Friday, May 5, 2017

Recruiting in a time of uncertainty

How are you handling it? Funding my students keeps me awake at night. I dropped my target steady state group size, which actually works better with my management style anyway. While I always want to recruit quality, a mistake in smaller group and with less funding cushion is much, much more painful. I am being VERY careful with who I am taking. In this case, I am attempting to select for enthusiasm, work ethic, and scientific curiosity (better predictors of success than GPA or pedigree, in my experience). Unfortunately, this also means I am only taking students with research experience, because I can't afford for someone to try it out for the first time in my lab and decide it isn't for them.

I am fortunate, because in my field it is possible to do research without lab techs and postdocs (I have exclusively students right now). Postdocs in my field last 1-2 years, so a one year contract with a possibility to renew is the norm, which is helpful in the current funding climate. At ProdigalU, postdocs are still more expensive than students, but students come with a 5-6 year time commitment. This compares poorly to the usual 3 year timeline on grants in my field. It is definitely possible to start a student on a project and then run out of money part-way through the PhD. I worry deeply about this, but so far, I have been able to string together related projects in such a way that my students don't get disrupted.

One may say that there are too many PhDs, and that reducing the number of PhDs is a feature, not a bug of the current funding situation. I don't doubt that this is true in some field and specialties. That said, my students are finding jobs that use their degrees (though it has taken up to a year for some). As is the norm in my area, most of my students are interested in industrial positions, not academia. While I of course think my students are really good, I would think that if there were too many PhDs in my field that some of my students (even if very good) would be unable to find good jobs and would move on to other things. This has not been my experience so far. I actually don't think there is much of a connection between the demand for highly trained workers and support for their training. Aside from the long lag time due to the time to degree, companies can always import trained people from other places if they have unmet needs. And universities will always be able to fill paid student positions as long as the money is there, regardless of whether the students are employable at the end. If there is an actual interest in reducing the overall number of PhDs, I would think that a strategically planned reduction (that targets overpopulated areas) would be much better than random chance, which is what we are getting with the current system.


xykademiqz said...

I hear ya. This is really tough.

I have three outstanding grants, one of which I will likely get (recommended for funding). They were submitted in late October. They are all supposed to start in June or September. Even if in September, these students were supposed to be recruited by April 15 in order to work on these projects. Now let's say I get more money; there is no way I can bring in the students by September. I couldn't commit to any students before knowing about grants, because there is never a guarantee of money.

It's almost time to write a new batch of grants and I haven't even heard from last fall's.


Grumpy said...

Yeah NSF has been super slow for me this year, already at >6 months.

My current problem: I have enough funding to hire another student, but there aren't really any strong students here in my field this year.

I was in a more iffy funding situation last year and I still took a chance and hired. Students here have a lot of chances for TAships, so it's not too big of a risk to hire without funding certainty.

xykademiqz said...

I was in a more iffy funding situation last year and I still took a chance and hired. Students here have a lot of chances for TAships, so it's not too big of a risk to hire without funding certainty.

You are very lucky. My departments has shamefully few TAships, so there's basically no safety net if grants fall through...

pyrope said...

re: TAs
It's astonishing to me how much TA allocations seem to vary between departments and especially between colleges. My partner is in engineering and they have very few TAs...maybe enough to support a student for one semester every third year on average per faculty member. He also takes students through another engineering department that requires students to 'volunteer' for TAs (i.e. research funds support TAs).
In contrast, I feel really lucky because I take students through a program that teaches the intro Biology courses and guarantees one semester of TA support for every student for five years.
Intro Bio classes are large, but there are plenty of Intro Engineering classes that are large I don't understand the huge disparity in TA allocation. Seems like it's a consistent theme outside of my University too. What causes the huge divide in have vs. have not departments in terms of TA allocations?

xykademiqz said...

pyrope, in my understanding certain departments (mostly in L&S), which teach large service courses for the whole university (I believe the operating word is "service"), have large TA budgets directly from the university. Other departments and colleges have small to nonexistent TA budgets from the university and are supposed to fund TAs off of faculty teaching buyout (with shrinking funding, you know how well that's going -- if I have money to buy out, I am not going to buy out, I will pay 1-2 additional RAs for my own group instead). So it's not just the size of the courses but whether your department provides service to others across the school.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments! Like xyk, I am still waiting on 2 outstanding grants I submitted in October, and it is almost time to write again. In my department, we do have some TA support, but a TAship here does not cover a student 100%, so it is not a complete solution (and of course, there are the supplies and user fees that much be paid). The uncertainty of it all makes it really difficult to know how many to recruit. I have been graduating my students at a steady rate, so I really have to bring some in this year to make sure the knowledge transfers before people leave. I am targeting 1-2, so I don't end up with a big group that 1) all need support on the same timescale and 2) all finish at about the same time.

Grumpy, I hear you. I think I would rather consider a no-cost extension than take on a student who I am not sure will work out. I have not yet been in your position. I am too much of a research free-spender! :-)

pyrope, TAships have their own cost too. Some students get sucked into it, especially if they don't have much experience with time budgeting, and may as well not be doing research! At ProdigalU, the departments that have big service courses with labs have loads of TAs (for the lab classes). The departments that don't have huge labs do not. Engineering courses might be big, but the big ones don't have labs here. General biology/physics/chemistry on the other hand need 1 TA per 25ish students for the labs.

Grumpy said...

Yeah TAs are a double edged sword. In my dept we have, IMO, too many guaranteed spots. 4 semesters total if students are getting good grades. So some theorists (and experimentalists without much funding) won't take on a student as RA until the summer after their second year. This our students take longer to graduate, take longer 5o find out grad school is not for them, etc.

But do course it's nice to know that if times get tough my students will always be able to earn a salary by TA'ing.

This NSF situation is ridiculous. I have never had to wait this long for NIH, DoD, etc. It says that the panel was beginning of Feb, what the heck are they still thinking about?!

xykademiqz said...

Grumpy, you probably know this, but if not -- NSF is supposed to be moving to a new building away from Arlington (their lease ended; don't ask) and to Alexandria. I don't know if they started the move yet, but if they did, that would explain some of the weird delays. I know they held a bunch of panels this spring not at the NSF but at Hilton and other nearby hotels.

My grant that was recommended had a panel in late Feb, I heard about it in late April, but still waiting for the official notice of funding. OTOH, I have one grants where the panel was in December and I still don't know (the news probably isn't good, but still -- WFT five months?)