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Are We Training Too Many Scientists?

FEATURE Are We Training Too Many Scientists? A glut of postdocs, too few desired positions, and a faculty invested in the status quo point to a need for change. Who will take responsibility? By BIJAL P. TRIVEDI © JASON VARNEY|VARNEYPHOTO.COM After three years of postdoctoral work at the Mayo Clinic, Crystal Icenhour was ready to embrace the life of an independent researcher in a tenure track position. But after more than a year of job s

By | September 1, 2006

FEATURE
Are We Training Too Many Scientists?
Are We Training Too Many Scientists
A glut of postdocs, too few desired positions, and a faculty invested in the status quo point to a need for change. Who will take responsibility?
By BIJAL P. TRIVEDI
© JASON VARNEY|VARNEYPHOTO.COM

After three years of postdoctoral work at the Mayo Clinic, Crystal Icenhour was ready to embrace the life of an independent researcher in a tenure track position. But after more than a year of job searching, and only a couple of job interviews, she was bitterly disappointed. The first job was lost to another more qualified applicant. The second institution was hiring two faculty: one senior, one junior. "I thought I had that one ... I was ready to pack my bags because the interview went so well and they asked for start-up requirements," says Icenhour. But after the senior faculty hire negotiated his compensation, there were insufficient funds for the junior position. "He offered me a postdoc in his lab... I didn't take it."

Icenhour's experience is mirrored in the lives of many other ambitious postdoctoral fellows seeking the tenure track. With rising numbers of newly minted life science PhDs, fewer tenure track positions open, and bulging ranks of increasingly frustrated postdocs, many want to know why the number of PhDs and the focus of their education is out of balance with job prospects and career expectations. "These are some of the lowest paid PhDs in academia," says Harvard economist Richard Freeman.

Many postdoctoral fellows want to know why the number of PhDs and the focus of their education is out of balance with job prospects and career expectations.

Between 1983 and 2003 the number of doctorates earned annually in the life sciences, including agricultural, biological, and medical sciences, almost doubled, rising from 4,777 to 8,163, according to the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2006. The majority of these graduates immediately entered the postdoctoral arena, catapulting the number of postdocs in these fields at US universities from roughly 14,000 to more than 33,000.

Yet, the percentage of doctoral recipients holding tenure and tenure track appointments continues to shrink. For PhDs overall, after five years only about 22% of graduates hold a tenure track position. For life science PhDs specifically, between 1993 and 2003 the percentage of graduates who held tenure or tenure track positions four to six years after receiving their degrees fell from almost 25% to 18%; the trends were even more pronounced for those in the biological sciences, with percentages falling from 25% to 15%. "You talk to anyone running a faculty job search anywhere and they are getting on average 200 candidates," says postdoc Chris Blagden, who earned his PhD in molecular biology from Kings College London in 1999. After failing to find a full-time research job while working in postdoc positions, he grew discouraged enough to shift his goals to a nonresearch career.

A CLOSER LOOK
Career disappointment for postdocs is not just about finding a job, it's finding a job that is rewarding.

Career disappointment for postdocs is not just about finding a job, it's finding a job that is rewarding: one that pays reasonably well and offers a career path. The recent prospects for PhDs - rising numbers of postdocs, few tenure track positions, and poor funding - do not live up to that expectation. Rather, current prospects are similar to conditions in the 1990s that spurred the NSF to organize a committee to issue the critical report, "Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists." This 1998 analysis highlighted bleak prospects for life scientists on the road to independent research careers.

The report revealed that the average age of a PhD recipient was about 32 years old, and after the typical fellowship postdocs were between 35 and 40 years old before they landed their first permanent position. Moreover, the committee saw opportunities for postdocs narrowing: 61% of PhDs who graduated in 1963 and 1964 secured tenure track positions within 10 years of receiving their degrees; of the students graduating with a PhD in 1985-1986, only 38% had tenure track positions 10 years later. "So basically, at the time, the supply of PhDs was rising and the demand for tenure track faculty was declining," says Paula Stephan, a labor economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and a member of the 1998 committee.

The unintended consequence of the shortage of faculty positions was longer postdoctoral fellowships as young scientists received low wages, endured little job security or respect, and delayed starting families while waiting for a job. Other postdocs and PhDs accepted nontenure track and part-time jobs to stay afloat. The committee's recommendations were blunt. Topping the list was that "there be no further expansion in the size of existing graduate-education programs in the life sciences and no development of new programs."

Another suggestion was to ensure that graduate programs offered incoming PhD candidates job-placement data revealing the fates of departed PhDs and their jobs and starting salaries. The suggestion was seen as another mechanism to deflate the postdoc bubble by allowing students to make more informed career choices. William Brinkley, vice president for graduate sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and a coauthor of the report, says the conclusion was based on concerns that "PhDs were just being hired for benefit of mentors and their careers, treated as hired hands, and true mentoring wasn't taking place."

The report was met, perhaps predictably, with outcry from a faculty that was happy with the way things were. And any momentum for change the report may have created was smothered with money: Shortly after it was issued the economy began its upswing and Congress began the doubling of the NIH budget. "The future looked very promising then," says Brinkley. "I thought ... we are going to double the opportunities in America for research and biomedical science and therefore we needed graduate students and there was a great future for them. In 2003 it all looked so optimistic."

Since then, of course, the NIH budget has flattened, and Brinkley's optimism has fallen. Additionally, while the total amount of R01 grants awarded annually has been holding steady at approximately $1.3 billion since 2000, the success rate has been falling from about 26% six years ago to just shy of 18% in 2005, according to the NIH. Even if the number of R01s awarded had remained at its high of 4,521, the success rate - thanks to an increase in applicants from 16,827 to 21,745 - would be just 20.8%. In other words, the drop can't be fully explained by reduced funding levels. "We don't want to train too many in any field and ignore their ability to find work, that's my view as the dean," says Brinkley. "We need to be concerned about what we say to young people who are coming into graduate school about the market."

Others, however, deny that the problem exists. Most faculty, who depend on the graduate student and postdoctoral workforce, disagree that the system is churning out too many PhDs or that the numbers of incoming graduate students should be curbed to match annual funding. "If the academic job market was the only one out there, then we are almost certainly educating too many life science PhDs," says Norma Allewell, dean of the College of Chemical & Life Sciences at the University of Maryland in College Park. But, she adds, so many opportunities are open to life science PhDs that the four to six years spent in graduate school are not a waste.

While the employment stats do seem to support Allewell's notion that most life science PhDs do find jobs, most postdocs would say that is not the point. The average rate of unemployment in 2003 for those with biological, agricultural, and environmental life science PhDs hovered around 2.0%, according to the NSF. This was slightly less than unemployment rates for PhDs in the physical sciences and math, which were 2.6% and 2.4%, respectively, and slightly above rates for PhDs with degrees in health or the social sciences, which were 1.4% and 1.5%.

Of those life science PhDs finding employment in 2003, the majority (55.5%) found jobs in academia. The rest joined industry (34%) or government (10.5%). The academic jobs were scattered between the coveted full-time faculty positions and the less appealing nontenure track, full-time, nonfaculty positions: research associates, lecturers, adjunct and administrative positions, as well as postdoctoral fellowships and part-time positions. And as Chris Blagden and many other postdocs will tell you, it is about the quality of the job, not just having a low-paying, seemingly dead-end position.

