From The Science Student Council

The kind of future that we want for our scientists

It is never too early for graduate students to begin advocating for better career opportunities in science.

By Gabriel Lázaro-Muñoz

Research-oriented graduate students are already part of the next crop of scientist that will be called upon to solve some of society’s most complex problems. Surely most, if not all, of these students welcome that challenge, but the current state and structure of academic environments and research funding is making it increasingly difficult for many to dedicate their lives to generating knowledge and developing solutions. Graduate students should not be dissuaded by this situation, but it is necessary that they take the time to examine the road ahead and advocate for better career opportunities in science. Even if you are not a scientist, you should take ownership of this issue because advancing opportunities for research scientists is in the best interest of all of us who will benefit from their innovations.

The expected path for most who begin a career in scientific research is to obtain a Ph.D., to then work in a laboratory as a postdoctoral research scientist for several years, and finally to apply for positions in academia to become the head of a laboratory. Lately, this model is not necessarily working out that way. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the time that researchers continue on as postdocs working under senior scientists in academic settings. One reason for this change is certainly the economic downturn, which has made it increasingly difficult for universities to receive the capital to invest in research and open faculty positions. In addition, many academic institutions face the problem that the success rate for National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding has decreased over the last decade. The success rate, or the percentage of reviewed grant applications that receive funding, has decreased across all NIH institutes from 30.2% in 2001 to 20.6% in 2010. This makes it a riskier bet for universities to invest in research because of the uncertainty of whether scientists will be able to receive the funding necessary to maintain their laboratories.

However, limited funding for new faculty positions is just one part of the reason that scientists are staying in postdoctoral positions for extended periods of time. Another situation that we must consider is that in 1993 Congress eliminated the exemption for tenured faculty at higher education institutions under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Although eliminating the exemption was undoubtedly the right decision, this means that universities no longer establish mandatory retirement ages for faculty members. There is no reason why we should discriminate on the basis of age and, in the process, deprive society of the knowledge and mastery of more experienced scientists. However, the fact that academic research scientists are able to retain their faculty positions for longer, along with an up-and-coming healthy and vibrant baby boomer generation of scientists reaching “retirement age,” will result in less turnover of faculty positions and thus fewer positions available for those postdocs seeking a faculty position. Again, the idea here is not to point fingers, but to face the facts and begin a conversation about how to identify alternatives and accommodate upcoming scientists.  

The issue of prolonged postdoctoral positions is not a problem if we decide to go the route of fewer laboratories and more people working under one roof developing solutions together. However, this requires changing the expectations of current and future graduate students and postdocs, and increasing the incentives for them to stay in scientific academic research, as opposed to moving to the private sector or leaving science altogether. The current NIH guidelines for postdoctoral stipends call for a first-year postdoc to receive a $38,496 stipend with increases of approximately $2,000 per year. Therefore, after five to seven years of working towards a doctoral degree, and after four years of postdoctoral experience, a fifth-year postdoc currently receives a $48,900 stipend if she or he has NIH funding. If one considers the ratio of this compensation to the education, technical knowledge, and experience required to reach this stage, the economic incentives certainly do not compare well against many other fields. Part of the rationale behind these stipends is that postdocs are receiving invaluable training to start their own laboratory. However, if starting a laboratory is not the reality for an increasing number of scientists today, we must reconsider the incentives before they reconsider the field.

It is never too early for graduate students to begin advocating for better career opportunities. Moving forward, students should work to make others aware of the importance of funding scientific research for graduate students and postdocs. In addition, we must all continue to advocate for increases in appropriations for federal funding agencies. However, we should also consider alternatives, such as calling for states to develop their own funding agencies for competitive research, either individually or through consortiums with other states. A thorough and dispassionate discussion about such issues is the only alternative for developing science policies that will increase opportunities for scientific careers and produce innovative solutions to many of our toughest challenges.

To find out more about how to get involved visit the APASSC website or the APA Science Government Relations office.

Gabriel Lázaro-Muñoz is the outgoing chair and biopsychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. He obtained his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Puerto Rico and holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from New York University where his research focused on the role of the amygdala in fear-motivated behaviors. Currently, he is working towards his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a Master of Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.