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Academia Faces PhD Overload

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"Great opportunity! Earn the big bucks! Get a life!" proclaims the headline on a mock press release — authored anonymously as a satire on the state of career prospects for PhDs — that circulated on the Internet in the late 1990s. "We make these dreams a reality for thousands of postdoctoral researchers every year," it continues, "through a patented process known as PhD expungement."

At a time in which the supply of highly qualified biomedical research PhDs significantly outweighs the demand for academic faculty, doctoral "expungement" no longer seems so extreme. Indeed, Vanderbilt University's Roger Chalkley, senior associate dean for biomedical research, education, and training, says that now "it's not uncommon to get 50, 100, or 150 people inquiring about" a single faculty opening.

"Are there too many grad students and postdocs for the amount of R01 support? I would say no, it's actually finely balanced," Chalkley says. "On the other hand, if you turn that around to say: 'Are there enough, or too many, for the number of research I institution faculty positions?' Then, obviously, there are too many for that."

Increasingly, academic institutions require qualified candidates to have completed postdoctoral training. Though most postdocs who qualify for tenure-track faculty positions will not land them, those who do have little choice but to contribute to a propagative cycle, according to University of Minnesota Professor David Levitt.

"Every time you hire a new professor, that person's got to get postdocs to do his work," Levitt says. "So you just keep expanding the postdoc pool, which means we need more and more graduate students."

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Double trouble

Though many institutions across the US viewed the doubling of the National Institutes of Health's budget between 1998 and 2003 as a boon through which they could build rigorous research programs or bolster existing systems, Paula Stephan, professor of economics at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, says this "tremendous growth in funding" placed a "tremendous amount of stress on the system" that drives biomedical research in the US. In order to remain competitive, several institutions "went on an unprecedented building binge," hiring additional faculty, research associates, and postdocs, Stephan noted in a 2010 International Centre for Economic Research working paper.

According to Stephan, the way in which principal investigators continue to train students, conduct research, and run their labs was sustainable only under the circumstance of continued growth. While most research labs at institutions abroad are staffed primarily by scientists in permanent positions, graduate students and postdocs comprise the majority of the US biomedical academic workforce.

As the primary source of biomedical research funding in the US, NIH's budget dictates the demand for labor — not only how much work can be done, but also how many people are required to do it. Post-doubling, the NIH budget increased annually at a rate just below that of inflation. As grant success rates fell, tenure-track academic hiring slowed. But American institutions didn't trim their staffs to fit the buttoned-down federal funding levels.

"The dynamics come from outside of the system. People are reacting to the funding that the federal government has made available, while at the same time, we have this ready supply of [PhD] talent," Stephan says. "As long as the US [biomedical research] system was really growing, this was a great strength because we kept bringing in new blood and training new people and getting new ideas."

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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."

Academia has reaped appreciable rewards as a result of the swelling pool of PhDs who take on one or more postdocs in their pursuit of increasingly elusive tenure-track employment. Stephan says that while the practice of hiring these persistent PhDs — who, when compared with seasoned staff scientists, are inexpensive and bubbling with ingenuity — has benefitted established biomedical researchers substantially, "it's not at all clear that it's a good system for these people who come out after 12 years of training," Stephan says. "They've got a seven-year PhD and five years as a postdoc, but don't really have a meaningful place to go."

In 2005, Stephan first likened the system to "a pyramid scheme in which it works real well if it continues to expand, but [permanent] academic jobs just haven't been expanding," she recalls. Today, she says, even as they recognize that career prospects in academia are poor, PhD students, postdocs, and PIs alike hesitate to stray from the system.

Plight of the postdocs

In order to become professors, most PhDs must train beyond defending their theses. But that hasn't always been the case. Minnesota's David Levitt obtained his MD/PhD in 1968, a time in which "there were five jobs for every person looking," he says. Now a tenured professor of physiology, Levitt landed his first faculty position at the university fresh out of his graduate program, having never taken a postdoc. "That wasn't that unusual 40 or 50 years ago," he adds.