While the numbers and postdocs tell one story, others say it doesn't matter: Science is above supply-and-demand issues, and the only thing the system lacks is more funding. "When it comes to training scientists you are training smart people to think for themselves, to create ... the job of a scientist is to do something entirely original," says Robert H. Tai, an assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia. "But that's the thing about science, you never know which one of those minds out there is going to come out with the next big thing. It's basically a horse race ... and every now and then you have a horse that you didn't think was going to do it." That happens often enough, says Tai, that predicting which graduate students will succeed is very difficult and thus nobody should be discouraged from going into science. "Like any competitive field you encourage everybody, and the best rise to the top."

Although Tai is concerned by the growing ranks of postdocs and the shortage of faculty positions, he is adamant that the root of the problem is not too many graduate students. He says the problem is due to waning public support and interest in science, which undermines support for science funding and scientific careers. "You can't turn the PhD spigot on and off based on these funding trends," says Tai. He wants more money from state and federal funds to establish and support tenure track positions, as opposed to NIH grants that he says empower more established scientists and do little to relieve the pressure inside the postdoctoral bottleneck. "Academia needs to take responsibility for educating the public and explaining the hard science and why it is worth doing. If the public understands the value of the research they will push Congress for more money ... something similar has happened with the grassroots movement in terms of stem cell research."

QUALITY vs. QUANTITY

Marguerite Evans-Galea has spent nine years in fellowships, first at the University of Utah and currently at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., while tirelessly searching for a tenure track position. "Most young graduate students have aspirations of becoming a great scientist and winning a Nobel. It's a very impressionable stage," says Evans-Galea. Thus, it's essential that graduate programs expose the students to a broad range of careers choices and be frank about their chances of making it in academia, she says. This was one of the recommendations of the 1998 report, but unlike law, medical, or business schools, few life sciences departments appear to track salaries or jobs of recent graduates, and thus have no starting point for such career counseling.

While Evans-Galea is returning home to Australia to accept a senior research fellowship, what she describes as "a glorified postdoc," other postdocs are leaving the bench permanently. Blagden, who earned his PhD in the UK, has now been a postdoc at NYU School of Medicine for six years. After approximately four years he began his job search. "I got basically no interest in my job application and I realized that this wasn't going to go anywhere and I moved on. For the last 2.5 years I've been training myself in non-profit leadership [grant management]. That's what I'm intending to move into ... I need a strong scientific background for this, so I don't see myself as leaving the field completely."

Robert Palazzo, biology professor and director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, says that Blagden and others who can't make tenure or achieve independence in the academic sector because of the competition for resources often leave the field or the country. "If they drop out you can't recover them," says Palazzo. "They might go into patent law or consulting or other areas, but they won't be in that primary innovative stew that we need so badly to remain competitive globally ... they won't be contributing to the areas where the country has invested in them."

Industry has been filling in some of the gap. A comparison of the 2003 and 1993 stats reveal a dramatic shift in employment, with 34% of biological, agricultural, and environmental science postdocs choosing a career in industry versus 26% in 1993. "In chemistry most grads go into industry, and life sciences may be transitioning into that situation not because there is less of a need in academia, but because there are a lot of other opportunities that weren't there before," says Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md. "A lot of attitudes have changed," says Georgia State's Stephan. "Industry is no longer considered a second-rate job because of the higher salaries, the resources and equipment, and the change in publication policies that allow scientists to publish in the top journals."

The National Postdoctoral Association in Washington, DC, which represents more than 40,000 postdocs, counsels new graduate students against relying solely on the goal of a tenure track position. "[We tell them] only a minority get those jobs; you need to have a plan B right now, not at the end of postdoc," says Alyson Reed, the executive director. "There is a huge disparity between expectations and outcome, and we see it in the data and hear it anecdotally; they can't find jobs and then shift to plan B," says Reed. This, Reed points out, does not mean she believes there are too many PhDs; rather, that schools accepting these students have the responsibility to train beyond the career model of PI at a research university and provide a realistic set of expectations about possible careers after earning a PhD. "There is more to life than academia and honestly, most of it is better paid," says Blagden.

The interdisciplinary approach is catching on, and several institutes now have specific programs offering students broader career-oriented training. While most admit that change in academia usually lags external forces, Allewell says that the University of Maryland is doing more to prepare students for other kinds of jobs, including those at biotech companies or government labs, while still training people who want academic careers. San Diego State University has established a PhD-MBA program to train PhDs in science in addition to offering students the skills to manage people and budgets, conduct strategic planning, or take complicated science and translate it for the layperson. (see J. Williamson, "Bridging the Gulf," The Scientist, 20(8):76-7, August 2006.) Though graduate programs may show glimmers of change, faculty stress that exposing graduates to more career choices will not obviate the problems caused by lack of funding, which will eventually cripple opportunities in both academia and industry. New discoveries made at academic health centers and basic research labs are the wellspring for biotech, says Baylor's Brinkley. Given that NIH funding is linked to academic employment, cutbacks in NIH funding would ultimately slow the growth of research in industry, he says.

The situation, at least at Baylor, may be self-correcting. There was a 36% reduction in applicants from 2003-2004 to 2005-2006. The size of the incoming 2005-2006 class dropped by 12% compared to 2004-2005. Brinkley says he isn't sure whether such a phenomenon reflects a nationwide trend. But, he knows that when funding is bad and faculty have a tough time getting grants the word spreads through the student population, leading many to steer away from PhD programs. And while it is almost impossible to get departments to voluntarily reduce the class size of incoming graduate students, Brinkley says that when faculty start losing grants, then recruiters are obligated by school policy to recruit fewer students.

Others believe the core issue is how funding is used. NIH funding "has got to be directed in a different way than to the 55-year-old senior scientists for more bodies in his or her lab," says Harvard's Freeman. Give more money to postdocs and grad students when they are young and let them do their work, he says. "That way if they end up leaving the field we won't have taken advantage of their love of science." Frank Solomon, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees with Freeman but goes further, taking aim at the underpinnings of science curricula: "We are training too many PhDs to become independent researchers ... the growth of biotech hasn't kept up with the number of postdocs, and lots of life science companies haven't been able to flourish." Solomon says that the system is broken, and the only way to fix it is to uncouple the funding of training and research positions. He adds that the life sciences need to legitimize the job of a career scientist who wants to continue working at the bench and isn't looking to run an independent lab.

For Icenhour, serendipity intervened. She decided to move on to a postdoc at Duke University where a training program might give her the skills to land a tenure track position. She attended grant-writing workshops and hired and trained an undergraduate student to work in the lab while she worked for her postdoctoral advisor. But after just one year a physician from the University of Virginia approached her to join a new molecular diagnostics startup.

"I just couldn't pass it up," says Icenhour even though she had never really considered going into industry. "I'm essentially running the company and am vice president and director of research, and we have one small grant." In addition she was offered an adjunct assistant professorship in the department of medicine at Duke. "So I feel like I have got a bit of both worlds." But most of Icenhour's colleagues have chosen a different path when they were not able to get a tenure track position. The marketplace is changing and funding is fickle, says Icenhour, "I think many postdocs still aren't [open to other opportunities] because they have spent so much time preparing for one type of career."

