This is the first diary I've ever written on request; it was a diary to give some idea of why us young scientists, those few Americans among us that have stood by the profession for as long as we have, are fools. Brainy fools, but still fools, goes the conventional wisdom.
But those of us who have stuck it out, love what we do. I certainly do. Being a lab rat has been in my blood since childhood, and certainly since my young adult days of Christmas Counts and Breeding Bird Atlases.
There's a little research in it, a few links to folks better then I, but for the most part, it is anecdotal; most of what you will find about the science labor market is indeed anecdotal. I choose to center where I currently am; the postdoctoral world. Graduate school is a whole separate ball of wax (and deserves a journal of it's own).
Follow me below the cut for some facts, figures, links, and scuttlebutt from within the National Institutes of Health, of the uncertain future us young scientists are facing.
So what exactly is a postdoc?
Think, for a moment, of science like a medieval craft, or a knighthood. The graduate student is the apprentice or squire, with extremely little control over their ultimate fate. The Primary Investigator (P.I.); professor, scientist, etc., is the master. And the postdoc lies in between -- we're literally journeymen. Itinerant scientists, not considered experienced enough to be signed on as full fledged scientist or faculty.
Although 10 years out of date, one of the seminal studies done on what has been happening among postdocs is The Postdoc Crisis. I cannot recommend it enough. It covers the basic problems and points very well:
- Postdoc numbers have been exploding for a long time -- close to 20 years, in fact.
- Faculty/science positions both in and out of academia have been declining, with academia experiencing the steepest decline.
- Postdocs are paid less then half to one-quarter what a full professor or scientist earns.
- Postdocing has spread beyond academia even to the previously well-paid environs of industry.
A more recent perspective came from The Real Science Crisis. Though it says much the same thing that the Postdoc Crisis said, it had some unique, even counter intuitive, things to say:
In a perverse way, such surges in financial support could actually exacerbate problems for young scientists. Biomedicine learned that lesson the hard way after Congress doubled the NIH budget from $13.6-billion to $27.3-billion between 1998 and 2003. Since then, the agency's appropriations have not kept pace with inflation, which has eroded the actual amount available for research.
The doubling had sweeping effects, spurring universities to go on a building and training spree that in some cases defied budgetary realities. One survey of 84 medical schools found that they expected to expand their research space by 26 percent between 2003 and 2008, and that they would need to increase the amount of NIH support they receive, despite the tightening of that agency's budget. (See article.) The universities added graduate students and postdocs in biomedical departments, but the number of permanent jobs available did not significantly increase...
It summed things up very nicely.
"What's happening in the biomedical sciences — it's a crisis."
On a more personal level, I recently heard that my advisor/mentor was in charge of a search committee for a new scientist at the NIH. He received over a 1000 applications in 3 days.
He had to narrow it to 50. All of those 50 have diamond publications: multiple "first" (primary) author publications in the best journals in the field: Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Getting such publications involves equal parts dedication, wealth (to network into the best universities and with the best mentors) and raw luck.
And even those that do manage to get into a new P.I. position face almost insurmountable odds to go anywhere with it. Most institutions require their new scientists to bring in an "R01", or primary NIH research grant within a certain number of years, so they can skim a certain amount (often around 40-50%) of the grant for their own pockets. Grant income is one of the biggest sources of revenue for a major research university. Those that do not get the R01 in time are usually summarily fired.
And what's the odds of getting an R01? Well, the last payline from NIAID was listed at 10% for established researchers, 16% for new researchers.
Think about that. 16 percent, at best. That means 74% of grant applications are rejected. What that translates to is a very good many stellar research projects -- and researchers -- never get that R01 grant, and even after overcoming impossible odds after impossible odds, they end up right back at square one -- the unemployment line.
Even within the NIH, it is no different for new researchers. Intramural (internal) funding is far more freely given, but publication expectations are, according to new P.I.s that I have talked to, insane to the point of being inhuman. I've seen the signs of stress on these people myself. As afraid as anyone in this economy, despite their seemingly privileged position.
It's a terribly screwed up, twisted system. And what of me? I've found temporary refuge, as I said, at the National Institutes of Health. At one time, such a postdoc might have come close to guaranteeing me my pick of scientist positions afterward, even without stellar publications. But that time passed 20 years ago.
In a way, I am privileged. I have a job for at least 8 more months, possibly about 20, at a salary enough to keep me in frozen pizzas, Trader Joe's and the occasional meal out here in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
But after that...
Even though I am researching (and have been researching for many years) non-P.I. positions, and long ago gave up any idea of working in academia...I wonder if my close to 20 year quest to become a scientist is simply a form of lemming diving off a cliff.
I'll close with a couple of cartoons that sum up the life of a postdoc in modern times absolutely perfectly.
(That whole thread is worth a look; Jorge Cham is simply awesome, even if his humor can't help but to be a little black).
(Edit to clarify an important point: I am not necessarily unhappy with being a scientist, only nervous and scared about my future as one. That's the real point of the diary.