Charge

This committee was charged to:

  • Construct a comprehensive data profile of the career paths for recent PhD recipients in the life sciences.
  • Use the profile for assessing the implications of recent career trends for individuals and for the research enterprise.
  • Make recommendations, as appropriate, about options for science policy.

The charge called on the committee to consider all the life sciences and the health of the enterprise in addition to the well-being of the individuals involved.

The committee approached its first task by analyzing data contained in the large databases maintained by the National Research Council Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel, which provides the most comprehensive and accurate record available of the educational course and employment status of scientists educated to the PhD level in the United States. These records are collected when degrees are awarded and updated biennially through surveys of a sample of doctorate holders. The committee's analysis included the 1970–1995 surveys, and thus enabled documentation of trends in important career stages.

Findings

The training and career prospects of a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow in the life sciences in 1998 are very different from what they were in the 1960s or 1970s. Today's life scientist will start graduate school when slightly older and take more than 2 years longer to obtain the PhD degree. Today's life-science PhD recipient will be an average of 32 years old. Furthermore, the new PhD today is twice as likely as in earlier years to take a postdoctoral fellowship and thus join an ever-growing pool of postdoctoral fellows—now estimated to number about 20,000—who engage in research while obtaining further training and waiting to obtain permanent positions. It is not unusual for a trainee to spend 5 years—some more than 5 years—as a postdoctoral fellow. As a consequence of that long preparation, the average life scientist is likely to be 35–40 years old before obtaining his or her first permanent job. The median age of a tenured or tenure track faculty member is now about 8 years more than that of the faculty member of the 1970s.

Those facts suggest one source of the seeming contraction of "young investigator" applicants for NIH research grants. "Young" investigators have grown older, and fewer are in faculty positions before the age of 37. More of them are postdoctoral fellows, who, by most institutional regulations, may not submit applications for individual research grants.

There have been major changes in career opportunities for PhDs over the last 3 decades. Historically, the three major employment sectors for life scientists have been academe, industry, and government; academe has been the largest. The opportunity to secure an academic appointment has steadily narrowed since the 1960s. Of life scientists who received the PhD in 1963 and 1964, 61% had achieved tenured appointments at universities or 4-year colleges 10 years later. For the cohort who graduated in 1971–1972, that percentage had dropped to 54%; and for the 1985–1986 cohort, to 38%. The probability of industrial employment rose from 12% to 24% for the cohorts described above, and the probability of working in a federal or other government laboratory dropped from 14% to 11%. Overall, the fraction of PhDs with "permanent"1 positions in the traditional employment sectors for PhD

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The committee defines the goal of graduate education and postdoctoral training in the life sciences as the preparation of young scientists for careers as independent researchers in academe, industry, government, or a private research environment. We call positions in those careers "permanent", although it is understood that no employment is guaranteed, to distinguish them from the "impermanent" positions, such as postdoctoral and research associate-positions held by persons whose career objective is to obtain permanent positions.



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