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Academia (vs. Industry)

The Prospects of an Academic Job

Over the years, there have been more comments than anyone can count here on the often-grim employment picture for chemistry and biology employment in biopharma. Plenty of people here (myself included) can speak from experience. But we should also remember that the academic job market in the biomedical sciences is in awful shape, too, unfortunately. And since a disproportionate number of people start off grad school picturing themselves getting jobs in academia, a clear picture of what’s going on is essential.
That’s the point of this piece in Nature, in the Jobs section. The author, Jessica Polka (post-doc at Harvard Medical School) says that far too many of her colleagues don’t have an accurate impression of the job market. She’s created this graphic to get the point across. Some 16,000 students will start graduate school in biology in the US this fall. The best guess is that fewer than 10% of them will eventually become tenure-track faculty somewhere.
But at least half of them list that as their most preferred career path, which means that a lot of things are not going to work out as planned. Polka’s right – the most people who understand this, and the earlier, the better.

39 comments on “The Prospects of an Academic Job”

  1. Anonalso says:

    Amen and Amen!
    I recently visited an undergrad institute to give a talk about what a industrial chemist does in the “real world.”
    I was amazed when I talked with faculty and their rosy-view of the job market. When I actually broke down the ACS statistics and how they are gathered, their jaws hit the floor.
    Maybe departments should be a bit more upfront about job prospects as well as career paths other than academics.

  2. luysii says:

    Usually, when old-timers talk about the good old days, they can be safely ignored. Any grad student in chemistry at Harvard in the early 60’s who wanted an academic position got one. Why? The US scientific enterprise was undergoing a huge expansion, the nation having been rudely awakened by the Soviets launching sputnik in 1957.
    So the good old days were in fact, good. I’ll be damned !

  3. Another anon says:

    There is no incentive for university chemistry for biology) departments/faculty to present realistic and accurate data to students about job prospects in their disciplines.
    (1) Departmental funding from tuition coffers is based (at least partially) on the number of majors attracted to the department. More majors = more internal $ to support programs
    (2) University administrations are infected with Deans and other administrators from non-science areas who link their own advancement to developing new graduate degrees, programs and centers. This requires attracting students into these areas, regardless of the long-term employment prospects for these individuals when they leave campus.
    (3) Extramural (e.g., NSF and NIH) funding considers the size of the graduate program, and if the university grants PhDs (in addition to MS degrees) when funding decisions are made. Any claims to the contrary are delusions.

  4. The Iron Chemist says:

    I recently told an elder colleague that the STEM shortage was a myth. It was like telling a five-year-old that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny don’t really exist.

  5. biotechtoreador says:

    Odds of getting from academia (presumably from a RO1 school) are not much better that odds of going from a Div. 1 football program to the NFL:

  6. Solutions Ltd. says:

    Everybody knows about this problem. The ones who can fix it are more comfortable with the current situation.
    Some interesting solutions are presented here:

  7. MoBio says:

    Not to be a contrarian but…there are labs (you all probably could recognize them) with outstanding track records for ‘gainful employment of most/all of their trainees’.
    A radical solution would be to leave training to those elite labs….

  8. Bring the Movies says:

    @7–good idea. The irony is that the labs with the super famous advisors are so large and full of smart, ambitious post-docs that almost all of the ideas and publications come from the students/trainees rather than the advisor, who is probably taking a nap behind his desk.

  9. bo says:

    MoBio wrote “A radical solution would be to leave training to those elite labs”
    In terms of employment prospects, sure, but not necessarily in terms of the quality of training. How much of the employment pipeline from these labs is based on scientific merit versus on professional networks/influence? Not that there is anything wrong with the latter, but training and hiring are two different things.

  10. Anonymous says:

    @9: Those who still need training during their post-doc, shouldn’t be doing a post-doc. Training is the whole point of doing a PhD, while post-docs should be toilet trained already.

  11. so? says:

    What is wrong with listing academia as the most preferred career path? So, students (especially the ones who are not in “elite labs”) should just be discouraged and let the others get the jobs using their network? Also, being in an “elite lab” doesn’t mean you are a better scientist.
    Getting an academic job could be tough or even very unlikely. But, this doesn’t mean that one can not aim for an academic job.

  12. Cato the Elder says:

    @8 You are right on the money. Any hero-worship I had for these “big names” ended quickly upon entering grad school once I realized that their huge discoveries/ideas were actually coming from the gifted students they had in the lab. A successful prof is really just an excellent slave-driver…

  13. Bring the Movies says:

    @13 Yup. I was in one of these labs (well, almost, my advisor was not yet a NAS member) and the advisor was a 60 year old man who took naps and never showed up on Fridays.
    Anyway, whats funny is that out of these labs the intelligent, creative trainees might be able to get a job in a state RO1, which is proposed to be closed by poster 7. And so when you close the labs except the ones with the famous advisor what you are doing is just continuing the ponzi scheme that one of these “names” has become, while the creative people looking for a decent job at a half -assed state school wouldnt get that. Talk about unintended consequences.

