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Introducing career streams into academic research

By JONATHAN THON | June 4, 2012

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
Dr. Thon is an instructor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. […] Introducing Career Streams into Academic Research […]

  2. […] Introducing career streams into academic research Posted on June 4, 2012 by Jonathan Thon […]

  3. DDGG / June 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    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.

  4. Dave K / June 8, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Hi Jo,
    You might be interested in some of the posts that we wrote on the old site:


  5. Wm / June 18, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    “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.

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