Prospects "bleak" for young researchers

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?


More like this

I'm at the end of my second year and have long since totally ruled out even the possibility of trying for a career in academia, although as I am (for the second time) teetering on the edge of leaving graduate school altogether, I'm probably not representative. I know a couple of my peers who are dead-set on academia, far more who are uncertain, and at least a few who like me are not even seriously considering it as a possible career path.

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?

Not in the least. It surprises me more people aren't thinking of alternate careers (though not much, as Advisors tend to discourage these ponderances). Most grad students know that things are rough, and they need a Plan B at the very least in case fate takes a sour turn.

I think it's a bad thing to tie graduate study to an academic career. This needlessly casts non-academic employment as a consolation prize. Academia is not the only field where the nation needs scientists and people with advanced technical skills.

If we view academia as primarily a training ground for future generations, and the field of study has economic utility outside of academia, then one would expect that for every long-time academic job, there should be several outside of academia. Then the primary emphasis would shift towards preparing students for the non-academic jobs, with only a small minority being prepped to maintain the institutes of learning. Now if only the institutes would get the message.

In the last five years we've lost three very talented junior faculty to the private sector. The commonalities were that 1) they were not making enough money; 2) we're spending little time with family; 3) stress over not getting tenured (none had landed an NSF or NIH grant by the 3rd year review).

In the search we had for a molecular geneticist last year, there were only 14 applicants. Ten years ago it would have been double or triple that.

By TrekJunkie (not verified) on 19 Sep 2007 #permalink

I'm not technically a graduate student, though given that I'm on my 21st (and finally final) year of my long, slow slog through my undergraduate degree, it feels like it sometimes.
For most of my undergraduate career that although I intend to do graduate work (in a more normal amount of time e.g. 2-6 years), I've assumed that I wouldn't be ending up "in industry" (or government) in the end. The last several years have pretty firmly cemented that view for me.
The primary reason I started blogging about science in the first place is to get better at explaining science, on the assumption that I could conceivably end up in a "science and public policy" or similar career track - I think I'd enjoy that. That's about as close as I think is feasible to becoming a professor as I'm likely to get. Failing that, doing R&D in an environmental or industrial (or agri- or aquacultural) microbiology context would be enjoyable, and probably provide a more reliable living than the begging-for-grants track.

I am in a large lab that has primarily post-docs (and 2 grad students) in it. None of the post-docs want to continue in academia, besides me. I have started to realize that there is no future for me in academia. Funding is lousy. Positions are scarce (and mostly limited to people who already have funding). And I am married to a scientist (which makes it considerably harder to find 2 jobs).

Every time I hear of some other big wig shooting his mouth off that there is a shortage of scientists in America it makes me a little cranky. It's not fair to undergrads to be told that there is a future for you, when the future that exists is tenuous (and poorly paid) at best.

"Every time I hear of some other big wig shooting his mouth off that there is a shortage of scientists in America it makes me a little cranky. It's not fair to undergrads to be told that there is a future for you, when the future that exists is tenuous (and poorly paid) at best."

The base assumption of this statement is that scientists only work in academia. I think that's pretty clearly not true. It is entirely possible for there to be a shortage of scientists in the country and a highly competitive academic job market.

Grad student just into my third year here.

Would it surprise you if a quarter of your second-years are already thinking about alternative careers?

Yes and No.

- No, because anyone who's looked at the data knows what to expect. Anyone who has read the reports should have a backup plan.

- Yes, because I feel like most of my peers are woefully uninformed about the realities of finding work after school. Or if they do know the score, they're content to put their heads down and hope that the problem will work itself out by the time they graduate. Seems rather foolish to me.

This is tangential, but one area where I do see a need for more scientific background is in academic librarianship. A lot of people who go into library science have humanities backgrounds, but the need is for people with backgrounds in the sciences, technology, engineering, and medicine. True, you'll need to get an MLIS in addition to your science degree, but that's not a universal requirement and it takes two years at most.

As an example, I'm a science librarian with NO scientific training at the college level except for a general chemistry course I took last year. I got the job because I was interested and had spent part of graduate school working in an engineering library. I was one of the more qualified applicants they got.

On the other hand, the job market is competitive in my field, too, especially for positions at the big R1s.