  14. MoBio says:

    @14. I would not generalize based on a single experience (ie. 60-year old gent who sleeps the day away).
    My first postdoc was with a 65+ yo dynamo (NAS member) who had so many creative ideas the 50+ postdoc group could not keep up (he also had a photographic memory for data).
    My second postdoc was with a 45 yo guy who relied on the postdocs for all the ideas (and was a super-nice person who got me my first job).
    I enjoyed both experiences and benefited greatly from both environments (as did many of those who trained with me and are now accomplished scientists in their own right).

  15. gippgig says:

    Am I the only one who thinks scientific research should be for people who don’t want a job?

  16. Anonymous says:

    As a grad student entering my fifth year, with a few pubs under my belt, but nothing phenomenal in a younger faculty member’s lab, I am pretty realistic about the fact that I have pretty much no career in academia. I have been attending various career seminars and learning about options in industry (including those outside of R&D–which is the only path that is presented to you in grad school), law, policy, and various administrative type jobs. I just want to get a picture of what is out there, because I know students who have deviated from the traditional paths, some of whom have found success
    One issue I see is that it is nearly impossible to talk to faculty about exploring other pathways. In fact, if you are, you keep quiet about it until you have secured that job. Most faculty give you the advice to do a postdoc to “keep your options open.” It can also be hard to get a faculty mentor to support you in any kind of alternative job search.
    On top of that, at least in biotech, at least 90% of the positions I see in industry require a postdoc–even for things like business development, which in theory shouldn’t even require a PhD. Even if I felt intellectually prepared after my PhD, the job market is so saturated that employers can require any arbitrary filter they want. There seems to be an attitude of “I did a PhD and postdoc, so everyone I hire should” at least in the biotech industry.

  17. Anonymous says:

    17 here–I’m not talking about BS or MS level positions–I’m talking about PhD level positions.

  18. paperclip says:

    And then if you do get the job, you may very well find that, after working a million hours, there is no money for you.

  19. ed says:

    #17 in chemistry at least there are so many phd’s floating around the system that some CRO’s dont hire anything but! Here’s looking at you, Argenta Discovery! well, either that or 30+ years industry experience 🙂

  20. evorich says:

    As #3 stated, as long as both funding bodies and institutions are incentivized to pump out more grad students and professors use them as cheap labor to further their careers, nothing will change.

  21. Anonymous says:

    We do have to remember that biology is not chemistry, and that means this chart might not be quite representative of the chemistry situation. That being said, I don’t think that a similar chart for chemistry (which I would very much like to see) would be particularly different, at least not to the point that using this as a general baseline is meaningless. Still, it’s good to keep in mind.
    I’m doing my PHD (and later postdoc) with the desire to go into academic research. From people who have been in industry and things I’ve read about it, I’ve determined that it’s not something I want to do at all, so it’s moon or bust for me.
    And that’s ok. If I get a job as faculty, great! If I don’t, that’s ok too. I have other interests, and I’ll accept the PHD and Postdoc as part of my life, look back on the time and work I did there fondly, and move on to doing other things.

  22. patentgeek says:

    You may be the only one independently wealthy enough to hold such a view.

  23. hn says:

    Many of those academic job seekers are interested in academic jobs only out of career cluelessness. They don’t even know what a professor really does. I don’t blame them – I didn’t either. Then they eventually discover that they actually don’t like teaching, writing, working with inexperienced students, applying for grants, serving on committees, etc.

  24. ptiched a no-hitter says:

    Derek Lowe did not need to find a job in the academia or industry. He became a MLB pitcher instead.

  25. Anonymous says:

    If you have decent programming skills with your biology knowledge that could open up more job opportunities. That said science in general is not doing great job wise in any field.

  26. bank says:

    This is similar in both message and the graphic to a report put out by the Royal Society in the UK (search for “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity”). Note that in the Royal Society report, “permanent research staff” refers to lecturers, senior lecturers and above, i.e. the equivalent of assistant and associate professors and above in the US, so in the UK 30% of PhDs become the equivalent of US tenure-track academics, rather than the under 1% figure used to shock everyone.
    What I think is misleading in both these reports is the notion that only “tenured” academic researchers are successful, thus excluding all those who work in government, industry or anywhere else, such as NASA, Centres for Disease Control, etc.
    The headlines accompanying the graphic on which this blog post is based is likewise misleading, since 29,000 out of 68,000 postdocs become tenured or tenure-track, i.e. 42%.
    Complaining that not everyone who enters any particular career gets to the very top is a very unjust method of evaluating the fairness, structures and prospects of such careers. It would be like saying that since only under 10% of Harvard MBAs become Fortune 500 CEOs, a Harvard MBA should start planning an alternative career as soon as they start their course.

