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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 8, 2011

More On the Postdoc Situation

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Posted by Derek

Here's a good article ("Academia Faces PhD Overload") via Genomeweb on the academic post-doc situation in the sciences, which we were last discussing here. (Thanks to Jonathan Gitlin on Twitter for noting it). That was in response to a Nature News piece calling for more "permanent postdoc" positions, which I doubted would actually happen.

But perhaps it is - take a look at this part:

Since there aren't enough tenure-track jobs for every PhD who has taken one, two, or even three-plus postdocs, "there's a finite number of postdocs who cannot anymore be a postdoc, and so they [often] stay at the same institution and become appointed to the research faculty," Chalkley says. As a result of the postdoc surplus, "the numbers in the research faculty ranks have increased in the last decade," he adds.

As research faculty are not eligible for tenure themselves, their positions depend largely on their PI, who generally is. Non-tenure-track faculty are "dependent upon the person running a lab and their funding," Chalkley says, adding that the risk for research faculty, who are "almost invariably on soft money," is real. For example, should a PI decide to move to another institution, he or she might be reluctant to take research faculty along; instead, he or she could save start-up funds for the new lab by hiring postdocs in place of research instructors.

With no practical solutions to the postdoc surplus problem on the horizon, Minnesota's Levitt predicts this hiring trend will persist for some time. "Every school is going to be hiring a higher and higher fraction of non-tenure-track [faculty]," he says.

But as the article says elsewhere, no one is claiming that this is going to be especially good for the people being hired under these circumstances, except as an alternative to being out on the sidewalk. One extra reason for this whole demographic difficulty (which has always been with us to some degree) was been the big increase in the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003, which led to a corresponding bulge in the population of grad students, and then of postdocs:

According to the National Science Foundation's most recent Survey of Earned Doctorates statistics, American institutions awarded 49,562 total doctorates in 2009 — the most ever reported by NSF — of which 25,836 were in the sciences. Of life sciences doctorate recipients who indicated definite post-graduation employment commitments in 2009, nearly three-quarters said they'd accepted postdoc appointments. In an InfoBrief report, NSF notes that "2009 marked the largest single-year increase in the proportion of doctorate recipients taking postdoc positions during the 2004-2009 period."

And this just in time for a whacking economic downturn, which has severely cut into the industrial job possibilities. Still, there's a discussion in this article on getting people to look outside academia for their future, but the attitude that I mentioned in my last post on this topic is still a problem:

Nearly half of all respondents to NYU's most recent annual postdoc satisfaction survey — 47 percent — indicated a career goal of becoming tenure-track faculty.

"I think there's a bigger need for information on jobs outside of academia," Micoli says. There's a growing awareness in the research community that PhDs who choose careers in industry or other academic alternatives are not failing as scientists — but that sentiment has not yet penetrated the walls of the ivory tower, he adds.

Hey, these days, landing a good industrial job is very far indeed from failing. . .

Comments (24) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry)


COMMENTS

1. zerostar on March 8, 2011 1:17 PM writes...

Huh. So today's postdocs, seeing their former classmates being kicked in the teeth by industry, are STILL aspiring for jobs in a relatively stable academic setting. Well, that's just crazy!

Permalink to Comment

2. anon the II on March 8, 2011 2:05 PM writes...

Just to make things more complicated, after 26 years in industry, I got acquired and Pfired and looked for 2 years. I recently took a post-doc which I'd like to turn into a research faculty position. If I'm lucky. The pay isn't so good but I'm having fun. A few years ago this was unheard of but these days, it ain't even rare.

Permalink to Comment

3. Anon PhD student on March 8, 2011 2:15 PM writes...

I have to say thanks for pointing out stuff like this. Due to being informed on the job front and other input, I'm actually trying to shift to a Masters instead of slogging on for the PhD.

Permalink to Comment

4. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on March 8, 2011 2:30 PM writes...

If all the artificial jobs (graduate student positions) created by government money did not exist, there would be less of a waste of talent supporting the expensive, esoteric hobbies of professors. End government support of non-military science and the waste of people would end. Do something useful for a change.

Permalink to Comment

5. vkumbam on March 8, 2011 2:47 PM writes...

It's very hard time to survive as organic chemists
after seeing the industry layoffs, cut down the R&D expenses,not much pays for postdoc so that everyone is upset about their careers.... think of career changes..???

