Academic precarity and the single PI lab model

Brilliant young scientists are struggling to obtain a stable faculty position, all over the world. It seems that “publish or perish” was actually quite hopeful. Now clearly, at least in biology, it is more like “publish in Science, Nature or Cell every other year or perish”. Only a small proportion of PhD holders manage to obtain a stable academic position, and only at an advanced age after multiple postdocs. Of course, this competition for publishing in certain venues also has a great impact on science; encouraging dishonesty and discouraging both long-term creative work and solid incremental science. Everyone complains about the situation.

What should we do about it? What I hear most frequently is that governments should increase the budget and create more faculty positions. That is certainly necessary but I think it is a reductionist view that largely misses the point. Of course, at the time when you start hiring more faculty, the proportion of young scientists who get a faculty position increases. However, if each of them then opens their lab and hire dozens of postdocs, then this proportion quickly reverts to what it was before.

What is at stakes is the general organization of research, in particular the “X lab” model (e.g. the Brette lab), with one group leader (the “PI”) surrounded by a number of graduate students and postdocs (I will discuss only the research staff here), with a complete turnover every few years. It seems that in many countries, to get a faculty position means to start their “own” lab. This is not the case yet in France, but this lab model is spreading very, very fast. With the new law on research currently in discussion (“discussion” might not be the appropriate word, though), it is planned that about 25% of all new recruitments will follow this model (a tenure-track system).

The math is easy. In a stable world, each faculty member will train on average one student to become a faculty member. For example, if a typical lab consists of 1 PI with 3 graduate students, rotating every 4 years, then over 40 years the PI will have trained 30 students, one of which would become a PI. The “success rate” would therefore be 1/30. Even with just one student at any given time, the chance for a student to end up getting a faculty position is 1/10.

Of course, one does not necessarily pursue a PhD with the goal of obtaining a faculty position. It is completely respectable to do a PhD then go to the industry. In many countries, holding a PhD is an asset. It is generally not the case in France, though. One may also want to do a PhD not for career, but because it is interesting in itself. This seems perfectly valid. Note that in that case, implementing a subtask of the PI’s project and doing all the tedious bench work might not be ideal. In any case, it must be emphasized that in this lab model, training students for research is only a marginal aim of a PhD.

How about postdocs? A postdoc is not a diploma. It typically doesn’t improve employability much. Of course, it could be done just for its own interest. But the experience I hear is mostly that of a highly stressful situation, because many if not most postdocs are hoping to secure a stable faculty position. Let us do the math again, with a simplified example. Suppose each lab has just 1 postdoc, rotating every 4 years. Compared to the above situation, it means that 1 out of 3 graduate students go on to do a postdoc. Then each of these postdocs has a 10% chance of getting a faculty position.

Let us have a look at funding questions now. What seems very appreciated is that when you start a lab, you get a “start-up package”. There is a blog post on Naturejobs entitled “The faculty series: Top 10 tips on negotiating start-up packages” that describes it. We can read for example: “There’s no point having equipment if you don’t have any hands to use it. One of the largest costs you can expect to come out of your start-up fund are the salaries of PhD students and postdocs. They’re the most crucial components of the lab for almost all researchers.”. It is very nice to provide the PI with these “components of the lab”, but as argued above, a direct consequence is to organize academic precarity on a massive scale. This remains true even if the entire budget of the State is allocated to research.

The same goes for the rest of the funding system. Project-based funding is conceived so that you hire people to implement your project, which you supervise. Part of these people are students and postdocs. For example, an ERC Starting Grant is 1.5 million euros for 5 years, or 300 k€ per year. In France, a PhD student costs about 30 k€ / year and a postdoc about the double. Of course, to that must be added the indirect costs (25%) and the grant also covers equipment and your own salary. But this is generally sufficient to hire a few students and postdocs, especially as in many countries graduate students are funded by other sources. Then the budget goes up to 2 million € for the consolidator grant and 2.5 million € for the advanced grant. The ERC has become a sort of model for good funding schemes in Europe, because it is so generous. But is it? Certainly it is for the PI who receives the grant, but a world where this mode of funding is generalized is a world where research is done by a vanishingly small proportion of permanent researchers. It is a world that is extremely cruel to young scientists, and with a very worrying demographic structure, most of the work being done by an army of young people with high turnover. You might increase the ERC budget several fold because it is such a great scheme, it will not improve this situation, at all.

