What does the education of a scientist involve? Innovation, trailblazing—a chance to join the ranks of other visionaries intent on breaking barriers? It’s an enticing image. A look at how professional science education actually plays out suggests that the reality is more daunting. Science PhD students labour as apprentices under the guidance of professors—reading scholarly works, doing research, writing papers, learning the skills of the trade and absorbing the ethos of the world of science. After completing their PhD programmes, they usually undergo a few years of postdoctoral (postdoc) training. In the old days, a reasonable number of them were then able to obtain tenure-track faculty positions at universities and mentor the next generation of scientists in their own research labs. But over the past few decades, landing a good academic job has become increasingly difficult. And today, for many, it has come to seem nearly impossible.
One reason is the sheer explosion in the number of science PhDs granted each year, which has far outstripped the growth in the number of tenure-track faculty positions. For example, between 1982 and 2011 in the US, around 800,000 science and engineering PhDs were awarded, but only about 100,000 new tenure-track faculty positions were created in those fields. And the number of PhDs awarded in Europe is overwhelming its academic carrying capacity as well. According to a 2016 report:
A recent survey of 38 EU and EU-partner countries shows a persisting duality, with a significant proportion of researchers in the higher education sector employed on fixed-term contracts, or no contracts at all, the situation being most pronounced during early career stages. In 2012, the proportion of researchers with “no contract at all” or on a less-than-one-year contract was ten times higher among PhD students and young graduates (31%) than at the latest research career stages (3%). Almost 90% of PhD researchers were in precarious working conditions with no or less-than-two-year contractual horizons, while 90% of leading senior researchers were on permanent positions. This duality has created problems for the individuals involved, who have little long-term job security and increasingly face few opportunities to obtain permanent or tenured positions.
Many science and engineering PhDs who land academic jobs after their postdocs find themselves shuttling between low-paying adjunct positions with meager benefits, with little hope of obtaining a long-term appointment.
Why does this dysfunctional situation persist? A recent Bloomberg article suggests that it is because PhD students “contribute substantially to the university system [by] providing a source of cheap, highly skilled labor for both research and undergraduate education.” Although a PhD student’s education is subsidised by her university or by grants, and she is typically paid a small stipend, the value of the research and teaching she provides more than compensates for this, and professors benefit from the funding students generate by obtaining grants, and the prestige students generate by the publications they produce. In addition, postdoctoral fellows, often the main workhorses of university research labs, are relatively cheap to hire (their median annual salary in the US is about $47,500) and plentiful (there are more would-be postdocs than positions available).
Despite the generally poor academic career prospects awaiting most science PhDs, undergraduate students are increasingly being encouraged to pursue majors in the STEM fields, thereby potentially swelling the ranks of aspiring STEM graduate students. There has been a particularly big push to increase the number of undergraduates studying the life sciences, such as biology, health and agriculture, which in turn tends to swell the ranks of life-sciences graduate students. In 2019, American colleges and universities awarded 12,781 PhDs in the life sciences—about 23% of all doctorates awarded in the US that year. This is unsustainable: the market simply cannot absorb that many PhD graduates. And yet, this reality may not have sunk in for the latest batch of students. In a 2019 Nature survey of graduate students in STEM fields around the globe, 56% picked academia as their first-choice career.
The bottom-heavy structure of academia affects more than the career prospects of PhDs: it undermines the scientific enterprise. The more the PhD surplus grows, the more graduates are likely to find themselves in menial roles for which they feel overqualified. The disconnect between their self-appraised value and their earnings is likely to become more jarring. This trend may explain the recent wave of tweets and viral videos in which advanced degree holders lament the general public’s lack of respect for them.
This toxic social milieu, along with the pressure on scientists to climb the career ladder, is likely to degrade the quality of research, according to a 2015 report on scientific culture in the UK. The report found that the fierce competition for scarce jobs has put scientists under immense pressure, and concluded that scientists are “bound to behave less well” as a result. They write:
This was confirmed by the survey findings. Fifty-eight per cent of respondents to the survey are aware of scientists feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards, although evidence was not collected on any behaviour associated with these findings. Twenty-six per cent of respondents have themselves felt tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards.
After the past year, filled with scientific triumphs against the coronavirus, it may seem bizarre to argue for fewer practitioners of science—and society’s general enthusiasm for science is a net positive. But it is unconscionable to push tens of thousands of young people down the tortuous PhD path without providing them with a decent shot at a healthy career after graduation. Although not all PhD students in STEM fields plan to pursue a career in academia, about 74% of graduates in the biological and life sciences take postdoctoral jobs after graduation, according to a 2013 survey. The nature of the postdoc has changed. It was originally meant to be a brief period during which a newly minted PhD prepares to take on the duties of a university professor and run a lab in her chosen field. It has become an extended and agonizing period of limbo, offering meager pay, as the postdoc scrambles to find a real job. As Science magazine notes in a 2015 editorial, “For all but a small percentage of aspiring researchers, doing a postdoc at a university is a lousy idea because it will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance one’s career.”
Solving this problem will require addressing the root cause—the excess number of PhDs—by drastically cutting enrollment in PhD programs. For the university faculty and administrators who profit from the current system, this would be a bitter pill. But in the long run, it could shift academia to a healthy equilibrium, free up more funding for the most productive research labs, and substantially increase pay for PhD students and postdocs. The future of science as a viable institution depends on our willingness to take this step.