What is the problem?

Many young scientists do not find the academic jobs for which they have trained. There is frequent discussion about this problem on the Women in Science and Engineering Network (WISEnet) and the Young Scientists’ Network (YSN). One of the more poignant expressions of the problem was posted on WISEnet by graduate student Robyn Puffenbarger. With her permission, I quote the following excerpts from her post:Hi All,

The news these days is …full of grim stories of gypsy PhDs wandering between part-time jobs in academia if a job is available at all. And then there is the Congress and the ever shrinking NIH and NSF budgets.* Further, I know grad students are getting in school, graduates are getting postdocs, but postdocs ARE NOT getting jobs.What gives? I am well into a PhD program and feel it is too late to quit (molecular genetics, end of second year). If I quit, my resume is the pits, but my fear is being stuck in post-docs and never finding a job. I am writing in terms of a science PhD, so if you have experience or more material to read….I am not looking for a pep talk, I want opinions and advice. Right now I feel like I should stay in but broaden my horizons with more computer experience since my degree will be somewhat limited: molecular biology.

Her post is one of many. Her message has haunted me as I help the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, where I work, to continue to support high quality research training in the biomedical sciences.

Is the problem unique to people entering research careers?

My opinion is no. Here are two external points of view.

First, Morris R. Shechtman, President of the Shechtman Group and author of Working Without a Net: Surviving and Thriving in a High Risk World (Prentice Hall, 1994), contended in a recent talk that the growth of information technology and the rapid changes in its availability have produced a new and highly unstable world. In the old scenario, you got a job and stuck with it until you retired. The future holds the prospect of a series of jobs or careers. While security was external in the past (your job), it must be internal in the future (your skills). Shechtman’s point is that, in the business world of the future, competition will be increased, margins and profits decreased, and innovation will have a short shelf life. Technical skills will be constantly evolving. Thus, the employee of value to any organization is a person with people skills, good skills in resolving problems, a strategy for offense, and good networks. These are people who know where they want to go and how to get there.

Second, a book entitled JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace without Jobs by William Bridges (Addison Wesley, 1994) was reviewed by Jay H. Hartley on the YSN Digest, Number 1938, February 7, 1996. With his permission, I have quoted the following excerpts from his review.

Bridges wrote the best-sellers Transitions (Addison Wesley, 1980) and Managing Transitions (Addison Wesley, 1991), and when not authoring has been a management guru for a couple decades.

The main thesis of his latest book is that our country, and indeed our world, is currently in the midst of the Second Great Job Shift. The first was caused by the Industrial Revolution, when people transitioned from village life to urbania. Along with this shift came a redefinition of the very meaning of the word, job. In the village, it meant a task or project, generally of finite duration and paid fee-for-service if paid at all…. In the Industrial Age, a job was actually a position in the hierarchy of a company, with a clearly-defined set of responsibilities and paid a salary. As long as one stayed properly within the confines of the job description, one could count on advancement up the organizational structure.

The current Second Great Job Shift, according to Bridges, is the Death of the Job, at least as it has been defined for the past two hundred years. As has been mentioned…the downsizing of corporate America has truly eliminated jobs, and in Bridges’ vision this is a permanent, fundamental change, not a temporary layoff caused by economic downturn….individuals need to take on the mentality of the independent contractor/vendor constantly trying to address the company’s needs instead of just doing your job ….His suggestion for governments is that they stop focusing on trying to produce jobs and instead try to encourage new business….Money should be spent giving people the skills needed to be business people – literacy, computeracy, basic accounting, marketing – and then the support needed to start small businesses, instead of job training for a job that won’t exist by the time the program is completed….

How do we translate these two views into meaningful advice for individuals considering research careers and for pre- and postdoctoral scientists? We need to educate applicants for our Ph.D. programs about the likelihood that they will find an academic position at the end of their training. Other possible outcomes and career paths need to be clearly on the table. We must acknowledge that students and postdocs are learning the most important skills, the basics: how to solve problems; how to recognize and frame meaningful, testable questions; how to develop new technical skills; and how to find good collaborators. If they continue in academic research careers, they will be shaping scientific progress. But if newly trained scientists do not get the academic job they desire or choose not to pursue this path, they must be prepared to transfer their scientific skills to an ever broadening array of opportunities. Fields such as law, financial analysis, risk assessment, journalism, or marketing are increasingly in need of scientific talent and expertise.

