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April 18, 2023

The NIH Should Reform Funding for Graduate Students and Post-Docs

The NIH sponsors far more biomedical graduate students and post-docs than could ever have a full-time academic career. We need “academic birth control,” as I’ve heard from a couple of folks.

Of course, in many cases it is fine if biomedical graduate students don’t go into academia—they can work in consulting, biotech startups, pharmaceutical companies, etc.

Even so, there seems to be a mismatch. In a massive survey of over 7,600 postdocs (the first of its kind), Nature recently found that 63% hoped for a career in academia, but 56% of them felt somewhat or extremely negative about their job prospects, and nearly 75% thought their prospects were worse than in prior generations.

Look at the hard numbers.

These numbers don’t tell the full story, of course. But on the surface, it looks like the US is producing 5x the PhDs every year that could get an academic job with an NIH grant, and that we essentially have nineteen years of a backlog of post-docs competing for the few academic jobs that come available.

We could quibble over the specific numbers. But no one can deny that we are producing far more PhD’s and post-docs every year than the number of tenure-track positions that come open.

This scenario isn’t sustainable. Hence, the “post-doc crisis.”

To add to the calamity, it isn’t just about individual job prospects. When it is so competitive to get an academic job, researchers face a dual temptation: Study only marginal, incremental topics so that you can guarantee success, but then exaggerate the importance of your work.

The end result is that hypercompetition harms both reproducibility and innovation. In order to have high-quality science that pushes the frontier, researchers have to feel comfortable with failure. That won’t happen unless we calibrate the number of researchers to the amount of funding available. 

Here are two long-needed reforms that would help calibrate the number of trainees to the job market, and in the long run, improve both reproducibility and innovation.

Fund Graduate Students and Post-Docs Directly

Many graduate students and post-docs end up being funded on R01 or similar grants, working for a principal investigator (PI) on that grant. This may sound normal and even innocuous, but the result is disastrous.

Universities admit too many graduate students compared to what can be supported in the academic marketplace, and PIs hire too many post-docs as a form of cheap labor.

The direct result: People spend way too many years as a “trainee” because no academic jobs are forthcoming. In some unfortunate cases, they are susceptible to exploitation and even harassment by their boss, because they are beholden to his grant.

I recently met someone at a major university who had just gotten his first major NIH grant after spending eight years as a post-doc. That isn’t an isolated anecdote: national evidence shows that since the early 1980s, the number of NIH grantees under 35 has plummeted while the number of grantees past retirement age has grown ten-fold (or more).

We have known about this problem for many years. Back in 1998, a National Academies panel recommended that “all federal agencies that support life-science education and research to invest in training grants and individual graduate fellowships as preferable to research grants to support PhD education.”

Similarly, ten years ago, Shirley Tilghman (then the president of Princeton) chaired an NIH working group that called on NIH to “divert funding from research grants to training grants for graduate students, support more postdocs on training grants, increase pay and improve benefits for postdocs, and boost the prestige and remuneration of staff scientist positions in academic labs.”

The report argued that trainees are ill-served by being put on PI grants, because they are viewed as “laborers rather than scientists in training,” and that with a greater use of training grants, “NIH could better monitor students’ training and ensure broader exposure to careers outside of academia—and better training in the skills needed to perform well in those careers.”

What has happened since these national reports in 1998 and 2012, respectively? Virtually nothing, at least not that would change the overall system.

The problem, if anything, is likely worse today.

We need to stop trapping so many people in trainee status hoping for an academic job that might never materialize.

One way to do that is to fund a limited number of graduate students and post-docs for a limited time on training grants, rather than an unlimited number of trainees as perpetual cheap labor on other researchers’ grants.

Indeed, to be controversial, perhaps we should ban NIH-supported post-docs, or else limit them to 2 years at the most. Then, it simply wouldn’t be possible for anyone to rack up 8 years in post-doc positions while serving as someone else’s low-paid labor.

Such a change would be unpopular. But it would make the academic job market more equitable and fair, and it’s been a no-brainer since the 1990s.

Job Market Information

Universities don’t provide sufficient information to trainees about their likely outcomes. They should be required to do so. Otherwise, trainees can be actively misled about their career possibilities. After all, how many smart college seniors would knowingly sign up for up to 2 decades of low-paid jobs only to get their first tenure-track job after age 40?

Again, this is nothing new. The same 1998 and 2012 reports tackled this issue as well: the National Academies recommended in 1998 that “accurate and up-to-date information on career prospects in the life sciences and career outcome information about individual training programs be made widely available to students and faculty.”

As a 2012 article said, “[Shirley Tilghman] pointed to the … plan to encourage institutions to track and report the career outcomes for their students and postdocs. ‘This is a recommendation that’s been made by every single committee, and always using the word “encourage,”’ she said. ‘It has been made for about 20 years and we know what the consequences of that [are]. … Unless you have a stick, this won’t happen.’”

It’s long past time for NIH (or Congress) to require that all universities with at least 5 NIH-funded graduate students or post-docs to track and publicly report up-to-date statistics on:

  1. average length of graduate program before the PhD is awarded;
  2. average length of a post-doc; and,
  3. 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year outcomes for every graduate student and post-doc (i.e., their placement in tenure-track academic positions, industry jobs, or any other jobs).

Without such information, prospective graduate students will be misled by universities that sometimes over-recruit so as to capitalize on cheap labor that brings in indirect costs. We shouldn’t perpetuate this university exploitation of graduate students.