Job Market Sluggish For Neuroscientists

Despite advances in brain research, career horizons remain foggy for the researchersAs the Society for Neuroscience convenes its 22nd annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., this month, researchers will share a wealth of new knowledge about the central nervous system--about, for example, the uses of monoclonal antibody technology in studying the brain and the cognitive consequences of aging. But, as in other scientific disciplines, neuroscience research gains have not translated easily into achi

Oct 12, 1992
Marcia Clemmitt
Despite advances in brain research, career horizons remain foggy for the researchers
As the Society for Neuroscience convenes its 22nd annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., this month, researchers will share a wealth of new knowledge about the central nervous system--about, for example, the uses of monoclonal antibody technology in studying the brain and the cognitive consequences of aging.

But, as in other scientific disciplines, neuroscience research gains have not translated easily into achievements in the job market, especially in academia, observers of the field say.

The recent reorganization of the National Institutes of Health to include the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) under its auspices--instead of as three divisions of the separate and now- disbanded Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration-- will not threaten funding for basic neuroscience research, according to NIMH director Frederick Goodwin. In fact, Goodwin says, he hopes the change may foster more of the kind of cross- disciplinary research brain science increasingly demands.

"The legislation [authorizing the changes] specifically prohibits any merging of programs," Goodwin says. "That no-merging provision should allay concerns people have about our creating some kind of `super brain institute' that would decrease support for individual research programs.

"We still feel it's most appropriate for each institute to keep its primary health focus and support research relevant to that."

Besides disallowing the merger of separate research programs, the legislation authorizes NIMH to keep its peer-review process separate from NIH's centrally run system. Having a separate system, Goodwin says, helps NIMH "do a better job of fostering the growth of new fields of study, since review groups are in closer contact with the field and know more about its possibilities."

But while Goodwin is happy that the reorganization will keep some things separate, he says he also hopes for gains from what it brings together. "One thing it [NIMH's being part of NIH] can facilitate is funding more integrated projects," he says. In particular, he hopes other institutes will support the Human Brain Project. Spearheaded by NIMH, that effort aims to "establish a neuronal database of everything that's known about given aspects of the brain," he says.

Goodwin especially hopes for greater participation in the Human Brain Project from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which currently commits employee time but no funding to the project. NINDS is NIH's largest supporter of basic neuroscience research, with an annual neuroscience budget about double NIMH's $250 million.

With the inclusion of NIMH, NIDA, and NIAAA within NIH, at least nine of the institutes now support some basic neuroscience research. And there's a general trend across all the institutes that's definitely good news for neuroscientists, according to Eugene Streicher, director of the division of fundamental neuroscience at NINDS.

"When we look at the unsolved medical problems--neurological or psychiatric, in children or in the aging--the feeling is that hope for future progress lies in learning more and more about how the nervous system works," Streicher says. "The fact is that while each institute has its own questions, they are all coming back down to embrace basic neuroscience programs and trying to get money to expand them broadly." --M.C.

During the past decade, however, established pharmaceutical companies as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical startups have shown an increasing interest in developing therapies for disorders of the central nervous system. Such companies are likely to provide a slow but steadily growing job market for neuroscientists over the next several years, industry scientists say.

Nonetheless, when young neuroscientists contemplate their future career paths, many of them say, the current job situation is making them somewhat nervous. Says one doctoral student at a large Midwestern university, "When you see the postdocs, the people just ahead of you, spending three years applying for advertised positions, you wonder how long you'll have to wait to do what you really want to do."

According to university officials and observers of the academic job market, tough economic times are making tenured faculty jobs scarce in most academic disciplines, including those in which exciting research gains are being made, such as neuroscience. And, despite some long-term projections that there may be a dearth of qualified scientists to fill faculty positions that will open up in the late 1990s, many neuroscientists expect the current trend of slow and cautious hiring to continue in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, some in the field are fretting about a new development. While efforts to increase the number of women in the neuroscience field have apparently been successful, relatively few of those women seem to be making it into tenured faculty positions (see story on page 11).

Despite the federal government's designation of the 1990s as the "Decade of the Brain," that symbolic gesture hasn't produced adequate financial support from either the government or the universities to increase the number of neuroscientists employed in academia, university scientists say. "We're pretty strong in neuroscience out here, and the university system has tried to capitalize on that," says psychobiology professor Herbert Killackey of the University of California, Irvine. "But they haven't put much in the way of resources into it. I can't say we've felt any effects at all from the Decade of the Brain."

In fact, say Killackey and others, shrinking university budgets and hard times have brought about an era of "very cautious" hiring in neuroscience. Job-seekers, says Killackey, must show an ever-lengthening list of credentials before universities will consider taking them on.

"People are much less adventurous in hiring today, unwilling to take a chance with someone untried," Killackey says. "So the people we hire are getting older. The last two positions we filled, the people were in their 30s. That definitely means the background includes a postdoc, or--the new big trend--being a research assistant professor somewhere before getting a tenure- track position. Along with that, it's almost becoming a prerequisite for a person to have an R01-type grant [the traditional individual investigator award offered by the National Institutes of Health] before they're hired."

