Two jobs for underutilized early-career scientists

Sunday morning’s Washington Post featured an excellent article by Brian Vastag entitled “Scientists Heeded Call But Few Can Find Jobs.” [You can find the text here.] Mr. Vastag pointed out that the Obama administration and the National Science Foundation have been encouraging students to pursue careers in science, but when they graduate, new Ph.D.’s are learning to their dismay that the jobs aren’t always there. He pointed in particular to a shortage of traditional academic, tenure-track jobs.

His article focused on graduates in the biological and life sciences. In these disciplines, high demand from pharmaceutical firms had until recently been supplying an alternative source of jobs. However, over the past few years, in response to declining profits, profit margins, and reduced federal funding, these firms have merged, reduced staff, and outsourced jobs abroad.

Mr. Vastag describes an emerging, two-tiered system. Senior scientists at universities enjoy job security, substantial salaries and benefits. By contrast, early career scientists find themselves trapped in a succession of minimal wage, temporary postdoctoral appointments that offer little in the way of health plans and other benefits, and not much in the way of career development opportunities either. What’s worse, the most recent graduates are finding even such postdoctoral work unavailable. They’re taking administrative and other jobs that fail to make use of their training and potential.

The article says little about job prospects in other branches of science. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that similar trends prevail more broadly, across the whole gamut of science, with a few exceptions.

Upon reflection: (1) what’s happening in U.S. science mirrors the reality in other countries around the world. (2) In many nations this same two-tiered system favoring the older, more established workforce at the expense of new entrants is true across all professions and labor markets, not just science. (3) In virtually every case analysts tell us such a tiered structure is unfair and unsustainable. (4) In these countries, the young are either leaving in search of better opportunity elsewhere, or staying and venting their frustration in street demonstrations.

Mr. Vastag’s article stops short of suggesting how we might move forward.

Indeed that’s hardly his job.

But it is the task of the collective, isn’t it? You and I all bear some responsibility for thinking the issue through. How might we proceed? What are our options?

They span a range, don’t they? At one end, a free-market argument: it’s always dangerous to distort supply and demand by means of government policies offering incentives for this or that career choice. Best just to let this over-capacity work its way through a series of corrections. Those promise to be painful but less so than alternatives, however well-intentioned. The pain of those affected will warn off others.

But to follow this course is to throw in the towel, to concede that this country can no longer afford to innovate. And history suggests that the United States, with only 3-4% of the world’s population, owes much of its standing in the world today to its sustained emphasis on innovation. Give this up and we risk being consigned to history’s ashbin.

At the other end of the spectrum then, some start with a quick look around at the 21st-century challenges we face and our 20th-century track record in dealing with those challenges as they’ve emerged. These include, but are not limited to: the high cost and low quality of US health care compared with other developed nations. Our track record in renewable energy. Agricultural production. Protection of the environment and ecosystems. Lots of progress in all these areas, but room for much more improvement. Then there’s the declining state of our public education in the sciences and mathematics.

Surely, they say, our most urgent priority is to ensure that what talent we do have is brought to bear on these and other social problems. Ought not economic stimulus for these sectors be accelerated and sustained?

But there’s a fine line between research fields that are sustained and fields and practitioners that perpetuate themselves. To flood a particular branch of science with new, young researchers is to accelerate progress but also to build a constituency for the continuation and preservation of that science.

One key to sorting things out may lie in something simple my father told me early on. “Over your career,” he said, “There will be many ups and downs in the economy. Sometimes jobs will be tight. For that reason, you should try to work on something you enjoy doing. That’ll help you over the rough spots.”

So, if we can start in K-12 public education, instilling that value…if we can help our young people carry out their own search for what they enjoy and then master their chosen craft…if we can hold back from torqueing their preferences overmuch through market distortions…if we can instill a love for problem-solving and creativity in the service of others as individual and national values…then perhaps we can claw our way back to a better place domestically and internationally.

Won’t be easy, and won’t be quick. But might go a bit more rapidly if some fraction of our underused early career scientists would give some time to K-12 science education… and/or some thought to the policy for science that led to their current plight, and how that policy framework might be improved. More of their insights and energy devoted to these two challenges, and the world might be a better place.

Easy for me to say. Your thoughts?

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7 Responses to Two jobs for underutilized early-career scientists

  1. Pingback: Two jobs for underutilized early-career scientists: links to some history…and an Existence Theorem. | Living on the Real World

  2. Leslie Brandt says:

    Thanks for your post, Bill. It was largely because of this problem that I applied to and participated in your AMS policy colloquium and an NAS Christine Mirzayan S&T Policy Fellowship. It was also through these mechanisms that I found my way to my current job doing climate change outreach and adaptation for forest managers. I was able to get this position right out of my PhD through the Presidential Management Fellows program and am happy to have a job I love that requires a lot of scientific knowledge and skils, and that also pays well and has benefits!

  3. Mona Behl says:

    Leslie, in turn, encouraged me to apply for the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium last year. SPC still remains to be one of the most intriguing experiences that sparked my interest in science policy and has strengthened my resolve to work in this interface. Thanks for providing me with a platform to build my foundation, Bill!

  4. Shaima Nasiri says:

    Finding jobs is an issue our graduates are facing at all levels: B.S., M.S., Ph.D. Sometimes it’s easier for students to get into graduate programs than to get jobs post-B.S., which in some cases just postpones the job search difficulty.

    For a national focus on increasing the number of people in STEM fields to be successful, it must include more than just encouraging people to study STEM in high school and college.

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