|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...
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.
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.
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."
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."