By G. Williams (not verified) on 19 Sep 2007 #permalink

A look back from the perspective of 45 working years:

The notion that it's either industry (or government) or academia is (in my life experience) a fallacy. I spent 10 years in aerospace and defense (part military and part industry in the '60s), 20 years in academia ('70s and '80s teaching in small private liberal arts college) and the last 17 years running my own company back outside academia. Yup: I'm a former tenured full professor who resigned to do something else for a while. Amazing, huh?

Sure, the country needs trained scientists, but not just as professors in research universities. There is a wide range of professions in which scientific training and mode of thought one acquires in graduate school is of value. When I was in the Systems & Research Center at Honeywell we hired Ph.D. scientists, but weren't overly concerned with their specialty. We were hiring the demonstrated ability to go into an area, rapidly learn the central issues of the area, and figure out how to use that knowledge in an applied context.

You really can move back and forth, folks, move sideways and around. Tracks are for trains, not people.

As one of those folks who was forced to give up on academia after my Ph.D due to the dearth of opportunities in my field (don't believe anyone who says that there are academic jobs out there for interdisciplinarians) I don't envy the grad students of today. In the time between my first degree in 1989 and now I have watched the gradual change of post-docs from a short-term experience into a new underclass of overeducated, underpaid technicians. In my home department (chemistry) we had a group of terminal post-docs. Folk who were talented, and bright but because they couldn't get hired in the 90's are now considered too stale for a new faculty position and are likely never to have a faculty job to call their own.

The only positive...or would that be a negative is that the competition should be thinning out in the near future. The reason is the hot job market. I just recently watched my nephew, a very bright young man, decide that he could make much more money working in the trades than he could by completing a University degree. Stories abound in my home province of British Columbia, that for the first time in a generation university spots are going unfilled as students look away from academic careers. Frankly the universities are to blame as tuition has gone up and the quality of the experience gone down. My example as someone who aced his way through University getting scolarships up the ying-yang and still couldn't get a sniff of a decent position sure didn't help.

Positive spin: more scientists in the real world means more science in the real world. When people with a science background work with people without one, things like creationism and climate change denialism get dealt with in personal conversation, not from some talking head on the news.

When I received my newly-minted PhD in 1988 I went into an industrial post-doc and then an industrial position. I guess one could say that I had a desire to see more immediate application to my work - the one drawback is that decisions about any given project are not one's own. We did good research, though; even our academic collaborators admitted that.

There are alternatives to an academic position. What is unfortunate is that my graduate education did not prepare me for them. What would have been useful? Courses in project and personnel management and presentation basics would be a start. Maybe even some sessions on how to look for a job.

There are also non-lab-research jobs out there where a PhD is a plus. The same skills that a student develops to get up to speed quickly on any given task are useful to employers who need workers who can be light on their feet - being an opportunist helps tremendously.

So did I encourage my kids to become scientists? Not exactly. Son wants to be a musician. Wish me luck.

Wow. Not exactly the topic I thought I would be reading. :(

As a sophomore undergrad with ambitions of graduate school (neuroscience), this is pretty depressing to read. I want to go into academia because I want to make a fundamental change in the world. I want to do something great and better the lives of people through research. But it sounds like academia is a dead-end. It sounds like wanting to be financially comfortable (not even rich, just not living from check to check) doesn't mix well with academia for a newly graduated PhD.


Well, I don't mean to depress everyone! Obviously I'm an academic myself, and though the grant situation is miserable, I absolutely love my job in every other way. But yes, it's hard. And yes, there are people who get through all the rigor of a grad degree and post-doc and still can't find the employment they want in academia. I wouldn't say it's a dead-end at all--obviously there are jobs, but I think it's a good thing to have some kind of other options in mind as well. Who knows, you may be happier with them than academia. I think Emily's comment hit the mark there, regarding not thinking of jobs outside of academia as "consolation prizes."

I'm just not sure what the right answers are, but it's depressing to *me* that so many of my friends and peers already see academia as a place they definitely don't want to end up. How do we fix this?

It sounds like there are three main, interrelated problems. There appears to be a glut of scientists entering the academic workforce (or at least attempting to), a lack of funding (which means less hiring for academic work and more difficulty getting grants to justify having academic work), and a lack of consideration for non-academic careers on the part of both the students and the professors and advisors.
It may also be that the job market for scientists is pretty poor all around, though I'm not sure. I'm cynical enough to imagine cost-cutting MBA's trying to avoid the need to hire people with advanced degrees if they think they can train cheaper employees to do the jobs adequately (and paying postdoc wages to everyone else).
(Watching my wife try to find post-postdoc work [geophysics/geochemistry] for the last year has gotten me somewhat depressed about the job market for scientists...and doubly worried about what the market might be like for recent graduates in non-medical microbiology like myself.)
For the record, it currently seems to me that a job "in industry" would be preferable to an academic job, if purely on the basis of not having to spend large amounts of effort desperately trying to outcompete a horde of other highly-competent people for the same research grant money - however, not yet having worked in a scientific (rather than "technical") position in either setting personally it should be noted that much of this impression I have could be false...
Not that I'm going to give up by any means, but is my view of the job market for scientists too pessimistic?

