Science is taking a look at the 1991 members of Yale’s Molecular Biology and Biophysics PhD program. The ostensible focus of the article is to see what the effect of flat federal research funding has been on young potential faculty members, but there’s a lot more to pick up on than that.
The first thing to note is that out of 26 PhDs from that year’s class, only one of them currently has a tenured position in academia. Five others are doing science in some sort of academic setting, but only one of those is tenure-track. And you can tell that for at least a few observers, the response to those numbers is “What went wrong?”
Well, nothing did. As it turned out, the students didn’t necessarily come out of the program on a mission to go out and get tenure. But there was no particular way to blame the research funding environment for the numbers, because almost no one that Science interviewed mentioned that as a factor at all. Instead, many of them decided that there might be something more (or at least something else) to life than going from being a grad student and post-doc directly to. . .supervising more grad students and post-docs:
For some MB&Bers, academia was never really an option. “Even as an undergraduate in college, I never bought into the concept of being a professor,” says Deborah Kinch, associate director for regulatory affairs at Biogen Idec in Cambridge. “Being a grad student is the last bastion of indentured servitude, and being a faculty member is pretty much the same thing, at least until you get tenure. Earning the same low salary and fighting for every grant–that was the last thing I wanted to do. . .
. . . Midway through their graduate training, a few MB&Bers hatched the idea of a seminar series to hear from former graduates working outside the academic fold. (Athena) Nagi said the group wrestled with the definition of an alternative career and decided that the answer was, in essence, “anything that didn’t involve teaching at a major research university”. . .what (Tammy) Spain remembers most were their reasons for branching out. “They all said they didn’t want to go into academia. None of them said, ‘I failed.’ None had even tried to find an academic job. It was the first time I got the sense that there was no shame in not going into academia.”
That heightened sense of empowerment reinforced what some class members were already feeling. “At first, you think that academia makes sense,” says Nagi. “But by your 3rd or 4th year, you start to get the lay of the land and look at the options. You realize that a postdoc isn’t just for 1 year and that there are multiple postdocs.”
I particularly like the way that a third-year graduate student had never realized until then that there was no shame in not going into academia. This is a major problem in academic science – the amount of this attitude varies from department to department, but there’s always some of it floating around. It’s no wonder that some of these people were baffled by the prospect of what they were going to do with their lives, because a large, important range of choices was being minimized or ignored.
But I have no room to talk – by that point in my graduate career, I wasn’t clear about what I was going to do, either. I was getting pretty sure, though, that going off and fighting for tenure at a major university was not in the running. I’d seen what the younger faculty put up with in my department, and it didn’t look much better than the life I was leading as a grad student. In many ways, actually, it was worse. Why would I want to do that?
As it turns out, a good number of the 1991 Yale people ended up at various small biotech companies. Some of them have made a success of it, and naturally enough, some of them are out of science altogether. But the rarest, least likely thing for them to do was to get tenure – or even to try. When I think back on the folks I went to grad school with in the mid-1980s, the picture is very similar. You just wish that there were a way to make this sorting-out process less painful. . .