November 1, 2013 (Vol. 33, No. 19)

The Glut of Docs and Post-Docs Does Not Show Signs of Abating Any Time Soon

The long-discussed glut of Ph.D.s and postdocs is getting some overdue additional attention in a pair of upcoming studies, as professionals explore whether and how much that surplus will likely shrink.

An ad hoc panel of the National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPP) is a few months away from releasing an update of its 2000 report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, committee director Kevin Finneran told GEN.

The update will assess how well U.S. postdoc programs meet the needs of scientists and the broader research enterprise, and how the postdoc landscape has changed since the 2000 report. Its 10 recommendations included a five-year limit on postdoc appointments, “substantive” career guidance, participation in creating employment conditions and standards modeled on those of graduate students and faculty, “frequent and regular” communication with mentors and institutions, and access to health insurance.

“We wanted to revisit that topic, to see if the recommendations we had made have been implemented, and if that was helping the situation, or if there were new problems that had arisen, or other things that we hadn’t been aware of,” Finneran said.COSEPP hosted a September 16 workshop that included discussion of the postdoc glut. One speaker was Henry Sauermann, Ph.D., professor of strategic management at Georgia Institute of Technology, who is completing a second/follow-up wave of the Science and Engineering Ph.D. and Postdoc Survey (SEPPS) with Michael Roach, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of strategy at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Fading Attraction

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.

“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.

Stimulating Enrollment

Dr. Ginther and Paula E. Stephan, Ph.D., professor of economics at Georgia State University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, said Ph.D. numbers ballooned during the FY 1998–2003 doubling of NIH’s budget, with President Obama’s “stimulus” or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) prompting universities to build more labs, filled mostly by postdocs.

With ARRA now history, what is sustaining the postdocs? “That’s the big question. And I have to say that we don’t really have good data on this right now,” Dr. Stephan said. The latest data in the National Science Foundation’s annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, last released in November 2011, saw “biological science” Ph.D.s inch up 0.3% to 8,052 degrees in 2010, with stimulus funds available.

Addressing the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) in March, Dr. Stephan said universities depended more on grad students and postdocs in recent years as faculty investigators scrambled to pursue more grants once NIH funding flattened. Postdoc numbers also swelled after the 2007–09 recession and biopharma’s shift from external R&D reduced industry jobs.

Universities also encouraged postdocs, says Dr. Stephan, because they work cheaper. First-year postdocs earn an NIH-stipulated $39,264 for an average 2,650 hours’ work, or $14.82/hour before fringe benefits, compared with $37/hour for grads working up to 1,500 hours at stipends of $16,000 to $28,000, or staff scientists starting at $25/hour or $55,000 annually.

Mahadeo A. Sukhai, Ph.D., vice chair of NPA’s board of directors, told GEN universities have another economic incentive to crank out Ph.D.s: State schools can win more funding for grad students, while private institutions find student assistance packages easier to fund.

“A Ph.D. is taken as a degree in critical and constructive thought and strong analytical skills,” said Dr. Sukhai, research fellow and team leader, high-throughput biomarker assay development, in the Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, University Health Network, at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre/Ontario Cancer Institute. “Except that the training doesn’t always match the expectation, and the student cohorts are taught to focus more on the technical aspects of the Ph.D. vs. the skill development aspects of the Ph.D. These factors combine to increase the number of Ph.D.s despite the paucity of available academic jobs, while at the same time narrowing the students’ focus to only those positions.”

Filling the Gaps

In their upcoming studies, researchers should heed and address the observations of current Ph.D.s and postdocs.

“While I can say that during graduate training I was exposed to the fact that there were jobs outside of academia, at the time it didn’t occur to me to ask what the job availability was going to be like in any job sector,” Darwin J. Operario, Ph.D., research associate, University of Virginia Health System.

Dr. Operario, who chairs NPA’s outreach committee, said institutions have the responsibility to make information about job availability and nonacademic careers easily available to trainees: “They may not even realize that they should ask questions about job availability after having earned the degree. Add on top of that the question of whether or not undergraduate career centers/counselors, undergraduate faculty advisors, or even graduate faculty advisors know the job prospects or tell their advisees.”

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