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Indentured labour

The deal at the foot of the scientific totem pole remains a raw one.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) has just released a report on the career trajectories of young life scientists in the United States (see page 848). It is likely to give pause to some of those currently considering graduate training as a route to a career in the academic life sciences.

The survey finds that over two decades the number of academically employed life scientists in tenured or tenure-track positions has remained stuck at about 30,000, while the number of doctoral degrees awarded in the life sciences has doubled. Thus the proportion of postdocs actually reaching tenured or tenure-track positions has dropped from nearly 45% in the early 1980s, to just below 30%.

The data also reveal a hard-to-reach career getting farther out of reach. The age at which the average PhD holder receives his or her first full National Institutes of Health grant has risen from 34 in 1970 to 42 now. Postdocs, facing such a late start to their professional lives, are increasingly jumping ship to industry.

Academic institutions rely heavily on graduate students and postdocs to bring in tuition or overhead funding and to carry their share of the teaching load. The motivation for principal investigators is even stronger. Students and postdocs carry out the day-to-day work in laboratories serving as cheap, well trained labour. Moreover the nature of discovery often seems to require big numbers: far better to have six postdocs working on several projects, in case one of them gets results that will ensure funding for the laboratory for years.

Funding is short, the hours are long, and prospects uncertain.

This pattern has, of course, been familiar for years — and not just in the United States. Postdocs find themselves bouncing around the world from lab to lab, seldom earning much more than they would have done in their first year on the job market with their undergraduate degree. Funding is short, the hours are long, and prospects uncertain.

Postdocs have occasionally attempted to band together in solidarity and seek a better settlement from their employers, the institutions and universities. But this movement has been stronger in the social sciences than in the hard sciences. The transient nature of the work, together with its convoluted employment structure, has made it difficult for them to speak effectively with a single voice. Instead, the plight of the postdoc will probably change only if the issue of scientific training is addressed from the top, where it may be necessary to consider the possibility that too many scientists are being trained.

There is an argument that, from a national policy perspective, the current situation is ultimately productive. The pace of discovery is quickened by a sizeable workforce, and able scientists end up doing multiple jobs, most of them in the private sector of the economy. It might not be exactly what the students had in mind in the first place, but the situation hardly constitutes a major cause for concern.

But FASEB's data suggest that too many graduate schools may be preparing too many students, so that too few young scientists have a real prospect of making a career in academic science. More effort is needed to ensure that recruitment interviews include realistic assessments of prospective students' expectations and potential in the academic workplace. And training should address broader career options from day one rather than focusing unrealistically on jobs that don't exist.

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Indentured labour. Nature 448, 839–840 (2007).

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