Sunday, July 8, 2012

Washington Post: "U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there."

Brian Vastag has written a really fantastic article in the Washington Post about the troubles of scientists finding jobs. It's a really great article, and a wonderful opportunity to tell the wider world about #chemjobs issues. Mr. Vastag also talks about the relative glut of new PhDs, the postdoc trap and the troubles with Big Pharma. 

A few choice quotes:
“It’s been a bloodbath, it’s been awful,” said Kim Haas, who spent 20 years designing pharmaceuticals for drug giants Wyeth and Sanofi-Aventis and is in her early 50s. Haas lost her six-figure job at Sanofi-Aventis in New Jersey last year. She now works one or two days a week on contract at a Philadelphia university. She dips into savings to make ends meet. 
Until recently, PhD organic chemist Mark Darey fit that description. In 2009, he was laid off from Albany Molecular Research, a contractor for pharmaceutical companies, after 20 years in the business. As he applied for 400 chemistry jobs, he worked as a low-wage office temp — and so was not included in the unemployment figures. “It was quite scary,” said Darey, who this year finally landed another chemist position, at DuPont in Belle, W. Va. “I was watching my bank balance dwindle away, wondering when I’d have to sell the house.” 
...Like many scientists, [postdoc] Amaral grew disillusioned with the system that left her with an expensive degree but few job options. She left her lab in December after federal funding for her post-doc position ran out. She now works as an administrator at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and is in a “holding pattern,” unsure whether — or how — to advance a science career she spent more than a decade working toward. “I’ve listened to this stuff on the news about how we need more scientists and engineers,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ We’re here. We need something to do besides manual labor for another academic person.” 
Haas, the former drug company chemist, has even harsher words. She plans to “get out of Jersey and get out of science” when her daughter graduates from high school in two years. “She’s very good at everything, very smart,” Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”
Some questions and thoughts:

Reality check: Does anyone dispute the facts that Mr. Vastag has laid out? Would anyone like to take the contrarian case that America Needs More Scientists Now? Or is that (as Unstable Isotope has put it), the trope for the laziest of pundits? 

Must budgets keep going up? Vastag writes the following:
The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF. But that boom is about to go bust, because an equal number of permanent jobs failed to follow. One big factor: Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Although the injection of $10 billion in federal stimulus funds to the NIH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “created or retained” 50,000 science jobs, according to the NIH, that money is running dry, putting those positions at risk. 
The lack of permanent jobs leaves many PhD scientists doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as “post-docs,” or postdoctoral fellowships. Post-docs used to last a year or two, but now it’s not unusual to find scientists toiling away for six, seven, even 10 years.
Is Vastag's summary/formulation correct? Isn't it true, then, that the NIH/biomedical science complex must have ever-increasing budgets (or at least budgets that keep pace with inflation?). (CPI inflation is what -- 2-3% a year?) (Hey, if you've been a postdoc for more than 5 years, isn't that a sign that it's time to get out?) Outside of the Defense Department (a topic for another conversation), is there any part of the US discretionary budget that keeps pace with inflation? 

If you're in debt, R U DOIN IT RONG?: Vastag makes a couple of references to degrees being costly ("After earning her expensive doctorate...", "buried in debt)? Is this factually correct? I am under the perhaps-wrong impression that PhDs in the sciences are paid for (tuition + stipend) and student debt undertaken in graduate school is lifestyle, not education-oriented. Am I wrong?

Pyramid scheme?: Brian Vastag correctly consults Paula Stephan for comments on the economics of science:
Stephan, the Georgia State economist, calls the post-doc system a “pyramid scheme” that enriches — in prestige, scientific publications and federal grant dollars — a few senior scientists at the expense of a large pool of young, cheap ones.
Is it fair to term the postdoc system a pyramid scheme? Pyramid schemes are characterized by the flowing of money from the bottom to the top (and the requirement of exponentially more suckers at the bottom of the pyramid.) Is it more accurate to term the postdoc system a labor tournament, where the gains are split amongst a very small pool of winners (i.e. tenure-track positions, etc.) 