A new survey of neuroscience training programs at 174 academic and research institutions in the United States and Canada, conducted by the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (an 11-year-old organization of academic neuroscientists interested in neuroscience education), seems to support Killackey's perception that academic job production and the university hiring process will continue to be slow.

According to the ANDP survey, neuroscience programs are likely to continue hiring faculty at about the same rate over the next five-year period as they have during the last five years. That's about one new hire per training program (many institutions have more than one neuroscience training program) every one or two years.

Degenerative nerve diseases including Alzheimer's disease, HIV- related injuries to the nervous system, drug abuse, and the neurobiology of aging will be among the topics discussed at the 22nd annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience at Cali- fornia's Anaheim Convention Center October 25-30. More than 14,000 scientists are expected to present 9,300 papers at 675 technical sessions.

Meeting Highlights:

* Workshop on how to talk about science to children and teenagers in the schools. (Sunday, October 25, Anaheim Convention Center)

* Social Issues Roundtable: "Neural Circuitry and Free Will: Concepts of Responsibility." Speakers will explore ways in which increasing knowledge of brain function may shape contemporary legal and philosophical views of human behavior. (Tuesday, October 27; location to be announced)

Furthermore, during the last five years, most of the new hires filled newly created faculty positions, according to the survey. But during the next five years, universities project that the bulk of new hires will fill jobs vacated by retirement. That means that though the rate of job vacancies will remain the same, the rate of new job creation is expected to decrease, the survey says. The survey also reflects the caution and sluggishness in hiring cited by Killackey and other university scientists, with many survey respondents reporting a several-year lag between the time of a job's creation and the time a new faculty member is hired to fill it.

Other numbers in the survey, however, seem to provide a more positive outlook on the neuroscience job market, says ANDP survey coordinator Linda Spear, a psychology professor in the center for developmental psychobiology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. "The average length of postdoctoral study in neuroscience has gone down, from three years [reported in the last ANDP survey, completed in 1986] to 2.3 years in the current study." Spear says.

Since a period with fewer jobs available tends to lead scientists to spend more time in postdocs, that shrinking postdoctoral period may mean the job picture is looking rosier, Spear says. However, she cautions that only time and more data will tell if that's actually the case.

While the largest number of neuroscientists take jobs in the academic sector or in biomedical research institutions, a small but still substantial faction pursues neuroscience research in industry. In the ANDP survey, around 40 percent of a group of 319 scientists leaving postdoctoral fellowships in 1989-90 took faculty positions, while about 7 percent took jobs in industry.

Once, say psychology professor Linda Spear of the State University of New York at Binghamton and others, it seemed that the obvious way to increase the number of women in the top ranks of neuroscience was to increase their numbers in the student population. Eventually, conventional wisdom said, these young women would rise to the top.

But two recent studies of the neuroscience training and career ladder show that this may not be the whole solution to the problem. Although numbers of women doctoral students and postdocs in neuroscience have increased sig nificantly, relatively few of these women seem to be moving on to hold tenured faculty positions. To some observers of the field, that fact suggests that new kinds of retention and support efforts for women are needed.

Physiology professor Dean Smith of the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison tracked the number of women at several pivotal points of the neuroscience career track. His study found that, in the late 1980s, women received 36 percent of the Ph.D.'s awarded in neuroscience and 38 percent of the postdoctoral fellowships awarded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

But when Smith followed the progress of 40 neuroscience assistant professor job openings at four major universities during the same period, he found quite a different picture. Only 18 percent of the applicants for the jobs were women. Moreover, women made up only 12 percent of those hired, a number Smith calls "alarming."

So, between the postdoc and the tenured faculty job, where do all the women go?

Anecdotal evidence from neuroscientists interviewed for this article suggests that more women than men may take second, third, and fourth postdocs; work in nonpermanent faculty positions; or work as laboratory research assistants and in other jobs only slightly related to their main interests. According to one scientist, many women seem to be in "perpetual postdocs," often while raising children or in order to live in the same city where a husband works.

Statistics from a survey of neuroscience programs at 174 institutions, conducted by the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (ANDP), support some of the anecdotal evidence.

In line with Smith's survey, that study found that nearly 49 percent of male neuroscientists obtained faculty positions after an initial postdoc, while only about 35 percent of female neuroscientists did. Instead, a much larger percentage of women than men went on to another postdoc--30 percent compared with 19 percent.

Furthermore, according to the ANDP study, while the proportion of women in tenure-track faculty positions increased by less than 5 percent between 1986 and 1991, numbers of women in nonpermanent faculty jobs grew by a much larger amount. In 1986, women made up only 26 percent of tenure-track faculty, but in 1990, they made up 35.2 percent.

Linda Saland, a professor of anatomy at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque, sees the barriers to tenure-track positions for women as a complicated mix of family and relationship pressures; lack of funds and effort directed toward returning women to mainstream careers after child-rearing; and some long-held, difficult-to-eradicate gender bias.

"A supportive spouse" is high on Saland's own list of what helped her keep a university career on track, since she believes many women pursue alternative career paths for family reasons.

