Thomas Pollard — Becoming a Scientist

LC: I was looking for the biggest problems in science and biology one common one online was that getting a PhD is a horrible process. They quoted some graduate students who said things like PhD students are not well prepared for jobs outside of academic fields, work too long hours, are not paid well, are often depressed, have high rates of dropping out, etc… They don’t portray this process of becoming a scientist as an enjoyable one. 

TP: That’s a mighty unhappy respondent to that questionnaire. 

Apparently that was somewhat common.

There are some unhappy people out there. 

Do you think this process of getting a PhD and postdoc and these standard pillars of what it means to become a scientist need to change? 

To become a scientist you’ve got to learn how to discover something, and that’s always done by trying to discover something. Well if you’re a theoretician, you can sit around and have cool, lofty thoughts and you can come up with something, but if you’re an experimentalist you’ve got to go into a lab and do some work. Was that quote from a scientist? 

These particular quotes were from PhD students studying plant biology at a UC School. I can read the quotes: “Too many PhD students are graduating for a minimal number of professor positions with little training for careers outside academic research” and “There is a high level of depression among PhD students—long hours, limited career prospects, and low wages contribute.” 

There is a little lack of historical perspective there because going back maybe a century only about thirty percent of people with science PhDs have gone into academics. The respondent thinks that this is something new. Well wait a minute, this has been going on for a hundred years more or less, and it reflects an unfortunate situation where some people don’t value the other career options that people with PhDs have. The quote is reflecting some of these unfortunate features about the system, but the seventy percent who don’t do into academic careers, they mostly find really interesting things to do.

There’s almost no unemployment for people with biology PhDs. It’s so low you can’t even measure it, so it’s not as if people aren’t going to get a job. People who’ve been in my lab are in very important editorial positions at the very best publications, others have been very successful in industry, a lot of them are in academic positions. 

But it’s undoubtedly discouraging that you can come out of undergrad with a degree in computer science and make 100k a year, or you can spend six years getting your PhD in biology and make 45k a year, and then work as a postdoc and make 45k another however many years. 

I supposed people could get paid more, but my father had to pay for me to go to medical school, you know?  Getting a PhD these days comes with a stipend. My wife had to work so we could put some food on the table, but I had a great time. It was fun. When I was a postdoc I had a hell of a lot of fun. Most of the postdocs who’ve been in my lab who are out being professors now say they all wish they could go back and be a postdoc again because it was so much fun. They had such freedom to do whatever they wanted to do, and they discovered a lot of great stuff with their own two hands… had great colleagues. They looked very warmly on being a grad student or postdoc. 

I wonder if it’s the type of person—that you just have to have a certain passion, a certain mindset. 

Yeah, exactly. The people I’m quoting right now are very successful. One of the factors here that this respondent didn’t understand is that it’s impossible for the individual or the institution they’re going to predict how well a student is going to do in graduate school. It’s impossible. It can’t be done. None of the standard metrics that are used to judge people for admission into grad school are reliable. The graduate record exams aren’t reliable, the peoples’ grades aren’t reliable. The only thing that people have found that is a predictor of success in graduate school is the amount of experience that someone has had working on a lab. 

The reason why that is the predictor came up in our study of the graduate programs here at Yale. People who, as undergrads, have already worked in a lab know what they are getting into. One of the problems was, particularly in the humanities, that many of the incoming students didn’t have the experience that a humanist scholar has, like going and digging around in some archives someplace all by yourself, maybe off someplace where there’s nobody to talk to. 

For grad school in the sciences the people who are the most likely to succeed are the ones who already know what it’s like to work in a lab, and so they have self-selected. They’ve got the right personality and work ethic and all that kind of stuff to be successful, and the same is true for postdocs. It is a little easier to tell who is going to be a good postdoc because they have had some experience, but then the next step, when you go off to be an independent investigator and take a job in a company, it is next to impossible to figure out who’s going to be successful. 

There’s one thing you’ve never been tested on: being a good manager. The people who succeed are invariably the ones who are the best managers. You’ve got to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to run a lab, so basically you’re selling a product which is your research. You have to be a personnel department and hire the right people. The junior faculty in this department who have not gotten tenure, it’s almost always because they are not good managers. It’s a very Darwinian process, and one where nobody, including the individual or the place where they’re working, can actually predict ahead of time. 

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