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THE BLACK HOLE

The door to an academic science career – open or closed?

My purpose is not to scare you, but to summarize the reality of the present economic climate for young scientists.

By JONATHAN THON | OCT 19 2015

I appreciate that I am often very critical of academic research – it’s often necessary. Nevertheless, I truly believe that science is a calling whose social value is paramount; and if you are intelligent, dedicated, hardworking, and passionate, your efforts are wasted elsewhere.

True, this career trajectory is long, the competition is stiff, and the salary does not presently come anywhere near minimum wage when factoring in hourly compensation. But, what you will be contributing to is a process whose historically recent application to health has extended the average human life span from about 45 years – which it had been through all of human history up until the 1900s – to roughly 81 years in Canada, 78 years in the United States (today). That is more than a three-decade increase in life expectancy, and we continue to gain about one year of life for every six years of basic research investment, making this humankind’s single greatest achievement. Nothing else humanity has done in its long and convoluted history has ever come close.

“No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the SeaEurope is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

— John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions; Meditation XVII

I chose a career in academic science because of an insatiable innate curiosity of the world around me, an overwhelming sense of social duty, and a visceral intolerance of limitations. I have always been equally interested in politics, law, education, art, business, medicine and engineering, and academic research has granted me unrestricted access to every facet of these professions without many of their accompanying restrictions.

Science is not for everyone, and academic research even less so. Graduate studies (as they are conducted in North America) are an excellent litmus test for one’s ability to thrive without direction. While it is important to recognize and reward non-tenure-track pathways, postdoctoral fellowships are uniquely necessary in the present age to provide career-researchers with the skills, experiences and training that will help foster their transition to an independent academic position.

From there the jump to assistant professor represents the single greatest bottleneck in this career trajectory (Fuhrmann et al., Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences, 2011). As of 2003, the average age which biomedical researchers received their first faculty appointment was approximately 38 for PhDs and 37 for MDs (AAMC Faculty Roster, March 31, 2004). While these numbers are increasingly outdated (new studies are desperately needed), the trend shows clearly that the average age of a first faculty appointment is increasing and unlikely to change direction anytime soon.

Adapted from ‘Age Distribution of NIH Principal Investigators and Medical School Faculty.’

By virtue of its funding structure, academic research is particularly sensitive to national and global economic winds, such as the recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009 for the U.S. (Canada appears to have entered its own recession as of this writing). This turbulence has not helped bolster science funding worldwide, and continues to provide obstacles to academic career progression. In the U.S., the inability of Congress to reach an agreement on how to reduce the American deficit resulted in President Obama issuing on March 1, 2013 an order implementing a series of automatic, across the board spending cuts known as the sequestration.

Under the sequestration, the National Institutes of Health budget was cut by ~$1.6 billion of its FY 2013 budget (Cause and effect in scientific funding. While the impact of these cuts were not felt all at once, they directly affected the amount of research dollars that were available to fund new investigators, as well as limited the amount of money available to departments to hire new faculty. As of the start of 2016, the U.S. has still not recovered from the policies enacted three years prior.

My purpose here is not to scare you, but to summarize the reality of the present economic climate for young scientists. It was in 2011, just two years ahead of the Great Recession, that I began exclusively searching for an academic position at a top-tier research institute in Canada. I was recently appointed an assistant professor in the department of medicine at Harvard Medical School in May 2015. It’s been an interesting ride.

My following posts will relate personal experiences and advice I amassed during this critical stage in my career, and is meant to fill an educational gap for postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing a similar career trajectory. I welcome those of you currently in the trenches of your career search, and young faculty who have recently crawled through them, to join the conversation and offer your perspectives. Every candidate is unique, and it is important to appreciate that academia has no prescribed path to career advancement. The consequence of renouncing limitations is that your career is very much self-directed, and if you are planning to follow a career trajectory similar to mine, expect to open your own doors and walk through them alone.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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