Kroll's uh-oh comment: From the article: 

Although the overall unemployment rate of chemists and other scientists is much lower than the national average, those figures mask an open secret: Many scientists work outside their chosen field.  
“They’ll be employed in something,” said Michael S. Teitelbaum, a senior adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who studies the scientific workforce. “But they go and do other things because they can’t find the position they spent their 20s preparing for.”
First of all, if true, is that the best use of their 20s? But better yet, David Kroll has a very, very good comment:
One thing missing from the article was a discussion of the so-called alternative career paths where one uses PhD training but not in an academic or industrial setting. Even a typical non-lab career of science writing is becoming extremely competitive, both for salaried positions and freelancers. 
I hesitate to say this without complete data but we may indeed be reaching a point where more PhDs are being produced than can be absorbed by both academia/industry and non-laboratory positions.
I think David's thoughts are mostly correct. The job market for college graduates is relatively fine; that said, I don't think science PhDs necessarily end up at the front of the line for entry-level positions in other fields. I'll also troll a little bit and say that David, a former academic, is probably way out in front of other academics, who might still hold fast to thoughts that their graduates and postdocs could get a non-science-related job anytime they wanted.

All in all, this is a great article, and I hope that its most prominent impact will be felt upon policymakers in the Washington area.

What are your thoughts on the questions that I have raised? What are your thoughts? (P.S. Over at the Washington Post article itself, there are a stonkering 3621 comments and it has degenerated into a mass elephant-v-donkey shouting match. I know that won't happen here.) 

27 comments:

  1. I really loved this article. I don't entirely agree with all of it, but I'm just thrilled to see the MSM finally getting a clue that having an advanced degree in science doesn't exactly guarantee you job.

    The main problem, of course, is that most people in non-technical jobs don't see teh difference between any sort of STEM degree. They hear that there's high demand for petroleum engineers and skilled web developers, and assume that the situation must be similar for biologists, chemists, etc. The only reason that physicists are any better off that chemists is that physicists often pick up programming skills along the way.

    Of course it's important to realize that life could be much worse. Most people with a science PhD don't have student loan debt (at least not directly, although they might have interest accruing on their undergrad debt or unpaid credit card bills), and they're much better off than a lot of other people these days. But then, if you're the kind of person who can earn a PhD in science, you're probably extremely intelligent and hard working, so you really SHOULD have an above-average income and job security. If our best and brightest young people can only earn $40,000 a year with 4% unemployment then that's pretty pathetic.

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  2. Unstable IsotopeJuly 8, 2012 at 10:49 PM

    I feel like this article is a positive first step in addressing the issue. It's just been taken as an article of faith that we need more scientists. As a twitter correspondent said, we need more science jobs, not necessarily more scientists. The ironic thing for me is that there isn't really a reduced need for science, it's more important than ever

    I guess it's too much to ask for more attention from the media, from the ACS, to the grad student system. The way things are now, there is a need to limit enrollment in grad programs but this won't be popular.

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    1. The budget situation (with tax increases seeming highly unlikely) may solve this issue in an uglier way. Less NIH/NSF funding from the feds, budget cuts from state level = fewer professors, smaller startup packages, etc.

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  3. Oooo, a Sunday blog entry? Hot potato!

    On the topic of student loans/debt, I can agree that most of the people I knew who took out large amounts of loans did so in order to fund their recreational habits. However, I've also known others who took them out just to get by. CJ, you spent time in San Diego, so I'm guessing it wouldn't surprise you if grad students took out a loan here or there just to keep food on the table. People going to school at Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and other prestigious schools in expensive areas have probably done the same.

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    1. Often graduate students with families take out loans, to cover expenses for more than just themselves. It was also the time and place. Why starve for science? People were getting jobs, and good jobs, for quite some time. There were several decades where student loans made sense, and only in the past half decade did we find ourselves with our pants down for this.

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  4. "We do not produce enough scientists to maintain our high-tech edge" was not just a trope for lazy pundits - it has been a self-serving platitude repeated by those who benefited from the grad school bubble. Pharma job situation has been steadily worsening since about 2001 while the numbers of graduates kept raising - and it took almost a decade for ACS and academia to notice the problem...

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    1. Sometimes it seems academia is still not taking notice. At the institution where I completed my Ph.D. the size of this fall's incoming chemistry grad class is the highest in several years. I was baffled when I heard how many students they were accepting, knowing first hand the difficulties new graduates are experiencing.

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  5. Agreed -- overall a good article, but you're absolutely right re: the whole "financing the PhD" thing. Nobody pays for their neuroscience (or any science) PhD in the US. This is flat-out wrong and a correction needs to be issued. In an otherwise solid bit of reporting, I'm utterly flabbergasted at how Vastag appears not to understand how graduate-level science education works in this country.