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Comments

September 6, 2006

While reading this article, and feeling that the future is bleak, I was surprised that one point was not touched upon. That point being the 'dead wood' tenured professors, whom should have retired long ago, yet remain in their positions. At every point along my training, from small liberal arts collage, to state university, to prestigious university for my present postdoctoral position, there have been a number of faculty in each department along the way, which were stewing in their positions, while younger, more eager faculty could not break into the permanent tenured slot. While I am aware of the issues touched upon in your article, it would have been nice to see a nod thrown toward those programs set up in the 1960s-'80s in which some faculty set up camp, tenured, and have remained as nothing more than a lump collecting their pay, as younger researchers trying to do research and perform struggle to make ends meet.\n\n

September 6, 2006

I agree with Mr. Utzat in the effect that has the number tenured professors that should retire and yet remain in their positions. I finished my Ph. D. in 2002 and even today there is faculty in the department that has a laboratory, doesn?t do research, and it use to have a technician with the solely duty of moving a liquid nitrogen tank. Nice! After my Ph. D., I moved on to a postdoctoral position at NIH and 2 years later I accepted my current job. Today, I?m a Research Associate with a false promise that a faculty appointment would be offered after 2 years. So far, nothing yet. The excuse has been the difficulties of getting funding through NIH to support my salary. Two years ago I started applying for different job positions (government and biotech) but the journey has been very difficult. I have gotten some interviews and nothing else. Right now a faculty position for me is out of my options. What is frustrating for me and I think for many people is that no matter how many degrees and training you have that doesn?t warranty getting that nice job you are looking for. In my case, I obtained a B.S. in Microbial Technology, a M.S. in Microbiology and Molecular Biology, a Ph. D. in Microbiology and Immunology and 5 years of postdoctoral training. I?m still struggling.
Avatar of: lon bordin

lon bordin

Posts: 2

September 8, 2006

The last two issues of The Scientist have illuminated deep problems with our University research system. ?Are we training too many scientists? and ?The Inequality of Science? are well-documented articles that clearly show the faults of the current system. However, the articles also show a possible solution to both problems. Create more opportunities to become faculty through equitable funding of our current institutions. Capping grant funds that any one Principal Investigator (PI) can receive as well as the number of Post-Docs that answer to a single PI are straightforward ways to create more faculty positions. The one exception to the cap might be for ?equipment? grants, just as long as the grant is for equipment and not personnel. If the idea is huge and worthwhile, then finding several PI?s to band together to meet a larger goal should be simple enough. While this step should expand the tenure-track ranks overnight and solve the ?too many scientists? problem it is not enough. There should also be regulation to level the field, as far as funds go, between the have and the have-not institutions. There are many models to follow in setting institutional caps. Which one should be followed I do not know, but I do know in the end there would be true competition instead of the near-monopoly that exists today. Therefore, in the situation I propose I suspect many institutions would finally find viability and competition thereby allowing them to grow and hire even more PI?s. My proposal would also foster more collaboration between PI?s that should lead to new possibilities and more collegiality. The biggest winners in all this would be ?We, The People? as more researchers doing quality work in more communities will expand our knowledge economy and maybe even make the world a better place, which should be the goal of all education.\n\nSincerely- DL Wilcox \nBloomington, IN, USA \nlonbordin@hotmail.com
Avatar of: Kenneth Gallaher

Kenneth Gallaher

Posts: 1

September 12, 2006

..just too many that want to academics. That has been a problem forever - and one that universities nurture because professors create more like themselves - both because they know nothing different and because a new generation of academics reflects well on them personally.
Avatar of: Eric Perlman

Eric Perlman

Posts: 2

September 12, 2006

This problem is common to all the sciences. For example, in my field (astronomy) a two-tier system has developed, with a small number of prize fellowships whose recipients are nearly guaranteed the choice positions, and the dregs left over for common postdocs. It is not uncommon for postdocs to have to search for several years to find tenure-track positions, if indeed they find them at all. Thus many astronomers looking for tenure-track positions apply for long-term NASA and NSF grants as a bridge - a track I took successfully. Even then, it took me over six years to find my first tenure track job, which I'll take up in January. And unlike in the life sciences - which benefited from the doubling of NIH's budget in the late 1990s - federal funding for the physical sciences has been flat since 1990, meaning that the inflation-adjusted budget has been declining every year.

September 12, 2006

This article paints a bleak picture for many post-docs who are currently aspiring to academic independence. However, let?s not forget that by design, the career track to inpendent academic P.I. is competitive and cannot assure a high success rate while maintaining a selection for excellence. If we told any high school athlete that he or she would have a 20% chance to make it in professional sports they would be elated. What I believe is the most important aspect here is honesty at all levels of training. Let's be honest with our graduate students when they are marginal and suggest them to leave. Let's be honest with post-docs who have become "lifers" as to how we rate their competitiveness and what their options are. At least we will not create lost careers.
Avatar of: Eric Murphy

Eric Murphy

Posts: 18

September 12, 2006

Perhaps, but having served on several search committees in the past several years, I must say expectations of post-doctoral fellows do not often match with their demonstrated success. We hired two faculty who both had demonstrated the ability to do truly independent cutting edge research and had published over 20 refereed papers. On the other hand, there were many applicants with 3-6 papers, with only a few first author papers. You tell me what is the problem!\n\nAt the end of the day, a post-doctoral fellow must be productive, publish well thought out papers in respected Tier I journals. Productivity wins more often than not. In this competive business, who will take a risk on hiring someone who has a three year post-doc and 1 or 2 papers ? No one will nor should they. It is a competive world and academic science is the major leagues, not everyone in the minors will get called up.
Avatar of: Barbara Beckett

Barbara Beckett

Posts: 1

September 12, 2006

My organization, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and many others, are increasingly focusing on knowledge translation/mobilization/exchange, and the need to ensure that research that is done becomes known to and taken up by those who can make use of the findings and apply them to current problems in health. Effective application of research is a resource-intensive process that requires, inter alia, persons who have an in-depth understanding of the research and can serve as "knowledge brokers". Supply and demand in research training may actually be in balance, if we are able to figure out a way of engaging those with the expertise (i.e. "surplus" postdocs) in the knowledge translation process. A few changes would have to happen before this happy balance can be achieved: those with advanced degrees would have to become interested in working as knowledge brokers, and organizations would have to recognize the value of knowledge brokers and be willing to pay them. There would also have to be a change in values in the training environment so that this career path is not dismissed as something for failed researchers. \n\n

September 12, 2006

The world trains too many scientists and expects physicians to disemploy those who are trained. Many physicians must garner Federal government grants to advance academically; this pressure, with requests by medical organizations upon funding entities to sponsor "clinical scientists", decreases employment of scientists, who would almost certainly generate more knowledge per dollar spent. \n\nOne solution is to refuse to fund physicians as principal investigators unless they relinquish the practice of medicine.

September 12, 2006

Absolutely not! The problem is that both the scientific and medical workforces are being seriously threatened by the "dumbing down of America". When the public's perception of science is largely media (TV) derived, when scientifically ludicrous "infomercials" openly preach daily anti-scientific ideologies to a listeners with generally no scientific background, and when the president of the USA himself can't even pronounce the word "nuclear", we have the makings of a serious problem. Until the scientific and the biomedical communities recapture public understanding, confidence, and support, we will continue to have beaurocratic politicians and their idiotic rhetoric undermining the future of our scientific and medical work forces.
Avatar of: Brian Koss, PhD

