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.)