Looking beyond life as a bioscience university professor

Photo by Vic

Photo by Vic

Life as a tenured university professor seems idyllic with its job security, intellectual freedom, prestige, livable wage and flexible schedule. No wonder so many bioscience students aim to become professors.

But numerous factors, including a lack of available faculty positions, are making bioscience trainees consider other careers. That’s been the experience for Scott Carlson, PhD, a Stanford postdoctoral research fellow in biology, who recently told me:

“My dream job is a baffling question right now. When I started as a postdoc, I would have said my dream job was to be a professor at a program in interdisciplinary biology or bioengineering. After five years as a postdoc, I’m not sure anymore but I don’t know what to replace it with. Academia makes it impossible to explore other options. If I leave, my grants would disappear and it would be hard to get back in without recent publications.”

Carlson isn’t alone. It’s increasingly difficult to secure a spot as a tenure-track faculty member, even for those who spend years conducting research first as a student and then as a postdoc. According to the National Institutes of Health’s 2012 Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report, “Although the vast majority of people holding biomedical PhDs are employed (i.e., unemployment is very low), the proportion of PhDs that move into tenured or tenure-track faculty positions has declined from ~34 percent in 1993 to ~26 percent today.”

This decline in bioscience faculty positions is correlated with funding difficulties. For example, the success rate of researchers applying for new NIH grants dropped from 28.2 percent in 2000 to 16.3 percent in 2015, and the success rate for grant renewals dropped from 52.7 percent to 28.6 percent for the same years. In addition, grants tend to go to established investigators, making it even more difficult for postdocs or new professors to secure funding.

One solution proposed by the NIH working group is to change graduate training so it is no longer “aimed almost exclusively at preparing people for academic research positions.”

Stephanie Eberle, director of the Stanford School of Medicine Career Center, works with students, MDs, PhDs and postdocs from all the biosciences. She agreed that it’s time to “revisit the value of graduate education” and added:

“It isn’t just for an academic job, and it hasn’t been for a long time. We need to allow our trainees to explore other options while they’re here. For instance, we offer some biotechnology business and finance classes at Stanford. Improving our trainees’ business skills improves their chances in any career, academia included, by helping them stand out in a competitive market.”

However, Eberle and Carlson both acknowledged that this requires a change in culture. “There’s little direct pressure from colleagues, but there’s a strong implicit feeling that an academic career is somehow the most successful or prestigious career path,” said Carlson. “I didn’t get this sense as much when I was doing my PhD in bioengineering, but it’s pervasive in biology. I think it’s a big problem in academic culture and a huge disservice to the trainees.”

Eberle concluded:

“Most faculty assume all the students intend to go into academia, but some of our students don’t even want to go into academia in the first place. People aren’t talking and they’re making assumptions — that’s a problem. My charge is to help support our trainees’ combined academic, professional and career development. We need to help them find the career that fits them best.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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