Ending academic precarity is a noble cause, but one has to realize that it is inconsistent with the one PI - one lab model, as well as with project-based funding. I want to add a couple of remarks. Precarity is obviously bad for the people who experience it, but it is also bad more generally for the academic system. The excessive competition it generates encourages bad practices, and discourages long-term creative work and solid incremental science. We must also look beyond research per se. The role of academia in society is not just to produce new science. It is also to teach and to provide public expertise. We need to have some people with a deep understanding of epidemiology that we can turn to for advice when necessary. You would not just hire a bunch of graduate students after a competitive call for projects to do this advising job when a new virus emerges. But with a pyramidal organization, a comparatively low proportion of the budget is spent on sustaining the most experienced persons, so for the same budget, you would have much lower expertise than in an organization with more normal demographics. This is incredibly wasteful.

What is the alternative? Well, first of all, research has not always been organized in this way, with one PI surrounded by an army of students and postdocs. The landmark series of 4 papers by Hodgkin and Huxley in 1952 on the ionic basis of neural excitability did not come out of the "Hodgkin lab"; they came out from “the Physiological Laboratory, University of Cambridge”. The Hubel and Wiesel papers on the visual cortex were not done by graduate student Hubel under the supervision of professor Wiesel. Two scientists of the same generation decided to collaborate together, and as far as I know none of their landmark papers from the 1960s involved any student or postdoc. What strikes me is that these two experienced scientists apparently had the time to do the experiments themselves (all the experiments), well after they got a stable faculty position (in 1959). How many PIs can actually do that today, instead of supervising, hiring, writing grants and filling reports? It is quite revealing to read again the recent blog post cited above: “There’s no point having equipment if you don’t have any hands to use it.” - as if using it yourself was not even conceivable.

In France, the 1 PI - 1 lab kind of organization has been taking on gradually over the last 20 years, with a decisive step presumably coming this year with the introduction of a large proportion of tenure tracks with “start-up packages”. This move has been accompanied by a progressive shift from base funding to project-based funding, and a steady increase in the age of faculty recruitment. This is not to say that the situation was great 20 years ago, but it is clearly worsening.

A sustainable, non-pyramidal model is one in which a researcher would typically train no more than a few students over her entire career. It means that research work is done by collaboration between peers, rather than by hiring (and training) less experienced people to do the work. It means that research is not generically funded on projects led by a single individual acting as a manager. In fact, a model where most of the working force is already employed should have much less use of “projects”. A few people can just decide to join forces and work together, just as Hubel and Wiesel did. Of course, some research ideas might need expenses beyond the usual (e.g. equipment), and so there is a case for project-based funding schemes to cover for these expenses. But it is not the generic case.

One of the fantasies of competitive project-based funding is that it would supposedly increase research quality by selecting the best projects. But how does it work? Basically, peers read the project and decide whether they think it is good. Free association is exactly that, except the peers in question 1) are real experts, 2) commit to actually do some work on the project and possibly to bring some of their own resources. Without the bureaucracy. Peer reviewing of projects is an unnecessary and poor substitute for what goes on in free collaboration - do I think this idea is exciting enough to devote some of my own time (and possibly budget) on it?

In conclusion, the problem of academic precarity, of the unhealthy pressure put on postdocs in modern academia, is not primarily a budget problem. At least it is not just that. It is a direct consequence of an insane organization of research, based on general managerial principles that are totally orthogonal to what research is about (and beyond: teaching, public expertise). This is what needs to be challenged.

