The PhD pause - longer than ever?

Last night (Nov 1), Princeton president linkurl:Shirley Tilghman;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15410/ elicited an audible response from an audience at the Chemical Heritage Foundation when she announced that the average age at which investigators receive their first NIH grant has climbed to 42.9 years. We all duly murmured astonishingly, as she called this the "LaGuardia effect" -- as in, scientists are spending more time circling in the air before they can land. (This got

By | November 2, 2007

Last night (Nov 1), Princeton president linkurl:Shirley Tilghman;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15410/ elicited an audible response from an audience at the Chemical Heritage Foundation when she announced that the average age at which investigators receive their first NIH grant has climbed to 42.9 years. We all duly murmured astonishingly, as she called this the "LaGuardia effect" -- as in, scientists are spending more time circling in the air before they can land. (This got quite a laugh, a sign many of us had spent time in limbo over that oh-so-lovely airspace.) There's a lot in that statistic, when you think about it. (I don't know the source of it, but it's not surprising, given today's funding climate.) While scientists are awaiting their first grant, they are stuck in the position that resembles dark energy more every year: A postdoc, and the linkurl:long hours and little pay;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/52867/ (National Research Service Award linkurl:stipend levels;http://www.the-scientist.com/2006/9/1/42/1/ range from $37,000 to $51,000) that come with it. So they're not putting down roots, starting a nest egg, etc. -- all of those clichés that apply to your 30s. When a member of the audience, there to attend Tilghman's Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture, asked how Princeton treats its young scientists, linkurl:Tilghman;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53674/ said that the institution guarantees five years of funding for every graduate-level researcher, with a "relatively light" teaching load. And if at the end of five years, the student is not bringing in grants, he or she is sent packing. It's a motivating system, she said -- the average time to a PhD is less than six years in all fields. Of course, today having a PhD is very different from having an R01, but boosting that process may do something.

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