Friday, November 07, 2008

Joe the Plumber and the Postdocs

This is a rather interesting article that, in essence, argued for why a unionized graduate student and postdoctoral scholars makes sense. It is especially fascinating to see historically how the mentor-disciple situation has evolved and changed considerably.

Having gone through the system, I can certainly sympathized with the situation being faced by graduate students and postdocs, especially in universities where the pay scale is quite low and not commensurate with the level of expertise. While I'm not sure if being in a union would solve the problem, it certainly is something that should be addressed.



R said...

Thanks for this link. Very interesting indeed.

I am always amazed when people (see for example) strongly defend the current state of the PhD job market.

I personally disagree, while I don't expect everyone with a PhD to get the dream job, I think grad students and postdocs are abused by their PIs, when they don't care about their future but are able to sleep at night by saying that life's a bitch, and if you want to do science you should pretty much give up any hope at having a well-paid job.

Massimo aka Okham said...


I am sorry, but the notion that the "system is broken" because you (like everyone else in any other walk of life) are not guaranteed to land the job of your dreams at the end of your graduate and postdoctoral training, is nonsensical.

You are quite right, I don't see anything wrong with the current job market for PhD scientists, at least compared to that of PhDs in other areas, and I don't see what is so special about science PhDs that society should make it a top priority to make them happy.

I certainly agree that nobody should abuse anyone else, and I am sure that there are very bad PIs out there (much like there are bad supervisors in industry), and that those people should be identified, reprimanded and possibly stripped of their title.
Still, I don't see any evidence of widespread abuse of graduate students and postdocs. Certainly no survey or study I have seen so far (for example, the Sigma Xi postdoctoral survey) suggests that anything like what you claim is taking place on a significant scale. Do you have different reports or data to offer ?

I am certainly willing to take advice, so let me ask you (again): since you "don't expect everyone with a PhD to get the dream job", what specifically do you wish to see PIs do, to address your concerns ? What do you think we should do, so as to be able to "sleep at night" ?
Believe me, most of us are fully open to suggestions (except limiting the number of science PhDs until everyone currently in the pipeline has landed his/her own faculty job -- that is just wrong).

R said...


You don't see abuse? Well to start here is one. Grad students (in the US, in my country they don't get paid at all but since I am sure you have not been a student in my country I will not even go there) get "paid" for 20 hours a week either as TAs or RAs, but they actually end up working a minimum of 40 hrs. We are talking about some of the most brilliant, dedicated people.

Now, you claim there is no oversupply of PhDs, I clearly see an oversupply of grad students. Every year, departments take many more students than professors have money to support as RAs, but classes need to be TAs, many of them. About a fourth of the students accepted each year end up being TAs for their whole graduate studies (these numbers come from the two universities where I have been at) but of course getting a PhD means doing research, and thus, this 1/4 actually work as both TAs and RAs, if you do not consider this an abuse then you are one of those inconsiderate PIs, sorry if that hurts your feelings. The fact that grad students are so motivated as to actually put up with it doesn't mean it is fair.

Departments should take only the number of students that they can guarantee an RA position. It's fine if grad students spend one or two years as TAs, but more than that is unacceptable if the student doesn't wish to TA. I have seen funding go down, but I haven't seen a decrease in the number of students admitted per year.

One thing that I do not understand and I think you have mentioned before (if I am mistaken I apologize) is that you do not expect anyone that takes the 9-5pm approach to science will make it (or something along those lines), if that is true you are explicitly requiring (independently of whether the student does it with or without complains) more than you would from a person with just a bachelor's degree. If you require so much from the student, why is it so difficult for you to accept that PhDs (not only in science, but since those are the ones I know) are both underpaid and underappreciated.

Massimo aka Okham said...


OK, so, now we are no longer talking about employment prospects for PhDs, but how graduate students are treated.

I completely agree that a graduate student ought not be required to perform any teaching duty beyond his/her first two terms. However, none of what you are describing is "abuse"; your calling it so does not so make it, and if you think it is you have never experienced abuse (and I hope you never do).

The ultimate responsibility of identifying a department and/or PhD advisor who will be able to support them throughout the duration of their studies rests with the students. It's a student's responsibility to discuss RAship with a prospective advisor ahead of time.
It's the student's choice to work with so-and-so, even if (s)he cannot pay an RAship. I have recommended, no, urged many a graduate student to just get a MS degree and seek admission to some other, stronger department and/or work with other advisors. If they elect to stay where they are (and then complain all the time), this is no "abuse".

Abuse is when the rules of the game are suddenly changed on you in mid-stream, and when you, the student, are not protected from your advisor (as in my days).
I know it sucks, but we live in a market economy, driven by supply and demand -- I hate it as much as the next person, but it applies to everyone, not just graduate students. The working conditions of graduate students these days, bad as they seem to you, are way better than they were fifteen, twenty years ago. They got better primarily because people started deserting the science in droves in the 90s, and finally being more picky about graduate school.

The reason why taking a 9-5 approach to graduate education is absurd, is simple: Your future as a researcher crucially hinges on how much good research work you get done as a graduate student; nobody will ever give you any credit for all the time you spent grading papers or teaching lab (unless you are seeking to work at a community college) -- it's all (or mostly) about your research record. It's in your best interest to make it as strong as possible, even if it means working during the weekends. And this is not because your advisor tells you so -- believe me, ultimately it will make no difference to him. But it might make a difference to you.