  27. in Japan says:

    This thread reminded me of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that was reprinted in the New York Times: Academic Scandal Shakes Japan.
    The background was the Riken case and Obokata’s role along with her background. The journalists wrote that:
    Critics say Japans best universities have churned out hundreds of poor-quality Ph.D.s. Young researchers are not taught how to keep detailed lab notes, properly cite data, or question assumptions, said Sukeyasu Yamamoto, a former physicist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and now an adviser to Riken. “The problems we see in this episode are all too common,” Mr. Yamamoto said.
    That seems crazy. Tokyo University and The University of Kyoto have been ranked in chemistry and biology near MIT and UCLA. How many of Ph.D.s from those schools are poor. And Japanese Ph.D.s don’t know ow to take detailed lab notes? Yamamoto is 82, which may be a factor.
    Does anyone know if there is any truth to the above?

  28. LabOfTheRisingSun says:

    #19 I did my masters and PhD at Osaka university in Japan and I met a lot of competent people. I would say that the majority of grad students I’ve come across are very capable. Think it largely comes down to abiliy to handle pressure. At Osaka university Japanese PhD students we required to publish 3 papers over a certain IF in 3 years. A PhD that takes longer than 3 years is considered very poor. Add 16 hr work days on top of that, it not surprising that some people can’t deal with it and take the easy way out and fake data etc.

  29. Whatever says:

    I just started my PhD at a very prestigious school. Most of the poeple I’ve met do seem to be not that intelligent and creative, and will probably not get sweet awesome jobs in academia. Who am I to burst their bubble? I consider 10% to be good odds anyway. And I heard that girl who wrote the nature article is a backstabbing **** just fyi. Probably trying to thin the job market for herself.

  30. Brett says:

    Uhhh… Poe’s Law or not on comment #30?

  31. captaingraphene says:

    #30 Seems like an instance of the Dunning-Kruger effect to me.

  32. pitched a no-hitter says:

    I think that was Dr. Derek Lowe’ mentality when he was a pitcher in the minors. He probably would believed he would be among the small fraction of minor leaguer to make it to the big leagues (and he did). He also did Masters level work at Duke for his Ph.D. since Duke did not want to hinder him from his baseball career.

  33. not-so-wild man says:

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that folks have to for a job, academic or otherwise… it’s a competitive business, after all… to get the job, one must be “among the best”… but also, job searchers should be reminded that they don’t need to solve the unemployment problem – they only need job – and there’s a niche for everyone, eventually…

  34. not-so-wild man says:

    edit to #34 – folks have to COMPETE for a job…
    they only need ONE job…

  35. Nick K says:

    #27: 30% of British PhD´’s become tenured academics? I don’t have access to any official figures but that sounds awfully high to me, and, in Chemistry at least, not in accord with my own experience.

  36. bank says:

    @ Nick K,
    You can search for the report using the title I posted, the relevant numbers are also summarized in this figure: i{dot}imgur{dot}com/DO1wdHS{dot)png
    Although many of those that become “permanent research staff”, i.e. lecturers or above, stay that way for their entire career.

  37. cliffintokyo says:

    @28, response to –
    In Med/Pharm Chem schools at good U in Japan, the USFDA GMP mantra “If it was not recorded properly, it was not done!” has been heard and understood.
    The main issue for PhD programs in Japan is to identify independent thinkers who can do creative research with passion, as the next generation of leading academics. However, the corpus of lesser mortals can get jobs in industry, (so that’s all right then!)

  38. Nick K says:

    #37 bank: In the diagram you suggested I look at, does the rubric “Early Research Career” mean postdoc? If so, only 3.5% of the cohort actually become academics. This seems much more reasonable to me.

  39. bank says:

    @Nick K,
    You are correct that “Early research career likely means postdoc, as the legend of the figure states that the data are for “academic careers following a PhD”, i.e. postdoc and above.
    The data are for academia, so 63% (30*(100/47)) of postdocs become lecturers or above (tenure-track or above in US parlance), and ~11% (3.5/30) of those remain at that level or above for the remainder of their careers, presumably.
    Another ~10% of lecturers or above become permanent research staff in industry or non-academic institutes that are within science (presumably including government institutes like the MRC or Sanger Institute, which are among the most prestigious biomedical research institutes in the UK) and industry, to which can be added the 17% of postdocs who go that route directly.
    More simply put, postdocs who permanently leave science are approximately ((26.5-(approx 10))*(100/47)) = 34% of all postdocs. So about 66% of postdocs remain permanently employed in science. About 7.5% (3.5 * (100/47)) of all postdocs become senior lecturer or reader, and about 1% (0.45 * (100/47)) of all postdocs become “full professor”.
    Note that “full professor” does not have the same connotation in the UK as in the US, since lecturers, senior lecturers and readers are able to conduct independent research.
    What is not clear from this data is how long people remain in individual categories.

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