Brian Koss, PhD

Posts: 2

September 12, 2006

The US Department of Defense has a reported Discretionary Budget listed as $401.7 billion (ref 1). As private citizens we are told incessantly by many sources (spanning popular media and government) that we have entered an era of chemical and biological weaponry that is difficult to stop with current technology and that poses great immediate threat to our nation. We are also told that energy is a big concern for all people on earth. Now, I'm not an expert in public policy, but one would think that, given that the US DoD is now spending more than the GDP of many other nations combined (ref 2), US scientists from academics to national laboratories would find (eventually) themselves a substantive "war-time-effort's" worth of funding. AT LEAST scientists should be well funded to do everything we can to defend against the eminent threat of chemical and biological attacks, or even perhaps, reposition America for the future so we have better alternative energy solutions that don't precipitate future world conflicts. However, this does not seem to be the case at this time. A look at the recent US spending architecture is indeed staggering toward this growing fact of funding disparity in the US (ref 3, see table S-3). Ostensibly, the US government is spending more than ever on combative military infrastructure (new tanks, planes, ships, subs, manpower, etc) and it seems to continue to subtract funding from things that are so very needed now, such as basic education and scientific research. This at a time when many feel the US government is supporting bad science (ref 4). The US is growing (ref 5) at about a net of 1 person every ten seconds (currently we are around 300 million people in US). If the US does not want to become a country that falls behind others, perhaps becoming less than a first-world country, this trend in funding needs to stop or else about every ten seconds we will grow backwards.\nThere are not too many postdocs. We are not spending our tax dollars where we need to.\n\n-BK\n\nP.S. Harald Sontheimer compared (in this comment section) the elation of a high school athlete with that of a scientist, given a 20% chance of "making it" in their respective professions. This comparison is sickening to me. Raising the bar is one thing, but there are larger issues at play here. And, while Monday Night Football is fun for many of us, it isn't as important to our society as science. If sporting events (which are merely entertainment) are to be the measure of what is appropriate funding structures in a functioning society, then I think people need to get off the competition kick, and start getting a grip on where the world is headed. This isn't about weeding out the bad students, this is about a system that is broken, and is getting worse.\n\nRefs.\n(1) http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2005/defense.html\n\n(2)\nhttp://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/GDP.pdf\n\n(3)\nhttp://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2006/tables.html\n\n(4)\nhttp://www.census.gov/population/www/popclockus.html\nhttp://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html\n\n(5)\nhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_Integrity_in_Policymaking\n
Avatar of: Sean Thatcher

Sean Thatcher

Posts: 1

September 12, 2006

I am glad to see that this debate is going on right now and as a graduate student I know this is a very complex problem. Most of the students I know and talk with go into other fields such as medicine or law because they are scared of the problems with finding a tenure-track position. Others have gone into industry or as science writers for magazines or books. And yes, I too believe that some faculty should retire at the appropriate time, but I still believe that there is enough room for everyone. As a student, I feel that you should expose yourself to everything to find out what you like and not to depend on your university to hold your hand and show you the way. I also think that there should be more feedback in the application process. If you apply for a fellowship or job and you don't get it, then why? What areas were weak and what areas were strong in the application? I also think that post-docs should get more feedback in their work and not be treated like employees or hired help. All universities should set up guidelines, like the ideas pointed out by this website, and give post-docs a voice in their development as independent researchers. In the end, I hope things will change and that this will not become continued rhetoric in the years to come.
Avatar of: ANE OCHS

ANE OCHS

Posts: 1

September 12, 2006

Of course not! This country needs badly more scientists and a lot more funding for medical research in order to find real solutions to many devastating diseases. It is in fact a shame and a tragedy for our society to have leaders so short-sighted and stingy in allowing enough resources to medical research.\n\nAnother big problem in academic career is the lack \nof standarization and quality control in the research funding allocation. All post-docs should have to work hard and publish well in order to get promotions and RO1 funding, however is frustrating to see the lack of uniformity in the application of these criteria. After publishing papers in Cell, Nature, Science, etc. I am still struggling to get a modest RO1 application funded, whereas many other people manage to get funding and promotions only because they are well connected. If arbitrary and subjective criteria are continuing to be applied to NIH RO1 funding, the future of young scientist will remain dark as now.
Avatar of: Julius Militante

Julius Militante

Posts: 1

September 13, 2006

The issue of mentorship is important in this discussion. A lot can be said about how things can be improved about the career of scientists, but in the end it is a competition, and this really is not a problem, as this is clear to postdocs and grad students from the very start. What is not clear is how good or how bad their mentors are. How do you know? What is happening is that scientists are not being mentored well enough to make them competitive, and they don't even know it. \n\nThere is no pressure whatsoever for the PI to mentor well. The PI does not suffer if the postdoc or student does not move forward in their career. The postdoc and the student need to be empowered if they are to be truly independent, but in the end the PI can treat them in whatever way he wishes to. \n\nSomehow, the PIs must be made accountable for how they mentor and in general, must show greater respect for them. Simple things can be done. 1) The NIH should make the postdoc salary scale mandatory. PIs with NIH grants rountinely give salaries way below the salary scale. How can a postdoc develop their confidence and self respect when you are paid less than what the NIH says you should be paid? 2) The NIH should require a report on the progress of the trainee-scientists paid through the grants, in terms of publications and employment and salaries after training, among others, and this report should be part of the evaluation for grant renewal. Taxpayer money must be used efficiently in that the trainees must become productive. Thus, a bad PI cannot run through postdocs willy-nilly and not be accountable. A lot of money, and a lot of careers, are wasted because of bad mentoring. 3) The NIH should include postdoc/student training and development as a large part of the grant application. The research has to be done by these scientists and the science progresses as they progress. The NIH first and foremost should recognize this tie in its grant requirements. \n\nThe NIH does not do enough to protect the postdocs and students that do the research in the first place. Science does not happen without them. Research articles do not spring fully written and published from trees. The NIH should actively promote through policy the concept that people, like postdocs and students, make the science and not the other way around.
Avatar of: Ian Grant

Ian Grant

Posts: 1

September 13, 2006

Brian Koss is right to point out the need to expand the search for an alternative approach to energy. However, he underestimates the economic importance of sport. It is not just entertainment; it is big business, and it is, in a way, big science.\nOffhand I can't think of an area of life sciences that does not have an implication for sports, and material sciences help hugely in improving performance and safety.\nI would feel happier to see more research money spent on getting people to increase their involvement and competence in sports than in killing each other. We might all live longer, healthier, happier lives.\nAnd yes, I am aware that sport started as training for war. I find it ironic that the Ancient world stopped warring while the Olympics were on. It suggests people were more civilised than today.
Avatar of: L T

L T

Posts: 1

September 13, 2006

One perspective I would like to put forward is that post docs are considered by many institutions to be source of cheap labor. I am tenured research scientist in a federal laboratory that has no federal appropriation to support our costs. I therefore compete for grant money from other government agencies such as DOE, ONR, NASA, DARPA, etc. I have no choice but to try to reduce my costs in order to improve my odds of maintaining funding. The difference in program cost is considerable - ~$120K vs. ~$275K. That is why my colleagues and I look to hire post docs when funded instead of hiring permanent colleagues. There are other issues as well. It is much more difficult now than even a few years ago to maintain continuity of funding which is necessary to hire someone permanently. Also, many sponsors are toying with the DARPA? high risk/high gain model/fast pace - model of funding in which you are expected to meet milestones in 3 month intervals or else you are cut. Finally, the retraction in growth of federal monies to support basic research is directly due to the high cost of the war.
Avatar of: Mary Baker

Mary Baker

Posts: 1

September 13, 2006

As a recently employed faculty in a tenure track position, I understand how painful, demoralizing, and insidious the process of the job search is. In any other field, when a person takes a part-time position and makes a favorable impression on her employer, eventually she will be hired full-time. It is in her favor to work hard so they will know she's good and that they can count on her. In academia, if a person is doing an excellent job and everyone is impressed, she can count on NOT being hired when a full-time position is advertised. \n\nBefore I got my job I was a freeway flier, working 4-6 part time positions on as many campuses just to pay rent. My pay-per-hour looked great on paper, but it was only for contact time. When\nI figured in the time spent on preparation, grading and meeting with students , I didn't make much more than minimum wage. This is a common experience for new PhDs\n\nI was told that if I wanted a Community College job, then I would need a Ph.D. Now, because funds for professors are limited, the hires are going to MAs and MSs who are considerably cheaper to hire. So, even though I'm better educated and more skilled, I ruined my chance to get a Community College position because I pursued an advanced education.\n\nNot addressed in the article is the inordinately high wages given to administrators and the expansion of administrative positions. Coupled with all of the additional perks for such hires (housing, spousal hires, private cars, travel, etc...); we are draining the moneys that might otherwise be invested in new faculty, research, and students. \n\nWe've taken our best and brightest minds, people who are deeply committed and hard working and we're destroying them intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
Avatar of: Brian Koss, PhD

