Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What problem does the postdoc pose?

A couple of days ago, a dialog began on an academic listserve.  An article in the Boston Globe citing a glut of postdocs serving a crisis served as the impetus.  (See the National Postdoctoral Association for a definition of postdoc)

The article addresses the"plight" of the biomedical postdoc,
The plight of postdocs has become a point of national discussion among senior scientists, as their struggles have come to be seen as symptoms of broader problems plaguing biomedical research. After years of rapid growth, federal funding abruptly leveled off and even contracted over the last decade, leaving a glut of postdocs vying for a limited number of faculty jobs. Paradoxically, as they’ve gotten stuck, the pursuit of research breakthroughs has also become reliant on them as a cheap source of labor for senior scientists.   ...
Their progress is very poorly tracked; the leader of a national report on the state of postdocs has called them “invisible people.” The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the country. Salaries vary, but rarely reflect their level of education. The NIH stipend ranges from $42,000 a year for a starting postdoc, up to $55,272 for a seventh year.
The listserve discussion introduced a need to lobby Congress on behalf of postdocs and the assertion that postdocs experience very real suffering and systematic oppression.

I am not a biomedical postdoc.  I am a postdoc in the social sciences so maybe, I just don't know how it is.  But, my personal feeling is that identifying the nation's doctoral graduates in a highly technical field as a suffering, plighted group is less than desirable, demonstrates an odd view of the world and need for prioritizing problems.

Based on the Globe report, postdocs appear to be receiving a stipend that outside of the field could be considered a salary.  While benefits may be questionable (I just don't know) and reliability of work unstable, well, that seems a very real problem facing Americans generally, not just postdocs.  Finally, we don't all get to be rockstars, super models, trust-funders or socialites... just like we don't all get our own labs.

But what a great nation is this! Society allots funds to support the advanced training of researchers so they may pursue their dream career that has potential to eventually demonstrate societal benefit.  

My brief involvement in the listserve conversation expressed my feelings of pshaw for a designation of postdoc suffering.  For this I have some regrets.  I realize it is not my place to judge the worthiness of felt plight.

And what a great nation is this!  Those that feel wronged are justified in their feelings and to the extent by which they believe it merits Congressional attention they have the freedom to make their opinions heard.  

So, I, professionally, offer a different discussion:

Career dissatisfaction of University graduates seems a going concern.  This extends even to those with the highest degree attainments, PhDs.  All face a difficult job market, income inequality, lower than hoped for wages, etc.

The debate about PhD and postdoc "glut" has taken place, at least, since the early 1980's.  For instance, William Zumeta of the University of Washington, published a Higher Education article in 1982 titled, "Doctoral Programs and the labor market, or how should we respond to the 'PhD glut?"  At that time, Zumeta argued,
at the margin, some important benefits of doctoral programs have generally been understated.  At the same time marginal costs with respect to doctoral enrollments (and thus potential savings from enrollment reductions) have tended to be exaggerated by higher education policymakers in recent years.
A couple of years later, Zumeta published an article that saught to better understand not just the quality of the postdoc experience, but the quality of the postdoc.  The widespread belief at the time was the best doctoral graduates went right on to faculty positions.  Lesser graduates went on to postdoc.  But if the scientific engine depended on the postdoc worker than what did this all say for the quality of science?

While Zumeta called for further data collection and analysis he also stated, "cause for concern" existed.

Research in this field has continued and there is today, a good amount of information on graduate job attainment, experience, etc.

Perhaps the production of PhDs is a subsidized product, like corn.  The public highly values the idea of the farmer and farming and highly values food production.  So, the public seeks to provide some stability to the corn market.

Similarly, the public highly values education, research and the production of science.  So, society provides some stability to the higher education market.  We can argue about how desirable the situation is in corn and PhDs.

Are we using postdocs as a proxy for arguing about funding for research generally and biomedical specifically?  Probably.  

I think the whole discussion may make a bit more sense in the historical context of science policy.

It is after all, the societal goals for science that has fostered the growth of today's research army.  And to the extent the institution of science has faltered on maintaining its own integrity, then perhaps this has led to unrealistic expectations of the institution and/or a general poor quality experience for the postdoc.  

But, I'm not really sure that PhDs interested in research are so different from aspiring actors.  The difference being the researcher is not solely interested in fame (most aren't), but in the production of work that aids society in bettering itself creatively, pragmatically and respectably.  Some of us get there.  Others of us don't.  Much like Jennifer Aniston and that other actor you've never heard of.

I feel grateful that society supports research in the quest for societal benefit and and values broad access to higher education.  Still, it is highly likely that the whole system could work far better.

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Average Observation in the Insurance Journal


Recently, I've been trying to catch up on some readings in the classics.  I love revisiting what was said in the past and consider it in the context of the present and what is said about the future.  It's sort of remarkable how much things remain the same or how today is a caricature of past foresights.

For instance, was George Orwell really that far off?  I'd say the Jetsons characterize today pretty well too...  

In any case, one of these classics, The once and future school of public policy, was by the legendary political scientists, Aaron Wildavsky.  I know I read this for class while in graduate school, but I've found that things take on new depth of meaning after school and one has the patience to more fully consider the words people use.

Amongst, Wildavsky's thoughtful comments, he pointed out the following,
The best bet always is that the future will be like the past plus or minus 5 percent.
This was not the main lesson of the article, but nonetheless.

Today, I have an opinion in the Insurance Journal that falls in line with Wildavsky's observation of life for the most part.

Based on the data provided in charts by Dr. Hartwig of the III, I argue that by adding some context it would appear that future insurance profitability peaks will be, like the past, about average.