Who is responsible?

We all can and should take responsibility for this dilemma: we who fund research and training, academic scientists, scientists in industry and other non-academic careers, and the students and postdocs themselves.

What is being done?

Our scientific-training system is being re-evaluated at the National Academy of Science (NAS) and in the halls of Congress. In testimony before the Subcommittee on Basic Research of the House Committee on Science in July 1995, Dr. Harold Varmus, Director of NIH, commented on the NAS Report “Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers”:

Although our primary purpose is the training of new, independent NIH-supported investigators, we strongly support the recommendations of Dr. Griffith’s Committee that graduate programs should explain and endorse the diversity of career options in scientific fields, including biomedicine. The enthusiasm of students is sustained by the prospect of reasonable job opportunities, and the vitality of scientific fields increasingly depends on the work of well-trained Ph.D. recipients who enter non-traditional (i.e., non-academic) positions. All students should therefore be provided with information about such jobs.

Dr. Varmus went on to say:

Despite the problems that the nas committee has identified, there is no doubt that our Nation has been successful in the training of new scientists and that the Federal government has had an important role in this success. The need for research in the health sciences is unlikely to diminish in the decades ahead. Our ability to harvest the benefits of recent scientific progress and to compete in the international arena will depend on the continued excellence of our graduate programs and the commitment of agencies, such as the NIH, to their support. It is nevertheless important to examine graduate education critically from time to time…

Currently, Science’s Next Wave, a web site published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science magazine, is presenting an interactive discussion forum entitled “The Situation of Post-Docs.” The forum began on August 2, 1996 and will remain interactive until October 4, 1996. The forum, which deals with the postdoc experience from a variety of different points of view can be found online. Science’s Next Wave strongly encourages all members of the scientific community to read the presentations and enter the exchange of ideas.

There are more and more career resources available to students and postdocs. Academic institutions and professional societies are sponsoring career programs to examine the many career options available to scientists with advanced research degrees. For example, at the upcoming ASCB annual meeting, a career luncheon entitled “What to do with your Graduate Degree?” is being co-sponsored by the WICB and Education Committees. The list below includes several of the many publications that were created to provide educational and career guidance to students and postdocs:

  • As a result of the NAS report mentioned above, the National Academy Press published a wonderful book this year called Careers in Science and Engineering: A Student Planning Guide to Grad School and Beyond. A limited number of copies are available free to ASCB members upon request; contact the ASCB National Office.] The book is intended to help upper-division undergraduate and graduate students to make career and educational choices. The book helps you answer the following questions. What are your career goals? How can you meet your career goals? What survival skills and personal attributes do you need to succeed? What education do you need to reach your career goals? How do you get the job that is right for you? It includes a number of profiles such as “How does a Geneticist/Molecular Biologist Get to be a Patent Lawyer?” and “How does an Electronics Engineer Get to be a Science Journalist?”. The Academy also provides an on-line Career Planning Center (http://www2.nas.edu/cpc), which provides a source of information and guidance as well as a listing of employment opportunities.
  • Getting What You Came for…the Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Masters or a Ph.D., by Robert L. Peters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. In addition to guidance about graduate education, it also contains job search advice.
  • What Color is Your Parachute?, by Robert N. Bolles, Ten Speed, 1996. A best-selling career guide first published in 1972 and updated each year. It contains advice for job hunting and changing careers. It is designed to help one find one’s career niche.
  • The American Society for Cell Biology publishes a booklet entitled How to Get a Job. It was designed for individuals looking for their first position. Much of it concentrates on academic positions.
  • To Boldly Go: A Practical Career Guide for Scientists by Peter Fiske, American Geophysical Union (AGU) Press, 1996. According to the author, the book presents modern career planning and job hunting strategies from the perspective of a scientist and is intended to help young scientists in all fields explore ALL their options. It is 192 pages, contains 13 chapters, and covers all aspects of career planning and job hunting including self-assessment, resumes, CVs, cover letters, job interviews, networking, and more. It is written in a positive, humorous and easy-to-follow format that includes chapter summaries and lists of other references and resources.
  • Another interesting book is Bridging the Gender Gap in Engineering and Science, which consists of the proceedings of a conference with the same title held at Carnegie Mellon University in 1995. It includes profiles of several women scientists along with other information. Requests for the proceedings may be sent by e-mail or call (412) 268-
W. Sue Shafer

Retired Associate Director, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIH

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