Brian Koss, PhD

Posts: 2

September 13, 2006

Ian Grant makes a good point in saying that BIG things such as sport businesses can have a good economic, or otherwise positive, influence on society, such as, perhaps not obvious to a common citizen, some scientific endeavors related to sport technology. However, not once have my comments intentionally underestimated sports' economic importance, contrary to Ian's remark. The sports businesses are doing just fine last time I checked, Ian. But, a lot of basic science isn't in many areas that it should be right now. From the classroom to the lab-bench, from academics to the national labs, lack of funding for research in the basic sciences is THE PROBLEM ABOVE ALL OTHERS. \n\nThe comparison I made before in my earlier post wasn't advocating any decrease in the presence of sports or funding for sports...(cough...don't make me whip out a comparison of average salaries of scientists versus sports players)...it was that we should try to decrease solely combative military spending now and give a little from that pot to other places in the government, like research and education. \n\nIn the history of the US, government once put a lot of money and focus into understanding radar, sonar, nuclear energy, aeronautics, etc, for all kinds of immediate reasons, many of which were associated with our war efforts. AMAZINGLY, as a result of those collective pursuits, the mutualistic relationship between science and government and society that emerged in the US led to many great things...from the microwaves that we use to cook our food, to the radios that are in our cars, to communication systems used around the world. \n\nPerhaps if there is something to learn from that era about how science has perpetuated through the years, is that the government has historically played a huge role in the state of science, and that science doesn't function well without substantive government support and focus. \n\nAn interesting and open review of this subject, is growing, can be found here:\nhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_funding_of_science\n
Avatar of: John Deming

John Deming

Posts: 1

September 20, 2006

Can't anyone see beyond academia? It's the most hidebound, dead-end segment of American and global culture. If scientists and technical researchers want to make a difference, go work with or start up a profit-seeking company. That's where the real action in science is. That's where it will be more and more as we move into the future. \n\nThe system of begging-for-money from ensconced, if originally well-meaning bureaucrats, is killing science. Read Gregory Benford and Michael Rose's Amazon Short "Motes in God's Eye" for a gimlet-eyed evisceration of the grant system and how it is destroying the soul of science. Academia and the political state have transformed modern science from the world's most exciting collaborative adventure into a profession of bureaucratic drudges and lap-dog supplicants. Bureaucratic science is killing the natural wonder, excitement, and risk-filled sense of adventure that once drove the advance of knowledge. \n\nWhat puzzles me is how blind most are to a rather obvious contradiction in their point of view. They are upset at being denied a secure tenure track by the deadwood of aging tenured professors. Is that what they aspire to? The tenured Big Easy? To become the very deadwood for which they show such contempt? Maybe that's the real source of their frustrations. They've been in academia so long they've forgotten how to take risks in the great adventure of innovation and discovery. \n\nIn the private profit-seeking sector, you create your own future. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's full of risk, frustration, and far more work than anything seen inside of an ivy-covered wall. But on the other hand, with courage and pluck, you make your own way into an open-ended evolutionary future where the only limits are your imagination and willingness to persist. Oh and you'd better be able to handle real competition as brilliant minds in myriad parallel ventures pursue meaningful discoveries and innovations. In doing so, they will be competing with you for resources, both intellectual and financial, but the competition is based on competence, character, and demonstrable results. Bueno suerte.

September 28, 2006

As a person who has been involved in biological sciences research for more\nthan 15 years, I found your editorial entitled 'Are we training too many\nscientists?' extremely refreshing and on the mark. The Scientist is one of\nthe few (although growing) voices that speak out against the status quo in\nthe life sciences, and especially in academia. I too read Carrie Wolinetz's\npiece last year, which prompted me to ask her to come as one of the\nfeatured speakers in a Career Day event I was organizing with other fellow\ngraduate students. Since very early in my science education, I have been\nconfronting aspects of the academic research system which I thought made\nabsolutely no sense. To the point that after I finish what I hope will be\nmy only postdoc, I plan to join the ranks of industry scientists.\n\nI think, however, that the problem is deeper than what the article and the editorial describe. I think that the problem is not that we are training too many\nscientists, but that we are not training too many scientists well. As I\nhave heard repeatedly at my institution, they receive hundreds of\napplications for faculty position openings, but most of them do not even\nmake the first cut. I truly believe that this is because many PIs are\nirresponsibly allowing people to earn PhDs without really deserving them.\nThe lab where I got my PhD had a very low success rate. Of every four\nstudents who started a PhD thesis, only one would actually earn a PhD. But\nthose of us who made it, were able to get very good postdocs in no time,\nand I am confident that we'll succeed because we have a strong scientific\nfoundation. I have seen how other labs allow people to graduate without\npublications, or with no first author publications. Others do have the\nfirst author publications, but due to the lack of enforcing appropriate\nauthorship standards in academia, their intellectual contribution to the\npapers are little or nothing. These people are then obligated to complete\ntheir training doing multiple postdocs, which requires them to have mentors\nwilling to fill in the holes. As we all know this happens very\ninfrequently, because postdocs are hired with the understanding that they\nare trained and that they need to demonstrate independence.\n\nThis is a problem that is fed from two directions. At one end, you have a\nlot of students starting graduate school with the wrong idea. Many think\nthis is an extension of their undergraduate education, and fail to realize\nthat this is more like being a student who also holds a job that demands a\nlot of hours and responsibility. In my experience most graduate students\nlack this kind of responsibility due to immaturity. Since they can barely\nachieve what is demanded of them, it is unrealistic to expect them to\noverachieve and get involved in activities that would give them the edge\nfor future job hunts. Most graduate programs that I have been in contact\nwith, suffer from an endemic apathy. Nobody wants to get involved in\ncommittees, hosting seminars, or organizing events. These kind of\nactivities taught me a lot about how research institutions operate, allowed\nme to network with all kinds of people, and gave me experience in\nactivities in which I would have to get involved if I decided to be a\nfaculty member at an academic institution. I too suffered from many of\nthese ailments when I started my PhD the first time. At that time due to\nmany reasons, both personal as well as professional, I decided to get a\nMaster's degree. After I worked as a technician for a few years, I realized\nthat I was ready to earn my PhD, and this time I approached it in a much\nmore focused and mature way.\n\nAt the other end, you have PIs in academic institutions who gave up on\ntrying their hardest after tenure, and do not invest the appropriate amount\nof time in training their graduate students. There are also arrogant and\nselfish scientists who want to have successful scientific careers but do\nnot give much thought about their role as mentors, and see graduate\nstudents, as cheap hands to the work. Even those who try hard to be good\nmentors, manage their lab poorly, thus achieving the opposite of what they\nwere intending. This is due to a serious lack of mentoring, managing, and\nteaching skills in most PIs, which is in turn a result of the way they were\ntrained. Since the days of my Master's I have realized, that we need to get\ntraining in administration, and money management, as well as teaching. This\nis a set of skills that you'll need as a PI in BOTH academia and industry.\nAs The Scientist pointed out as well in last month's issue, companies are\nfinding that the scientists they hire have difficulties with the team\nconcept, and to be able to work with scientists from other disciplines as\nwell as non scientists. These are things, that ironically, scientists also\nneed to be able to do in academia today.\n\nI would like to emphasize the points in your outline for solving this\nproblem relating to quality of training, and opportunities to educate\nscientists in business, and administration. I also would like to add, that\na better system to screen graduate students is also of great importance. I\nthink a Master's degree or work experience should become part of the\nrequirements, to ensure students will be willing to meet the demands of a\nPhD thesis. Finally, given the way the global economy is evolving, it is\nimportant to realize that future generations will be obligated to educate\nthemselves, perhaps even beyond Bachelor's degrees, because low skill high\npaying jobs will no longer be available in industrialized countries. We all\nknow that in the life sciences we have a lot more questions that we are\nbeing able to address with the current supply of scientists, which allows\none to envision this as a field that will always have jobs to be filled.\nBut until we do not make this system attractive for young people, by making\nthe process less painful and better remunerated, we will never be able to\nfill in the gap.\n\nSincerely,\n\nJ. Marcela Hernandez.\n
Avatar of: Ghanshyam Heda