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Though it's now "obvious there are certainly more PhDs than there are faculty positions," Levitt says he finds it difficult to imagine just how "our biomedical system would run without this great pool of postdocs."

According to NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients data released in 2006, of the approximately 43,000 doctorates in all disciplines who took a postdoc position within five years of obtaining their PhD, 16,000 were in the biological, agricultural, or environmental life sciences. Of 8,250 total PhDs who had taken two postdocs within five years post-graduation, 3,980 were in the life sciences. In addition, doctorates in the life sciences accounted for 400 of the 770 total PhDs who had taken three or more postdoc positions during that same period of time.

"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."

Vanderbilt's Chalkley echoes that sentiment. "Make no mistake about it: the research drive and success over the last 30 years has been built upon the genius, if you will, of this strategy of using brilliant grad students and postdocs," he says. As chair of the National Academies' Committee to Study the National Needs for Biomedical, Behavioral, and Clinical Research Personnel, and having once been a postdoc himself, Chalkley understands the economic concerns of newly minted PhDs. He and his colleagues recommend in a December report that NIH raise postdocs' starting stipends from the current $37,740 to $45,000.

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"NIH is very responsive to the taxpayer, as they should be," Chalkley says of postdocs' pay. While they're not building large retirement funds or taking lavish vacations with their annual salaries, he says, postdocs are generally paid fairly, as they are trainees as much as they are productive employees.

When PhDs begin a postdoc, "they're very much learning, they're not producing much," Chalkley says. "Then towards the end, they become highly skilled, highly productive, and highly valuable." In this way, he adds, a postdoc appointment is similar to an apprenticeship.

Still, Keith Micoli, manager of New York University School of Medicine's postdoctoral program, says that "the US research system definitely has taken advantage of the low cost of highly trained labor." As it stands, "there's definitely incentive in the short term to use postdocs and graduate students as low-cost labor without considering the long-term careers of these people," he says. "But I think that is changing. It has changed a lot in just the last five years."

A "frustrated" postdoc at the time, Micoli attended the first National Postdoctoral Association meeting, held in Berkeley, Calif., in 2003. He later served on the NPA's board of directors through 2007, and is now a member of the group's advisory council. Micoli says the NPA "has been great at galvanizing this growing sense that change needed to occur." Indeed, the group has spearheaded several efforts to protect postdocs' interests, including those that spawned the now widely accepted five-year limit for postdoc appointments.

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Though Vanderbilt's Chalkley supports this limit on postdoc training periods, he says that institutional implementation of the five-year rule invoked some "unintended consequences," not the least of which was an increase in the number of staff scientists supported by soft money — most often, expendable grant funds.

Research faculty on the rise

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.

Chalkley calls research faculty academia's "forgotten majority." Unlike grad students and postdocs, "I don't see anybody agitating for them. ... There's no 'NPA for Research Instructors' — there's no group concerned with their well-being," he says.

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After obtaining his PhD and completing two postdocs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Micoli was appointed to the research faculty there. "It's a very unsecured position," he says. "You are faculty, but you're certainly a lower class of faculty in some people's eyes."

It was the time he spent as a research instructor that Micoli, now at NYU, says made him realize his postdoc training was not all it should have been. "While I was an instructor ... I was really working toward progressing my own career in collaboration with a mentor," he says. While five years per postdoc are ostensibly plenty, "people don't realize how short that time is and spend a lot of it sort of floundering and finding their feet where good career planning would allow them to move more quickly."

'Outside of academia,' bench meets business

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.

Nicole Gravagna at the University of Colorado, Denver, says she considers herself fortunate to have been exposed to careers outside of academia before entering a second graduate program. Currently a PhD candidate in molecular neuroscience, Gravagna chose to pursue a doctorate after having earned a master's and working as a lab technician at the US Department of Agriculture. Having already spent two years in a graduate program, Gravagna says she began the PhD program at Denver in 2005 "with open eyes."

