The science of Ecology, like most scientific disciplines, is in the midst of a crisis of sorts stemming from at least two underlying factors. First, funding for science at a national level is stable or in decline, while the number of labs that need funding to persist is rising sharply. Second, the number of PhDs being granted is vastly outpacing the job market. According to some analyses the percentage of newly granted PhDs that got a job as a tenure-track academic in the 1970s was nearly 50%, while that number today is less than 10%.
In the face of this gloomy picture, action is required and I believe there are some clear steps we can take. In my view, lobbying for more federal money, tweaking how funds are distributed, working toward some supplements to federal funds (e.g., crowdsourceing..like this and that) are good things to fight for. Those are “supply side” issues…I would like to also propose some practices in graduate training that may be helpful:
(a) revive and respect the Master’s degree.
In my experience, some faculty view a Master’s degree as a kind of failure. They tell their very best undergrads to avoid doing a Master’s and head straight to the PhD.
It is a “waste of time” they advise.
“the Master’s degree is functionless”
“you can’t do anything with that degree”
In fact, many, talented, intelligent, undergraduates have no business doing a PhD because they are not suited to the particulars of the academic enterprise. We should do our best to only bring people into PhD programs who are clearly dedicated to every facet of the endeavor (see below).
A MS is a good option for most (all?) students interesting in career in ecology. A MS serves as a vital testing ground, even for students who feel confident they want to do a Doctorate.
A MS gives the student a chance to discover if research is really an endeavor they want to dedicate their life to– consuming large quantities of scientific literature, data handling and statistical analysis, writing, presenting research at meetings– in addition to field work, lab work, or setting up and maintaining an experiment.
In my experience ~50% of the undergraduates who think they want to do a PhD, who faculty might say “you really should do a PhD,” will change their mind during a MS degree. In which case, that student can finish up the MS and head off to a job, instead of leaving a PhD partway through, which is a bad situation for both the student and the mentor.
Screening students in this way will help the PhD glut we currently face, resulting in fewer “ABDs” in the world, fewer PhDs who leave the field, and will allow those involved with training PhD students to focus energy on students who are more likely to stay the course and succeed.
(b) filter hard for students coming into our PhD programs.
I would recommend a MS and at least one peer-reviewed article submitted, as a general qualification for admittance into a PhD program.
GREs and course grades are relatively poor indicators of future success in research and they have absolutely no power to predict whether someone will have the passion for the professional grind that is needed to succeed in this new era of science.
I would also recommend that Universities generally employ the approach of refusing to admit into a PhD program undergraduates who just graduated from that same program.
With some important exceptions, that practice is built on faculty who don’t want to bother with searching externally for students, and accommodates undergraduates who really don’t know what they want to do with their life. “I don’t know what to do with my life” isn’t really a good qualification for launching into a PhD track, which is a training pathway that is for those who are ready to commit to research as a life-long endeavor. Overall, applying a fine filter on students entering our PhD programs could be a great help.
(c) be terribly clear about the state of things during mentoring.
We need to speak frankly, to undergrads working in our labs, to MS students, and especially to PhD students, about the state of things in the field. Very few PhDs get academic jobs, because there are not nearly enough jobs to accommodate the glutted market. Some of those who get jobs, won’t make Tenure because of the crisis in federal funding. We have to clearly and consistently tell students these things.
(d) be open to students becoming professionals that are different than us
Increasingly, tenure-track positions are an abnormal outcome for a person with a PhD. Even for good students, landing a faculty position has become the exception, not the rule. We can and should fight this as individuals by pushing those students who want to be a tenure-track faculty member, but we also have to face the reality that the tenure-track is extremely hard to get on, and increasingly hard to stay on! As mentors we have to be open to our students taking different pathways as professionals if the pursuit of a tenure-track job does not work out.
Increasingly we should be thinking about skills training and networking opportunities that might position our students to jump out of the Academy into other walks of life. Doing this without compromising productivity of the lab, per se, is crucial, but there may be opportunities for synergy wherein students get training and exposure and the lab picks up new tools or useful connections. Perhaps most important is that we as mentors reject the attitude of disdain that can sometimes hang in the air around non-faculty positions.
Finally, I want to point out that being a graduate student can be an incredibly exciting and fun experience. In fact, if you were to randomly interview graduate students in Ecology I believe you would find they are, as a whole, stressed and working very hard, but also loving their life generally. They would not trade their life style, their project, their colleagues, their lab…I don’t know about other fields, or other labs, but in my experience Ecology is a love affair.
As mentors, we need to be student-focused and accept a duty to get our students off into the next career phase; however, we all need to keep in mind that the grad student experience is an End, as well as a Means…