As postdocs, we toiled away our early 20s in graduate school working 50+ hours a week in research labs and teaching as a necessary rite of passage on the career path to academia. We justified our meager stipends, long hours, and general dissatisfaction in life with the promise of a brighter, better-paying future as principle investigators. Over-worked and under-paid, we were motivated by expectation. We were confident that in the not-so-distant future, our passion for scientific inquiry and contribution to a community of knowledge would culminate in a position worthy of our training. Our doctoral commencement marked the end of being disposable academic lackeys. Or so we thought.
In December 2010, The Economist published an article showing that the production of PhDs in America far outweighs the demand for professorships. It reports that between 2005 and 2009, “America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships.” Competition is fierce, but our doctorates are still worth something, right ? Surely we have better paying job prospects compared to those with master’s degrees ! Not really. Adding insult to injury, the article cites that when it comes to earning potential, “a PhD commands only 3% premium over a master’s degree.” A crisis in higher education is looming in this country.
Unfortunately, you can’t escape the dismal tenure-track landscape simply by relocating. PhD production trends show an increase across all disciplines worldwide, where the fastest growth is in the life sciences. An article published in the April 2011 issue of Nature reveals growth in doctoral degree production in China, Japan, Mexico, Korea, India, Denmark, Poland, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. With more PhD holders in the life sciences than ever before, the job market is flooded with qualified well-educated competitors all vying for a handful of academic positions. According to the article, “in 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs…by 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating.” Sobering statistics for a young and hopeful proletariat of scientists.
But here we are, pursuing our postdocs, hoping to publish groundbreaking work to guarantee us the glorious K99 or RO1 that would solidify our survival in independent academic research. Grant in hand, we would be invulnerable : a shoe-in for a tenure-track assistant professorship anywhere. If they were hiring, that is. And according to a report produced by the American Federation of Teachers in 2009, they’re probably not. Analysis of 10 years of tenure-track academic staffing in post-secondary education found that the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members declined from approximately one third the instructional staff in 1997 to just over one-quarter in 2007. So who is picking up the teaching slack ? Contingent faculty, part-time instructors, and graduate students, apparently. It makes sense, they are cheaper to hire and easier to fire.
Today, the probability of achieving faculty positions in science are staggering. Based on employment trends in academic jobs provided by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, it has been estimated that the chances of a PhD holder obtaining a job as a science or engineering faculty member are 27:1 (Read about how this was calculated here). Only 1.3% of the US Science and Engineering workforce have full time tenure-track academic faculty positions. So what are all these science PhDs doing for work in academia ?
The 2012 Science and Engineering Indicator published by NSF reports that, “full-time faculty positions continue to be the norm in academic employment, but [Science and Engineering] doctorate holders are increasingly employed in other full-time positions, postdocs, and part-time positions.” It also indicates that the current generation of young scientists is spending more time in their postdocs and doing multiple postdocs compared to their older counterparts. The logical incentive is that more training will result in more publications and a better CV, improving our chances of achieving the few assistant professor tenure-track positions that actually are available.
However, as an article published in the May 2011 issue of The Nation points out, we may need to adjust our expectations. Because of “an advent and rapid expansion of full-time positions that are not tenure-eligible” in higher education, “yet another academic underclass” has been created. Our post-postdoc options in academia are not what they used to be. A 2004 article published in Science cites an array of non-tenure-track academic positions, including such illustrious titles as staff scientist, research associate, lecturer, and research assistant professor to name a few.
Discouraging statistics aside, it is still possible to achieve the tenure-track Holy Grail in academic America. It’s just going to take a few more years, a few more postdocs, and probably a few lackluster titles on the long road to independent research.
By Meghan Mott