Careers and Recruitment

Nature Biotechnology 27, 206 - 207 (2009)

Fear factor

Genevive Bjorn1

  1. Genevive Bjorn is a freelance writer in Maui, Hawaii.

Job prospects are looking gloomy as the economic downturn runs its course, but there are bright spots for some.

As if years of shrinking budgets hadn't created a competitive enough postdoctoral job market in many fields and sectors, the worldwide economic downturn is now making some difficult-to-navigate career paths downright treacherous. Although hard data are yet to emerge, anecdotal evidence suggests that the slowdown has stymied the efforts of many postdoctoral jobseekers.

“The situation has changed so dramatically, so quickly, that it is difficult to know how to react,” says Marc Kastner, dean of the school of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. He says he is “very concerned” about the prospects for young scientists.

Many prospective employers had placed advertisements and received applications before the crunch. But as hiring freezes and suspended candidate searches become more common worldwide, fewer jobs will be filled than initially planned, predicts Roger Davies, chairman of the physics department at the University of Oxford, UK. “We won't know the numbers until the jobs are filled in the first four months of the year,” he says.

The finances of US universities have taken a big hit (Nature 457, 11–12, 2009). MIT is making 5% spending cuts, but some US universities are taking more drastic steps. In December, Harvard University announced a hiring freeze, and others have followed suit.

Kevin Covey, a third-year Spitzer fellow at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently applied for a junior faculty position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “About an hour after I sent in the application, the job was cancelled,” he says. He is now applying for about a dozen other faculty and postdoc positions.

Public funding not guaranteed

Universities in Europe have so far avoided a freeze on recruitment, largely because most are publicly funded and don't rely on interest payments from large endowments to cover operating costs. Still, cuts may be coming as government revenues decline. And even before the economic slowdown, the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council had planned to reduce its grants portfolio for physics from £137 million ($206 million) for 2006–2007 to £97 million for 2008–2009, according to council reports.

“I'm using a blanket strategy of applying for every suitable post in the United Kingdom, which amounts to only half a dozen openings,” says Daniel Mortlock, an astrophysics postdoc at Imperial College London.

Publicly funded research institutions have reason to be wary. The Gemini Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii, recently suspended searches for two postdoc positions, even though its 2009 budget—which funded those positions—was approved in November. Gemini is supported by a consortium whose members are in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Chile and the United States. Its administrators are worried that the promised funding may not come through. “This is absolutely related to the current economic turmoil,” says deputy director Jean-René Roy. “Government revenues are falling in various countries, and shortfalls roll down to funding for scientific research.” He adds that Gemini has resumed one search and still hopes to be able to fill both positions.

There are striking exceptions to the belt-tightening, however. The European Space Agency (ESA) received strong support from European ministers during a meeting on November 25 and 26 in The Hague. They agreed to spend £9.9 billion ($13.5 billion) on space-science projects for 2009–2013, thus stabilizing ESA's workforce (Nature 456, 552, 2008). “ESA does not see a reason to deviate from the human-resources policy that it applied before the global economic crisis,” says Andreas Diekman, head of ESA's office in Washington, DC.

New careers, new competition

Mortlock says he may soon face the reality of having to leave astrophysics research for another field of science, or even of leaving science altogether. However, Clare Jones, a careers adviser for postgraduates in the career development center at the University of Nottingham, UK, warns that this is not the best time to attempt a complete switch into another field.

Although nontraditional career paths have promise, science PhDs and postdocs may find themselves competing with more and more jobseekers who have MBAs and master's degrees. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for advanced-degree holders jumped to 3.1% in November from 2.5% in September; overall unemployment in the United States stands at 6.7% of the workforce.

Professional, scientific and technical services (the category that includes science PhDs employed as consultants, managers and researchers) took a hard hit in October and November, losing 15,727 jobs. Along with the collapse of financial services and layoffs in the drug and biotech industries, this means postdocs are now competing with seasoned insiders for fewer jobs.

One postdoc in virology (who asked to remain anonymous) applied for some 100 consulting jobs early last autumn. “Where I did get interviews, I was interviewing alongside MBAs from Chicago who had just been laid off from Bear Stearns,” he says. “It's hard enough for science PhDs to break into consulting, let alone compete with seasoned investment bankers.” But his persistence eventually paid off, as he recently received a job offer.

Maja Zavaljevski, a postdoc in hematology at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been dismayed by her biotech job search. “I'm competing with experienced industry PhDs who've been recently laid off,” she says. US chemical manufacturing, a category that includes the drug industry, employed 851,000 in November 2008, down from 860,500 people a year earlier.

Unexpected opportunities

Jones says many of her clients are nervous and discouraged. She advocates “creative job searching.” For example, seek tips from former colleagues who have moved into industry and might spot an opening in the company before it is posted. Jones also recommends seeking possible moves within one's own institution, for example, looking into scientific management, business development or career advising.

Academics have other options, according to Matthias Haury, coordinating manager of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory's International Centre for Advanced Training in Heidelberg, Germany. Many companies in Europe, he says, still need qualified scientists to work as consultants, because so many academics disdain positions other than “pure research.”


One result of the economic crunch could simply be longer job-search times, notes Ryan Wheeler, manager of the postdoctoral services office at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He suspects that most postdocs will weather the storm relatively unharmed by staying in their current jobs or negotiating postdoc extensions. Indeed, unemployment rates among scientists remain low compared with many professions (Nature 452, 777, 2008). Wheeler suggests using any extra downtime to scrutinize one's skills, interests and values, perhaps through coaching or mentoring (Box 1). “The whole process,” says Wheeler, “is less daunting if you have a better idea of what's important to you in a job.”

This story was reprinted with some modification from Naturejobs, 15 January 2009, doi: 10.1038/nj7227-342a