I think the implication that jobs in "patent law, journalism, and government" are in some way secondary is a myth that is simply perpetuated here. I am a recently tenured professor and understand the difficulties and concerns of taking the academic career. However, I encourage undergraduate and graduate students to consider these areas, there are extremely important. Here at scienceblogs there is a vast amount of information decrying the state of science education and science journalism and science policy in the US and elsewhere. To improve this we need well trained scientists moving into these areas. Our graduate program has a modicum of career development for non-academic areas and I think this is becoming more common.

Also while we all have friends we wish did not move away from academia, this is a competitive field. Based on raw odds, it seems unlikely that our friends are the most competitive for research positions. Part of the marketability for post-docs in an academic position has much to do with luck. If you are in a field that is not actively being sought after or has much room to grow, you are sol regardless of the quality of your work. I see many graduate students choose great labs to train in as a post-doc without much consideration of the academic job prospects when they are done. Grad students ask about whether they can take post-doctoral projects with them and other important questions, but often do not ask (themselves) if a project will be marketable to a department looking for a new recruit in 3-5 years.

I also take exception to the difficulty in academic positions. Not all academic positions require R01 grant support for tenure. There are many smaller colleges where some research is conducted without some of the pressures that exist in tier I research universities. Realize not all business school graduates go on to be CEOs of large companies, not all law school grads are attorney generals, etc, etc, etc.

Regardless I am glad this discussion is occurring. Many students early in their career should be aware of the difficulties in academia and aware of the other exciting possibilities.

No longer a grad student, but...
I think anyone not at least considering careers outside academia is naive. Let's say that the average professor graduates one PhD student a year for 20 years of her career. She's replaced herself 20x over. Sure, some of those PhDs go on to teach at non-PhD granting institutions and some get newly created positions, but all 20 of them? The numbers just don't work out in favor of the PhD student whose only plan is to stay in academia.

How do we fix this?

End post-docs. Completely get rid of them. It's a bullshit temporary "training" position that no one needs. Make a higher paid, permanent Ph.D. technician category, and make academic tenure-track categories. But let's get rid of this facade that we're training post-PhDs for academic research. 35 years ago most academics were hired straight out of grad school. Let's go back to that. Post-docs are merely cheap labor now, they're not a training position.

Back in 1974 I was one of those undergrads. I looked at the bunch of post-docs littering the microbiology department, begging for macaroni for supper because it was near the end of the month and they were broke, and decided that academia wasn't for me. I worked as a technician for a couple of years, felt that while it was a fine job, it wasn't really a career, and went back to school to study computing science.

I ended up never using microbiology in a job, but the education has been useful in terms of understanding scientific developments, and it certainly wasn't a wasted four years.

I cannot imagine anyone wanting a purely academic career these days - I mean, 2-3 postdocs, getting a job if you are very lucky, and then a lousy chance of getting a first grant and an even worse chance of follow-on grants?

I got my Ph.D. in '89, and had an enlightened thesis advisor who told us he hoped we all didn't follow in his footsteps. After a stint in biotech, its own form of hell, I fell into a Gov't contracting job and am still here 8 years later. Interesting work, never boring, much better pay and stock options - and I teach part-time at a major research University on the side.

Two things need to change - the generation of scientists convinced that you are evil if you don't go into academia need to die off, and there need to be enough Ph.D.'s going into alternative careers to convince those employers that Ph.D.'s have practical value in the workplace.

I would be surprised if *only* 25% were considering leaving academia. I would have said 50-70%.

And I advise graduate students on careers as part of my job.

You've heard about the depressing state of funding today in biomedical science.

Yeah, it's comparable to what happened to funding in virology back in the beginning of the eighties, just before Gallo&Co hit a brand new goldmine with their HIV=Aids=Take_Our_Deadly_Poison_If_You_Want_To_Live approach (why the whole world swallowed that silly equation hook, line and sinker will one day be anybodies guess I figure). Heads up, biomedical scientists, there must be an equivalent gold mine for you to discover. Don't get depressed but be creative. Think!

