Every year the market grows tighter, and federal money for research grants, which support most of this research, remains flat.
The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle.
We have been told time and again that the U.S. needs more scientists, but when it comes to some of the most desirable science jobs — tenure-track professorships at universities, where much of the exciting work is done — there is such a surplus of Ph.D.s that in the most popular fields, like biomedicine, fewer than one in six has a chance of joining the club in the foreseeable future.
While they try to get a foot in the door, many spend years after getting their Ph.D. as poorly paid foot soldiers in a system that can afford to exploit them. Even someone as brilliant as Emmanuelle Charpentier, who in 2015 became head of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology after a momentous discovery in gene editing, spent the previous 25 years moving through nine institutions in five countries.
The lure of a tenured job in academia is great — it means a secure, prestigious position directing a lab that does cutting-edge experiments, often carried out by underlings. Yet although many yearn for such jobs, fewer than half of those who earn science or engineering doctorates end up in the sort of academic positions that directly use what they were trained for.
Others, ending up in industry, business or other professions, do interesting work and earn lucrative salaries and can contribute enormously to society. But by the time many give up on academia — four to six years or more for a Ph.D., a decade or more as a postdoc — they are edging toward middle age, having spent their youth in temporary low-paying positions getting highly specialized training they do not need.
Now, as a new crop of graduate students receives Ph.D.s in science, researchers worry over the future of some of these dedicated people; they are trained to be academics and are often led to believe that anything else is an admission of failure.
Every year the market grows tighter, and federal money for research grants, which support most of this research, remains flat. The journey of Charpentier, says Alexander Ommaya, acting chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, is not so unusual. “It happens,” he says. Job opportunities, he says, “are limited.”
But wait: Don’t we need more trained scientists — the people whose research can lead to new knowledge, new products, new cures for disease? Aren’t some companies importing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers?
It depends on which field: biology (many more Ph.D.s than academic posts); chemistry (same); computer science (few academic posts, but so much demand in industry that companies import talent).
And it depends on which degree — bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D. The toughest road is the one stretching out in front of people with newly minted doctorates.
The engineering school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, often gets 400 applicants for every open assistant professor job, says Richard Larson, an operations research professor there. Many, he adds, are “superstellar.”
Biomedical sciences have been among the hardest hit. The field had an 83 percent increase in Ph.D.s between 1993 and 2013, to about 192,000 from 105,000. But although most got jobs somewhere, only about half got jobs in academia and only a quarter got tenure-track positions, which, for many, is what all that training was preparing them for.
“It used to be that the majority who got a Ph.D. in the biological sciences would go into an academic career,” says Dr. Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health. “Now,” he says, “that is very much the minority.”
Many spend years in a holding pattern as postdocs, which are temporary positions, working for a professor and being paid from the professor’s research grant. The average pay in 2016 for a beginning postdoc in the biomedical sciences is around $44,000, a figure that, adjusted for inflation, has not changed since 1998.
Why would any smart person work for so little? The goal for postdocs is to get grants of their own eventually, but the success rate for those applying has plunged.
In 2000, 32 percent of grant applications to the National Institutes of Health resulted in an award. Now it is just 18 percent. And the average age at which the lucky few actually get a grant has steadily increased — it is now 42, up from 35 in 1980, which means biomedical scientists in academia are essentially apprentices until middle age. And the tendency is for the grants to go to scientists who already have them, making it harder and harder to break into the system.
Postdocs ‘cheap labor’
The National Institutes of Health recently created a grant specifically for beginning scientists, but only about 20 percent of applications result in an award. Most beginning scientists face five or more years as a postdoc, which is not always conducive to original research.
“The incentive for the professor is to have the postdoc do as much work as possible so the professor can get grants,” says Gary McDowell, executive director of a newly formed group, The Future of Research, that supports young scientists. “I have heard of postdocs going to orientation when a faculty member said: ‘This is not a time to work on your independence. It is a time for you to work for your professor to help him succeed.’”
Postdocs, he adds, “are very much a form of cheap labor.”
For those thinking of science as a career, says P. Kay Lund, director of the division of biomedical research workers at the National Institutes of Health, perhaps the best thing would be for a mentor to sit down with them and have a heart-to-heart talk, preferably when they’re still undergraduates.
“A lot of the time, there is not a lot of thought about it,” Lund says. “People say, ‘I love science; I am great at it. I will get a Ph.D.’”