Two people wearing lab coats working in a lab at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Because of systemic issues and disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in academic careers in Brazil has reached a new low.Credit: Lucas Landau/Reuters

A preliminary report released last month by the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) found that interest among the country’s undergraduate students in pursuing an academic career is at a low point. After steady growth between 2015 and 2019, the total number of individuals enrolling in master’s and doctoral programmes has started to decline. Between 2019 and 2022, more than 14,000 graduate slots were shed, and 2022 had the lowest number of postgraduate enrolments in nearly a decade.

Engineering programmes took a significant hit. From 2015 to 2022, they saw an overall decline in the number of new students, which dropped from a peak in 2017 of 14,196 to 9,090 — a 36% decrease. Graduate programmes in agricultural sciences have also been affected, with a drop of 23% since 2015; in biological sciences, that number was 14%, and in the Earth sciences, it was 12%.

“This is quite worrisome,” says Vinícius Soares, president of Brazil’s National Association of Postgraduates, based in São Paulo. “Around 90% of the scientific output in Brazil somehow involves the participation of graduate students and relies on their contributions,” he adds. Denise Guimarães Freire, a chemist at the Institute of Chemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, says her group has experienced the decline: “A few years ago, I had ten graduate students in my lab, but now I only have three.”

These data come from the National Postgraduate Plan, a document first published in the 1970s by CAPES — a Ministry of Education agency in Brasília that evaluates graduate programmes and provides grants for master’s and doctoral fellowships. The plan, which is published about once a decade, contains metrics that inform the maintenance and support of the graduate-education system in Brazil.

One obvious factor contributing to the decline is the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the report, the suspension of in-person activities led to a delay in enrolment, such that, in 2020, 25% of the master’s degree programmes in 20 research fields had more openings than applicants. For doctoral programmes, 12 areas saw a significant decrease in demand.

Lack of funds

However, some scientists suggest that this crisis could have structural roots that extend beyond the pandemic disruptions, such as the lack of funding for grants and research. Soares says that up to 60% of graduate students in Brazil who are pursuing a master’s degree or PhD don’t have a scholarship or funding through a research project. Last month, in a new chapter of Brazil’s science and education funding crisis, thousands of professors at federal universities went on strike, demanding higher wages and funding for crumbling infrastructure.

These circumstances could lead many graduate students to drop out of their courses and enter the job market, says CAPES president Denise Pires de Carvalho. According to agency data, over a four-year period starting in 2013, engineering master’s programmes had a dropout rate of 23%. In engineering doctoral programmes, 21% of students who enrolled in 2013 had abandoned their studies within five years. “The job market in these areas is more competitive and offers better salaries than any grant in academia,” says Rodrigo Calado, dean of graduate studies at the University of São Paulo.

At the same time, inflation has eroded the value of fellowships awarded by CAPES, which also makes graduate education a less attractive prospect. “The scholarship amounts for master’s and doctoral degrees were last adjusted in 2013, while the accumulated inflation since then has reached 117%,” says Carvalho.

Last year, she says, the agency created 5,300 new scholarships and increased the value of the stipends for master’s degrees from 1,500 reais (US$290) to 2,100 reais per month. Doctoral stipends were increased from 2,200 reais to 3,100 reais per month. “But this is still not enough for students to dedicate themselves full-time to their intellectual training, especially in states with a high cost of living, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro,” says Charles Morphy, associate dean for graduate studies at the Federal University of ABC in Santo André, Brazil. Carvalho agrees, stating that she “hopes to further increase these values by 2026”.

Long hauls

Furthermore, many researchers in Brazil have found that the long amount of time spent in training for an academic science career is not worth it. It usually takes scientists at least ten years after earning their PhD to enter a permanent position at a university or research institute. Biologist Thaís Barreto Guedes’s career trajectory illustrates these difficulties. She earned her PhD in 2012 and did three consecutive postdoctoral fellowships in Brazil and Sweden.

In 2022, at the age of 40, she won a five-year grant to develop a project on the evolution of tropical reptiles and amphibians at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil. “If I don’t manage to establish myself [in a position] at a university, I will be unemployed by 2027, as I don’t have an employment contract with Unicamp,” Guedes says.

For biologist Hernani de Oliveira, who is 39, the long preparation and investment in an academic career haven’t yet paid off.

After Oliveira earned his PhD at Queen Mary University of London in 2018, he went on to complete two postdoctoral fellowships in the Czech Republic and the United States. In 2020, he returned to Brazil to establish himself as a university researcher, but opportunities were scarce. He spent the pandemic as a postdoc “while [applying for] positions at universities, research institutes and government agencies — all without success”, he says.

Instead, he applied for a laboratory-technician position at the University of Brasília. “I feel like my potential is being underutilized,” he says. “I could be doing high-impact research, but instead I’m cleaning glassware.” Looking back, he adds, he wouldn’t choose to pursue an academic career again.

Such harsh realities are probably dissuading university graduates from enrolling in graduate programmes, those interviewed by Nature say. “There’s a growing perception in the country that being a professor or scientist is no longer worth it, as opportunities have become scarce, and the salary has deteriorated due to inflation,” says Simon Schwartzman, a sociologist at the Institute for Economic Policy Studies in Rio de Janeiro. The government set a plan to have 25,000 doctorates graduate each year between 2014 and 2024, Schwartzman says, “but forgot to invest in the infrastructure needed to absorb them”. Guedes adds: “It is like building a mansion and abandoning it.”