Ghanshyam Heda

Posts: 1

September 29, 2006

I am glad that finally a full size article was published on the horrifying fate of Ph.D.s. (Are We Training Too Many Scientists, by Brijal P. Trivedi, Sept. 2006).    \n \nIt?s a very sad situation that many Ph.D.s in biology are constantly worried about their career and jobs, even at an age when fellow friends and relatives in other industry are looking forward to a comfortable retirement.  Both of my children on the other hand pursued their higher education in areas other than science (thanks to dad?s advice) and have stable jobs with more secure future; whereas poor scientist dad is still worried about his own job.  Many of my colleagues have either retired as post-docs after working in several labs or resigned to other non-science professions.\n \nHere is my analogy for plenty of post-docs with no or fewer permanent research jobs, beside lack of federal research funds.\n(a)   Many investigators offer cheap salaries to their postdocs, which allow them to hire two postdocs, instead of one.  Such individuals are readily available mainly from India and China. They are more than happy to work overtime even for less than half of salary.\n(b)  Established investigators are too greedy.  They neither want to retire (even in their 70s) nor support their productive postdocs for writing grants and becoming independent. On top of all this there is no respect for these hard working individuals and always treated as second grade scientists.
Avatar of: donald stein

donald stein

Posts: 1

January 11, 2007

This question of whether or whether we are not training too many scientists, has been the subject of debate for a number of years. This is not a recent phenomenon. My son, who works in the music industry in New York had this discussion some time ago and he pointed out that a similar problem exists in the field of music, dance, art and acting. Each year thousands upon thousands of aspiring young artists flock to New York and other cultural capitals hoping to "make it big"...but of course, most do not and end up in other jobs to earn a living. He felt that mentors and teachers only have the moral obligation to tell these students that the odds of employment and success in these fields are really small. As long as they understand this, then they have the right to choose whether or not they want to pursue an artistic career. As some others here have commented, as long as they know the odds, why should they be discouraged NOT to pursue their passions, be it science or art or humanities? Its hard to argue against this idea.\n\nHaving said this, I also think that many faculty who are already established (young or old) do have a vested interest in keeping people "indentured" in the laboratory as post-docs or senior technicians; however, it is not completely the fault of the faculty themselves, but rather those university senior administrations who refuse to use university resources and endowments to cover their share of the scholarly and research endeavor demanded in academia. Is the money there? That's always a valid concern but it is sometimes hard to justify such a stance when one considers CEO academic salaries; not to mention what many institutions of higher learning pay their athletic coaches and team managers. \n\nThe pressure on faculty in the sciences to obtain grants for the purposes of providing income in the form of staff salaries and indirect cost recovery, puts enormous and unending pressure on faculty at all levels to "play the grants game". Many faculty are told that they must have multiple grants to get tenure and are expected to pay almost all, if not all, of their salaries on grants. One cannot generate the 'big' grants with just one person working in the lab. On top of that, many schools want the grantees to cover full tuition for the graduate students and trainees as another source of revenue generation for the institution. The conflicts between doing good research and the pressures to generate income are almost never-ending. I believe this to be an immoral and unethical stance on the part of higher education because it permits the research universities to avoid their responsibilities and obligations to support scholarship and the search for knowledge. This is one of the reasons that so many faculty feel the need to sustain the status quo when it comes to training students--its likely the only way that they can survive to--especially if they have to generate their livelihoods through grant income. So it becomes a vicious circle in the final analysis. This unrelenting pressure has contributed mightily to the problems we are facing in today's research climate. The fault lies not so much in Federal funding or Congressional sympathies, but rather in the way universities continue to conduct their educational and academic mission. Much needs to be changed in this context if scholarship, teaching and research are to succeed in this country.

January 11, 2007

The number of scientists needed equals funding minus costs of supplies and labor followed byu division by a constant adjusted for inflation. The number of trainees was increased by a greater factor than the funding, yielding an oversupply. \n\nOne must increase funding or decrease the number of trainees. One might eliminate funding for physicians, who should be caring for patients. Physicians, who earn quite nice salaries without a bit of grant money, should help scientists perform their tasks. As it is, physicians disemploy hard working scientists.
Avatar of: anonymous

anonymous

Posts: 2

January 12, 2007

The conflict between idea of science and profit in university is more ever increasing. Competition in grant and publication is ever intense. As in every business, competition breeds frauds. Particularly in biological science, withouth rigorous equations, largely dependent on personal interpretation and presentation ( called spin), and endless variations in systems, biological science research abounds in incentives to tell untruth, opportunities to tell untruth and impunities to tell untruth. The result of this narrow mindness of revenue producing policy is the corruption of science in American science. \nIn my 12 years in this field ( immunology), research in US has become more and more insipid, creativeness become less and less evident. \nother factor is the nature of biological research itself. Unlike other branches of science, biomedical research require less advanced training, the ideas can be readily grasped by a person with superficial knowledge. Most of work is physically demanding and the result depends on numerous trials with a lot of failure. Where fortune is blind, large number of manpower is required to get lucky. Because of this nature, the entry barrier in biological science in lower than other fields; physicians and scientists alike can join the competition. Because the idea is simple in logic, a professor can spend all his life spinning without touching the experiments. I can hardly imagine a real physicist who does not calculate the equation on his/her own skill .\nAs biological research become more and more mature, large scale experimentation will require fewer and fewer independent investigators. As application of knowledge in marketplace become faster and faster, with more vigorous, real life test in the market place, biological industry actually is the brightest spot in research.\nTogether With a culture that rewards "salemanship" more handsomely than other skills, creative and groundbreaking biological science in Unite States like its manufacture will be facing long term challenge. \n
Avatar of: Anonymous

