Should graduate students and postdocs hoping for careers—or even jobs—in academe be exploring other options because of the uncertainties created by the across-the-board federal funding cuts known as sequestration? David Bolduc, a Johns Hopkins University graduate student, raises that timely question in a video at Chemical & Engineering News.
"I've been worried enough about lack of funding and sequestration that I've considered alternative career options," says Bolduc, who works in the lab of Philip Cole, director of pharmacology and molecular science at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "Is it worth all the difficulties of staying in science, or would it be easier to change careers or go into a nonresearch area of science?"
The terrible state of academic careers resulted not from sequestration but from the fundamental structure of a funding system that has long used graduate students and postdocs as cheap labor for grant-supported research, and as a consequence has produced too many Ph.D. researchers for the existing career opportunities.
If Bolduc has drawn any conclusions, he does not share them, but Cole says in the video that one result of the "reduced numbers of grants coming in and getting funded" because of sequestration is "a reduction in staffing, in students and postdocs that can work on these projects." Faculty are seeing "our trainees struggle to find positions of their own" and at Hopkins itself, "faculty recruitment [has been] brought to a much slower pace while we watch how this is going to play out," Cole adds. "You plan things like lab size and who to recruit today based on what your funding might be tomorrow."
In an article that accompanies the video, Laura Niedernhofer of Scripps Research Institute Florida, explains how receiving a grant that was 18% smaller than she had requested, and that arrived after months of anxious waiting, forced her to hire two fewer postdocs than she had initially planned. "With this grant I should have been able to expand my lab, but now I can't," she states.
What is the take-home message for aspiring scientists? For the present at least, career-building opportunities in federally funded research, which accounts for the bulk of the science done in academe, are even more limited than usual. No one knows how long sequestration will last or whether funding will return to former levels, let alone surpass them. Looking for off-campus opportunities, therefore, appears to be a wiser course than ever.
There's a particular irony in the sad situation of so many grad students, postdocs, and would-be postdocs aspiring to work in academe. The terrible state of academic careers resulted not from sequestration but from the fundamental structure of a funding system that has long used graduate students and postdocs as cheap labor for grant-supported research, and as a consequence has produced too many Ph.D. researchers for the existing career opportunities. Sequestration has exacerbated that long-festering problem and made the system's long-apparent flaws more obvious—but did not create it. In recent years, reports from the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies, and the American Chemical Society have explored the causes and the harmful effects of the oversupply of young scientists.
Sequestration appears to be reducing those numbers somewhat, but in a particularly brutal and mindless way. Far more intelligent and humane would be a reasoned approach to reducing graduate and postdoc programs, establishing better ways of staffing research labs, and preparing the young scientists emerging from America's universities for appealing career opportunities—that use their scientific training—both off and on campus. That, however, would require politicians and institutions to engage in serious thinking, honest discussion, and long-term planning for the good of science and the nation—three commodities that appear to be in permanently short supply.