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. . .