21st Century Science: an Academic Pyramid Scheme?


By John McLaughlin

Academic science is traditionally built on an apprenticeship model, in which a student works under the mentorship of a principal investigator, learning the skills of the trade and preparing to be an independent researcher. After a few years of training as a post-doctoral fellow, a scientist would likely obtain a tenure-track position at a university (if choosing the academic route) and mentor the next generation of scientists, continuing the academic circle of life. In the past few decades, this situation has drastically changed.


As most graduate students and post-docs have probably noticed, there has been an enormous amount of discussion on the difficulties of landing a good academic job following the PhD. In searching for the causes of this phenomenon, commentators have described several factors, two of the most salient being the recent stagnation in NIH funding (adjusted for inflation), and a dramatic increase in the number of PhDs awarded in the natural sciences. To provide context for the situation in the U.S., in the past three decades about 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering fields, compared to ~100,000 tenure-track positions created in the same time frame. These forces have changed the structure of the scientific academy, the result being a new arena in which many PhDs are competing for a smaller number of academic jobs, and with those who land one often shuttling between low-paying adjunct positions with meager benefits and no possibility of tenure.

Economists studying the U.S. scientific academy, particularly the post-doctoral fellow system, have gone so far as to describe it as a “pyramid scheme.” This type of financial scheme operates by luring new investors with the promise of an easy payout; but the players nearer the top profit the most, at the expense of those at the bottom.
Post-doctoral fellows, often the main workhorse of a biology research lab, are cheap (~$40,000 starting salary in U.S.) and replaceable, owing to the large excess of PhDs on the market; graduate students are even cheaper, as they often teach to earn their salaries. And a principal investigator (PI) running a large, well-funded lab will gain status and prestige for all grants and publications generated by their personnel.


Despite the less than ideal job prospects awaiting science PhDs, the government and media continue to strongly advocate education in the STEM fields, encouraging more undergraduates to pursue STEM majors and thereby increasing the number at the graduate level. While U.S. society’s general enthusiasm and respect for science is definitely positive, it is irresponsible to push so many young people into this career path without making substantial funding commitments. Certainly, not all PhD students intend to pursue a career in academia, and those who do may later find that their passion lies elsewhere, for instance in a biotechnology field. However, one should keep in mind that the past decade has also been rough for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. Since 2000, thousands of U.S. and European industry research positions have been lost, while several “big pharma” firms plan to open new R&D centers in Asia, where costs are lower.


Although the outlook might seem bleak for those currently navigating these turbulent academic waters, the calls of post-doctoral advocacy organizations for increased salaries and benefits may finally be making a difference. This year, the NIH increased the base salary of its National Research Service Award post-doctoral trainees, and other institutions have increased post-doctoral pay and benefits, resulting in higher post-doc satisfaction.


These proposals will not only increase the quality of life for current post-docs, but also change the incentive structure of the marketplace: as laboratory personnel become more expensive, PIs will hire more selectively. Fewer PhDs will enter the post-doctoral route, either opting to pursue a career in industry or another field entirely. It may take years for these policy changes to be fully implemented, but hopefully academic scientists will be able to pursue their passion without fearing for their livelihoods or career prospects.