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The truly bleak job prospects for young scientists in the life sciences

By JONATHAN THON | July 30, 2012

The following is my response to a letter from Canada’s federal minister of health, Leona Aglukkaq, who was in turn responding to an earlier letter from me:

Honourable Leona Aglukkaq,

Thank you first and foremost for taking the time to respond to my letter on February 7, 2012, regarding the lack of opportunity for early-career scientists in Canada (see the health minister’s response here). While the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is taking positive steps to meet its stated goals of attracting and retaining the best researchers, the Canadian government is failing to acknowledge how truly bleak the job prospects for young scientists are in the life sciences. While resources will always be limiting, the government needs to appreciate that current federal investment in biomedical science is insufficient to maintain the present rate of scientific advancement and falls short of supporting a sustainable pipeline of talented new health researchers. What’s more, this country’s overabundance of PhDs has kept postdoctoral salaries at a rate of $38,000 per year, which is shockingly low when one considers that a four-year undergraduate degree and five-year graduate program are required to fill the role. Worse still, it has extended postdoctoral fellowships (considered neither “student” nor “faculty” positions in Canada) to between four and eight years, creating a temporary “holding pattern” from which most young scientists ultimately transition to other careers.

If Canada is not prepared to make the necessary investment in academic biomedical research, universities must not be permitted to continue to push PhD students and postdoctoral fellows through the present system blindly, with complete disregard to the lack of academic career opportunities that await them. By failing to adapt to current labour market trends, the Canadian people are investing a significant amount of time and money into training highly-educated life scientists to take up positions that simply do not exist, forcing them into under-employment in the private sector. Not only does this represent a terrible return on investment, but it is stunting economic growth. The number of graduate students being trained for academic science positions that 80 percent of them will never fill needs to decrease significantly and the focus needs to shift from academic professorships to alternative professions as support scientists and consultants in neighbouring industries including medicine, finance, teaching and law.

Recently, both the U.S. National Academies and the National Institutes of Health’s Biomedical Workforce issued reports exhorting universities to “improve the capacity of graduate programs to attract talented students by addressing issues such as attrition rates, time-to-degree, funding, and alignment with both student career opportunities and national interests.” To accomplish this, the U.S. National Academies recommend that institutions “restructure doctoral education to […] shorten time-to-degree and strengthen the preparation of graduates for careers both in and beyond the academy.” The NIH concurred, citing the need to “involve relevant employers in the public and private sector in designing and training paths for students.” Among the reforms called for are:

  • Information and guidance about career opportunities and training in skills relevant to non-academic jobs to be provided to all graduate students and post-doctoral fellows on fellowships or principal investigator grants as normal parts of their programs.
  • Limitations to the period any individual can spend as a graduate student of post-doctoral fellow, which must be covered in its entirety under “any combination of training grants, fellowships and research project grants.”
  • Increasing the proportion of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows that receive support through fellowships and training grants versus faculty research grants, to shift the focus from the principal investigators’ labour needs to young scientists’ professional development. The report emphasizes that the overall number of young scientists supported should not increase.
  • Institutional tracking over time of career outcomes for all their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, which should be made publicly available.

The last two recommendations are perhaps the most important and I have separated them here for added emphasis.

  • To improve career opportunities and limit the overproduction of transient trainees, labs should replace many of their post-doctoral fellow slots with permanent staff scientist positions.
  • Post-doctoral pay and benefits must improve. The Biomedical Workforce proposes implementing a starting salary of $42,000 (which I still consider to be a discouraging return on the increasingly lengthening 5-year investment necessary to earn a PhD), with a “large jump between [post-doctoral] years 3 and 4” intended “to incentivize principal investigators to move fellows to permanent positions.” Given the current state of academic science, the Biomedical Workforce felt it necessary to add that “all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers on any form of support (training grants, fellowships, or research project grants) [should] receive benefits that are comparable to other employees at the institution,” including paid vacation, parental leave, healthcare, and retirement plans.

The government of Canada has done little to acknowledge and less to address the current overabundance of highly-trained young PhD scientists in low-paying dead-end jobs whose expertise will ultimately (after a significant period of re-training) be better served in other industries. While the CIHR’s efforts to improve current funding practices are necessary, they will not prove sufficient to resolve this issue. The current approach to training scientists and moving them through the labour force is frighteningly inefficient. Training more research scientists than we have the funds to support is not the solution – it is the problem. Acknowledging that we are facing a crisis and implementing the aforementioned recommendations will dramatically improve working conditions for young scientists while curbing inefficiencies in our labour market that are serving to limit economic growth.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Anne Dalziel / August 3, 2012 at 2:51 am

    On top of the issues mentioned, the government is now taxing post-doctoral salaries. This means the salaries of Canadian post-docs has dropped even further since 2009 and is now lower than the salaries of many graduate students in the same lab (NSERC’s Canada Graduate Scholarship = 35,000$/year and the post-doctoral grant = 40,000$ minus taxes). I will make less after getting a PhD…
    (with a comment from David Kent included)

  2. SC / August 15, 2012 at 12:28 pm
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