6 réflexions au sujet de « Academic precarity and the single PI lab model »

  1. Thanks for articulating so well what has been on my mind over many years now.

    I am currently a senior postdoc, trying to apply for positions after having struggled to juggle the weird balance between feeling experienced enough to have personal opinions about which research question to develop and how to investigate them, and the constraints on the developments of the research project due to being someone's employee. The hierarchical organization of labs makes it more likely to have the development of a certain 'research ideology' one has to follow -- even when conflicting evidence is found or when it appears to make little sense-- or at best one has to go through a lot of dismissal, doubt and extra work before being able to publish. After many years of conflict, my main project is now getting very good support, especially outside the lab but also now internally. The requirements to get post-doctoral experience abroad in specific 'big' labs makes such issues more likely as a postdoc is not completely free to choose who to work with, and as this reinforce the presence of labs with 'winning ideologies' rather than independent critical thinking. The fact that, in this model, people give their name to a lab is very revealing -- this is a journey of personal recognition and ambition, rather than a joint quest to advance a scientific question.

    Now that I can start applying -- though in a difficult context and without a 'very productive' CV given how hard it has been to agree on the publication -- I am really wondering whether I want to be part of such a system. I would rather be an 'independent researcher' (like a CR2 in France) without a big team and with collaborators rather than students-- especially given that my work is theoretical; but these positions are rare and difficult to get. So even if I'd rather not become a 'team leader', the choice may be between this or leaving research, and I'm not sure what I should do. This comes on top of the very difficult financial and personal struggle of not having a stable job (many of these 'group leader' positions are not even tenure track!).
    One really feels hopeless in front of this system, which justifies itself by telling the people that leave that 'they were not good enough'. As long as the definition of 'good' research will stay as biased and imperfect as it is now, I don't see how this long series of selection to 'become the new calife' leads to better science, especially for theory. For experimental work it could be argued that there are more complex and advanced techniques to be mastered now than in the fifties, hence effectively a team of technicians is often required to carry on a research project. However, I also tend to think that there is no reason why one should be a technician before becoming a manager, and no reason why those positions should be so strongly hierarchically organized. Some people like doing technical work for its own sake, others like the less 'technical' aspect of the job; both of those jobs could be long-term and valued specialized positions willingly taken by enthusiastic people.

  2. thank you !!!!!
    I'm so glad when I read that such opinions are shared among the research community, and well written, which is even more appreciable !
    Actually, by discussing with colleagues, we're many to think that the PI and project-based models of research are extremely bad for all the reasons you explain... But very few are acting to change it ! Indeed:
    -sucessful PI do not want to loose their dominating position ;
    -young researchers are dreaming of becoming a future star that win prestigious funding;
    -if you're the only to boycott national and european grant calls, then you'll end up money-less, pressurized by your institute, you're not attractive for collaborators because you have no money to share. The risk is that you'll loose you scientific independance, and somehow be orbited to a successful (and rich) PI who will impose your scientific directions.
    So how do we break this vicious circle ?
    So how do we build a collective action to make science be back in the hand of scientists, instead of managers ?

    • Hi Fabrice,
      For me it's clear that the response must be political. No individual measure, even over many individuals, can make any substantial change to this situation, because the number of faculty positions, the number of graduate students and postdocs are all politically decided (either directly or through the allocation of budgets).
      You can decide to not apply to the ERC or to the ANR, it won't change the fact that part of the research budget that could otherwise fund permanent positions will instead be allocated to projects (just not yours) and fund temporary positions.
      How to make a political change, however, is not a trivial question...

      • A core idea in this blog post is that precarity undermines excellence. I see wider societal narratives blocking this idea from being translated into policy: see the whole gig economy where we’re told that job insecurity is actually “flexibility” and therefore fantastic…

        The overproduction of PhDs has basically led to what some sociologists have called the “proletarianisation” of academia. Just contrast the job prospects of a PhD with those of an MD or JD. Doctors and lawyers complain about overwork, but in reality are very careful to control new entrants into the field.

        Great post by the way.

