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The research bottleneck – flying blind


The Bridges to Independence report (NRC, 2005) reveals that the number of PhD-trained life scientists in the United States ages 35 and younger increased by 59 percent between 1993 and 2001 while the number of these scientists in tenure-track positions increased by only 7 percent. At research institutions this number decreased by 12 percent over the same period of time. Studies by Michael S. Teitelbaum (Research funding: structural disequilibria in biomedical research. Science 321, 644-645. 2008) and Cyranoski, D. et al. (The PhD factory: the world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop? Nature 472, 276-279. 2011) support these observations and show that the supply-demand gap continues to grow.

Studies from the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the British university and college lecturer’s union, and the BETT Report, published in June 1999 by the Independent Review of Higher Education, Pay and Conditions, paint a similar picture for scientists in the United Kingdom and suggest a similar situation worldwide. With limited employment opportunities in academia as it is (Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. 2011.), this statistic reflects a bad situation only getting worse.

To better assess the magnitude of this problem and compel academic institutions to address it, I suggest federal departments require universities to submit a detailed account of the placement histories of their recent graduates, which should be made available freely online. Another statistic worth tracking is the percentage of graduate students or research fellows training under principal investigators that now support independent research programs of their own. Comparing these figures to research investment practices that have traditionally focused on graduate and postdoctoral funding while avoiding the larger issue of subsequent employment should let us measure the effect these policies have on the knowledge market and provide the impetus to change them. At the very least, it would let prospective scientists know what they were getting into.

Because I am not the first to suggest that dissatisfaction later in their career has less cogency if students investing in a bioscience research career when they choose graduate training are made aware of the risks pursuant, a recent NRC Committee on Trends in the Early Career Patterns of Life Scientists recommended in 1998 “that accurate and up-to-date information on career prospects … and career outcome information … be made widely available to students and faculty. Every life science department receiving federal funding for research training should be required to provide its prospective graduate students specific information regarding all pre-doctoral students enrolled in the graduate program during the preceding 10 years.”

While this is a clear step in the right direction, a recent survey of 10 leading biology departments (experimental group) and professional schools (control group) in the United States concerning the information available to students considering a career in the biosciences showed striking differences between the two groups (Careers and Rewards in Bio Sciences: the disconnect between scientific progress and career progression). As a rule, biology departments had information about time to degree and percentage of matriculating students who obtained their PhD, but not about job placement. No biology department had a job placement adviser, although career counseling offices at some universities did try to help students leaving academic science find non-academic jobs.

By contrast, all of the professional schools – law, business, medical – tracked the salary and position of their graduates through Student Affairs or Career Services Offices. More often than not this information was advertised on school websites. The inaccessibility of specific information regarding pre-doctoral biosciences students enrolled in graduate programs over the last 10 years means that federal funding agencies regulating scientific development and growth are unequivocally flying blind.

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. Monica / June 26, 2012 at 1:53 am

    I’m not sure that making universities publish their job-placement statistics would make a big impact. I thought that postdoctoral fellowships are quite easy to find (I certainly found one very easily, and so did everyone else I know who looked for one). The postdoctoral fellowship period of an academic career is getting longer and longer (as has been discussed elsewhere on this site), and a person’s publication record during this time has a large impact on their probability of getting a tenure-track position. Those issues won’t be reflected in post-grad school job placement statistics.

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