Friday, May 15, 2015

There Are Not Too Many Astronauts

A few weeks ago, a Future of Research symposium was held in Boston - this is a gathering of graduate students and postdocs who are concerned about scientific workforce issues. They had Boston University's Greg Petsko as a speaker; a good choice, I think, because Professor Petsko has been very prominent talking about postdoc issues.

A good summary of his current position is that graduate school in the sciences is great job training for other fields, but that the number of postdocs should be sharply limited. Here's how he presented it at the recent conference:
There Are Not Too Many Graduate Students
  • We are not training too many graduate students in STEM subjects. A Ph.D. in the sciences is superb training for dozens of different fields, including journalism, public policy, law, business and consulting, many (perhaps most) of which do not require postdoctoral research training. 
Suffice it to say that I found this statement rather surprising. @kmcld99 on Twitter pointed out:
Ridiculous. Astronauts have tons of transferable skills; doesn't mean we need to train more astronauts.
So, thanks to @kmcld99, I now present my version of Professor Petsko's slide. I plan to apply for astronaut selection myself - I hear it's a growth field.


  1. The problem is although you may consider your skills transferable (and they probably are) the employers, who are limiting, are looking for exact matches ("purple squirrels") and so they dont care about transferable skills. They want a perfect match between what your skills are and what they want.

    Petsko is really wrong.

    Ive read his editorials. I dont like him. He has too much of air of self-importance. To me, he seems like someone who needs to retire but never will because he thinks he is awesome.

    1. I really liked his open letter to the SUNY provost at Albany, and I think other things he's written have been good. I just think he's wrong about this.

    2. I completely agree with NMH. Considering how most companies have their HR department screen resumes before they even get to the relevant supervisors, "transferable skills" don't get picked up as a keyword in their screening algorithm. HR personnel don't necessarily have the scientific background that would allow them to identify transferable skills.

  2. If you're spending multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars training people (and getting the consequent publications from their training) then it might be good to ask whether training people for alternate fields in this way is reasonably cost-effective, or that training people to have these sets of skills in this way is either a good idea or cost-effective.

    If you don't want people to be postdocs, then there has to be somewhere for them to go that uses their skills - if not, then those jobs could have been filled more cheaply without limiting the careers of the people being trained and without the money spent to train them. If graduates can't get work, then the money spent training them is completely wasted.

    If publications and useful research is the point of grad school, then they should be obtained without wasting people careers (if they can't get hired because they have too much education, then they are worse off then if they hadn't gone to school at all), which would likely require far more employees and far fewer students, but of course we only stop doing that when someone makes us, because it's cheaper otherwise, just as goods are cheaper when we can dispose of waste wherever we want and make them without safety equipment.

  3. Any plans to make Petsko aware of your parody?

    1. Like many of those invested in the academic system, I doubt he is going to be susceptable of arguments that do not fit his narrative.

    2. Agreed. Such individuals are more accustomed to listening to themselves, than others. Maybe it would therefore make sense to post the parody on a blog comment section, or to write to a commenter who is with the mainstream press?