13 October 2014

Opening the funnel to make “better citizens of the world”

Fellow crustacean neurobiologist Eve Marder has an opinion piece in eLife arguing against the notion that we should limit the number of doctoral students.

Why might we have a discussion about limiting the number of doctoral students? Because the number keeps expanding. Here’s a relevant figure from about a year ago.

Marder argues we should not try to reduce the number of doctoral students, because some of them will be great scientists, and we can’t pick who will be those awesome scientists in advance.

(I)f we significantly decrease the number of entries into PhD programs, we risk losing some of the most exciting, dedicated and creative young scientists(.) ... Admissions committees are bad at predicting who will end up deciding to stay in science.

If admissions committees are bad at picking prospects, perhaps we should follow this logic through. An open door enrollment policy for graduate school probably wouldn’t work because faculty resources are limited. Maybe we could just admit students by a lottery system. It would save students all that arduous writing and transcript tracking needed to complete an application, and save faculty the time spent reviewing them.

Marder has an academic variation of the “sales funnel” in mind:

Big scientific discoveries are like business sales: there are steps that lead up to the sale, but every step suffers from attrition. Businesses try to widen the funnel through advertising and marketing. All other things being equal, more people entering the funnel means more sales at the end.

“A wider funnel means more world-changing discoveries!” has some logic to it. But the analogy to the sales weakens substantially. Advancing through every step in the academic funnel is long, and thus costly, to the people in the funnel.

And whether you advance in the sale funnel is almost entirely dependent on you as a customer: sales people don’t try to block you from buying their product. Whether you advance in the academic funnel depends on other people (glamor magazine editors, hiring committees, promotion committees, deans, administrators), who may well try to block you from going into the next level of the funnel.

Marder tries to put a bright shiny face on the personal costs of pursuing a doctorate that leads to a career that doesn’t need a doctorate:

Society would be enriched if more of the people making decisions in industry, law, medicine, education and politics had lived through the rigors of a PhD program, and knew first-hand how difficult it is to extract knowledge from our imperfect measurement and analytical tools. ... (G)raduate students will be better citizens of the world because of whatever time they spend confronting some of the deep mysteries of the universe.

“You didn’t get the job you thought you were being trained for and worked hard for over a decade to get. But it’s for the greater good!”

That’s cold comfort.

In biology, most people start doctoral programs because they want to be academics. I would far rather have a win-win situation where the type and amount of education and training people receive matches the career they eventually end up in. Underemployment – people in positions that do not require the higher degrees they have – is a lost opportunity as surely as keeping someone out of a doctoral program could be a missed opportunity.

I might agree with Marder that it would be great to have more people in decision making positions with research experience. But does that have to be a seven year doctoral degree? What if the recipient of a two year master’s degree with thesis could accomplish 90% of that societal good done by the average doctoral recipient? If you think that number is too high, what if a master’s degree could even achieve 50% of that societal good?

In fairness, Marder seems to recognize this:

Of course, we could devise a much shorter curriculum to enhance those skills, and probably should.

My impression, however, is that graduate programs want to add to the amount of formal training, not reduce it. (Ethics! Patent law! Accounting! Presentation skills!)

In any case, I suspect Marder need not worry about the number of doctoral students being restricted. There are far too many incentives now for faculty, administrators, funding agencies, and politicians to keep recruiting and producing more doctoral students.


Marder E. 2014. Looking out for future scientists. eLife 3: e04901. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/elife.04901

Hat tip to Bjorn Brembs.

1 comment:

CD said...

Unless the structure of the whole system is radically changed, having an unlimited number of doctoral students fighting for an increasingly-reduced number of academic positions sounds, at least to me, as cruel. Maybe it might increase the general scientific output, but it would get it at the cost of frustration and suffering of many, many, people. Moreover, given the shortage of funding, how will they be able to carry out research of quality?