Ever hear of Douglas Prasher? Probably not. He just missed out on this past year’s Nobel in chemistry. That’s not unusual, as many scientists never even come close to a Nobel. What is unusual, is that Dr. Prasher works at a car dealership, not in a lab. Despite doing the critical research on discovering GFP that became the work for last year’s Nobel Prize, he was unable to find grant money and a job to continue his work.
Prasher’s story is what concerns me with science, engineering, math, and technology. In the U.S., we are constantly hearing about how the country is falling behind in science. We need more scientists to fill all of those jobs we want to create. And the cure to that is to fund more PhD programs! Yet, when you ask graduate students and postdoctoral scholars what their individual experiences are, a science career is a very tough road with low pay and few career prospects. It’s such a tough path that an entire PhD comic strip was born to alleviate the situation with laughter. Why then, is there such a disconnect?
As a friend of mine, who has worked for two decades in both academia and industry, recently put it, “it’s a Ponzi scheme” (name withheld to protect his job). Large corporations and universities need a lot of workers to meet their objectives. While conspiracy theories abound over biopharma lobbying the government for more PhDs with the secret ambition to lower wages, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Universities need grad students and postdocs to churn out the papers that bring in grant money for the professors. While that is a well-established tradition going on for more than a century, what is different now is how we are attracting students into science careers. With tuition paid-in-full PhD programs and benefits as a graduate student, many who would normally not enter science are lured in. Reality usually hits after the second year, in which qualification exams to continue in the programs are taken. Only then, do students realize the road that lies ahead is dotted with pit stops leading, not to Nobel glory, but a journeyman career with salaries well below that of their friends who went into business, law, or medicine. With a PhD, a postdoc can expect to start, at most, US $42K a year in academia and $52K in industry.
More over, 45% of all recent doctorates are now taking postdoc positions prior to a faculty appointment. This contrasts with only 31% following the same path 25 years ago (see NSF). And postdoc positions are increasing in length of time as well, and are often followed by a second or even third “tour of duty.” While the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) most recent data shows an average of two years per postdoc across all disciplines, my own anecdotal experience in the life sciences shows that number is closer to four years.
In reality, more PhDs are a good thing, but should something be done to help out recent graduates and what could be done? President Obama has included just a 1.5% increase in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for 2010, which doesn’t even make up for the lost years of keeping up with inflation under the Bush era. Obama has promised to double NIH’s budget within 10 years. Great, but how will that money be spent? The NIH budget doubled from $7.5 billion in 1990 to $15.5 billion in 1999 and has doubled again to $30 billion in 2009, yet the career path to a tenured faculty position has become a tougher pill to swallow. While more money in science is a great thing and should be increased, the data suggests that money alone is not the answer to improving the engineer/scientist quality of life. Specific policy to increase salaries would do this, but the reality of that occurring is thin at best. And as data from the NIH shows in the figure below, despite an ever growing number of PhDs and increased national budgets, there are disproportionally fewer young faculty receiving NIH grants.
This is a fairly dark picture that has just been described. Being somewhat of an optimist, there are some changes beginning to occur that give me hope. As usual, it is a grassroots movement that is taking the lead. In the United States, The National Postdoctoral Association was established in 2003. It has made some major accomplishments in getting the NIH, NSF, and more than 160 universities to adopt new policies. The biotech industry was born in the late 1970s, and despite visions of grand careers in science, it has largely failed to deliver. One could argue that this failure is more related to the biotech industry being a failure itself, since it was billed as the “next computer industry.” Ironically though, biotech is slowly morphing with the computer industry in the form of genomics and computational biology. And the computer industry is starting to meet science in the middle with specific programs from Google, Microsoft, IBM, and others. And of course, Mendeley is a melding of academia with computers and online tools.
Despite calls for promoting alternative careers in graduate school, in the end it is going to be a slow organic movement toward cross-disciplinary careers, perhaps with in silico technology, that improves the life of a PhD. An actionable example of this would be the Singularity University hosted at NASA Ames, which is having its inaugural class this year. The “University” part is a bit of a misnomer, as it is really just a nine-week networking event with an intense lecture schedule. And it is far too early to measure its beneficial impact. However, this may serve as inspiration for real universities to establish more practical PhD programs alongside the critical basic research type of degrees.
Curiously, science has always been more of an art than a science, and artists are often exploited. With computers, one can remove artistry, at least somewhat. If there’s one piece of advice for graduate students and postdocs, it would be to inject a bit of computational work into your career. Don’t wait for policy changes to create greater salaries, benefits and more tenured positions. While treading the same arduous path that our predoctoral or postdoctoral advisors tread has become regarded as a rite of passage, it doesn’t need to remain such. The story of one Douglas Prasher losing a Nobel is one too many.
Update – A few others have also started a discussion over on Friendfeed
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