Cell Biology Leads Way As Biological Sciences Progress, But Experts Are Wondering Where All The Jobs Have Gone

As more researchers flock to the popular field, observers fear a widening gap between supply and demand When scientists convene in New Orleans next week for the 33rd annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), nine symposia, 20 minisymposia, and countless informal gatherings are sure to focus on the recent achievements and continuing progress in this exciting and rapidly expanding scientific field. There is likely to be little excitement in the air, however, concerning the

Susan L-J Dickinson
Dec 12, 1993

As more researchers flock to the popular field, observers fear a widening gap between supply and demand
When scientists convene in New Orleans next week for the 33rd annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), nine symposia, 20 minisymposia, and countless informal gatherings are sure to focus on the recent achievements and continuing progress in this exciting and rapidly expanding scientific field.

There is likely to be little excitement in the air, however, concerning the current job market for the researchers committed to working in cell biology.

Steve Hanes, whose recent job search consumed two years before he landed a position as a research scientist at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center in Albany, puts it simply: "There is a tremendous supply of first-rate people looking for a few positions."

For Hanes, an accomplished cell biologist, the job hunt was "an exhausting process."

The challenge of presenting a comprehensive assessment of career prospects for cell biologists is great, since there is some question, even among experts, as to which scientists currently constitute the field.

A list of American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) members who have registered with the placement service for this year's meeting reveals no fewer than 18 different types of Ph.D.'s, including those in anatomy, biochemistry, immunology, endocrinology, biophysics, and zoology. Darien Wilson, a public relations representative for Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. of Nutley, N.J., can't reveal how many cell biologists her company has hired over the past year, not because of concern for industrial competition, but because it is practically impossible. "Cell biologists are used in pretty much every department," she says.

"Cell biology is such a fundamental discipline," concurs Donald Luecke, deputy director of research grants at the National Institutes of Health. "Virtually all of the institutes make awards that could be classified as cell biology; it would be too difficult to dissect out," to determine what portion of NIH monies are awarded for cell biology or how application and success rates compare with other areas of life sciences.

At issue, observers agree, is the evolution of science itself: As more knowledge is gained, distinctions between disciplines are becoming obsolete. "All of the subfields of biomedical science are coming together," says Bert Shapiro, a deputy director at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

"For instance, molecular biology is now a common tool in cell biology, genetics, and immunology," says Steve Hanes, a research scientist at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center in Albany. "So you can no longer make such strong distinctions."

Even university departments are beginning to reflect this. Wadsworth Center researcher Robert Glaser, for example, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University's department of biochemistry and molecular and cell biology. And Susan Gerbi, president of ASCB, is currently the chairwoman nominee for the new department at Brown University that will merge molecular biology, cell biology, and developmental biology into one.

What pragmatic effect does this have on the job market for someone with a degree in cell biology? Certainly, it broadens the categories of positions for which such researchers can feel qualified to apply. But, as the increasing ASCB membership indicates, this trend also works to broaden the pool of applicants for each available position.

--S.L-J D.

Dottie Doyle, placement coordinator for ASCB, concurs with Hanes's observation concerning supply and demand, although she does expect more candidates and more employers to register with the meeting's placement service this year than did at last year's meeting in Denver. She warns that registration figures do not accurately reflect the true demand for cell biologists. She's skeptical as well about other numbers that might misleadingly indicate that the cell biology job market is healthier than it actually is.

"Based on previous years' statistics," says Doyle, "the job market has appeared stable. But anecdotally, I know that people are feeling the pinch."

Indeed, when asked to describe their recent experiences trying to find a job or get funding, cell biologists plumb the depths of their vocabularies. "Demeaning," "depressing," "discouraging," "exhausting," "bruising," and "demoralizing" are some of the adjectives that recur. Their characterizations apply to both the oversupply of and the underde-mand for experts in their field.

The evolution of cell biology itself and its merging with other subdisciplines within the biological sciences has beclouded the issue of just who is and who isn't a cell biologist these days (see accompanying story); it is abundantly clear, however, that the factors contributing to the tight job market over the past few years have not abated in 1993, nor are they expected to in 1994, say observers of the field. Academic budgets continue to be squeezed, industrial research divisions suffer at the hands of a poor economy and fears of President Clinton's health plan, and Ph.D.'s in the biological sciences continue to be awarded in increasing numbers each year.

According to the National Research Council, the number of United States scientists earning their doctorates in cell biology has increased over the past 10 years, from 118 in 1983 to 188 in 1992. During this same period, the number of Ph.D.'s awarded in all biological sciences--the larger candidate pool from which cell biology positions are being filled--has also risen sharply, from 3,741 to 4,794. Furthermore, the number of U.S. scientists who consider themselves to be cell biologists--as measured by membership in ASCB--has grown more than 60 percent over the past decade, from 3,973 in 1983 to 6,322 at this year's meeting.

ASCB president Susan Gerbi points out that "even if you kept turning out the same number of graduates year after year," as her department at Brown University is doing, "unless the demand increases, you are going to start overloading the market." And indeed, it is the sharp decrease in the number of new academic and industrial positions that is hurting cell biologists' employment prospects the most, experts say.

