Science career pessimism: it’s not just me

Before actually becoming a scientist, I had a particular view of what a science career was about. Part of this view came from reading biographies of famous scientists, but a big part came from being the child of scientist who is not famous but very successful. My experiences in grad school and during my postdoc have been a great disillusionment, despite the marvelous intellectual experiences and the caring and inspiring mentors it’s been my privilege to work with. You’re probably thinking, well duh, anyone in any career hits a point of disillusionment because nothing is every as glamorous as it seems from the outside, except perhaps the life of a billionaire hedge fund manager. (If you make more than $100 million annually, I don’t want to hear any shit about your life not being as glamorous as it seems… it’s plenty glamorous.)

Back to science careers – as I’ve discussed before, there is some external evidence that my impressions aren’t simply the natural impatience of someone near the end of the long so-called training period. Here’s one more report on the issue, this time from way back in 2001, when the NIH budget was still on a path to doubling and long before R01 grant success rates hit an all-time low in 2011:

“Careers and Rewards in Bio Sciences: the disconnect between scientific progress and career progression” (PDF):

The rate of progress in the biological sciences and biotechnology is extraordinary. Every week there are findings that generate wide interest from scientists and the general public and that hold the promise of improving human life. A priori, one would expect that the rapid rate of scientific progress would create an intellectual gold rush that would attract the best and brightest young Americans to the biological sciences and reward them with good career prospects. Instead, the field faces a crisis of expectations among new entrants (NRC, 1998) because it is increasingly difficult for new scientists to establish independent research careers. Salaries and career opportunities fall short of those in other high-level occupations and are lower than those in the biological sciences in the recent past. As a result recent National Research Council (NRC) panels assessing biological sciences have called for PhD production to stabilize. What economic forces underlie the disconnect between the scientific progress of the field and job market prospects?

The authors argue that the issue is, contrary to some opinions, not one of simple supply and demand:

Section II examines some important features of the market for young bioscientists: the mixing of education and employment, the years spent moving from the PhD to a job, the long hours worked; low salaries; and the low lifetime earnings that make the field a relatively poor economic investment. Section III reports on the responses of students to the job market. Section IV probes the reasons for the disconnect between the intellectual success of the field and career opportunities…

The main theme of our analysis is that the disconnect results from the way careers for biologists are organized, rather than from any short term supply-demand imbalance. We argue that the incentives to principal investigators and other participants in academic bioscience create a self-perpetuating tournament style market where small laboratories compete for research grants through extensive hours of work and inexpensive graduate student and post-doctorate labor. This situation is unlikely to change unless the main stakeholders in biological research seek ways to reform the tournament, and NIH provides the extra research support that any reform will require. Stabilizing PhD production will reduce supply pressures in the market but not reform the career structure.

That “mixing of education and employment” is really an important contributor to problems of this career path.

Just one more tidbit from the report, a claim that I’ve certainly observed first-hand on many occasions:

Comparing the situation today with that in the past, one principal investigator said that AWe look at our own job candidates and think that if we were competing against them with our CVs when we were looking for jobs we would not be competitive.@ Another PI said that the market for new faculty had changed from one where job offers were based on promise to one where they were based on accomplishment.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

5 thoughts on “Science career pessimism: it’s not just me”

  1. The reliance of the scientific engine on an endless supply of PhDs and postdocs who outnumber their PIs a dozen to one, and the lack of career options in the biological sciences outside academia (unlike, say, highly quantitative disciplines whose practitioners can always go be “data scientists” or what have you) guarantees that this area will remain a Ponzi scheme for the foreseeable future. As someone who did time in a lab and is now an outsider, from my perspective it’s criminal that students in these fields are not given career advice from day one. And of course the reason they’re not is that it would mostly consist of “do not do this.”

    1. It’s terrible that biology training isn’t more quantitative from the beginning – career options outside academia for biologists might be much better (and the whole field itself would be better) if biologists had more skills that could be applied outside of a cell biology lab.

  2. This is really interesting. It does seem that there is an issue with not having enough quantitative training in the biological sciences. The field seems to be moving in the direction (and one could argue is already there) of big data, requiring individuals who understand the biology, but also have the quantitative skills to deal with all the information being generated. Interestingly, Biostatistics is actually still one area where the market is very good for PhDs. Perhaps this is somewhat reflective of the tendency toward more quantitative research needs. But I might be a bit biased…

    1. Real quantitative skills are quickly becoming a pre-requisite for doing the hottest stuff in biology – I’m sitting here at the CSHL Biology of Genomes conference watching slides full of big data and quantitative analyses for just about every sub-field of biology. Nobody is going to escape the need for serious number handling skills.

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