Reporter's Notebook

Is the Long Hard Road to Academia Worth It?
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Our discussion began with readers venting their frustrations over securing funds through the National Institutes of Health. The reader thread evolved to center on the question, “Is a Ph.D. worth it anymore?”

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Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore? Cont'd

Three more readers share their critical experiences of working toward a Ph.D. and the postdoctorate that often accompanies it. Here’s Mary:

I spent (too many) years in a prestigious PhD program. During my post-doc, I saw newly-hired Assistant Professors work 60-hour weeks to generate preliminary data in order to secure funding during lean years (early ‘90s). They spent their Saturdays in the lab, bringing their young children with them. (The kids wrote on white boards. One spouse cleaned the lab.)

Quite simply, I did not possess the interest or drive for this kind of life. When my son was born, I determined that I would earn a living in a way that provided economic security, as well as time to be there for him. Initially, I was fortunate to secure a non-research position in a government agency. I later moved to the private sector.

There is an arrogance about academia that is imparted to doctoral students: that the tenure-track position is “pure” research and the only honorable path for a PhD. Stuff and nonsense.

This reader doesn’t think so:

I am certainly glad that Congress increased NIH funding, but from where I sit as an early-career academic researcher, it’s not going to put a dent in the massive brain drain out of academics. The reason is this: Ours is a terrible profession to work in. Just terrible.

The number of good jobs—the tenure-track jobs—has collapsed. What has replaced them is graduate student TAs, adjuncts, one-year visiting assistant professorships, and postdocs. The typical academic career path now looks like this:

Get a Ph.D. (This once took four or five years, but the time to degree is now creeping up to six or seven years.) Get a string of several temporary positions (postdocs, adjunct-ships, visiting assistant professor positions), which are paid very poorly relative to your education level and require you to move cross-country or even internationally every 1-2 years. When I say “paid very poorly relative to your education level,” I mean that people in these jobs get paid the same or less than my friend who is a mechanic. Even so, there are so few jobs relative to the number of newly minted Ph.D.s that many people never even make it this far.

Many other researchers (via hello@) share their struggles with securing funding through the National Institutes of Health. Michael was caught in a Catch-22:

In response to Nora’s callout for stories about the effects of flat NIH funding: My project went through a period of about one year when my NIH grant was going through the renewal process, during which we had no funding because it just missed getting a fundable score when it was reviewed the first time, and I had to collect additional preliminary data that was requested by the reviewers. But this took longer than expected—or, one could argue, necessary—because, without funding, my lab staff was minimal. I also did not accept any new graduate students into the lab during that time due to the uncertainty.

The revised grant was funded, starting last December, but the lapse in continuity has meant we are barely back to full steam now, as I have had to hire and train new people. As Francis Collins, Director of the NIH has said, research is not like an assembly line that can just be shut down and restarted as necessary.

But I think there is another, just as important, force at play here: When Congress does not approve a budget before the start of the fiscal year, the NIH plays things very conservatively in terms of awarding grants that have been approved. So, if one’s application was scored close to the cutoff, one may not get the money until very late in the federal fiscal year when Congress finally acts. This again can lead to disruptive gaps.

David is also frustrated with a fickle Congress:

While a PhD student in 2008, I had the privilege of working at a prestigious and dynamic program, the Marine Biological Labs Physiology Course, where I worked on exciting new research with the leading cell biologists in the world. While there I discovered a new method of eukaryotic (mammalian and other high level organisms) cellular organization. It was amazing. It founded a new field of research. I earned my PhD in 2011 and had a postdoctoral position offer from my dream lab, an NIH group that was arguably the best cell imaging lab in the world. I was ecstatic!

But the position couldn’t be officially opened until Congress passed the new budget, and sure enough, that is when Congress decided to grandstand about whether they would pass a budget or not … and then shut down the government for an unknown amount of time.

Last month, I posted a callout for biomedical researchers to vent a little. Over the course of my reporting on funding at the National Institutes of Health—the world’s biggest source of biomedical research money—I’d heard from scientists in interviews, in the Atlantic comments section, and on social media about how lackluster funding at the agency crumples careers and hampers scientific progress.

But lay people—myself included, once upon a time—might not know why that is. So I asked researchers for more first-person details: How does the agency’s funding, which was flat for more than a decade before last year, trickle down to their labs? And why do they take funding so personally?

Before the agency received a $2 billion bump in funding last year, budgets had been flat for more than a decade. In fiscal-year 2017, the NIH looks poised for another increase: A House subcommittee just approved a $1.25 billion boost at a meeting Thursday, and last month, Senate appropriators signed off on a $2 billion increase.

In response to my reader callout, a researcher at a Midwestern medical center, Prachee Avasthi, emailed a helpful summary describing how funding directly translates to quality of life in a research lab. She called my question confusing, because funding is “not just personal; it’s everything”:

“Finally there is hope.” That’s what Harvard psychiatrist Jordan Smoller wrote on Twitter earlier this year in reaction to a story I penned about a funding increase for the National Institutes of Health. Congress, with enthusiastic bipartisan support, had added $2 billion to the agency’s budget for 2016. It came after more than a decade of flat funding. Lawmakers hadn’t made the NIH a top priority since the late 1990s and early 2000s—and there were consequences. As I reported last year:  

When the NIH struggles, biomedical scientists at universities all over the country don’t see even their best grants getting funded. When those grants aren’t funded, researchers pinch pennies in the lab, cut down on staff, or, in some cases, leave science altogether. Heather Duffy, a former assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said she never would’ve left the biomedical research field if the grant-funding climate were better. After crafting 18 different grants one year to appeal to peer reviewers, she had the realization that she wasn’t “even doing science anymore,” and left in 2012.

In 2015, though, things started to change; one research advocate told me lawmakers were reacting to the “steady drumbeat of loss of life.” And Smoller was not the only scientist (or lay supporter of science) to react the way he did as the funding bump materialized and then actually passed Congress. In The Atlantic’s comments sections and on social media, for example, researchers and their allies responded with gratification, with aspiration for more money to come, and with reflections on their frustration with the previously sluggish funding. Here’s one reader: