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The Black Hole

Academic burnout should be a major cause for concern


Satisfaction levels increase in academic science as careers progress and are highest at the full-professor level (“For Love and Money,” PDF). While this is usually preceded by a doubling in salary from the postdoctoral fellow to the assistant professor stage, there are more pressing elements to career advancement.

Lifestyle is one: lack of job security, health care and child care are frequent topics of concern, as the postdoctoral fellowship stage is when most couples choose to start their families. In fact, women in the bio-sciences can expect childbirth to have a more deleterious consequence on their career progression than in other scientific specialties, and is likely a major cause for postponing children among this demographic (Careers and Rewards in Bio Sciences: the disconnect between scientific progress and career progression, PDF). Retirement benefits are a further cause for concern, particularly since research fellowships rarely include contributions to retirement funds, and the emphasis on mobility between countries during the postdoctoral career stage means that any state pension schemes may be lost in the transfer.

Despite all of these factors I have seen more postdoctoral fellows leave the sciences due to burnout than any of the aforementioned causes combined. Since there are insufficient statistics available to make a global case, I will make an anecdotal one.

The inconvenient truth is that while careers in academic science select for delayed gratification, persistence, low valuation of income and economic security, willingness to postpone family responsibilities, willingness to sacrifice social life, and other defining characteristics of workaholism that coincide with scientific productivity, the two are not the same thing. Success in scientific research requires a distinct set of preferences beyond even scientific talent, and that is passion. For myself, the driving element in my resilience thus far has been the social benefit my work produces, the validation of my thought process, the challenge of discovery, and the promise of advancement (the latter particularly referring to the opportunity to direct my own research program). The present economic climate coupled with the lack of a sustainable funding model for the sciences has stifled these aspirations. Diminishing funding means that ideas are no longer limited by vision, ingenuity or persistence, but by experimental cost.

Money is a limiting factor in any field, but when more than half of the most promising and highly-rated scientific projects start becoming shelved because of tightening funding rates (recently reviewed by David Kent, “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…”) there is ample reason to be concerned. Under these conditions the challenge of discovery is quickly replaced by frustration, and although science can move slowly, the lack of significant progress on a research project means the social benefit one perceives their work producing quickly vanishes.

What is left is career advancement and establishment of an independent research program, for which there is limited demand and constitutes a significant gamble for research fellows faced with the prospect of a second or even third 4-year postdoctoral stint. In this climate salary, lifestyle, job security, health care, child care and retirement begin to matter, and as the years progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify this life decision in light of alternative accessible professions such as private industry, consulting, medicine and law. The worst thing a society can do is invest billions of dollars into training some of the brightest minds of our generation to lead basic research programs in very specialized fields, only to have them practice in different and often unrelated professions, from which we see no direct return on investment.

Since money doesn’t grow on trees, and there is little likelihood that we can expect significant increases in public biomedical research investment over the next 3-5 years, the answer is to stabilize PhD production and therefore cap the number of new investigators competing for already limited research dollars. While we can all be assured that at success rates of 7.8%, we are nowhere near stifling competition in science, restricting the ballooning number of non-funded scientific investigators would free otherwise talented and hard-working young professionals to contribute meaningfully to our nation’s economic recovery in other fields sooner and for longer, rather than stagnating in a holding pattern of 4-8 year postdoctoral fellowships before ultimately transitioning to these other professions. How we should realize this goal will be the topic of my next post.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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