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"I knew how the process worked and I knew what the [job] prospects were on the way out" right from the start, she says. Most of her peers, however, were not so knowledgeable; some still show aversion to careers beyond the ivory tower. Gravagna recalls fellow students saying, "'Well, I'm going to try my hand at academia, and if that doesn't go very well, then I'm going to do biotech.'"

Gravagna, whose goal is to become a chief scientific officer at a biotech firm, says "this wishy-washy attitude" confirms a common misconception — most grad students don't realize that careers outside of academia often require distinct skills they can't acquire within it. "It's not a backup plan. It's not a tier down if you don't succeed at shooting the moon," she says. "It's its own separate career plan and it has its own separate training that goes behind it, and if you haven't done any of that, then you're not really going to be prepared for it."

Adding to the problem is that "it's very difficult for someone who's in academia to train somebody to go into industry because they [themselves] don't have those skills or knowledge," NYU's Micoli says.

Once she saw that some schools had begun to incorporate soft skills training into their PhD programs, Gravagna decided to take action for herself. When she approached then-Graduate School Dean John Freed, she was introduced to Arlen Meyers, a professor of otolaryngology, who had just begun to offer a course for students interested in biotech at the UC Denver Business School. With Meyers' assistance as faculty advisor and the support of her fellow students, Gravagna launched the Alternatives in Science careers club in March 2007.

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As a full-time graduate student, planning and executing an extra-curricular club meant that Gravagna had to make clever use of downtime between bench protocols. "As a molecular neuroscientist, all of my experiments are 'Set something up, incubate. Set something up, incubate.' ... So during incubations I would do a little work [for the club] here and there," she says. "Within a couple of months we had over a hundred people on our mailing list. ... We've had a lot of successful events on campus," such as networking and career-development seminars.

A new master's

Stakeholders within higher education who began a similar effort to forge a balance between bench and business more than a decade ago are now beginning to see the fruits of their labor.

"Some people have referred to it as an 'MBA for scientists,' but I think that's not really accurate," says Carol Lynch, who directs the Council of Graduate Schools' Professional Science Master's initiative. "We call the professional science master's, sort of loosely, 'science plus.' Only some of the 'plus' component is business. What it's designed to do, really, is to prepare students with advanced science training for careers outside of academia."

In 1995, the National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy released a report entitled "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers," in which it considered whether the "graduate education system adequately [prepares] science and engineering students for today's marketplace." Overall, the committee recommended that institutions amend PhD programs to include a greater variety of training so that graduates would be more appealing to employers beyond academia. Intrigued by the idea of creating an entirely new graduate program, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation initiated plans for what it had begun to call "new master's degrees," Lynch says. At around the same time, the W.M. Keck Foundation was making plans to build the Keck Graduate Institute, or KGI, based on the same principle.

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In 1997, both Keck and Sloan funded the first professional science master's program grants; Keck erected the KGI — which is now a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium — and Sloan supported the launch of four professional science master's, or PSM, degree tracks at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

On its PSM initiative Web site, the Council of Graduate Schools tallies 233 total programs at 110 council-affiliated institutions to date. Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of Connecticut both offer PSM programs specific to applied genomics for biotechnology. Lynch estimates a current overall PSM program enrollment of around 3,000 students, and says that there are approximately 5,000 PSM graduates worldwide so far.

"A typical entry-level position for a PSM graduate would be a project manager or lab manager," Lynch says. "Project management ... is something that employers are really looking for: somebody that understands the technical aspects of the business, but can actually manage [and] knows organizational structure."

While the council is currently surveying PSM grads to collect solid career placement statistics, anecdotally speaking, Lynch says that "start-up companies love PSM students because they know everything — they don't just know the molecular biology of the biotechnology piece, but they know how that gets translated into a product."

