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The Life Scientist Bubble

CREDIT: Hidde de Vries

I know when it all went wrong for me. I had started doing my Ph.D. in 1998. My supervisor employed two long-term postdocs, who had worked with her for many years, and their uninterrupted work in her lab ended only when she retired. The other labs at the University of Edinburgh's Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, often had long-term postdocs as well. I decided that being a long-term postdoc would suit me just fine.

I was wrong. After a maternity leave and two-and-a-half postdocs, I found myself in a very different job landscape—one where an experienced postdoc struggles to find a job in academia. Absence of industry experience disqualifies me from industry jobs, and I am overqualified for most jobs outside of academia. I have seen a comparison of a postdoc with a piece of equipment that is replaced whenever there is a new model on the market—and nobody buys a second-hand Polymerase Chain Reaction machine. Despite what I feel are excellent skills, I feel like a used piece of equipment.

I have seen a comparison of a postdoc with a piece of equipment that is replaced whenever there is a new model on the market—and nobody buys a second-hand Polymerase Chain Reaction machine.

Looking back, I understand that I should have paid more attention to two things: simple math and political economy.

My supervisor had a shelf loaded with the theses of her former Ph.D. students; there were about 30 of them in all. The Ph.D. students in our other labs outnumbered postdocs at least 2:1, and every year more Ph.D. students were admitted. And there were, of course, far more postdocs than available permanent jobs. An economic bubble—a strong increase in demand soon to be followed by crash—was inflating already.

Political economy started to interest me as I began to notice the economic cycles. The '90s featured the "dot-com bubble." The early Internet—like any other speculative bubble, starting from the tulip mania—promised untold riches, the price of shares in profitless Internet companies growing as fast as a soap bubble on the end of the stick. Everybody and his older brother retrained as a programmer. And then the bubble burst, leaving a lot of programmers unemployed. I considered myself lucky to have a good, solid qualification, one that will never go out of demand: a Ph.D. in molecular biology.

Victoria Doronina

Victoria Doronina


Ten years later, I believe we are in the midst of a similar crash—another bursting bubble—this one is in the life sciences. Universities still work on the model established in the 19th century: A collection of tenured lab heads were lucky enough to finish the peripatetic life of a postdoc at or near the beginning of the bubble, and so were privileged to be able to settle down, with excellent job security, and work on the same set of problems for the next 30 to 40 years. But, just as in the late '00s, housing-market speculators in the United States needed a supply of new buyers for their houses at inflated prices, those new professors need students and postdocs to staff their labs—as many as possible. Students are cheap labor and, after initial training, can work as postdocs, arguably an even better deal. As the number of trainees inflates, less attention is paid to each one.

The supply of the newly minted Ph.D.s outstrips demand of the flexible capitalist economy of 21st century, even as the government continues to pay to train more. Workers are dehumanised and their work is commodified. Employers gain a sense of entitlement: Workers are expected to enter jobs in a flawless, pick-and-mix package, without inconvenient individual glitches such as CV gaps due to a maternity leave, or skill gaps due to a less-than-perfect job fit. Job ads specify not just specific techniques but even specific machines. More and more recruiters rely on a semi-automatic system of keyword searches, reducing a person to a collection of skills—specifically, the ones mentioned in the CV. I know somebody who applied to a position in a company and was not selected. When he enquired as to why, he was told it was because there was no mention of his proficiency in English. He has a Ph.D. in linguistics from one of the best British universities.

Few policymakers are interested in the long term. Politicians care only about winning the next elections or imposing trendy austerity measures. The management of private companies cares only about stock price and short-term profits for shareholders, which are incompatible with investment in the basic research programs that are the foundation of future growth. Instead of hiring talented postgraduates and training them to meet their specific needs, companies recycle talent, hiring only workers who already have exactly the right experience, gained at other companies. In the short term, everybody wins but those powerless students and postdocs.

But the long term is likely to be a different story. The oversupply of talent won't last forever. Word gets out. Many of the brightest high school graduates may wish to study science—but they also wish to lead successful lives, be respected in their communities, and be able to support their families reasonably well. In a material sense, they know they have better options: medicine, perhaps, in a place like the United States where they know they'll have respect and great job security—and, in the right specialties, big incomes. Many of the best graduates (and a fair share of postdocs) literally move to where the money is: the finance industry, bubbles' natural home, where big bonuses are paid even as financial systems collapse.

Nature reports that 39% of U.K. labs managed to recruit fewer Ph.D. students between 2010 and 2012, and 19% were unable to recruit any at all. Meanwhile, 70% of junior researchers "have lost confidence in research careers in Britain," the report says. And this is not a local phenomenon; the same thing is happening elsewhere, including the United States.

There is, of course, a standby, short-term solution: Recruit from overseas. There seems to be a nearly endless supply of hard-working, talented researchers from the developing world, willing to work for wages that young Westerners consider low, and for long-term prospects that the smartest, most talented Europeans and Americans reject. (I was one of them.) But in an endeavour as important as scientific research, it's hard to see importing low-wage talent from the developing world as a long-term solution. It's hard to see how a system in which the innovators are commodified can long survive.

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