Want a Job in the Sciences? Good Luck Navigating the “Unsustainable Hypercompetitive System”

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So STEM careers, right? The solution to all of our educational and economic problems?

Well, yesterday, io9 ran a piece titled Meet the New Underclass: People With Ph.D.s in Science. To wit:

Once upon a time, newly-minted science Ph.D.s would get research jobs at a senior scientist’s laboratory, to train and hone the ideas they would explore at their own labs. But now the supply of post-doctoral students is outpacing demand, creating a new, hyper-educated underclass.

It gets better. (Or worse, if you’re currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the sciences.) When you read the sources io9 cites, you get this lovely research paper published in PNAS, aka the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, titled Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. I will quote the abstract:

The long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system that is discouraging even the most outstanding prospective students from entering our profession—and making it difficult for seasoned investigators to produce their best work. This is a recipe for long-term decline, and the problems cannot be solved with simplistic approaches. Instead, it is time to confront the dangers at hand and rethink some fundamental features of the US biomedical research ecosystem.

Yeah, well, that’s just in the abstract, right? That’s like, you know, a scientific theory. Got any more proof?

The io9 piece cites a few more stats that prove it’s a lot harder to start a career in the sciences than it used to be, but, in the interest of “not copying io9’s work wholesale,” I did some research on my own. A recent NPR story titled Too Few University Jobs For America’s Young Scientists sent me to a working paper published by the International Centre for Economic Research titled The Biomedical Workforce In the US: An Example of Positive Feedbacks, which, well, let’s quote the abstract again:

It concludes that the presence of positive feedbacks in the biomedical workforce is a result of system-wide problems. Any fix requires changing incentives. This is unlikely to occur as long as the U.S. Congress and faculty have their way.

In case that was too abstract for you, here’s another quote from the working paper:

To summarize, the supply of life scientists being trained in the U.S. has increased dramatically in the recent past despite considerable evidence that permanent jobs are scarce, especially permanent positions in academe. A back of the envelope estimate suggests that the probability of a U.S. trained PhD being hired into a tenure track position and becoming a PI is less than 5%.

(I don’t even want to know what bad news is on the front of that envelope.)

So science is out, but we’ve still got TEM, right? We’ll just start telling everyone to pursue TEM careers! It’s a flawless plan.

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