As PSM programs are still in their early stages, however, some employers have expressed concern that "there's a big mix of what's being taught ... [that] some of those professional master's programs are a little too thin on the science," Georgia State's Stephan says. Overall, though, "some of these programs really train people with much better financial skills and they can be very effective, I'm sure, on the business end [and in] certain places where PhDs don't have any of those kinds of skills," she adds.

But given the choice, how can a prospective graduate student determine whether a PSM or a PhD program is best?

"If they love research, then I would say go get the PhD. ... But if you're not going into academics, be aware that you should probably get some additional experience," Lynch says. "If they're not interested in sitting in a lab doing the hardcore research, but they like science, then I would say, definitely get the PSM."

NYU's Micoli says postgrads should only pursue a PhD if their career goals require it. "I don't think it's a good idea for people to go into a PhD program simply because they were a talented undergrad," he says. In fact, Lynch says that seemingly extraneous education may make job candidates less appealing to employers. "For many jobs, you don't need a PhD and employers don't want people with PhDs because they're too expensive," she says.

'Part of the test'

Most students who opt to obtain PhDs are passionate about research. "There's a large number of students ... who are terribly interested in studying in these fields. There are very exciting things going on in these fields and it looks like there are lots of opportunities," GSU's Stephan says. "You get admitted to graduate school where you can work in an important lab with well-known faculty on research that has a real promise of making a difference, and you have financial support. For a lot of people, that seems pretty appealing, but in a sense, it's very easy for them to think they're going to be able to do the same thing as the person who trains them."

Opinions as to whether graduate programs are doing enough to abate the problem are mixed. While even the best recruiting officers couldn't force a student to pursue a PhD, the question remains as to whether institutions are being sufficiently honest with prospective students.

Chalkley says he has seen "graduate programs ... reinvent themselves over the last decade in response to this situation." But while Chalkley believes institutions have been "pretty up front" about career prospects, Levitt suggests the opposite, saying "there's no honesty at all in recruiting PhDs. ... There's not a hint that there's a shortage of jobs." In his mind, the simplest solution to the careers conundrum would be to inject honesty into the PhD recruitment process. At the very least, Levitt says, updated job placement data would benefit students.

Over the past several years, some people have proposed potential solutions: hire more permanent staff; reduce PhD admissions; or do some combination of both. Some in the community suggest that the problem will take care of itself over time. But others, like Levitt, are worried. "I have a feeling that this is going to collapse really quickly with the way American finances and budgets are changing," he says.

Chalkley adds that "the faculty situation is not moving very much" as tenured professors are increasingly reluctant to retire. NYU's Micoli expects tenure-track positions to remain tied up for some time. "I'd hesitate to predict the rosy future that many have with the pending retirement of the baby-boomers, given that institutions don't seem to be replacing faculty with tenure-track positions," he says. "You can no longer say 10,000 professors will retire, so we'll need 10,000 new ones. It will probably be 5,000."

At the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director meeting in December, Francis Collins asked "a new work group to examine biomedical workforce issues including supply, demand, and diversity of investigators in the next decade," according to the NIH Record. In a January blog post, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey says the group will address questions such as "What is the right size of the workforce?" and "What are the appropriate types of positions that should be supported to allow people to have successful careers?"

As these and other questions remain unanswered, Micoli says it is best that institutions train PhD students and postdocs for a variety of careers. To do so will require initiative on the parts of the trainees "to seek help and know what they want to do," he says.

Gravagna at UC Denver says that some PhDs still "seem to believe that as long as their science is good, their data is accurate, and they get a Science or Nature paper they can do whatever they want with that." While that might hold true for some, Gravagna says that for her part, she "wasn't willing to sit back and hope for that."

"Part of getting the PhD is figuring out how to get the PhD. No one tells you how you can graduate, so that's part of the test," Gravagna says. "Another part of the test is, can you figure out how to get all the peripheral training you can? Because it's there, but you have to go find it. It's not going to be handed to you in a syllabus."

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