Anonymous

Posts: 1

January 22, 2007

After graduating with a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of California in 1989, I did seven years of postdoc work, which included four years as an NIH fellow, over 30 publications, and a three-year job search that ended with maybe two interviews. I eventually opted out for law school. Currently, I am employed at a state agency and I am helping a friend to start up a biotech company. After reading this article, I can say that the employment situation has not improved. In fact, one of my current supervisors said that during the 1970s he left biology for law school because of the ominous job market in the life sciences.\n\nWhat keeps this postdoc/science/university system going? Is the system faulty or do people not understand the system? The following is my point of view.\n\nMy current job allows me to compare the work environment of a state research university to a more conventional state agency. The most striking difference is that universities resemble for-profit corporations. During graduate school, I observed that my major professor operated as a small business owner. He needed outside investments (government and private funding) to conduct his business (research). Employees (graduate students and postdocs) did the everyday labor and a middle manager (staff scientist) oversaw the lab?s day-to-day operation. The products he generated included information (publications) and graduates. He was adept at networking, building alliances, making deals, managing time and money, writing, and all the other skills needed to run his business. He maximized output by lowering overhead costs (i.e., paying the graduate students and postdocs minimal wages). This was balanced by the trainees? optimism that the education and training that the professor provided would, in time, bring their own rewards. Financially, he appears successful. Through the San Francisco Chronicle?s recent reports on UC executive pay, I glanced at the linked employee compensation list. My former major professor was among the top 30 most highly compensated employees in the entire University of California. \n\nAlthough all workplaces openly promote teamwork and cooperation, the university is inherently based on competition. There is competition between students for classes, grades, internships, jobs, etc. There is competition among professors for lab space, grants, publications, reputation, promotions, tenure, etc. Departments compete for facilities. Universities compete for high-performance students and executive officers, U.S. News and World Report rankings, well-funded professors from prestigious universities, funding and more funding, alumni contributions, goodwill, etc. Competition is the universal university mentality.\n \nThere is little motivation to reduce the numbers of science Ph.D.s since people continue to want these degrees and universities exist to grant them. Career counselors and professors are not likely to be very open about career prospects since they directly or indirectly benefit from the postdoc system. Besides, they do not want postdocs to dismiss potential opportunities or become prematurely discouraged from following their aspirations. \n\nSome professors could provide better mentorship, but that might be asking for too much. First, professors are highly taxed since they are trying to excel in a system that can show little compassion for those that fall behind. They are burdened with responsibilities to many people within and without the institution. Second, there may be a subtle form of conflict-of-interest at play. In any group, trust is important. Professors may be guarded about training their own potential future competitors for grants, publications, etc. Postdocs are greatly desired as affordable and competent sources of professional knowledge and labor. However, postdocs gain intimate knowledge of their professors? lives, work, and ideas. This becomes another balancing act and potential source of concern for everyone involved.\n\nStudents, faculty, and staff are acknowledged citizens of the university community. They enjoy protections and privileges not given to postdocs who are essentially independent contractors (not unlike foreign migrant farm workers).\n\nFor improved chances for success and/or happiness, students and postdocs might consider the following suggestions:\n\nConsider professional school rather than graduate school. Law, medicine, business, etc. curricula seem to be more highly structured and directed toward the attainment of specific skill sets for specific jobs.\n \nRealize that more formal education and training (especially more of the same) may not be beneficial. Interdisciplinary training not only makes you more applicable to a broader range of jobs, but you will be exposed to a wider range of materials, and possibly find other things that you would like to do. You may become a more interesting and well-rounded person, and that can only help you.\n\nObtain certificates from community colleges for immediately useable job skills and experience. One of my friends dropped out of a Master?s program in electrical engineering and will soon receive an accounting certificate from a community college. Unlike electrical engineering, she will find decent jobs anywhere, anytime. Or, if you are considering something like medical school, but are not sure that it?s for you, get a certificate as an emergency medical technician or a medical assistant. Work at this for a while and see if it suits you. You may decide that medicine is not for you. But you will still have a paycheck while you explore further. University career counselors might not recommend this since it would be like an employee at Costco suggesting that you try Sam?s Club (or vice versa).\n\nUnderstand the flow (e.g., the corporate culture) and work with it. If you cannot live with the system, get out and find one that fits you. Or adjust your expectations to fit the system. As the Chinese say, ?In times of chaos, there is both danger and opportunity.? Chaos is a constant condition. Therefore, there are always opportunities to find and dangers to avoid. It is okay to change career directions. I know of an insurance agent who was a veterinary student. My own physician said that he wished he had pursued engineering. Another friend left physics and became a business school professor. A former tenure-track computer science professor realized that his labor lawyer wife had a higher income. He became a patent attorney. I know career counselors that were postdocs. For survival, it?s better to be a moving target than a sitting duck.\n\nImprove your understanding of people and learn to handle all types of interpersonal situations. Every job requires teamwork, and all hires and promotions involve political considerations. People favor coworkers that are likeable and trustworthy, as well as competent. I developed an interest in social and evolutionary psychology, negotiation and mediation, etiquette and manners, and other similar topics. People in the ?hard? sciences can benefit from the information that social scientists are discovering about us all.\n\nPeople really make the job. No matter how much a person enjoys her or his specific duties, difficult coworkers degrade the work atmosphere. Conversely, great coworkers can make almost any job wonderful. Become one of these great people that everyone wants.\n
Avatar of: DUNG LE

DUNG LE

Posts: 17

June 9, 2010

it's the structuring of the jobs, or in other words, the there is unbalance in each category.\n\nThat is because NIH and NSF prefer to give big grants to big PIs, then big PIs needs a lot of PhD students and postdoc to work, or who will be at the bench?\n\nNIH and NSF need to change their habit of giving few big grants to few big names to giving more standard grants to more number of not-so-big-name PIs. In this way, postdoc will have chance to go independents.\n\nThe answer is "No, you didnt train too many scientists".\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

June 9, 2010

We all know that we have very poor leaders (or appointed leaders). That is the problem and not training enough scientists. Most graduate students and postdocs are coming from abroad. Look inside every grad program and NIH.\n\nLeaders are the problem of this mess.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

June 9, 2010

The "crisis" would disappear if the tax dollars for training were allocated to US citizens pursuing a career in science. Very few Americans actually enter the sciences these days, while the bulk of those who do are non-citizens. Wouldn't it be an easy solution to just make citizenship a prerequisite for receiving Federal tax money? Make it a "train America first program." Of course, that would put post-docs in demand and thus make them more expensive. Let's face it, the reason so many people are imported and then "trained" as scientists, is that it keeps the pay low and ensures a vast pool of highly skilled but cheap labor. Despite the unfairness of the situation, the economics of cheap labor importation make total sense to cash strapped researchers and will not likely be changed, unless a grass roots effort can convince Congress to advocate for American citizens over non-citizens. \n\nAs for scientific egalitarianism, why not just have a post-doc exchange program with other countries? That way there is no net import or export of scientists competing for jobs.\n\nWe, as citizens, invest a lot of money in our children and our scientific institutions.(BTW, college is free in China). Why do we then rig the system so that when our children achieve high scores in science and math at expensive colleges, they are excluded from the job market because they cannot financially compete against the cheap imported labor? \n\nThe solution is simple since non-Americans cannot vote. All it takes is a bill. What American citizen (other than those using the cheap imported labor) would agree with this system? \n\nI was an Assistant Professor who left science in 2000 to be a lawyer. I loved science, but despite having summa cum laude credentials, a Ph.D. and numerous publications, I could not support my growing family and had little hope of reaching tenure track. I simply was too expensive compared to the imports who were willing to discount their services for a green-card. \n\nThe stimulus funding should have been allocated to Americans, many of whom who are struggling, and should not go to pay for importing more cheap labor. \n\nIronically, the stimulus grants favor small American business and buying American materials, but not funding American scientists. How messed up is that?\n\n

June 9, 2010

wow - protectionism, always a good idea. It is of course possible to raise salaries for all postdocs, citizens or otherwise, to encourage more homegrown talent to stay in science, without introducing xenophobia. NIH training grants such as F32 and K awards are only available to citizens anyway.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

June 9, 2010

It is not protectionism to use US tax dollars to help US citizens. Its investing in your own country. It is, however, protectionism to prevent non-citizens from coming into the market, which I did not advocate. If a student from a foreign land wants to pay his way, like my son does for college, more power to him. However, I see no reason why taxpayers should actively promote and subsidize the importation of cheap labor if it means displacing American citizens whom we have invested in since birth. How does this help the economy?\n\nMoreover, if protectionism is so bad why don't we open up grant competition to non-US institutions. Sounds a little hypocritical to advocate US institutions over non-US ones for receiving grant money, but maybe this sort of protectionism is okay-- just as long as we don't protect US citizen, only US institutions.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 13

