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The Black Hole

Introducing career streams into academic research


In the 1990s the typical PhD in biological sciences entered the job market in their mid 30s, after spending approximately 3.8 years as a postdoctoral fellow (National Academy of Science, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers). This is 3.6 years longer than it was in 1970 (National Research Council, Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists) and roughly 10 years shorter than what it is today.

It is not surprising then that so few PhDs continue into academic positions after receiving their graduate degree. A major failing of our graduate school system is that despite their program choices both Master’s and doctoral students are exclusively trained to become academic investigators. This is a problem when only 20 percent of doctoral students will ultimately become professors and the average age of independence in academic research is now in the mid-40s (A deeper look into the 80 percent of PhDs who do not become professors, and A new era of science funding – Part 4: Speaking up in support of federally funded research). Meanwhile, industries such as biotechnology, drug development, policy development, and scientific writing (amongst others) employ the remainder.

Indeed, a recent study by Fuhrmann et al. have found that at the University of California, San Francisco, nearly one-third of students midway through their graduate training intend to pursue a non-research career path (Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. 2011. In other words, we are training our graduate students to excel at professions they will never hold. To support the growing number of research PhDs universities are graduating yearly for which faculty positions are not available, we have extended the duration of the postdoctoral research fellowship position. Originally intended to allow for furthering expertise in a specialist subject, acquiring new skills and methods, and developing one’s ability to run an independent research program by apprenticing under an established professor, this has become a repository of misallocated talent that delay a scientist’s entry into their first “real” jobs by more than five years (Careers for Postdoctoral Scientists: The Ever-Aging Postdoc).

For the majority of scientists that are forced to transition into other industries, the postdoctoral fellow stage represents a significant waste of time that does not adequately prepare them for the career they will ultimately elect – and yet, because of the enormous number of postdoctoral fellows feeding into these professions, it has become a prerequisite for most of these positions. As with any new profession, employment in an altogether different field carries with it its own learning curve, further delaying the career advancement of the scientist.

A significant departure from the current trend of expanding the supply of research scientists without evidence of imminent shortages in either the private or academic sectors is necessary (Supply Without Demand), and could be addressed by implementing career streams at the graduate and postdoctorate levels. While this is not a new idea (Elizabeth Marincola and Frank Solomon. The career structure in biomedical research: Implications for training and trainees, The American Society for Cell Biology on the State of the Profession. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 9:3003-3006. 1998), research institutions such as Harvard are increasingly deciding to go the other way, creating additional temporary, non-tenure-track Instructor and Research Associate positions that are in every way equivalent to a postdoctoral research fellow designation and meant to follow postdoctoral training.

In my next post I will tell you why this is a problem.

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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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / June 4, 2012 at 16:37

    Good post. The best way to address the sad reality of the academic job market is to stem the glut of admissions into programs. This could be done by raising admission standards, imposing quotas, or closing programs. If there is a 20% success rate into the TT, there should be some drastic cuts in the order of 50%+. And a lot of programs, particularly in bush league schools, should be cut altogether. Most enrolments there are doomed to non-academic careers the moment they enrol.

    Trying to alter programs so they cater to non-academic career paths is more wishful thinking than a real alterantive. The disconnect nowadays between what you learn in academic programs and what you need to compete for non-academic jobs has become too great.

    • Wm / June 18, 2012 at 16:53

      “And a lot of programs, particularly in bush league schools, should be cut altogether. Most enrolments there are doomed to non-academic careers the moment they enrol.”
      I don’t necessarily agree with this. If the “bush league” schools are doing a good job of preparing students for non-academic careers and helping them get those jobs, then I’d say they should be funded.

      The prerequisite for student funding, whether through training grants or RO1s should be how well students are being trained and advised for a variety of careers, and how well they are being placed in them. Any program that is failing in that regard, “bush league” or Ivy League, shouldn’t be funded.

  2. Lin / June 6, 2012 at 10:21

    Are these numbers specific to Canada?

    Looking forward to your follow-up post.

    • Dave K / June 7, 2012 at 04:38

      Hi Lin,

      Basically, these numbers have not been collected in Canada yet, but hopefully they will be soon. Another interesting bit of the post concerns a UCSF study that tried to measure expectations vs. reality in terms of who wants a tenure track job and who gets one.

      Hope this helps,

  3. Sonia Thon / June 6, 2012 at 16:22

    I found your comments extremely interesting and elightening. It is important that colleagues in Science and the Humanities get an inside view of the realities of work and research in a particular field. Well done!
    Tia Sonia

  4. Jo VanEvery / June 7, 2012 at 09:04

    I look forward to the next installment. A similar thing is happening in the humanities and social sciences though the development is behind the sciences. Post-doctoral positions are only starting to become more common, especially in the humanities, but post-doctoral fellowship funding is relatively scarce. Success rates at SSHRC are below 20% for their post-doc fellowship largely because the program was created as a stop-gap program rather than support for a distinct career stage. It is also unusual for humanities and social science faculty to build post-doc positions into their own grants.

    One issue to keep in mind is that governments in Canada and elsewhere have been encouraging the expansion of doctoral programs. The policy rationale is that highly trained scientists (and to a lesser extent social scientists and humanists) are needed by the economy as a whole. The mismatch between how those programs actually train people and the imagined economic need is huge.

  5. DDGG / June 12, 2012 at 16:37

    Accept that there will be plenty of PhDs in non-faculty, non-industry jobs in academic centres. Science Careers has at last decided to acknowledge these skilled (but often overlooked ) people and their career plans and aspirations. Finally, a dose of reality and sanity.