  3. Very well laid out, and I think there is little denying that the diagnosis is accurate.

    But I wonder about the assertion that an optimal organisation is non-pyramidal - I'd argue that virtually any organisation is pyramidal in some form, the issue is more about who is where in the pyramid. Let's take Hubel and Wiesel - whilst there were no students or postdocs apparently involved, it's clear that someone was prepping those cats and that lab for them - I would imagine a significant quantity of "less-skilled" but experienced support stuff. Probably paid something like what a PhD student is today. Those people were the bottom of the H&W pyramid (and of course we wouldn't ever hear about them...), today it's students and postdocs. Now of course BSD PI using PhD students as cheap labour is part of the problem you are (rightly) going after, but let's not confuse that with the idea that this (or pretty much any) complex workset can be achieved without several levels of expertise and input, and in the vast majority of cases more people doing the grunt work at the bottom.

    So if the bottom level work needs to be done, and if we are uneasy that much if it is now done by PhD students and postdocs, instead of just reducing the number of the latter, I would contend that we need a structure that allows people to fit into the research world wherever they feel comfortable. The fixed term contract (PhD, postdoc) nature of research is the problem. The way to deal with this is to reform academia like more common workplaces:
    - People are hired and have a job until they leave, move up, or are moved on. Most hires are at the graduate level. They start out as trainees ( so these are currently the PhD students), then move on up fluidly rather than in these odd jolted steps we currently have.
    - People can find their level within the organisation and stay there. Many PhD students would be excellent in "staff scientist" type jobs that hardly exist anywhere any more. This contributes to the feeling of "loss".
    - People can specialise to techniques or services as they wish and the work requires. So you end up with people in the "engineer" or "research assistant" type jobs that virtually every researcher I know suggests are dying out.
    - People can leave whenever they want, taking with them a CV of competences and experience more translatable to other employers. At least in France, this might reduce the ridiculous stigma against PhDs and public research.
    - Like any other workplace you need to be able to move people out as well as up or across. But what you're not doing is forcing everyone who would be perfect for one of the intermediate stages into thinking that the only way is up to PI or catastrophe...

    I guess the key point being that to remove the short term-ism imposed by PhDs, short Postdoc contracts (and I guess tenure-track) will do away with the enormous loss (training, stress, unfinished projects) of the current system.

  4. You've put your finger right on the problem. Students bear the cost in overcompetition and their mental health. and the science degrades from the race to glamour (and from being performed largely by trainees). I might add that industry suffers as well: PhDs aren't trained to actually do the jobs they will end up doing, but rather for the academic job that only 10% will end up with. Let's not forget teaching, either: undergraduates suffer because their PIs are too busy for proper teaching.

    I disagree, though, that the solution is simply to decrease the number of trainees to levels whereby most might end up in research-track universities. Doctorate programs do provide something important for industry that isn't met by master's programs. Making more time for research in a PIs life also won't help the teaching problem, which at many American universities is dire. Instead, what needs to change is what is expected of hires.

    I'd argue that what is currently expected of PIs comprises many separate skills. 1) Conducting high-quality research, 2) training and supervising new researchers, 3) teaching (grad and undergrad), 4) training skilled workers for industry, 5) grantwriting.

    Expecting that researchers do all 5 of these degrades the quality of any of them. Research, supervising, and teaching all noticeably suffer. As you mention above, it also leads to a pyramid scheme in which research is simply done by the trainees, most of whom will not find stable work in the skill they were trained for.

    So, why not hire for all 5, separately? Let's hire staff scientists. Let's hire teachers. Let's hire ex-industry teachers. Let's hire researchers who are phenomenal mentors and, through them, train the next generation.

    The doctorate program ought to change along with hiring. It should be split into industry tracks and research tracks, and the research tracks should be very competitive and, as you propose, have sustainable levels of students. These students should be mentored by people who are there for them and their growth. The programs should be designed around their actual futures.

    This won't be much more expensive than the current system. Forcing researchers to do all 5 tasks doesn't just pull hours out of thin air. It comes from somewhere. Hire for each of these, and each of them will be done better.

    What I'm imagining isn't as extreme as it might seem. Many universities imagine themselves as teaching universities, and hire for that. There are research institutions, like intramural NIH. But it seems departments can't figure out how to combine them. What's so hard about a division of labor?

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