Mike the Mad Biologist

Jennifer Rohn describes a dirty secret of academia:

The career structure for scientific research in universities is broken, particularly in the life sciences, my own overcrowded field. In coffee rooms across the world, postdocs commiserate with each other amid rising anxiety about biology’s dirty little secret: dwindling opportunity. Fellowships are few, every advertised academic post draws a flood of candidates, and grants fund only a tiny fraction of applicants.

The scientific job market has been tight for decades, but the recent global recession and accompanying austerity measures have brought it into sudden focus for young — and some not so young — researchers, who face a widening chasm between their cycles of contract work and a coveted lab-head position.

This is a familiar lament, but I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.

Consider the scientific community as an ecosystem, and it is easy to see why postdocs need another path. The system needs only one replacement per lab-head position, but over the course of a 30-40-year career, a typical biologist will train dozens of suitable candidates for the position. The academic opportunities for a mature postdoc some ten years after completing his or her PhD are few and far between.

Rohn’s solution is close, but not quite there:

An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set. Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10-20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee. Academic labs could thus become smaller, streamlined and more efficient. The slightly fewer trainees in the pool would work in the knowledge that their career prospects are brighter, and that the system that trains them wants to nurture them, not suck them dry and spit them out.

What’s needed, I think, is a switch to the research center model:

It sounds good, although, as Rohn admits, the implementation will be tricky, to say the least. But what she’s describing is the ‘center model’ which is often disparaged. I’ve argued that the center model needs to be more common in science:

Before everyone freaks out (ZOMG!! YOU EATED ALL TEH GRANTZ!!), I’m talking about shifting funding. But one advantage of large project-oriented or center-oriented* grants is that they are educational ‘sinks’–they soak up surplus PhDs. As long as the economic incentives are for academic researchers to produce far more PhDs than are needed to replace themselves**, we will continue to have this problem. And after all, isn’t the point of training all these people to then have trained people doing stuff?

Personally, I work at a large science center, and one of my roles is to work with outside collaborators. From my perspective, I am doing far more interesting and relevant science than I would be as an independent PI. I’m also not required to do jobs (i.e., straight administrative stuff) that many PIs, at some institutions, are required to do–I can focus on the research. I never say never, but I can’t ever see myself wanting to return to academia. My pay is better, and I (usually) have some time for a life.

Whether these are large government centers or private ones isn’t that important (there are advantages and disadvantages to both). While academic labs have the advantage of being (relatively) quick and nimble, at the same time, they simply aren’t well-suited for large scale projects. We don’t have to invent a new model for permanent research scientists, we just need to reallocate more funding to the current one.

That’s where I disagree with drugmonkey: rather than trying to stuff scientists into an academic framework, we must build an alternative framework.

Related post: drdA makes the excellent point that this stems from too many students being trained. Of course, there is a strong incentive for the current players to keep the existing system in place, even if it’s not working for many of the parties involved (including the taxpayer). Poorly-paid workers are all the rage these days…


  1. #1 jdub
    March 3, 2011

    nodding. this is exactly my quandary right now. all i ever wanted to be was a support scientist. now that i am approaching the end of my phd (as an somewhat-older, married student) i find that there aren’t any jobs like this anymore. my only options are to stick with my current stable, permanent, boring and non-relevant job or take on a temporary, lower-paying post doc position somewhere, with no guarantee that i will remain employed, and uproot my family every 2 years to pursue my career.


  2. #2 Juice
    March 3, 2011

    How much would something like this cost? As in, how much would total public science spending have to increase to support all the ‘excess’ PhDs, the labs, instrumentation, and materials? $10 billion? $100 billion? I mean, it sounds like a great plan as long as it can be paid for.

  3. #3 Paul Orwin
    March 3, 2011

    Let me dissent from this somewhat. We don’t need more highly trained and undervalued staff scientists. Period. It doesn’t matter if you call them post-docs or research associates or “super awesome science god dude”. If they are bench researchers then the same economic rules apply. My modest proposal is, lets start getting these people to take jobs at regional uni’s and community colleges, and bring some of their expertise and skill to training students from, shall we say, diverse (read poor and minority), backgrounds! Even if these students don’t go into bench science (and many of them won’t). Putting a strong scientist into the classroom means that kids in Biology101 get to actually learn what it means to do science, which they take with them to their K-12 teaching job, or med school, or pharm school, or whatever. Of course, teaching is not easy, and it is a skill to be acquired. And you have to get used to the idea that an AREA grant is ok, and not a sign that you aren’t a cool bigshot type (although you aren’t). But there are some substantial rewards to this type of job, among them job satisfaction (helping people who actually need it, not trust fund crybabies), freedom to pursue scientific questions that interest you, not just ones that interest NIAID, and a lot of flexibility. The biggest problem I see is convincing people who are Harvard/MIT/Caltech postdocs that this isn’t failure! And yes, I have some personal experience with this…

  4. #4 rork
    March 3, 2011

    Maybe I’m with Rohn. I’m talking academic labs where we get the grant money or we’re gone – free range folk.

    I dream of working in or with labs where there are several fairly well paid, smart, and experienced people. We will call them research scientists or quality personnel or what you will. We could accomplish miracles. It would be satisfying. Some big labs have one or two people like that. (Maybe I want fewer bigger labs.) In my experience they are worth allot, but we pay them so little, we usually cannot keep them long. Even if we just won the $7 million U54 and 2 R01′s and say “this person is critical and is worth allot”, still, the pencil-necks admins above us say we can’t pay them what we want – as if they know the business we are in better than we do. Meanwhile we are fulling funding ourselves, and paying the pencil-necks with the overheads.

  5. #5 Joseph
    March 4, 2011

    Need to get corporations back in the research game for real. Not the minimum-for-a-tax-break that they are now.