The odds of landing a tenure-track position in the life sciences are low while the chances of being stuck in multiple postdocs are high. So the leaders of nine top US universities and one research institution this month announced a plan to communicate those probabilities in an effort to grapple with a clogged biomedical research pipeline.
Both supply and demand have contributed to an research-and-development (R&D) career bottleneck, according to a 15 December Science article signed by the 10 research leaders, who call themselves the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science. US federal research funding, when adjusted for inflation, declined by nearly 20% from 2003 to 2016, according to the article. Meanwhile, PhD candidates continue to enroll in doctoral programmes. The result is that only one in 10 trainees will gain a tenure-track position within five years of receiving their PhD. Many PhD holders then spend longer than they had anticipated in postdoc training positions, sometimes taking multiple fellowships while waiting for academic job openings to materialize. And the ones who do land such positions are taking longer to secure their first independent grant.
Such information has been common knowledge in policy circles for years, says Rebecca Blank, lead author of the paper and the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. But career outcomes need to be shared with prospective PhD students before they enroll in graduate school, and again once they begin their graduate studies, she says. That way, they can plan a career whose primary objective may not be a tenure-track job. Most new graduate students still think they will get a PhD, do a postdoc and land a professorship in their discipline of their choice. “Those days are over,” says Blank.
To better communicate the odds, the coalition members in February 2018 will begin publishing life-science career outcomes. Data will include the time it takes to finish a PhD, the length of time junior scientists spend in postdocs and the places where both new PhDs and former postdocs find jobs.
Blank hopes that the coalition will spur more universities and research institutions to share such data. The University of Michigan has pioneered such efforts, and organizations such as the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) Consortium, the Council of Graduate Schools, Rescuing Biomedical Research, the National Research Council and the Association of American Universities have also called for universities and research institutions to share their postdoc and graduate-student career-path data.
Blank anticipates that students will use the data to better manage their career. For example, if graduate students see that their particular speciality is in demand in industry, they can apply for industry internships earlier in their training. Students can also be encouraged to explore off-the-bench careers like science communication and regulatory affairs, she says.
The data-sharing effort is not meant to dissuade students from pursuing science careers, Blank says. Rather, it can help them have more realistic views about what is possible and where jobs might be available. “We want you. We need you,” Blank says to prospective life-science graduate students. “But you need to start planning your career earlier.”
Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.