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The Future of Research Symposium:

The Structure of the Workforce

Posted by , on 25 September 2014

This is the second of four posts relating to the Future of Research symposium which was announced in a previous blog post. Each of these posts will discuss a topic that is the focus of a workshop at the Symposium. Even if you can’t attend, please tweet @FORsymp with suggestions, or follow us to respond to our questions about what YOU, trainee scientists, think is important. The hashtag for this post on the Workforce workshop is: #FORworkforce

Where do postdocs go?

There has been a tremendous shift in the job market for PhDs/post-docs over the past decades. The only job that PhDs/post-docs are trained for (academic PI positions) are precipitously dwindling. Under such conditions, how do we match the changing job market demand with the supply of rightly trained PhDs/post-docs?

There are high numbers of graduate trainees and postdoctoral researchers in the current academic research system (Alberts et al., 2014). There are now slowdowns, or even contractions, in the ability of academia, the government and industry to take on this excess number of postdocs. The goal of this workshop will be to figure out what the best ways of adapting the system to best reduce the postdoc pool (Bourne, 2013).

As discussed in a prior post, the assumption is that everyone who goes into academia wants to end up an academic. Expectations have been shown to change over time as a trainee progresses, in spite of strong encouragement from advisor, who actively discourage other career paths (Sauermann and Roach, 2012). And the jobs people are actually getting show that, actually, academia is one of the “alternative” careers, and not the default. So the workforce becomes filled with more trainees than are needed to replace current academics.

What is the cause of this mismatch?

The doubling of NIH budget in 1990s made provision for a huge influx of money – particularly soft money which the academic institutions used up for massive expansion (of a large number of PhDs, post-docs, etc.) without taking into consideration the long term effects of this one-time influx. The result is over the past decade, in conjunction with the economic crisis and sequestration, the NIH budget has contracted by 20 %, essentially leaving the trainees high and dry without good job prospects for the (academic) jobs that they were trained for.

What is the current demand on the workforce encompassing the grad students and post-docs?

Although almost all PhDs and post-docs are trained, or directed, to become PIs in academia, the current reality is that these academic jobs account for less than 15 % of the job market. Due to The Great Recession, jobs in industry are also in a downward flux. However, there are many new job opportunities that are opening up in fields that initially were considered alternative careers and looked down upon. These include: consulting for life sciences and pharmaceutical industries; sales; marketing and field specialists of high tech and technologically advanced products; science policy; communications; patent law and intellectual property; and many more.

There is a perception that there is actually a shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) graduates in the United States. However a recent report by the Center for Immigration Studies using US Census data (Camarota and Ziegler, 2014) is one of a chorus of recent publications suggesting that this is in fact not the case, and that STEM graduates are actually struggling to get jobs. Are we producing too many STEM graduate or too few? Bizarrely, the answer may be “both”, as recently discussed, and that we simply have too many graduates, who are trained for the wrong careers.

Questions – please give us feedback!

How did we get to this situation and what is perpetuating the problem?

What are possible ways of changing the structure of the workforce to relieve the pressure?

This post has been written from input provided by the moderators of the workshop on the “Structure of the Workforce”.


Alberts B, Kirschner M W, Tilghman S, Varmus H (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. PNAS 111 (16):5773-5777. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1404402111

Bourne H, (2013) Point of view: A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs. eLife 2:e01139. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.01139#sthash.rQShvUou.dpuf

Camarota S A, Ziegler K (2014) Is There a STEM Worker Shortage? A look at employment and wages in science, technology, engineering, and math. Center for Immigration Studies Report.

Sauermann H, Roach M (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036307

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Categories: Discussion, Lab Life

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The Future of Research Symposium:

The Structure of the Workforce”

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