WASHINGTON, D.C.--In what surely will make depressing reading for aspiring researchers, a report released here today by the National Research Council (NRC) argues that the supply of newly minted Ph.D.s in the life sciences vastly outstrips the availability of desirable jobs. "I call it the La Guardia effect," says panel chair Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist at Princeton University. She has a vision of "a lot of trained scientists who are circling, burning up very important and useful fuel, and waiting for their turn to land."
Every young life scientist knows colleagues who have struggled to find jobs, and the report sees no reason to expect the hard times to end soon. Since 1987, the number of new Ph.D.s in the life sciences increased at an annual rate of about 4% a year, climbing to 5.1% in 1996. If such a growth rate is sustained, the report says, the number of new life sciences Ph.D.s could double in just 14 years. Swelling the ranks "could adversely affect the future of the research enterprise," the report says, by breeding "destructive" competition and suppressing scientific creativity by causing scientists to play it safe.
The Ph.D. surge has already deeply chilled job prospects for today's grads. The proportion of Ph.D.s holding permanent jobs 5 or 6 years out has decreased from 89% in 1973 to 62% in 1995. "The average life scientist [nowadays] is likely to be 35 to 40 years old before obtaining his or her first permanent job," says the report.
To trim the swelling Ph.D. ranks, it calls on universities to freeze the size of their programs and to develop no new ones "except under rare and special circumstances, such as a program to serve an emerging field or to encourage the education of members of underrepresented minority groups." The panel also recommends that the government subsidize "career transition" grants so some postdocs can set up their own research projects even before they have obtained permanent posts.