Transcription and Translation

From the last week’s issue of Nature, More biologists but tenure stays static. From the article:

The data, compiled by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) (, are from many sources, including the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Council of Graduate Schools and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And one message is clear: increasing numbers of bright young students are eager for a career in biology and biomedicine, but fewer than before will gain the coveted tenured academic positions.

Although more and more PhDs are awarded every year, the number of tenure track positions in the US has “remained steady since 1981, at just over 20,000.” I wouldn’t have guessed that based on the expansion of many biomedical campuses such as U. Mass, Harvard and Columbia over the past decade. The article points out that although the NIH budget doubled between ’98 and ’03,
i-7d59a5fce5f537ca2892a8d79fc5e885-NIH copy.jpg

Most of the money went into infrastructure rather than tenure-track jobs (see Nature 443, 894; doi:10.1038/443894a 2006).

This is best exemplified by this graph that plots the amount of total NIH funding and the amount of this funding being used for NIH grants and fellowships.

In any case the end result is that the number of PhDs in tenure track positions dropped from 45% in ’81 to 30% in 2005. All those extra postdocs end up in industry or down a black hole. For those that stay in academia, they are in for a rough ride, as exemplified by this often cited statistic:

And the average age of scientists earning their first R01 grant — the NIH’s bread-and-butter grant to an independent researcher — has risen from 34 in 1970 to 42 now.

So hold on tight, it’ll be a rough ride.

Erika Check
More biologists but tenure stays static
Nature (07) 448:848-849 doi:10.1038/448848a

[hat tip: Andrea D’Ambrogio]


  1. #1 Michael Clarkson
    August 27, 2007

    A lack of foresight turns all blessings into curses. With an enormous windfall, facilities and infrastructure have been built and record numbers of students have been trained to operate them, but now there’s no money left to support young faculty and the employment market is so glutted that institutions have small incentive to retain talent. It wouldn’t take an economics expert to predict that this would happen.

  2. #2 Bill
    August 27, 2007

    it’ll be a rough ride

    It’s rough enough already! I’m not actually a big fan of tenure, having seen it abused much more often than I’ve seen it support genuine risk-taking or innovation.

    I am still interested in the “Bench Scientist” position that was discussed in this comment thread on YFS, and would love to see smarter folks than me look into it…

  3. #3 The Genetic Genealogist
    August 27, 2007

    42 years old? That’s outrageous. Yet another reason I’m glad that I went law school after my phd.

  4. #4 BDO
    August 27, 2007

    Well, I have been in grad school for more than 2 years now, and I have seen such people getting PhD’s with such crappy data and knowledge without being able to publish a single paper, I could not believe my eyes. Especially I think when it comes to lower-ranked schools, yes there are still good labs there and good PIs. But there are also very crappy ones and people somehow get away with their nonsense data.

    So, eh, you have increasing number of PhDs. But of course, it probably gets harder to fool people for a tenure track.

    My two cents…

  5. #5 ponderingfool
    August 28, 2007

    Well, I have been in grad school for more than 2 years now, and I have seen such people getting PhD’s with such crappy data and knowledge without being able to publish a single paper, I could not believe my eyes.

    Whose fault is that though? At the end of the day the student is doing what the advisor and thesis committee wants in order to get a PhD. The burden is on the faculty to expect more and to actually teach. If the PI is getting grant money flowing in, the university is getting overhead dollars and the committee members can focus on their own labs what is the selection not to allow them to just keep churning poorly trained PhDs?

    I think the problem with the numbers is the fact so many faculty members including junior ones who hold onto their silly notions that the best graduate students are the ones you go one to become faculty members while the less qualified are the ones who take industry, policy, teaching, etc. positions. PIs who express this do a disservice to their trainees.

