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Person of the Year: Paula Stephan

Paula Stephan
Courtesy of Georgia State University

With 2012 drawing to a close, Science Careers hereby names its first ever Person of the Year, honoring an individual who, during the past 12 months, has made an especially significant and sustained contribution to the welfare of early-career scientists. We are delighted to salute the distinguished labor economist Paula Stephan, professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, research associate at the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research, and one of the most penetrating students of the academic science labor market.

In numerous articles and books, and as a member of scholarly bodies and study commissions examining the situation and prospects of young scientists, Stephan has long expounded the view that the current graduate and postdoctoral training system constitutes, in her words, a “pyramid scheme.” This system, she has repeatedly shown, uses young and aspiring scientists as cheap labor for professors’ grant-funded research and then fails to provide the career opportunities that have been implicitly or explicitly promised.

Her book's analysis lays bare exactly how and why the pyramid scheme harms the interests and prospects of young scientists struggling to find careers in a glutted labor market.

Even for the accomplished Stephan, 2012 was a year of special accomplishment. It began with the 9 January publication of her illuminating book on the workings of academic research, How Economics Shapes Science. The book uses the "tool bag" of economics to analyze "the relationships between incentives and costs" and to penetrate the financial structure of university-based science. As Science Careers wrote in a 6 January column, the book explains "the motivation and behavior of everyone from august university presidents and professors to powerless and impecunious graduate students and postdocs."

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Stephan succinctly shows why federally funded academic research generally probes “safe” questions, limiting the odds of both conspicuous failures and dramatic breakthroughs. She shows why the demand for low-cost graduate students and even lower-cost postdocs is perpetual, insatiable, and out of proportion with subsequent career opportunities. She even explains why male rats are usually a better bargain than female rats. Her book's analysis lays bare exactly how and why the pyramid scheme harms the interests and prospects of young scientists struggling to find careers in a glutted labor market.

A busy year

After publishing her book in January, Stephan devoted much of 2012 to spreading its message far and wide. The book was reviewed widely and well, leading to invitations to speak at the Biophysical Society, the 2012 meeting of AAAS (publisher of Science Careers), the American Epidemiological Society, the Healthcare Alliance, the National Postdoctoral Association, and the postdoctoral association at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She has given a number of talks in Europe, and she will give the annual Nordlander Lecture in Science and Public Policy at Cornell University. She has also appeared on an American Chemical Society Webcast on careers and in a long interview on the television show BioCentury This Week, produced by WUSA in Washington, D.C. She has also given a number of talks in Europe.

During 2012, Stephan was involved with three high-profile national projects aimed at improving the lot of early-career scientists. She was a member of the modeling subcommittee of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group at the National Institutes of Health, and she was on the National Academies committee responsible for the report Research Universities and the Future of America. She serves on the committee working on the forthcoming National Academies study, "The State of the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers Revisited."

Changing the conversation

For many years, the national discourse on the scientific workforce focused on imaginary shortages of scientists. Fourteen years ago, Stephan served on the Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implications of Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists, which argued that, on the contrary, the big problem faced by the life sciences was the absence of career opportunities. "When we issued that report, we got a tremendous amount of pushback. … In ’98, we said many of the things that people are saying now, that there was lots of evidence of an oversupply, that Ph.D. programs should basically quit expanding, that we needed to have more training grants and fewer [graduate research assistant] positions, that departments really had to tell people what happened after they got the degree. We made all of those recommendations, and really in the same words." At that time, she says, "People would say, ‘This may be a problem, but only for very low tier programs. … It doesn’t apply to us.’ ”

Courtesy of Harvard University Press

“Now I really think there are an awful lot of people who believe this applies to them,” Stephan continues. “I get the sense that we may be really beginning to see a change in graduate education. Maybe I’m just overly optimistic here, but I think there is discussion about the need to provide students with good information and help them explore alternatives early in their graduate career.”

Most importantly, today, "nobody’s arguing that there’s a shortage of people in the biomedical sciences. That’s really over, and that’s a real breakthrough. I think you have to chalk that right up there as a success.”

“I wouldn’t overemphasize,” Stephan cautions. “I think if something wonderful happened and the economy was wonderful and federal funding was flush again, I think [some] people [might] just keep on doing what they’re doing.” And anyway, while widespread acceptance of the problem is a big step forward, solving the problem will be much harder "because coming up with the answer is truly threatening to the way they do business," she says.

Finding that answer will be the great challenge for the years to come. But for now, because of her invaluable and ongoing contributions to changing the conversation and making the search for that answer possible, Paula Stephan is the Science Careers Person of the Year.