Higher Education

How an oversupply of PhDs could threaten American science

Universities keep churning them out as cheap labor for labs, even though they face long odds of getting jobs

Gary McDowell spent four years working toward a PhD in oncology after earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemistry at the University of Cambridge. Since then, he’s toiled for four years as a postdoctoral fellow in research labs, first at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital, and now at Tufts.

Even with credentials like these, however, McDowell and postdocs like him earn low salaries and face long odds that they’ll ever get the jobs they really want.

Despite all the seeming demand for experts in the sciences, cuts in research spending and belt-tightening at universities mean that only one in five PhDs in science, engineering and health end up with faculty teaching or research positions within five years of completing their degrees, according to the National Science Foundation.

For biology PhDs like McDowell, things are even worse. Only one in 10 will snag an academic job. Many of the rest are drifting into other fields. And critics say the squeeze may be affecting the quality of scientific research and the nation’s international economic competitiveness.

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Yet universities have continued to churn out PhDs, who, as postdocs, provide cheap labor for the campus labs that draw much-needed research funding, but are given little help in moving on to jobs in which they can teach or run their own labs.

Students walk across campus at the University of Vermont on Monday, April 30, 2012 in Burlington, Vt.

Students walk across campus at the University of Vermont on Monday, April 30, 2012 in Burlington, Vt.

The result? Biomedical postdocs — according to the National Institutes of Health, there may be as many as 68,000 of them — are clogging a job market that almost certainly can’t absorb them all.

“All we’re expected to do is research,” said McDowell. “We’re not even trained properly to become academics. We’re not taught how to manage a lab, or to mentor people. We have a whole lot of people who are trained for nothing, really, and they get so far, then they realize they have to look for jobs outside academia.”

This backup comes at a time when China, India and other economic competitors are pouring money and people into science.

A new report issued by the National Academy of Sciences and other groups recommends that universities and other institutions address it by reducing the number of postdocs they produce, raising starting salaries to a minimum of $50,000 and limiting postdoctoral service to a maximum of five years.

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The document also calls on universities to tell their graduate students about the state of the job market and help them train for and enter alternative careers in such areas as science writing, science policy and consulting.

For the second year in a row, the National Institutes of Health is providing grants of up to $250,000 to universities that agree to provide biomedical PhDs with training in nonacademic fields. The University of Chicago, for example, used the money to run a conference on careers in science communication.

The existing postdoc system “has created expectations for academic career advancement that in many — perhaps most — cases cannot be met,” said Gregory Petsko, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, and chair of the committee that authored the National Academy of Sciences report.

“Competition is so high that many bright people may take more financially secure jobs,” said Kristin Krukenberg, a postdoc at Harvard. “They may see the job numbers and decide to become a banker or go down an entirely different path.”

It may also be affecting the quality of postdocs’ research, said McDowell, who cites a recent bioethics report that shows a significant number of scientists have considered changing research data to get published in the kind of journals that can help them land jobs.

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“The number of papers being retracted is increasing every year,” he said, “and the reason is that when you’re applying in a hyper-competitive environment for a faculty job, you have to publish in high-impact journals like Nature or Science.”

Now some postdocs, including Krukenberg and McDowell, have taken matters into their own hands, forming an organization for PhDs from across the country called Future of Research to pressure universities to tell grad students about their prospects for jobs and the track records of previous PhDs and to give them training in nonacademic careers.

Producing good scientists for academia as well as for industry is key to America’s global competitiveness, said Petsko.

“I don’t believe you can train too many PhDs in science. We live in a complicated, technologically sophisticated, rapidly changing world, and I can’t think of better preparation for that world than the kind of discipline in analysis, planning, and decision-making that you get from a good PhD program,” he said. “It’s great preparation for just about any field — politics, policy — you name it.”

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But not just to work forever in another person’s lab, McDowell said.

Had he known the job situation from the start, he still would have pursued a PhD in science, he said, but might have used it for a career in science policy or another field.

As for Krukenberg, she still hopes for a permanent academic position, and started applying for the first time in the fall.

Fifty applications later, she’s still awaiting her fate.

If she doesn’t hear back soon, Krukenberg said, “I’ll have to start thinking about what else I’m qualified to do.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education here.

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