Permalink to Comment

6. Anonymous on March 8, 2011 3:39 PM writes...

Never depend on anyone but yourself.

The world is your oyster.

If you can't think of what to do with your education then you were not trained right.

Permalink to Comment

7. Sleepless in SSF on March 8, 2011 4:36 PM writes...

I think the article presents an excessively narrow view of "non-tenured faculty". I've spent my career bouncing around between academia, government and biotech. Both my post-graduate stints in academia have been as non-tenured faculty, and I've found both of them to be rewarding both financially and intellectually. I think the key is to avoid soft money positions and to pick your spots and not let them pick you. If you insist on staying at the institution you graduated from, you're denying yourself a whole world of possibilities.

My most recent move was from biotech back to academia, as director of a new core lab (I don't want to be too specific as I really don't want to identify my institution) and I couldn't be happier. The work is fabulously satisfying, I have a great work/life balance and I'd venture to say that I earn more than a moderate fraction of the tenured faculty do and get they same benefits they do. Some may look down their noses at the fact that I don't have tenure, but that's their problem -- it doesn't bother me a bit. I've been around the working world far more than any of them and I can recognize that such prejudices are the result of the parochialism of the poorly-traveled. Besides, I'd never trade the non-stop fun I have in my lab for the joy of non-stop proposal writing -- which is why I never considered a career amongst the tenure-pursuing in the first place.

Permalink to Comment

8. Curt F. on March 8, 2011 8:37 PM writes...

Somehow I mostly agree with both GreedyCynicalSelfInterested and with Sleepless in SSF.

Here are options that I believe would improve prospects for long-term post-docs and/or research faculty:

1. Make research faculty or post-docs eligible to be PIs on grants. This is a matter of university policy, not of federal policy.
2. Lower the average amount of an NIH, NSF, or DOD grants so there is a bigger opportunity for less-established types to get some level of funding, even if they only use it to support themselves.
3. Cap administrative overhead on grants at 40-50%. Increasingly, universities seem to be run for the benefit of the administrators (who demand ever increasing slices of the pie) and for the big-shot professors, who are the only people capable of getting enough giant grants to feed the beast (and they don't mind since the system gives them an army of underlings to control anyway).

The general idea is to make it more difficult for bigshot, well-established tenured folks to gain complete control over the careers of tens or twenties of post-docs or grad students. If senior post-docs or research faculty were PIs or co-PIs on more (but smaller) grants, they would be more insulated from the whims of their lab head.

In a graph of the number of NIH-funded PIs as a function of the NIH R&D budget, I would like to see a linear correlation.

Permalink to Comment

9. JB on March 8, 2011 8:51 PM writes...

"that sentiment has not yet penetrated the walls of the ivory tower"
I don't think that's true at all and hasn't been for a while. I was in an Ivy department 10 years ago and there were plenty of department-sponsored seminars about the various career options available- law, banking (unfortunately), VC, industry, teaching (both HS and non-research undergrad institutions), consulting. Now maybe you can claim that individual PIs still push their best students to academia and quietly see other paths as "failing", but it certainly wasn't that way at the department-wide level. I never wanted to do tenure-track academia, and I'm doing fine as a staff scientist at a research institute after spending a couple years in biotech.

Permalink to Comment

10. MDACC Student on March 8, 2011 11:22 PM writes...

There never seems to be an oversupply of dentists, optometrists, medical doctors, nurses, pharmacists...Because they are regulated. If we could regulate the number and quality of researchers it would provide for
1. a better quality of life
2. job security
3. incentive to attract the best students to the field
4. a basal level of assurance to faculty in hiring positions

Permalink to Comment

11. Happy in Industry on March 8, 2011 11:44 PM writes...

Here's a contradiction which the article seems to miss:

'"Postdocs are really the gold of our system," Levitt says. "When smart things get done, it's usually because you've got a really inventive postdoc there doing it — they have few obligations, they work really hard, they come in with no set ideas."'

But then in the next paragraph...

"[Chalkley] and his colleagues recommend in a December report that NIH raise postdocs' starting stipends from the current $37,740 to $45,000."

So the "gold of the system" are getting a raise that still provides just a fraction of the typical tenure-track faculty member, yet they feel bitter and undervalued? Imagine that.