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    1. Agreed, it seemed like a mistake, though I wondered a bit if they did things differently in neuroscience vs my field (chemistry). But in a way it's still accurate, though technically wrong...there are enormous costs associated with going to grad school and probably doing a postdoc, when you could start earning money much sooner. And that's just the financial part of the costs. I suspect I'd be no worse off in life if I'd blown off grad school, and had more fun in my 20s.

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  6. Can we put a little bit of blame in this conversation on the pharma industry? The nineties (when I went to college) was flush with pharma reps coming to colleges and universities to encourage chemistry students to go into grad school for organic synthesis/medicinal chemistry. In my four years at a small school (2200 students with ~10 chemistry majors a year) we had three different big pharma chemists (in my three years of attending talks from speakers brought in by the chemistry department) come and give talks and extol the virtues of working in the field: "The money!" "The perks!" "The job security!" "The money!" "Oh and also the science which we can't tell you about because did we mention the money?"

    Now, the pharma research bubble has collapsed leaving thousands out of a job. Most chemists I see quoted in any article about job troubles are organic chemists. Yet the blame is put on those pesky academics and educators for encouraging students to pursue the sciences. What about the industries who benefited from the glut of PhD students so they could skim off the cream and toss away the rest?

    Above, Milkshake says "it took almost a decade for ACS and academia to notice the problem" while it is more appropriate to say to took a decade for the big pharma push to subside while all those impressionable young chemistry students filtered through undergrad, grad school, post docs, to the point where they realized their path reached a dead end.

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    1. I think that's fair to serve pharma a share of the blame pie. It should be noted that the relatively low-level people you met probably thought that they were telling the truth about the field. They probably also did not consider the 2005-2007 period to be "the end of an era" as opposed to "some tough times."

      That's a good set of comments, Anon. I'll have to think on them further.

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  7. I knew Kim Haas, and I found her last statement about her bright daughter the saddest part of the article. Best wishes to both her and her daughter.

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  8. The part about the pyramid scheme does seem accurate to me, although it wasn't explained very well. Research grants require large numbers of low level workers (typically grad students) to do the work vs. a few academic jobs at the top directing the action. Although the people at the bottom may not be making the money (as in a typical pyramid scheme) they are generating the money by doing the lab work that's required for the research grant. In the past, this worked out because the grad students could leave the academic pyramid altogether by getting jobs in pharma after graduation but now those jobs are rare and there aren't enough opportunities for all those workers at the bottom of the pyramid.

    As far as student loans, there are a couple of scenarios where student loans could come into play, even with stipends. If you have a lot of loans from undergrad, particularly private loans that might not defer while you're in grad school, you'd have that interest accumulating while you're in grad school. And secondly, sometimes the stipend doesn't cover all the expenses. This wasn't explained very well, but it seemed like one of the examples they gave was someone who went back to school after working for a while, and in that case the person might have a family and other expenses, which would require student loans. (I also had to take out student loans in my last semester when my grant was cancelled at the last minute, but that an unusual situation.)

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  9. I took out student loans during grad school. It was only a "lifestyle choice" if you think that it's reasonable to ask someone to eat ramen noodles or peanut butter and jelly every day during this part of their lives. I don't.

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    1. So did I. But I think it's important to distinguish educational expenses (which is what most WaPo readers think of) as opposed to other, perhaps-equally-necessary expenses.

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    2. Oh the humanity! Eating Ramen noodles/PB&J. Where is the outrage! Why is former UN Secretary General Annan wasting his time in Syria when he can be here, righting these injustices of the world! Ramen noodles and PB&J is below being human, in fact, I bet even those millions of people that go hungry everyday would turn their nose at that.

      What next, comparing graduate school to slavery?

      Thanks, Anon 7:40 AM, you've been entered into silliest (nay, dumbest) post of the year nomination.

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  10. I think that a Science Careers piece mentioned somewhere here makes a good complementary reading. While most of that article reiterates the same old skill gap drivel, it also makes an important point - employers in fact want not scientists, but better educated technicians. So what it hints at is that money that would best be used educating people at high/vocational school level are instead spent in graduate school. The reasons I imagine are simple - people who control the flow of money direct it towards grad schools because that's where are (were, going to be) and there the students come to you. So we end up with a situation which strikingly resembles affirmative action - we say we need to improve primary schools in inner cities, but instead use it to give Will Smith Jr. (I use the name figuratively) free ride in college.

