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Employment Prospects of Young Life Scientists
The increase in the size of the American postdoctoral population, which has been further increased by the foreign nationals who are training in the United States at both the graduate and postgraduate levels, has led to intense competition for the permanent positions in every sector of the job market, but especially in universities and 4-year colleges. University faculty search committees report hundreds of applications for single positions. Competition among postdoctoral fellows for limited employment opportunities is considered by some to be an ideal way to bring out the best in each person and to select the best people for the jobs. At some critical point, however, competition ceases to bring out the best among aspiring members of the field and becomes a destructive force, breeding conservatism and, at its worst, even dishonesty. When they start new projects, young investigators contribute to an expansion and diversification of the questions being studied in life science. Today, in our experience in the laboratory and on review panels, instead of broadening the fields of inquiry, young investigators are tending to stay within conventional boundaries. If that trend continues, it will ultimately have an adverse effect on the quality of the life sciences.
Our profession must face the fact that current training practices are inexorably leading to increasing problems for the life sciences, not just a crisis of expectation among the young. The issue comes into sharp focus when we take into account the fact that the life-science PhD population problem is going to get worse. The 42% increase in PhD production is a recent phenomenon, and most of the new PhDs have not yet faced the permanent job market, much less begun to compete for grants. Yet the committee's review of future hiring in the life sciences, detailed in chapter 4, provides little likelihood of short-term solutions to the imbalance between PhD production and jobs.
The key to the issue might be in the research and training system now so entrenched. Representative George E. Brown, Jr., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, has pointed out that with the end of the Cold War, and the slowing of the increase in government investment in research and development, the US science establishment needs to reassess the traditional link between academic research and graduate education (Brown 1997). He argues that the continued linkage means that the number of PhDs produced reflects the availability of academic R&D funding, rather than being related to a set of national goals with respect to the need for science and engineering PhDs. He argues further that we are not analyzing the needs sufficiently and that the result is that production of PhDs can exceed the needs.
This committee's findings support Brown's views on the relationship between research funding and the number of PhDs produced. Life-science research funding has continued to rise in the last 20 years—albeit more slowly than in earlier decades—and PhD output has more than kept pace. Increased research funding means greater demand for workers in laboratories—more graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. But the research-education link also pushes more trained persons into the job market than the available positions in academe, industry, and government can accommodate. This committee's exploration of the nexus between training and the job market has convinced us that the question of national needs is complex and subtle. Although analysis of national needs might not have been sufficient, we note that the problem has defied full solution for 2 decades, because of missing or incomplete evidence, because of the costs of a