I think Lab Manager should be elevated to first-class status within the academic hierarchy. If everyone agrees that a good postdoc is so important--and one typical role of a good postdoc is managing a lab--then promote this as a desirable endpoint and pay them accordingly.

Permalink to Comment

12. Jonathan on March 8, 2011 11:49 PM writes...

@Curt F. your suggestions are really good ones. As for the number of NIH-funded PIs, there are ~9000 grants awarded each year. In fact, the house CR (HR 1) which cuts $1.7 billion from NIH's FY2010 funding levels also stipulates that NIH award at least 9000 grants.

But your most acute point is #1 - fixing this is not up to NIH or NSF - these agencies cannot tell universities how to run themselves, nor would anyone really want them to. The universities are autonomous and have to do this themselves. And yes, not topslicing 50% as administrative overheads would be good. Despite speaking at the National Council of University Research Administrators' meeting this weekend I didn't dare tell them that for fear of being thrown out of a window...

Permalink to Comment

13. zephyr on March 9, 2011 12:46 AM writes...

Derek and all, would love your comments on this article on outsourcing: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.drudis.2011.01.002

Permalink to Comment

14. sundar on March 9, 2011 2:51 AM writes...

I have been arguing about this with my friends for a long time. Usually I get dirty looks when I say there are too many Ph.Ds. Dan Greenberg has written about it in 'Science Money and Politics'. There is a serious funding crunch and this can directly traced to bloated group sizes. The NIH budget has been increased many times over in the last 50 years and yet the percentile of of proposal that get funded is shrinking.
There are places like HHMI Janelia Farm where there is a restriction on the group size. Outside of the US there are several places that size restrictions. Personally I have worked in both large (between 40-50 members at any one time) and small groups. The quality of training that grad students receive in small groups is much better and gets reflected in the quality of the science as well (definitely more reproducible). When there is a smaller group the PI is more invested in what is going on in the group (not always true. I have seen this too)and interacts more with the group. In larger groups there's some guy 'managing' the group while the PI is traveling. Smaller groups are also less wasteful. A fringe benefit would be a reduction in the # of crappy journal submissions.

Permalink to Comment

15. Quagmire on March 9, 2011 5:01 AM writes...

There is a lot of sadness in the chemistry profession right now. But we are approaching the point of finally being realistic. We are going the way of the biologists and physicists. Working on ever increasing narrow fields, that have less and less marginal utility. Our post-docs are gonna get long, just like the PhD Physics Nerds and Bio Geeks. Eventually, science will just become a monastic existence, we just take it as it is and accept that it works in mysterious ways. Eventually, we'll be just like the humanities, with no hope for any real return on our education, just the chance to be in academia; starving, but participating.

This was our natural fate. It's not going to stop or even slow down. Unless you like running columns, creating nano tubes or synthesizing the next useless toxin more than sex, stay away.

Science is no longer a career, it's a glass bead game that is quickly turning into a religion that thrives on blind faith in the value of raw knowledge no matter how useless.

Permalink to Comment

16. RB Woodweird on March 9, 2011 9:09 AM writes...

"MDACC Student on March 8, 2011 11:22 PM writes...

There never seems to be an oversupply of dentists, optometrists, medical doctors, nurses, pharmacists...Because they are regulated. If we could regulate the number and quality of researchers..."

Exactly. But it is simpler than that even. No need for unions or regulations. Just create ISO standards for chemists. Pass ongoing exams, take continuing education courses, and you maintain your ISO8675309 certification.

Pretty soon you won't be able to make any product to ISO900 specs unless it is prepared by an ISO8675309 chemist as the inexorable creeping tentacles of ISO wriggle their way through the system.

Permalink to Comment

17. myma on March 9, 2011 10:16 AM writes...

The comment could have been phrased better, but I do agree with the greedycynicalselfinterested chap.
Like it or not there is a bubble in academia and advanced degrees in science, there has been a bubble for a long while. And for many years people by the hundreds were even imported to fill the bubble, necessitating increasing H1B numbers(which incidentally I support. If US taxes were paid to educate someone, we may as well keep him/her in the country.)
If this bubble should pop or deflate at the same time that industry is going through difficult times, ooof.

Permalink to Comment

18. p on March 9, 2011 11:19 AM writes...

I think both statements can be true:


1) We need more PhD scientists.

and

2) We have too many PhD scientists.


