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Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem?

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Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem?

Postby Mark L. » Fri Jan 25, 2013 9:32 am

It seems the main reason PhDs can't find jobs is that they have been a source of cheap labor for 6+ years and that most of their "hard skills" can be performed by someone with much less training (or a robot).

What if labs out-sourced much more of the labor to companies rather than hiring a constant stream of "trainees"?

For example, now that companies propose gene synthesis for $100, do we really need PhD students struggling to clone a gene for months?

How would funding agencies respond if a grant application read, "I will solve the crystal structure of this protein by paying a company to perform their 'Gene-to-Structure Service' for a flat fee"?
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby K.S.M. » Fri Jan 25, 2013 11:23 am

I think this is an interesting question. I don't know if it is a result of PhD:s and postdocs being too cheap and not seen as a cost, or if PI:s who themselves used to perform these tasks want to keep things the way they are. As an engineer turned biologist I also have the feeling that this is more typical for biologists and that engineers would be more open to outsourcing, but I might be wrong.

Another example is making up buffers that would be slightly more expensive and cleaner if bought pre-made.
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby Andrew1 » Fri Jan 25, 2013 12:22 pm

Mark L. wrote:How would funding agencies respond if a grant application read, "I will solve the crystal structure of this protein by paying a company to perform their 'Gene-to-Structure Service' for a flat fee"?


I think the answer is "very well". I know several computational groups that do exactly this because it can be a PITA to get experimental labs to follow up on computational predictions. This will only become more widespread with services such as scienceexchange.
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby Rich Lemert » Fri Jan 25, 2013 1:58 pm

Successful businesses know that if you can have someone else do something cheaper or more effectively than you can, it frees you up to do what you do best. A grad student may be "cheap labor", but if it takes him/her six months to do something that you can get in a couple of weeks for a couple of hundred dollars those quickly turn in to false savings.

The only thing to watch out for is the fact that grad school is supposed to also be an educational experience. Thus, it might make sense to have him/her go through the experience once so that they understand the capabilities and limitations. Once that educational aspect of the experience has been achieved, though, then don't waste anyone's time by insisting everything has to be done "in-house".
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby P. Lues » Fri Jan 25, 2013 2:42 pm

It's a great question. But then what is the student going to learn if everything is outsourced to a company? How to fill out the paperwork?

p. s. if cloning takes you more than 2 weeks, you are doing it wrong! The problem is that most of the PIs dont' know/forgot how to do a lot of these things or they came from a lab where the system worked and they don't understand why their own student can't get anything to work now.
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby Rich Lemert » Fri Jan 25, 2013 3:47 pm

what is the student going to learn if everything is outsourced


A fair question, and one that needs to be kept in mind by both the student and the PI. However, you also need to remember what's the objective of your research. If your goal is to find out how a gene is used within an organism, you should be concentrating your efforts on that and not on creating the tools you need that a technician is capable of creating.

It's like I say about resumes - you're not being hired to run e.g. Western Blots, you're being hired because you know what those blots mean.
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby P.C. » Fri Jan 25, 2013 4:58 pm

New business : grant model
PIs write in the usa write grants but use only the labor in India and China.
No more pesky post docs, no more pesky grad students.

Synergy and low cost...

fire all the grad students, technicians and postdocs in USA labs and use

bodies for 1/4 the cost overseas..

How can this model not be synergy and efficiency?

And is this not consistant with the present models in IT, engineering
and other disciplines.
Cast out those expensive USA BS, MS. and Phd qualified workers because they actually want American wages.... and replace them with
outsourced and off shore workers.
Sounds like the plan for the next two decades.
"You know I'm temperamental." "Yeah, 95% temper, 5% mental." - "Curly" & Moe Horwitz
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby P. Lues » Fri Jan 25, 2013 6:37 pm

A fair question, and one that needs to be kept in mind by both the student and the PI. However, you also need to remember what's the objective of your research. If your goal is to find out how a gene is used within an organism, you should be concentrating your efforts on that and not on creating the tools you need that a technician is capable of creating.

It's like I say about resumes - you're not being hired to run e.g. Western Blots, you're being hired because you know what those blots mean.


I recently finished my PhD and for my project, we paid a Harvard facility to do some microarray work for us (none of us know anything about microarrays). But guess what? We still don't know anything about microarrays. We sent our samples, they ran them, analyzed them, made them into a report and sent it to us. It took a while to make heads or tails of the data. And guess what? I still don't know anything about microarrays. So now that I have my PhD, I'm supposed to supervise the technicians, but how can I supervise them when I've never done the experiment myself? Thankfully I am technically proficient in a lot of other things but if I had outsourced everything, how can I supervise and train any technician at all? Now with subcloning, you might be able to get away with outsourcing. But not with real experiments. Sometimes the master chef doesn't crack his own eggs either, he might get his assistant to do it. But he better know how to make an omelet. You can't just sit back and supervise if you don't know how to do any of it. And if you end up outsourcing your subcloning, it better because you are so busy with real experiments that you couldn't be bothered. Not because you were lazy or didn't know how to make it work.
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Re: Is out-sourcing the answer to the PhD employment problem

Postby Rick Willis » Mon Jan 28, 2013 12:58 pm

These are important points, particularly with regard to graduate training. It is useful for grad students to have a moderately advanced cloning project, but synthetic genes are cheap enough now that a complex knock-in construct is much more efficiently made synthetically than having someone in the lab piece it together.

The microarray example is a bigger problem, in my opinion. A postdoc in my previous lab did an array experiment and analyzed it using two software packages. One of the programs screened out an interesting gene even though it was increased in all samples relative to all controls. The default settings were using a statistical test that filtered out the result due to variability between the test samples.

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