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    1. Exactly, they want technicians, a person who can do a profit generating task over and over again. A true scientist, thinks about something, does some reserach, thinks some, does some calculations, maybe publishes a paper about it. There is no profit in that.

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  11. The statement about physicists having low unemployment because they found jobs on Wall Street is chilling because the jobs they found were as the "quants" who devised the financing models behind CDOs, which created the economic crisis we are still enjoying.

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  12. We are approaching the 55th anniversary of one of the root causes of the current problem – the launching of Sputnik by the USSR. The US felt it needed many more scientists to surpass the Soviets so plenty of dollars were spent on science education. It worked; we beat them to the moon. Then we lost interest.

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  13. We are approaching the 55th anniversary of one of the root causes of the current problem – the launching of Sputnik by the USSR. The US felt it needed many more scientists to surpass the Soviets so plenty of dollars were spent on science education. It worked; we beat them to the moon. Then we lost interest.

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  14. "took a decade for the big pharma push to subside while all those impressionable young chemistry students filtered through undergrad, grad school, post docs, to the point where they realized their path reached a dead end": it's notoriously hard to control systems with large pure time delays.

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  15. Back in the 1970s, I took out lots loans while in gradschool to pay for the birth of my daughter, to pay some of my stay-at-home wife's mental illness bills, to pay childcare when my wife was in the mental ward, to pay school fees and charges (those loans were called fee deferments back then), to buy books and to support my family's day to day living costs which do to inflation at the time were going up much, much faster than my stipend was (one year my rent in married student housing went up 25%). I guess you can call that all life style borrowing. I did not think so at the time, and it sure was not spent much on fun. I ended up with student loan debt that was about 76% of my annual starting salary as a medicinal chemist.

    So perhaps we should not be too judgmental here about why someone needs student loans during gradschool.

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    1. Technically furloughedJuly 13, 2012 at 1:36 PM

      Agree big time with you A11:51. Have had a similar experience myself.

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  16. To answer your question, yes, I have debt. It accrued during the course of my MS. I was promised tuition reimbursement but instead was told I'd "only" have to pay in-state tuition and fees. That's one of the reasons why I did an MS instead of a PhD there. And before I transferred to my current department my previous program took my tuition out of my stipend while I was a TA. They weren't supposed to do it according to university policy but did so anyways. We were told if we didn't like it that there were others lining up for TA spots. We also had to pay grad school fees and health insurance with what was left of our stipends, in addition to living expenses. It wasn't enough.

    Also many, many people accumulate debt to pay for undergrad. If it's consolidated it's in deferment during the course of a PhD, but still has to be paid as soon as that person registers for less than full time status. That could mean graduation, leaving school for any reason, etc.

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  17. An academic who sees the lightJuly 16, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    One area that never seems to be addressed in any significant fashion is the U.S. academic culture of viewing M.S. degrees as a failed Ph.D. Many other parts of the world view a master's degree as highly useful level of education- you have some research experience but you are not completely a specialist and thus can be readily transplanted to closely related fields. Even if you stay within your area of study, you have far greater knowledge and better hands than a bachelor's grad.

    I think U.S. would do well to smarten up and recognize the value of master's graduates over Ph.D.'s. I think it's a clear case of too many leaders and not enough talented minions.

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  18. Many of you may not fully realize that big pharma is getting out of the in house research business entirely. Instead, the system is evolving to become like an investment bank. In this model, big pharma will use their accumulated capital to buy and sell patent rights to drugs which are generated by tax payer and VC funded startups. The startups can "postdocify" industry by offering low pay and long hour temporary positions with the goal of selling their IP to the PharmaBanks. Also, their research costs are partially offloaded to the tax payer in the false name of small business. This is much the same as how WalMart leeches of Medicaid by not offering their employees health insurance. A side benefit is that these small, taxpayer funded startups can more easily recruit cheap foreign labor while flying under the radar and not needing as many H1B visas. Big companies are held more accountable to H1B limitations, since its viewed as a deep pocketed for profit company, instead of a small research startup.

    So the real money will be in Pharma Finance where undergrad chemistry BS students get MBAs to trade drug IP.

    You heard it hear first and were duly warned.

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