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The training pipeline is overflowing

This is a shared dilemma.

By MARTHA CRAGO | September 10, 2014

Being an administrator requires solving dilemmas. Those I have helped to solve are typically local and circumscribed, but larger country-wide dilemmas also weigh on my mind. The dilemma I’ve been thinking about lately relates to all three of the administrative positions I have held: dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, vice-president, international and now vice-president, research. However, this particular dilemma is going to take more than one administrator to solve it.

On April 9, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal published a riveting article about systemic flaws in the biomedical research enterprise in the United States. The authors, Alberts, Kirshner, Tilghman and Varmus, all outstanding researchers, describe a malaise in the biomedical sciences that they think is becoming increasingly important. This malaise concerns bright young research trainees who may not have a job when they complete their doctoral and postdoctoral studies. The authors present data about how, after a period of almost constant expansion, research dollars in the U.S. are not keeping up with the demands of expanding scientific research laboratories. In these labs, doctoral and postdoctoral students conduct much of the research. The authors state: “the training pipeline produces more scientists than relevant positions in academia, government, and the private sector are capable of absorbing.” This is a pretty dire warning and it presents us all with a dilemma.

Looking at it from an administrator’s perspective, I have been asking myself: why and how are universities and their researchers being encouraged to keep the training pipeline so full?

Consider this: All three Canadian federal research agencies require researchers to report on the highly qualified personnel, or HQP, that they have trained – their numbers and their role in past and proposed research. This is also true for Networks of Centres of Excellence and certain Canada Foundation for Innovation grants as well as for Canada Research Chairs. Success in the grant competition depends on having an ample, robust HQP program. I recall seeing an evaluation of a CRC renewal where the reviewers expressed dismay that the researcher had been so productive with so few graduate students. I have also seen an insufficient number of grad students cited as a reason not to fund grants.

Now add this into the mix: Graduate students have an impact on international university rankings in several ways. The Times Higher Education ranking has direct measures related to them. Under the area of teaching, worth 30 percent of the overall ranking score, the ratio of doctorates awarded relative to the number of faculty counts for six percent of the final score and the ratio of doctorates per bachelor’s counts for another 2.25 percent. The overall faculty-to-student ratio is worth 4.5 percent. This last ratio would, of course, increase if a university increased its number of doctoral students while keeping the number of undergraduates constant. Potentially, this can mean that increasing the number of doctoral students can heavily influence the non-reputational part of the teaching score, which in turn is worth close to one third of the overall score. Speaking cynically, if our universities want to increase their scores on the THE rankings, they might well consider filling the doctoral student pipeline even fuller.

Next, weigh two contradictory things. The number of doctoral students per faculty member in Canada’s U15 universities ranges from 0.7 to 4.9 and averages 1.8. Yet, when I was a dean of graduate and postdoc studies (2000 to 2005), the U.S. Council of Graduate Schools was suggesting that six doctoral students per professor was appropriate. PhD students generally support research productivity as measured in number of publications, citations and impact factors, and this also figures heavily in international ranking scores. Has Canada got it right or did CGS?

Finally, over 50 percent of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s funding goes to support talent (CRCs, graduate and postdoctoral fellowships). Over three-fifths of that funding is awarded to graduate and postdoctoral students. This means considerable support for students in the face of less support for research. Is this what is needed?

Whether you are a university administrator, faculty member or student, we all share in this dilemma. It requires analysis, reflection and solutions. As we do the necessary research to inform those solutions, we must bear in mind disciplinary differences, the full scope of employment possibilities, evolving job markets, variations in economic climate and the political will to value and support a knowledge economy.

Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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  1. Bruno Tomberli / September 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    The government support needs to be shifted away from graduate students and towards post-doctoral positions. The problem is that one PDF costs as much as three or more graduate students. Therefore government has been cutting this kind of support. For example, NRC institutes in Canada have been gutted. Even with a large-scale re-allocation of federal training support, the lack of self regulation in the sciences has led to too many graduate students. Looking at professional fields such as Medicine and Engineering with regulated inputs that sustain demand for their graduates, job prospects are much better and as a result the quality of the students interested in these programs is very high.

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