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It's Academic. Or Is It?

have become very popular among life science graduate departments.

By | August 1, 2005

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Alternative career workshops featuring scientists from industry, public policy, and teaching, essentially every profession that is not academic research – have become very popular among life science graduate departments. When I speak to graduate students and postdoctoral scientists about my career in science policy, I find many who tell me that their mentors discourage them from exploring these "alternative" opportunities. Many mentors seem to feel that anything other than an academic research career represents a failure, or a waste of the investment in training.

Graduate and postdoctoral fellows are typically presented with one career option: to follow in the senior researchers' role towards becoming a principal investigator. This is a laudable goal, as the highly skilled, independent academic researcher is an essential cornerstone of life sciences research. But it is not the only worthy goal available, nor is it the only way for postdoctoral scientists to use their training to serve science.

Indeed, 50% or fewer of biological and health sciences doctoral recipients are employed in academia, and an even smaller percentage of those are tenured or on tenure track.1 These numbers reflect the significant shift in the employment patterns of biomedical researchers, away from the traditional research faculty appointments. Since the early 1980s, we have seen a substantial decline in the percentage of biomedical PhDs found in faculty positions five to six years after employment, as well as an increased growth in less stable, "soft-money" positions,2 which lack the guarantees of tenure track, leaving scientists to fight for lab space and raise their own salaries via grants. Recent reports, such as "Bridges to Independence" released by the National Research Council, have highlighted lengthening periods of postdoctoral apprenticeship and barriers to becoming an independent academic investigator, suggesting there are not enough faculty positions for the pool of employable scientists.3

Thoughtful suggestions for change have been proposed; however, they are all aimed toward success as an academic research scientist. Perhaps the real solution is a paradigm shift, a movement towards seeing doctoral and postdoctoral training not as an apprenticeship toward academic research, but rather as preparation to serve science, to move the enterprise as a whole forward. If trainees saw graduate and postdoctoral training as the first steps to an exciting array of career options, perhaps more would take those first steps with confidence.

That array of options includes a range of careers: scientists in industry, who contribute greatly to both basic and applied research in ways that are sometimes more innovative than that funded by federal agencies; science teachers and science writers, who increase science literacy to the benefit of us all; and science policy professionals, who bring the perspective of the research scientist to the legislative and regulatory debates. Researchers who think they want only an academic career may find that a nonacademic career suits them best, while others thinking to pursue a nonacademic career may find that the road towards academic research is worth following. By casting a wider net of opportunities, we stand to maintain or encourage those who might have otherwise given up at an earlier stage.

The community must share the burden of this paradigm shift. Programs aimed at the variety of opportunities for biomedical researchers, or career resources marketed specifically to science students could help. Similarly, postdoctoral offices tend to focus on the needs of the academically oriented postdocs, providing the support they need through the intense and often prolonged training period. While these are clearly important services, they should also provide information or networking opportunities for nonacademic uses of scientific training.

The burden is on the trainee, clearly, to explore these possibilities and to revisit career goals throughout the course of graduate and postdoctoral training, rather than seeing it as a one-way, exit-free highway towards academia. Young scientists should seek out mentors in different professions, whose advice could complement the scientific training received from their own research mentors. Still, those who will likely struggle most with this concordance are the mentors, who as academic researchers themselves may not have been exposed to some of these other opportunities. Mechanisms to facilitate mentor-trainee engagement on these issues might include individual development plans and independent funding sources that allow trainees more flexibility in choosing career resources or training opportunities. Biologists could learn from colleagues in other sciences, such as chemistry, where industry positions have wider acceptance.

The first step is to encourage attendance at those career workshops, and to stop labeling them as alternative. The very word alternative implies that such a job would lie outside the mainstream; it speaks of instability or abnormality, certainly not desirability. That couldn't be further from the truth. Alternative is the new mainstream.

Carrie D. Wolinetz, PhD (cwolinetz@faseb.org), is associate director for communications at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

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