Letters

Are we training too many scientists? It's not that we're training too many scientists,1,2 but that we are not training too many scientists well. My institution receives hundreds of applications for faculty position openings, but most of them do not even make the first cut. I believe that this is because many principal investigators (PIs) are irresponsibly allowing people to earn PhDs without really deserving them. In the lab where I got my PhD, of every four students who started a

The Scientist Staff
Nov 1, 2006

Are we training too many scientists?

It's not that we're training too many scientists,1,2 but that we are not training too many scientists well. My institution receives hundreds of applications for faculty position openings, but most of them do not even make the first cut. I believe that this is because many principal investigators (PIs) are irresponsibly allowing people to earn PhDs without really deserving them. In the lab where I got my PhD, of every four students who started a PhD thesis, only one would actually earn a PhD. But those of us who made it were able to get very good postdocs in no time, and I am confident that we'll succeed because we have a strong scientific foundation.

J. Marcela Hernandez
Ohio State University
Columbus, OHhernandez.16@osu.edu

As someone who recently started in a tenure track position, I understand how painful, demoralizing, and insidious the process...

"What about 'dead wood' tenured professors who should have retired long ago?" -Christopher Utzat, MIT

This problem is common to all the sciences. For example, in my field, astronomy, a two-tier system has developed, with a small number of prize fellowships whose recipients are nearly guaranteed the choice positions, and the dregs left over for common postdocs. It is not uncommon for postdocs to have to search for several years to find tenure-track positions, if indeed they find them at all. Thus many astronomers looking for tenure-track positions apply for long-term NASA and NSF grants as a bridge - a track I took successfully. Even then, it took me over six years to find my first tenure track job, which I'll take up in January. And unlike in the life sciences - which benefited from the doubling of NIH's budget in the late 1990s - federal funding for the physical sciences has been flat since 1990, meaning that the inflation-adjusted budget has been declining every year.

Eric Perlman
University of Maryland, Baltimore
Baltimore, MDperlman@jca.umbc.edu

What about "dead wood" tenured professors who should have retired long ago?

Christopher Utzat
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MAtaztu@hotmail.com

Let's not forget that by design, the career track to independent academic P.I. is competitive and cannot assure a high success rate while maintaining excellence. If we told any high school athlete that he or she would have a 20% chance to make it in professional sports, they would be elated. What I believe is the most important aspect here is honesty at all levels of training. Let's be honest with our graduate students when they are marginal and suggest them to leave. Let's be honest with post-docs who have become "lifers" as to how we rate their competitiveness and what their options are. At least we won't create lost careers.

Harald Sontheimer
The University of Alabama at Birminghamsontheimer@uab.edu

References

1. B. Trivedi, "Are we training too many scientists?" The Scientist, 20(9):42-8, September 2006. 2. R. Gallagher, "Are we training too many scientists?" (editorial), The Scientist, 20(9):13, September 2006.

Intelligent Lab Redesign

Re: Intelligent Redesign.1 Putting a refrigerator or any other equipment in the hallway is not always a good idea. In many cases, this could be a violation of fire laws. Moreover, for many environments, this option raises security issues that would far outweigh the advantage of moving the refrigerator outside. A far better option, assuming that one is willing to surrender the convenience of close-by storage, is to have a common equipment room similar to that shown at the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry.

David G. Rhodes
Biodel Inc.
Danbury, CTdrhodes@biodelinc.com

Clicking Geiger counters, humming compressors, and the constant aura of background noise is another legacy of the "open lab" concept. While the majority of glowing comments in your article came from either the architects themselves, or from tenured or tenure-track faculty (who most likely have their own offices), the graduate students and postdocs who have to work in the open lab often have different feelings.

Most open-lab designs have no graduate or postdoctoral office space. Desks are a pipette-tip's ejection away from benches, which means that most reading and writing is done in the constant noise and activity of the lab environment. It is almost impossible to converse with a colleague on the phone, or to have an uninterrupted chat with your adviser at your desk, where your computer and notebooks most likely reside. Forget trying to write a grant or paper. Go to the library or go home to get some peace, if you care to drag all your stuff with you.

New buildings and big windows and acres of empty bench space look great on the surface, but underlying them is a move away from the teaching aspect of academic science. "Keep your head down and work; don't try to think" is what most open-lab designs say to me. Having nowhere to retreat, nowhere to think, no privacy at all is great if we want to train the next generation of scientists as extremely competent technicians. But it's not so great if we want our students to learn to think, as well as pipette.

Nicolas Hirsch
Worcester, MAnicolashirsch@gmail.com

References

1. I. Ganguli, "
Intelligent redesign," The Scientist, 20(8):40-7, August 2006.

Errata

• The October 2006 article "Trial of the Heart" (20[10]:48-54) incorrectly stated that a patient undergoing a cardiac stem cell trial was connected to an Isolex machine for apheresis. He was connected to an apheresis machine. The Isolex Cell Selection System is used in the lab to sort CD34+ cells from other white blood cells.
• The October 2006 article "Best Places to Work in Academia" (20[10]:57-61) incorrectly reported that Fox Chase does not have a tenure track system.
• Finally, we incorrectly referred to Fernando Nottebohm as Frederick Nottebohm on our October cover.

The Scientist regrets the errors.

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?