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More biologists but tenure stays static

Life is not so easy for US postdocs.

It's official: biology postgraduates in the United States face greater competition for tenure than ever before. A wealth of data released this month will reopen discussions about employment and training in the US biomedical system.

The data, compiled by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) (http://opa.faseb.org/pages/PolicyIssues/training_datappt.htm), are from many sources, including the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Council of Graduate Schools and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And one message is clear: increasing numbers of bright young students are eager for a career in biology and biomedicine, but fewer than before will gain the coveted tenured academic positions.

NSF data show that the number of students in US graduate programmes in the biological sciences has increased steadily since 1966. In 2005, around 7,000 graduates earned a doctorate. But the number of biomedical PhDs with academic tenure has remained steady since 1981, at just over 20,000. During that period the percentage of US biomedical PhDs with tenure or tenure-track jobs dropped from nearly 45% to just below 30%.

So where do all the graduate students end up? The percentage of biomedical PhDs going into industry has tripled, from 10% to 30%, since the 1970s, the NSF reports. But those who stay on the academic track face a more arduous slog than their mentors. Although numbers of applicants for postdoctoral fellowships awarded by the NIH increased between 2002 and 2006, the percentage who were successful dropped sharply (see graphic). And the average age of scientists earning their first R01 grant — the NIH's bread-and-butter grant to an independent researcher — has risen from 34 in 1970 to 42 now.

The percentage of PhDs still in a postdoctoral fellowship three or four years after their doctorate has declined since 1997, from 45% to 30%, although the total number of postdocs grew from about 25,000 to 33,000 in the same period.

What does this mean for biology and biomedicine as a career option? It's more than an abstract question to Howard Garrison, director of FASEB's office of public affairs, who has a college-bound daughter. “She's thinking of biological sciences, so I tell her don't give up, but make sure you're realistic about your future,” Garrison says. “People are drawn to the biological sciences because it's an exciting field and an exciting time, but people have to have a broad and flexible approach to their careers.”

A huge question is why the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998 to 2003 seems not to have helped young scientists. Most of the money went into infrastructure rather than tenure-track jobs (see Nature 443, 894; doi:10.1038/443894a 2006). The NIH dollars devoted to training fellowships did grow, but not as fast as the rest of its budget, and when the NIH budget stopped growing, so did the dollars (see graphic).

Most NIH-supported postdoc appointments are now financed by research grants, not training grants. “If you're being supported to do research on research grants, but you're still a postdoc, there's a tension, because you're not being funded to be trained,” says Jodi Lubetsky of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, says the agency welcomes the FASEB report: “FASEB has performed a very useful and timely service for the biomedical research community in highlighting this important issue. It is a matter of great interest and concern for NIH.” The NIH recently instituted the Pathways to Independence awards, which help postdocs set up their own labs.

A posting to an online careers discussion group puts the matter bluntly: “If you aren't thinking about 'alternative careers' before ever setting foot in graduate school, then you're being foolish.”

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FASEB presentation on education and employment of biological and medical scientists

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Check, E. More biologists but tenure stays static. Nature 448, 848 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/448848a

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