bureaucratic industry-like process that must achieve (at least on paper) three things:

  1. Produce scientific results (innovate)
  2. Produce new MD and Ph.D. (teach)
  3. Transfer knowledge to industry (concretize)

but at a lower level, remember, it’s all about money. Before detailing, let’s clarify one point: where does the money come from? The answer is “various sources”: grants from the European Community (in EU), university funds, student tuitions, State funds, Postdoc’s personal grants (such as Marie Curie Fellowships in its various forms), and industry spin-off and collaborations (eventually involving patents). Getting the money is not easy task, and requires experience, political influence, ideas, reputation, ability to provide what is needed at that particular moment, and a good dose of luck.

Given this premise, professors must dedicate all their experience and networking to “grant scouting”, applying for different ideas, in collaboration with different partners and hoping to get the money. Basically, professors today are overly busy funnels that move money from a financial agency to those who do the real research: Ph.D. candidates, who lack the experience to do research in the field, being therefore very inefficient but cheap proto-researchers; or Postdocs, who are more experienced but burned out. Postdocs realize their lack of goals, shattered dreams and rampant idiosyncrasies of the system, paired with advanced age, high stress, multiple concurrent tasks, long working hours, and no career perspective, apart from eventually becoming a politician/marketer/CEO of what, in the end, is a Ponzi/multilevel scheme. Research (in the form of scientific papers) is produced at the bottom of the food pyramid by Ph.Ds, and bubbles up to become reputation for those at the upper levels.

I wonder if this guy ever wrote a Part B Marie Curie IEF module

In addition to research, academia also performs teaching, which is also a source of revenue. The number of students a faculty has, how many graduates it produces and how many drop off, became measures of performance, which in turn decide where to send the money coming from the State or from tuition fees. This situation creates a race to the bottom, favoring overcrowded faculties with lax exams (a requirement further fueled by the degraded preparation level provided by primary and secondary education). After the Master’s Degree, those who continue for a Ph.Ds are seldom trained, either by their supervisor or the Postdocs, due to lack of available time. This provides a less than effective training. While being scientifically independent is a requirement for a Ph.D. formation, in some cases this situation just wastes time (and therefore money) just due to lack of communication: oftentimes, the solution is already within the group, but the people who know it are too busy with other things, mostly non-scientific ones.

In the end, is it worth it ?

So the big question stands. Is a Ph.D. worth the investment ? In my personal opinion, it is. Doing a Ph.D. teaches you autonomy, critical thinking, ability to overcome problems, ability to deal with unexpected circumstances, flexibility, and makes you understand research from within. Some of these may be learned also in industry, but industry tends to be, in the end, a different world, where speculation is hardly allowed. Research sometimes is pure speculation, in particular during a Ph.D., and it may end in something with a potential for innovation. Of course, it is important to choose an appropriate Ph.D. within an appropriate group. Doing a Ph.D. after some industrial experience is also, in my opinion, strongly useful: having a “production mentality” makes your Ph.D. more goal oriented, because you already know what is your research objective, and what you want to become. This holds regardless if you want a career in academic research or not.

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