1 is true because all of us can identify needs, areas and projects that need more person-power. 2 is true because there are fewer and fewer jobs and many of these jobs are being outsourced.

Accepting the reality of 2 and just producing fewer PhD scientists will solve the acute problem of unemployed scientists but it won't address any of the areas in which we need discovery and progress.

Permalink to Comment

19. Rick on March 9, 2011 11:43 AM writes...

My apologies if this has already been posted, but I think we need a little humor under the circumstances. Check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl4L4M8m4d0

Permalink to Comment

20. NJBiologist on March 9, 2011 11:58 AM writes...

@11 Happy in Industry wrote: "I think Lab Manager should be elevated to first-class status within the academic hierarchy."

Throughout my training, the labs that were astonishingly productive were the labs where the PI had done essentially that. Maybe there wasn't anyone with the title of Lab Manager, but there was someone who did the Lab Manager things--basic skills training, enforcing data and lab discipline, etc. Usually not a PhD, though....


@18 RB Woodwierd: Damn you. I now have Tommy Tutone running through my head. Damn you again.

Permalink to Comment

21. Wagenr on March 9, 2011 1:20 PM writes...

@12 states- "But your most acute point is #1 - fixing this is not up to NIH or NSF - these agencies cannot tell universities how to run themselves, nor would anyone really want them to"

This is nonsense. NIH and NSF should absolutely tell institutions that are dependent on their funding how to run themselves.

This should be applied to, overhead, post-doc 'time of service' and endowments.

No university should be allowed to extract more than 50% of a grant for overhead.

No university should allow a post-doc to exist on NIH of NSF funding for say more than two years without there being a full-time staff position to which they may 'graduate'.

No university with an endowment over a certain max, say 5 billion should be allowed to apply for NIH or NSF grants unless they prove that a certain percentage of that endowment is dedicated exclusively to the maintenance of the physical sciences.

This will prevent 'rich' universities from wasting their endowments on sports teams and faculty hot tubs.

Quite frankly I'd exclude the Harvards completely from Public funding (Harvard had a 30 billion dollar endowment).


Permalink to Comment

22. Wagenr on March 9, 2011 1:22 PM writes...

@12 states- "But your most acute point is #1 - fixing this is not up to NIH or NSF - these agencies cannot tell universities how to run themselves, nor would anyone really want them to"

This is nonsense. NIH and NSF should absolutely tell institutions that are dependent on their funding how to run themselves.

This should be applied to, overhead, post-doc 'time of service' and endowments.

No university should be allowed to extract more than 50% of a grant for overhead.

No university should allow a post-doc to exist on NIH of NSF funding for say more than two years without there being a full-time staff position to which they may 'graduate'.

No university with an endowment over a certain max, say 5 billion should be allowed to apply for NIH or NSF grants unless they prove that a certain percentage of that endowment is dedicated exclusively to the maintenance of the physical sciences.

This will prevent 'rich' universities from wasting their endowments on sports teams and faculty hot tubs.

Quite frankly I'd exclude the Harvards completely from Public funding (Harvard had a 30 billion dollar endowment).


Permalink to Comment

23. Wagenr on March 9, 2011 1:24 PM writes...

@12 states- "But your most acute point is #1 - fixing this is not up to NIH or NSF - these agencies cannot tell universities how to run themselves, nor would anyone really want them to"

This is nonsense. NIH and NSF should absolutely tell institutions that are dependent on their funding how to run themselves.

This should be applied to, overhead, post-doc 'time of service' and endowments.

No university should be allowed to extract more than 50% of a grant for overhead.

No university should allow a post-doc to exist on NIH of NSF funding for say more than two years without there being a full-time staff position to which they may 'graduate'.

No university with an endowment over a certain max, say 5 billion should be allowed to apply for NIH or NSF grants unless they prove that a certain percentage of that endowment is dedicated exclusively to the maintenance of the physical sciences.

This will prevent 'rich' universities from wasting their endowments on sports teams and faculty hot tubs.

Quite frankly I'd exclude the Harvards completely from Public funding (Harvard had a 30 billion dollar endowment).


Permalink to Comment

24. lawyer on April 7, 2011 6:11 AM writes...

with no hope for any real return on our education, just the chance to be in academia; starving, but participating.

Permalink to Comment

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