Graduate students are the labor in academic science and engineering

Modern science needs a lot of skilled labor to do not particularly exciting jobs. Pipetting, building devices, coding, running tests. Arguably they are creating a lot of value for the PIs they work for: progressing their careers, bringing grant money to the lab and the university, creating knowledge for society.

Grad students provide this labor much more cheaply than the value they create. Graduate students are paid around $40k a year but it’s much much less than the same smart ambitious people would be making in a real job. The explicit deal is that you get non-monetary compensation. You do get a credential at the end of grad school. The assumption is that this credential is incredibly valuable but that deal has broken down.

This system is problematic for several reasons.

  • Imagine trying to run a company building a problem that demands a ton of Tacit Knowledge, but you could only hire people with almost no experience who would never stay more than five or six years. This constant retraining is an unescapable tension if your labor is students.
  • The amount of money you need to support a grad student is actually quite similar to the amount of money you need to support a high-skilled employee at a company, but about half of it goes to the university for administrative overhead and student fees. The university is actually getting a student’s worth of money from grad students to “teach” them but it comes out of grants instead of undergrads pockets.
  • Most graduate students’ incentive is to publish as many high impact papers as possible and generally do work that sounds good to a faculty hiring committee. These incentives are often aligned with their professor and lab. However, if a project requires many people’s worth of work a grad student either won’t make it onto the paper or will be last in a massive list of authors which nobody wants because a finite amount of credit is distributed among all the authors. It’s also not appealing for a grad student to work on a project that won’t produce paper-worthy results on a timescale that aligns with graduating. There’s the obvious case where the timescale is longer than the grad student expects to be in grad school. The more subtle case is that the project takes a few years but is risky enough that it’s not clear that it will produce a paper-worthy result, possibly leaving a PhD student high and dry several years in. This incentive selects against long-term engineering-heavy projects.
  • Hiring committees care about potential professors being able to do novel work. The word ‘novel’ is used as an idea bludgeon in academia. This criteria means that grad students need to start doing work that stands out from work that has been done before in the lab if they want to get a faculty job. This incentive puts pressure on projects that need a lot of focus over a long time. Academia incentivizes novelty, not focus
  • Graduate students are primarily funded through grants. Grants are typically renewed on a yearly basis (with exceptions.) So even regardless of what the grad student is ok with working on, there’s a tight coupling between grad students and doing work that can hit paper-worthy milestones on a yearly basis. Additionally, funding grad students through grants effectively ties them to a specific project. Project-coupled grad students make it near impossible to shift effort away from projects that are going poorly towards projects that are going well. Imagine if a startup couldn’t abandon things that weren’t working in favor of things that were. Most grant money is tagged so unrestricted money is like gold for professors.
  • You can’t really fire grad students or hire them whenever you need them. For the most part, new graduate students join labs at the beginning of the academic year so if a project needs a lot of labor halfway through the year you either need to plan that out and have a grad student underutilized for half a year or you need to postpone that project until the beginning of the next year. Once you’ve taken on a grad student you’re stuck with them until they graduate or give up - this is a terrible situation for both sides.

There are several theories about how this system came about. Like any Complex System, the real answer is probably “a bit of each of them.”

  • It is easier to get grants (especially government ones) that are primarily earmarked for grad students as opposed to lab technicians or labor-saving automation. Why? Some combination of tradition, incentives on the part of the university because they get more fees from grad students than other spending, and the idea that money towards grad students is building up the country’s STEM workforce.
  • How and Why Government, Universities, and Industry Create Domestic Labor Shortages of Scientists and High-Tech Workers actually argues that the system was set up on purpose to keep wages for high skilled scientific workers low.
    • Universities get more money when professors bring in larger grants. Because its easier to get big grants for grad-student-heavy projects universities are incentivized to hire professors who do more grad-student-heavy projects, perpetuating the cycle. In academia more grant money leads to more power.


Web URL for this note

Comment on this note