“Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”
While still a lowly graduate student, I recall how my own mentor, who was a seasoned postdoc with several high impact publications, applied for many university faculty positions to no avail. He struggled for two years until an assistant professorship finally came through. I also recall how another postdoc, who was brilliant scientist in the laboratory, meekly accepted the daily abuses piled on by his mentor. When asked why he didn’t just quit and find another job, his response was “Where am I going to go?”
Something is seriously amiss in the postdoctoral world. In a recent Nature (2011) article, Cyranoski and his colleagues report how the number of newly-minted Ph.D.’s increased by 40% between 1998 and 2008 in countries that are part of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). According to the National Science Foundation (NSF 10-308, 2009), United States academic institutions awarded almost 32,827 science and engineering doctorates in 2008, as opposed to 24,608 in 2002. That is an increase of over 33% in just 6 years. Doctorates in the life sciences accounted for the majority of the degrees awarded (16%) and also had the highest rate of increase across these years (8.6%).
The traditional (although certainly not the only) career path for those holding a Ph.D. has been to pursue a tenured or tenure-track position in academia. Such a position entails research, teaching, and the mentoring of students who will one day become tenured faculty in their own right. Unfortunately, the likelihood of successfully completing this traditional career path for most Ph.D.-holding graduates has drastically diminished. According to The Economist (2010), the U.S. awarded over 100,000 doctoral degrees from 2005-2009. In that same time period, only 16,000 new professorship posts were created.
Because of this supply/demand discrepancy, many new Ph.D.s enter a phase of their careers that is popularly called the “postdoc”. As compared to the 1970’s, when the total percentage of postdocs was just over 10%, currently the figure stands at almost 50% (Auriol, 2010). The postdoc, or postdoctoral appointment, is in essence an apprenticeship period spanning 2-5 years in which the Ph.D. graduate takes on and completes a research project under the direction of a PI (principal investigator) while publishing his or her research results along the way. In many cases, completing one (or more) postdoctoral appointments has even become a job requirement for many university, research and industry positions. In other cases, the postdoc appointment helps the newly-minted Ph.D. scientist gain valuable job or technical skills. Postdocs may also end up mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, writing grants, teaching, attending conferences and becoming involved in committees.
The many extracurricular activities expected from a postdoc, the fast pace of research, and the fear of being “scooped” can result in some postdocs working as many as 60 or more hours per week. Rachel Bowden (Naturejobs, 2011) estimates that over one half of all postdocs work an average of 50 hours per week. One quarter of postdocs work at least 60 hours per week.
Of the postdocs that do tough out the long hours and low pay, their resolve is often pinned on the hope of eventual full-time employment in a university, research institution or industry. However, the data provided by the National Science Board, in its Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2008, indicate otherwise: for example, for individuals who complete a postdoctoral appointment, the likelihood of being employed in a tenured or tenure-track university position does not look better in comparison to individuals who do not embark upon a postdoctoral appointment. Because of the sheer number of postdocs being created and the dearth of vacant positions, many postdocs end up doing not just one, but two, three or even four such apprenticeships while “taxiing” for a permanent post. In fact, it is not unusual for some postdocs to work at appointments spanning 7 or even 10 years, according to biologist Ostrander (Johns Hopkins Magazine, 1999).
What is being done to remedy the Ph.D. glut? Not much, by some accounts: Daniel Greenberg (The Baltimore Sun, 1995) writes how universities are considering supplementing their programs with “real world” business and industry courses. This enables postdocs to successfully leave the academic world for the corporate one or to never become postdocs at all. However, this does not inform would-be Ph.D.s and postdocs about the shortage of traditional academic positions upon graduation. In countries like Germany, where only 6% of graduating Ph.D.s attain academic positions, the Ph.D. is viewed as advanced training for many different postgraduate pursuits, including business and industry (Cyranoski, 2011). Thus, German pre-Ph.D. students are trained in report writing and presentation, for example, in addition to experiment design and laboratory techniques.As detailed by Mark Taylor, a professor at Columbia University, because state and federal support for higher education is dwindling in light of the current economic crisis, academia may even be forced to reduce or eliminate graduate programs and admissions. Furthermore, because many graduate programs are “overly specialized, with curricula fragmented and increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia (Nature, 2011)”, it may be high time for universities to forge open collaborations between themselves and corporations, public organizations, and governmental institutions. Such collaborations would expose Ph.D. hopefuls to the real world sooner and educate them about the available nonacademic employment options.
Overall, while possible solutions to the Ph.D. glut are being explored, change has been slow. Dr. Jonathan Katz , a professor of physics at Washington University, actually argues that holders of science baccalaureate degrees should enter graduate fields in medicine, law and business -but not science. He states that science as a career has been ruined by the Ph.D. glut. He even adds that “I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.”
Many opportunities beyond academia are now available to the graduate level scientist, and graduate programs are evolving to meet the training needs in law, ethics, journalism and computer science so that scientists can take advantage of these new opportunities. For some stories of successful alternative career paths, visit the teaching and training pages at promega.com.
Auriol, L. Careers of doctorate holders: employment and mobility patterns. STI working paper 2010/4. Statistical Analysis of Science, Technology and Industry. Figure 14. S&E doctorate holders with recent degrees employed at academic institutions, by type of position: United States, 1973–2006, page 17.
Bowden, R. Are long working hours inevitable for postdocs? Naturejobs. April 1, 2011.
Box: United States: What shall we do about all the PhDs? Published online 20 April 2011 | Nature 472, 276-279 (2011).
Cavanaugh, J.P. The Postdoc’s Plight. Johns Hopkins Magazine. February 1999.
Cyranoski , D., Gilbert, N. , Ledford, H. , Nayar, A. & Yahia, M. Education: The PhD factory. Published online 20 April 2011 | Nature 472, 276-279 (2011).
Fiegener, M. Numbers of U.S. doctorates awarded rise for sixth year, but growth slower. National Science Foundation (NSF 10-308) November 2009.
Greenberg, D.S. Ph.D. glut: government, business not working to end it. The Baltimore Sun. October 23, 1995.
Katz, J.I. Don’t Become a Scientist! May 13, 1999.
National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators 2008.
Taylor, M. Reform the PhD system or close it down. Published online 20 April 2011 | Nature 472, 261 (2011).
The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time. The Economist. Dec 16th 2010.
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