June 9, 2010

Every time I read about expected career path for scientists, I wonder whether we are really trained to think....to think outside the box! \n\nAs someone mentioned, big PIs are more likely to get the funding to then create mega labs with 30+ postdocs and just as many grad students. I would love to hear how these PIs actually mentor all of these people. Do they even know who is in their lab?\n\nPhD granting institutions should evaluate their programs and be able to say that they are training PhDs ready to enter the work force, in any aspect of science. While I understand the need to teach basic courses related to your field of study, why not offer other courses too? Why not develop collaborations with local colleges to have postdocs teach? \n\nWe are blindsided by the constant push to get academic position that we miss out on other opportunities until it is too late. When I told my mentor I was not going to look for a tenured-track or any other academic research position, he asked me if I didn't think I was good enough! He was not encouraging me at all! \n\nOf course faculty is not going to go for any changes in postdoc training! We are so cheap and they get all the glory! When my PI was running out of money and I was trying to find another lab in the same institution (not much choice anyway), I was told that I was too expensive because I was making the "NIH-suggested salary" which by the way, didn't change for the last 3 years I was in that lab....Expensive? Really? What did they expect? That I will work for free? \n\nAnd to those that said how foreign PhDs should not be given the salary to work here because it is federal money...well, they do pay taxes too and get paid less just because they don't know how much they are supposed to get paid. And when they try to ask for more money, to be in the same level as everyone else, they are threatened with visas and whatever....And then, those same PIs get promoted and become Directors of various Cancer Centers and other types of institutions....What kind of message is that sending? That in order to succeed you have to treat your postdocs and grad students as slaves! \n\nMedical education gets revamped every few years due to new discoveries and new approaches to medical care...perhaps it is time to revamp the PhD training to reflect the fact that not everyone will get or that everyone wants a faculty position!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 11

June 9, 2010

It appears that there is certainly more supply than the system can take. It does not matter whether it is home-grown or imported. I believe it takes a couple decades for the system to move to a more balanced state. The current system with each PI training many potential PIs is not going to work. The system looks very inefficient with each PI trying to have his/her own lab and equipments. Is there a way to have centralized labs in the universities with many PIs sharing their resources and getting funds together? Is it possible for the universities to pay for post-doc salaries similar to supporting administrative and other support staff? As I know most of us, who are into biological sciences, are not encouraging our kids to follow our paths. I have an interesting question ? How much it would cost for NIH and other funding agencies if they were to hike all post-docs salaries to a level of 60K. It appears that NIH and PIs do not have money for student and post-doc salaries, but everything else. A good amount of money in research labs is spent on reagents and equipments that never used.
Avatar of: Vid Beldavs

Vid Beldavs

Posts: 1

June 9, 2010

China is producing perhaps six times as many PhDs as the US and is investing heavily in the life sciences. Recently, China purchase 126 of the fastest genome sequencing machines from Illumina (see -http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/editors/24809/ )and will exceed the US capacity for this form of research. India is also producing large numbers of PhDs as are other countries with advanced research capabilities. \n\nSupply drives down the price since researchers worldwide now use similar tools and have often comparable infrastructure and capabilities. The PhD in China is typically paid a fraction of the US unless s/he falls into the star category when compensation is comparable. \n\nHowever, beyond lower prices for researchers is the danger of reduced demand as researchers become more productive with increasingly advanced tools and fewer researchers are needed to do the same work. What will all of these scientists do unless there is a dramatic enlargement of the market? It seems clear that we will not need as many scientists as are in the pipeline unless there is a systemic change creating a large increase in demand for research.\n\nThis raises another compelling reason for human expansion into space in addition to other pressures forcing humanity to look to the high frontier such as global warming and other dangers to species survival such as asteroid impact. The development of large-scale ecosystems and habitats for humans in space and on Mars and other planetary bodies will require an expansion of knowledge in all fields of endeavor with opportunities for tens of thousands of researchers. We have barely understood one planet and its abundance of lifeforms. The human environment must expand to use the vast numbers of scientists and engineers that will be graduating from universities around the globe to understand the solar system as the environment for humankind, not just the Earth. If the human environment is not expanded to the solar system and beyond much less research will be needed in the coming decades. Compounding the problem will be that robots will be able to do many of ordinary jobs that were available in an earlier era. \n\nSince we must go into space to survive as a thinking species, let's get on with it and get an agressive space policy with a major role for humanity in space!\n\nRecent studies suggest that Space Solar Power (SSP) may be able to provide the electrical power needed to lift humanity out of poverty. SSP can also provide the energy needed to exploit the resources of the moon and asteroids and to reach for Mars and planets beyond Mars. The rapid development of SSP appears possible with US leadership of a global effort. US leadership would lead to high paying jobs for those involved in the effort to create the SSP energy systems and the human habitats in space that can support space industries, space tourism, and research facilities based in space, on the Moon and other planetary bodies. There is room in space related endeavors for every post doc now looking for a job, if we had a more aggressive space policy. During the peak of the Iraq war we spent NASA budget equivalents per month on something that cost over 100,000 Iraqi lives and 4,403 Americans. Imagine if the trillion plus dollars spent in Iraq had been spent to expand human capabilities in space. Clearly, we are able to spend trillions of dollars, with the economic recovery it seems almost to becoming routine. However, a trillion dollars spent on creating the infrastructure for subsequent human development in space would totally change the game. With a solid infrastructure spaceflight would become affordable making space industrialization, space tourism and space colonization feasible. Think what an Iraq war equivalent, a trillion plus dollars spent on building a space infrastructure would do? Instead of a shuttle with its engineering compromised by short term politics elegant, low cost solutions would emerge that would truly open up the space frontier.
Avatar of: David Hill

David Hill

Posts: 41

June 10, 2010

The points raised in this article are presented well. Since this glut of PhDs was already overwhelming back in the 70's, I was amazed to see that so many more people have gone on to graduate education in the sciences since then. Certainly it is good to learn science, but most of these students also need to earn a living, so the waste of their investment in education has generally been devastating on a personal level. Unless you have a contact who can get you into industry (as I did), you will always be viewed (rightly or wrongly) as 'someone who chose graduate school over real work' by most employers. Thus the penalty for having a 'higher' education in your resume can be enormous.\n\nWhat really needs to be looked at more closely is the morality of academics who keep churning out graduate degrees in order to sustain themselves and their own teaching/research enterprises. This reminds me of the 'home made soap' industry. All of the money here lies in selling expensive machinery to people who want to start their own 'home made soap' business. Pity the fool who actually thinks that there is money to be made in producing home made soap!\n\nAt the same time, we can use as many AMATEUR scientists as are able.
Avatar of: PAUL STEIN

PAUL STEIN

Posts: 61

June 11, 2010

At the Experimental Biology 2010 conference, the Career Center provided a lecturer who discussed alternative careers. He began by stating that perhaps 5% of scientists will eventually achieve academic careers. Then, he stated that because of the 200,000 industrial layoffs in the past two years, all of the newly minted doctorates with no industrial experience are going to be at the back of the line for any position for quite some time. The rest of the presentation was a list of "alternatives" that included: become a lawyer, become a nurse, get an M.B.A., start a business, teach at a community college, high school, or middle school, get a trade (he liked plumbing), and move back with mom and dad.\n\nThe answer is yes.

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