In one preliminary finding disclosed at the conference, fewer Ph.D.s found a faculty research career “extremely attractive” this year than in SEPPS2010—26% vs. 38%. Yet the dearth of available positions for Ph.D.s has not deterred postdocs from pursuing academic careers. Why?
“We don't really know,” Dr. Sauermann told GEN. “Potential reasons include that (some) individuals know the general labor market conditions but overestimate their own chances of finding academic jobs; that (some) individuals do a postdoc not primarily to obtain a faculty position; or that they simply do not ‘maximize’ expected payoffs/utility, i.e., do not make an economically optimal decision. It is not clear whether these reasons apply and how important they are, but we'll try to get at this.”
Another speaker, Donna K. Ginther, Ph.D., professor of economics and director, Center for Science, Technology & Economic Policy at the University of Kansas, told GEN universities churned out Ph.D.s and postdocs based on their need to conduct research and teach undergrads, and their desire to satisfy growing degree demand from overseas students funded by their home countries.
Dr. Ginther is a member of NIH’s Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, which last year issued a report calling in part for agency-funded institutions to provide additional training and career development, test ways to shorten the Ph.D. training period, and collect career outcomes data, while NIH should shift postdoc funding from research project grants to training grants and fellowships.
Two working-group recommendations, she said, will likely decrease postdoc demand: Raise starting stipends to $42,000, pegged to the Consumer Price Index; and limit NIH grad student funds to an institutional average of five years, with nobody receiving more than six years’ support.
Labs reacted coolly to raising labor costs, while postdocs chafed at the support time limits. Even if the recommendations had broader support, funding them would likely prove elusive. The budget climate will remain chilly even if the federal government avoids the shutdown threatened for October 1.
“A lot of the postdoctoral researchers are funded on research grants. That money, because of sequestration and the ongoing budget situation, is going away. So the demand for students and postdocs to work on those grants is going to fall,” Dr. Ginther said.
Universities will also be hard-pressed to maintain support for Ph.D.s and postdocs, she added, given state budget cuts and other financial pressures.