But Saland and others agree that simple personal support is not enough, and that institutional changes are necessary, though probably hard to make. "Processes like getting tenure should be completely gender-blind," Saland says, "but the prejudice that works against that is probably largely unconscious. So how do you get beyond it?"


Although there are few studies to document the perception, many university neuroscientists report a slow but steady increase in the number of their graduates taking jobs in industry. Meanwhile, industry scientists say, the number of available industry jobs in neuroscience will certainly remain steady and perhaps even grow slightly over the next few years.

Few industry neuroscience jobs existed a decade ago, but today most large pharmaceutical firms and around 20 pharmaceutical and biotechnology start-up companies have research and development programs aimed at developing therapies for central nervous system disorders. According to scientists and executives in those companies, industry research labs offer career possibilities to a wide range of neuroscience researchers.

Unlike other segments of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries' research programs, company officials say, developing drugs for neurological conditions demands more basic neuroscience research and less work on the part of more generally trained chemists and molecular biologists.

John Tallman, scientific director at Neurogen Corp. in Branford, Conn., says that small companies working on central nervous system therapies are likely to be "one of the bright areas" for neuroscientists seeking research positions over the next few years. Furthermore, since each company has a slightly different research focus, as a group they provide "a fairly broad market for neuroscience researchers," says Tallman, who was a neuroscience researcher at NIH and then a professor at Yale University before joining Neurogen.

"The Society [for Neuroscience] is growing fast, and I don't think there are academic jobs for these people," Tallman says. "Academic positions have slowed to a trickle, and I don't hear of any gigantic new programs waiting to be born in the universities. Meanwhile, around '87 and '88, there were 10 to 12 small companies specializing in neuroscience. Now there are 15 to 20, with most of them conducting basic neuroscience research." Furthermore, Tallman says, all of those companies are currently growing and hiring. By his estimate, that means the groups of small, neuroscience-oriented drug companies are likely to hire about 500 neuroscientists over the next eight years.

Because each small company is pursuing a different avenue of research, and because there are many different scientific approaches to the nervous system, Tallman says, industry jobs may be suitable for a wide variety of neuroscience specialties. Most neuroscience companies "aren't biotech companies per se. Their products won't be hormones, directly," he says. "That means molecular biologists don't corner the job market as they may here. Instead, there are more jobs for neuropharmacologists, specialists in wound healing in some companies, neuroanatomists, tissue culturists, [and researchers in] behavior analysis, electrophysiology.

"It reflects the fact that neuroscience is a more integrative discipline than most. We know that no one approach will open all doors."

John Groom, president of Athena Neurosciences Inc. of San Carlos, Calif., says that behavioral pharmacologists and scientists "with some experience in industry yet with cut-ting-edge scientific knowledge" are the biggest prizes for companies pursuing nervous system therapies today. There are still relatively few neuroscientists in those categories, Groom says, and they are sought by small companies and large pharmaceutical firms alike. "People you recruit from degree programs and train quickly become a target for other companies," he says, while behavioral pharmacologists are so rare that small and large companies actively compete for them.

Groom and other industry executives and scientists agree that compensation for researchers may depend mostly on what other companies and university programs are in the same area, and what kinds of specialists they produce or want to hire. "Though we're small, we have to be reasonably competitive in salary with Amgen [Inc., Thousand Oaks, Calif.] and Genentech [Inc., South San Francisco, Calif.--two large nearby biotechnology companies also developing neurological treatments]," Groom says. "And our prices are also driven by [local housing] prices, and by what kinds of scientists are available here. For instance, there are plenty of basic science people on the West Coast, not so many pharmacologists or medicinal chemists."

Groom and others also say that competition for researchers is often based on considerations other than salary: "It's harder for us to offer, say, a day care center. But we can still offer share participation, ownership opportunities large companies can't match."

Large pharmaceutical companies are "definitely still looking" for neuroscientists, says Duncan Taylor, a research fellow in the central nervous system drug division at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. in Wallingford, Conn. And, like the small companies, Taylor says, "we look for many traditional pharmacological specialties, not just the chemists and molecular biologists everyone expects."

Like Athena Neurosciences' Groom, Taylor says it's the behavioral scientists who are especially tough to find. "We end up raiding the other pharmaceutical companies for them," Taylor says. "That's because it's all very well to make the drug, but what you really need to know is, so what does it do to behavior? When you go before the regulatory bodies, it's a behavioral model you have to present."

In addition to behavioral specialists, Taylor says, there is always a market for scientists who've mastered an enabling technology: "Even at times when you're sufficiently glutted with applications from fresh Ph.D.'s, people who own a technique--like magnetic resonance imaging or high-pressure liquid chromatography with mass spec trometry--are always in short supply."

And for young scientists who would never even consider taking a job in industry, Taylor insists that they should "still strongly consider the possible applicability of their research topic or chosen technique, whether it could have clinical applicability. That's an important consideration no matter where you hope to get funding [see story on page 10].

"If the government thought there was no possible applicability to a piece of research, it's very unlikely they would fund it, either."

Marcia Clemmitt is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.