This is actually great news. At least 75% of these "scientists" are just clock-punching, bean-counters, who really contribute no practical knowledge to anyone. If these people quit tomorrow and got real jobs, say, as plumbers, bakers, engineers, bankers, nobody would miss them. That they are leaving academia in droves is a very good sign. They have wrecked academia. The reason science is so poor in America is not because of creationists, ID-ers, HIV-Denialists, anti-vax goofballs. The reason is due to all these losers, who conduct meaningles science on frogs, flies and yeast, publish meaningless papers that nobody reads, and waste enormous amount of tax-payer dollars. That these bozos run the academic departments of our universities is a national disgrace.

I'm very pleased by this post, Tara!

--Ben Gorman

By Ben Gorman (not verified) on 21 Sep 2007 #permalink

Ben, you sound like a academic dick-waver. Studies in frogs, flies, and yeast form the basic understanding of biology from genetics to cell biology. I don't know what you would consider "good" science, but denigrating important and useful work of others on no apparent basis justifies me calling you a simpleton.

Academia has a certain appeal partly because the people who were there for its Golden Age are still around, as living advertisements.
It's taken me a long time to admit that as a career path, it's peaked. It peaked around thirty years ago. Furthermore, a lot of the hype doesn't hold up. A lot of the attractions of academia - contrary to the myth- aren't unique to academia. Flexible working hours, "intellectual stimulation", problem solving, autonomy, and other benefits can be found in many career paths these days. It just requires a little investigation, and having an open mind.

Couldn't agree more with RBH's comment, "You really can move back and forth, folks, move sideways and around. Tracks are for trains, not people."

There are many ways scientists can contribute to science and society, and pay their bills, apart from academia. Job definitions and career tracks and changing in all fields. Excepts the Army, perhaps. Academia will have to reform itself, but, in the meantime, Ph.Ds will need to broaden their horizons.

Agree with what others in the comments have said: a PhD is applicable to more than academia: industrial research, etc.

More of the management consulting companies are finding too many MBAs are shallow generalists and hiring PhDs instead. (Mind you, a PhD/MBA is a powerful combination.)

In any event, one's career success is going to be dependent on chasing the dollars anyway - either both grant-making agencies or foundations or from customers.

By Sock Puppet of… (not verified) on 25 Sep 2007 #permalink

yeah this is good news, its seems most scientists are just puppets. All they do is parrot what the cdc says and what the drug companies say, they avoid controversy, and will do some pretty dumb studies like meausuring frog farts or something.

They have no understanding that experiments need to be conducted on vital issues.

Scientists should instead of mindlessly parroting the CDC's stance on everything, conduct a study comapring 3,000 people with no mercury exposure vs 3,000 people w/ 1991 levels of mercury and see if there is any link with autism.

Because hiv is pretty much species specific they should conduct a study to confirm gallo's hypothesis. "in 1984 gallo claimed that hiv was the cause of aids bc of the lack of a reliable animal model and an ever extending window period we are going to follow 20 hiv positive people with no other risk factors such as AZT, drug abuse, mycoplasma incognitus, severe mental illness and compare them with matched negative controls to confirm/falsify gallo's hypothesis"

shame after the press conference this study has not been conducted, to confirm gallo's no animal model partial correlation, 1/1000 t cell hypothesis. All the studies assumed hiv caused aids. See the film hiv fact or fraud.

What about the army's shyh ching lo's mycoplasma incognitus, a microbe that killed every animal injected and is found by pcr by nicolson/haier in many complex multi organic illnesses that have been given misdiagnosis of CFS etc. Lo found it in no healthy controls. Refrences on lonliness thread.

It was part of the bioweapons program. Project day lily. google it, riveting book by 2 world renoun cancer researchers found it the blood of gwi vets. Armed personal from the defense dept threatened them to stop their research when they found it in the blood of gwi vets and civilains w multi organic symptoms, they ran into a black op massive testing program.

they are many good scientists that agree with what i'm saying, look at the rave reviews on nicolsons book Project day Lily, but its the few scientists at the top who are hardcore criminals like Fauci/Gallo that serve as gatekeepers to prevent new ideas that upset the status quo. What we need is more scientists like Galileo, that question authority, not more sycophants like orac etc that thinks its impossible for the government to lie to them.