  6. #6 bayman
    August 28, 2007

    “end up in industry or down a black hole”

    Black hole? I think this kind of thinking is the problem – if you are not on tenure-track you are doing nothing and obviously your PhD was a waste of time. What’s the difference between trade school and a PhD? Trade (or professional) school prepares you for a ready-made, cookie-cutter profession that economists and politicians have already carved a niche for in the economy. So you get a guaranteed job but pretty much zero flexibility. A PhD is about educating your mind, not doing a particular task. Coming out, you have no pre-defined, economically established role to play – it’s all on you. With that comes the freedom to use your 15 years+ of education to find your own unique way of contributing to society without being locked into some boring mundane job for the rest of your life. The trade-off for working and living on your own terms is that you don’t get spoon fed the Subaru, the suburban home, the office cubicle and the static life that everyone in our cookie-cutter society gets. Lucky you.

    Anyway, all this to say it’s a mistake for scientists to believe their profession is like any other, and there’s 1 or 2 acceptable jobs for you, otherwise you “in a black hole” and useless to society. PhDs need to get out there, learn the context of society and improvise, find a niche, find somewhere science is needed and fill the gap. Maybe start your own business, maybe teach polar bears, whatever, there’s all kinds of possibilities once you’re willing to forego orthodoxy. Think out of the box people – that’s what scientists are supposed to do.

  7. #7 apalazzo
    August 29, 2007


    I guess I was trying to convey that the discarded postdocs either enter industry, where they would use their talents, or they left science altogether (i.e. down a black hole).

  8. #8 bayman
    August 29, 2007

    Point well taken. I think maybe in the modern world, you might be right, that one needs to be “in science” to contribute.

    Then again, maybe not. Maybe one doesn’t have to give up on science just because it’s not in one’s job description.

    Einstein and Mendel are just two very obvious examples that come to mind of “scientists” who made massive contributions while working “outside science” or in the black hole, so to speak – leading a lifestyle where much of their time had to be spent in other, more mundane pursuits to put food on the table.

    Maybe you are right, and professionalism is important in modern science (certainly, expensive technology with steep learning curves may demand this). Then again, maybe it only promotes “normal” science and stifles true innovation…

    It’s an interesting debate, and I certainly don’t know the answer, but maybe people don’t have to give up on science or learning just because it doesn’t pay the electricity bill? Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also fight for more funding support either – that’s always welcome. 🙂

  9. #9 BDO
    August 29, 2007


    Yes, I agree with you that PI makes a big difference on student’s productivity. However, that still does not change the fact that, people graduate with poor knowledge and without any significant achievments. I mean, this even goes deep down to that essential question “what is the meaning of life” 🙂 I mean come on, most people know they are doing a useless thing, most of them still give seminars on useless data, why do these people continue being useless, and continue thinking wishful, and not do anything about it?

    It is not about “who is responsible”. It is about no matter who is responsible, it is true that lots and lots of people are getting PhDs for nothing. This is a big problem.

  10. #10 Sunil
    September 1, 2007

    Even while I mope about these morbid statistics while I stress about my project and where it’s going, and whether it will be enough to provide me with a story to take with me (and if it will be of sufficient interest for someone to hire me as a PI), I look around and see so many postdocs who are left in a difficult situation after 4-5 years of postdoc work.

    They are good postdocs, but for various reasons (a combination of knowledge, ability, the project(s), the PIs) don’t have enough to get a faculty position somewhere. There are only limited industry jobs out there. So, they struggle for years (sometimes extending their postdocs by 3-4 years) before finding a job. Others disappear into the “black hole”.

    I’d say out of every 10 postdocs, 2 will get that faculty position. 5 are actually pretty useless (bad work ethic, sometimes very poorly trained, poor knowledge etc), but there are 3 out of every 10 who are really quite good, but may not have “enough” (by today’s definitions) to get a faculty position.

    It’s really tough for this section of postdocs……and there are few options for them, particularly since there aren’t that many industry jobs out there either, and many of those jobs need insider contacts to get in.

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