Academic scientists point out that state university budgets have been drastically cut during the past few years, and even large, private research universities are searching for ways to cut costs. "Universities are being very tightly squeezed now," says Peter von Hippel, a professor of chemistry who administers a National Institutes of Health training grant at the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. "Every university is trying to hire as few faculty as it can to save money; many posted positions are being eliminated even before they are filled." Additionally, von Hippel notes, the practice of hiring part- time faculty to circumvent the creation of expensive, tenure-track positions is increasing in popularity.

Compounding this budget crunch, both Gerbi and von Hippel say, is the fact that older faculty--who are due to be released, by federal law, in January from mandatory retirement at age 70--are staying in their senior faculty positions longer than anticipated. This not only decreases the need for new faculty, but also ties up a significant portion of university staff budgets in fewer, more expensive positions.

In industry, a poor economy and the specter of Clinton's health plan and its predicted impact on the pharmaceutical industry are the major forces resulting in a dismal employment outlook, industry observers say. The list of large companies that have announced downsizing efforts reads like a who's who in the pharmaceutical industry, and includes Merck & Co. Inc. (Rahway, N.J.), Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (Princeton, N.J.), SmithKline Beecham (Philadelphia), Syntex Corp. (Palo Alto, Calif.), the Upjohn Co. (Kalamazoo, Mich.), and Warner-Lambert Co. (Morris Plains, N.J.). And though all of these companies claim to be preserving R&D to the greatest extent possible, hiring freezes prevent anyone from predicting an expanded industrial job market for scientists in 1994.

Fiscal belts are being tightened at the smaller R&D firms, as well. In addition to general economic concerns, two highly publicized clinical trial setbacks, for Centocor Inc.'s Centoxin and Synergen Inc.'s Antril, were dealt earlier this year. The result, industry watchers say, has been a dampening of venture capital's interest in biotechnology, and a grim retrenchment among the industry's management.

The most immediate result of this dearth of positions for an expanding pool of applicants, scientists say, is an increase in the amount of time new Ph.D.'s spend at the postdoctoral level. Bert Shapiro, deputy director of the cellular and molecular basis of disease program at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, recalls that when he graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. in biology 25 years ago, he received two offers for faculty positions immediately, without ever doing a postdoctoral fellowship. By contrast, Mary Jane Osborn, chairman of the department of microbiology at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, says that in1985, strong job candidates had an average of three years' postdoc experience. In 1993 this number, many postdocs and employers say, has increased to five years.

"It's a very long haul," says Shapiro, who estimates that a scientist can be 30 or 35 years old by the time he or she gets a Ph.D. and completes the one or two postdocs requisite to be considered for a tenure-track position.

"These people should be doing their own science by then," says von Hippel, who is one of the many scientists worried by this trend. He points out that expanding postdoctoral years is bad for the scientist psychologically, and puts a strain on the budgets of research grants required to support these trainee positions. "These scientists are ready to teach and be productive on their own," he says. "It would be better for them and better for the science."

An Arduous Search "Your ego takes a bruising," acknowledges Robert Glaser, a colleague of Hanes's at the Wadsworth Center whose job search also required two years. He had earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular and cell biology from Cornell University in 1989 and was two years into his three-year postdoc at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., when he started his search for job in the fall of 1991. During the first year, he sent some 60 applications, all for academic positions, and garnered a few interviews for teaching posts. But, because he really wanted a full-time research position, Glaser says he decided to hold out for another year.

In 1992, aware that he no longer had a funded fallback position for the following year, he broadened his job search significantly, to include both industry and what he calls "peripheral science positions"--a grant review position at NIH, for example. Glaser says he sent out nearly 100 applications, and was dismayed to learn that during the intervening year the market had gotten even tighter. "I talked with people hiring both years, and was told that the number of competing applicants went up substantially," he recalls

So Glaser mounted an all-out offensive. "Most job descriptions are very, very general," he notes. "You need to talk to people, and find out not just about the science, but also the political nuances of each position--what does the chair of the search committee want vs. what other faculty members want, for instance.

"I was much more aggressive up front" during the second search, he says. "I made lots of phone calls, did constant networking, and whenever possible got the department chair on the phone to say: `This is who I am; what do you really want?'"

Armed with this knowledge, Glaser not only customized the cover letter for each application, but also reworked his c.v. to best fit his perception of what each search committee was looking for. It took a tremendous amount of time and organization, he says, but it worked. Glaser got four interviews and four job offers, one of which is the project assistantship at the Wadsworth Center that he started this fall.

"I knew it was going to be difficult," Glaser says. "But I was surprised that with my background, from first-rate and respected institutions, I didn't at least get more interviews."

He also acknowledges that he probably wouldn't have applied to the Wadsworth Center during the first year of his search. "It's part of the New York State health department, so I would have assumed that it wasn't true academia," a prejudice he now feels is totally unfounded.

If there is any silver lining to be found in the cloud that is the current job squeeze, cell biologists find it in the science itself, and the assumption that, in time, the situation will improve.

"Right now is the best time to be alive for a biological scientist," says Shapiro. "The intellectual ferment is extremely exciting, and the promise [for advances] is the greatest it's ever been. Medical and biological science is hopping, and cell biology is in the middle of it."

"In a few years," adds von Hippel, "maybe the people who didn't retire at 65 will retire at 70. And maybe there will be less fiscal pressure."

Susan L-J Dickinson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.