You’ve heard about the depressing state of funding today in biomedical science. That’s only part of the reason why increasingly, graduate students and post-docs are looking outside of academia for jobs, as discussed recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Researchers today have access to powerful new tools and techniques — such as rapid gene sequencers and giant telescopes — that have accelerated the pace of discovery beyond the imagination of previous generations.
But for many of today’s graduate students, the future could not look much bleaker.
They see long periods of training, a shortage of academic jobs, and intense competition for research grants looming ahead of them. “They get a sense that this is a really frustrating career path,” says Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
So although the operating assumption among many academic leaders is that the nation needs more scientists, some of brightest students in the country are demoralized and bypassing scientific careers.
More after the jump…
Being young and on the tenure track myself, this is something I of course worry about, and have discussed with many of my friends who are either in academia already, or in graduate school and considering an academic career. More recently, I was discussing just this issue with some senior scientists, who worried that many of the best and brightest students finishing up their PhD’s are eschewing academia for jobs elsewhere. They were concerned about what was going to happen in, say, a decade–as the current leaders in the field retire, and fewer top-notch scientists will be around to replace them. And it’s not just graduate students who are being turned off:
Melinda Maris also sees hints of that dark future at the Johns Hopkins University. Ms. Maris, assistant director of the office of preprofessional programs and advising, says the brightest undergrads often work in labs where they can spot the warning signs: Professors can’t get grants, and postdocs can’t get tenure-track jobs.
Such undergraduates, she says, “are really weighing their professional options and realize that they’re not going to be in a strong financial position until really their mid-30s.” In particular, those dim prospects drive away Americans with fewer financial resources, including many minority students.
I can attest to that. Orac’s recently posted how he just finished paying off his student loans. Obviously one does not go into academia for the pay, but I can attest that it’s incredibly tough to support a family on a grad student or post-doc salary and make student loan payments that cost more each month than the mortgage.
And those grad student and post-doc years are getting longer and longer, with the prospects of landing a tenure-track academic job smaller:
Last month the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, or FASEB, released a report showing that the number of doctorates in the biomedical sciences had risen from just over 4,000 in the mid-1980s to more than 7,000 in 2004, with no increase in the number of tenured and tenure-track positions.
Many of the younger scientists are parked in temporary positions, which almost doubled in number between 1985 and 2003, according to an analysis by Susan A. Gerbi, a professor of biology at Brown University, and Howard Garrison, of FASEB.
While much of this sounds gloom ‘n’ doom, many of these problems are not new. Reports for a half-century or more have suggested a revision to typical PhD training, with more emphasis on teaching and more exposure to careers outside of academia. Few of these suggestions receive follow-up, however, and some areas (such as the length of time it takes to complete a PhD or time spent as a post-doc) have steadily increased, especially in comparison to programs overseas.
Graduate students are typically smart, hard-working and motivated; why spend 6-7 years in grad school, another 3-5 in a post-doctoral position, and then hope to be able to land an increasingly rare tenure-track job and then spend the next 7 years fighting tooth and nail for grant funding that you may or may not receive? I love my job, but I have a lot of friends who have taken a look at the whole process and quickly look elsewhere–or even friends in graduate school who know there’s no way in hell they’re going to seek a job in academia after finishing their degree. If they’re going to be a masochist and work crazy hours , they might as well do it somewhere they’re at least well-compensated.
Of course, all is not lost. Academic science certainly isn’t going to crumble. Research will continue, students will be taught, new professors will be minted. But if the U.S. wants to remain a science powerhouse, as Bruce Alberts notes in the article, “the current system of demoralized and underemployed Ph.D.’s cannot be sustained.” And perhaps students will (quietly) lead the way:
When Mr. Alberts’s colleagues polled second-year doctoral students last year, a full quarter of them expressed interest in jobs such as patent law, journalism, and government — jobs that their professors would not consider “science.”
Of course, students might not be willing to share those desires yet with their mentors. The poll was anonymous.
I wonder how common that “25%” statistic is. In epidemiology, there are many jobs outside of academia–jobs in government, or pharmaceuticals, or various businesses, or policy, to name but a few. So I suspect it’s less surprising to us when students take career paths that lead away from a traditional tenure track job. For those of you in graduate school now or who are in academia, would it surprise you if a quarter of your second-years are already thinking about alternative careers?