A troubling shift in tradition

Many past profiles here at JAEP have been written about individuals in careers labeled as nontraditional or alternative. The positions are implicitly juxtaposed to ones that are deemed traditional. Tradition, naturally, is a subjective term. It is a function of many variables such as culture, local environment, etc., and any consensus of its definition (if one even exists) changes over time.

The bulk of my career was in an industrial R&D setting. This seemed, to me, to be the norm. My tradition. Imagine my surprise when I began to encounter the fairly widespread viewpoint, that, in science, anything outside of academia was considered nontraditional.

But this may be changing, and, perhaps, not for the better. A term describing a shift in tradition regarding science careers may be have recently coined.

An Inside Higher Education article last month, by Scott Jaschik, describes the impact of the worsening job market for people with new doctoral degrees in the sciences, based on research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which was held in February. The data “suggested that the job market for those in many scientific fields is also taking a beating.”

Jaschik continues,

And this is so much the case that tenure-track jobs should now be considered “alt-ac” positions (or alternative academic careers) because they are not the norm anymore for new Ph.D.s, in the words of Paula Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University who specializes in the intersection of economics and science.

To me, “alt-ac” sounds like a keyboard shortcut, or an engine warning light. Maybe the latter is an appropriate analogy, as it may signal a symptom of a more systemic problem.

Jaschik describes how Stephan presented data for three scientific disciplines: biology, physics and computer science. The data suggests a shift among those earning relatively recent doctoral degrees—a shift away from full-time faculty positions and toward careers comprised of serial postdoctoral gigs.

Taken together, these statistics are going to discourage people from pursuing graduate education and careers in academic science, Stephan said.

She said that research universities need to rethink the way postdocs are used — and to improve their pay and working conditions — to create the kinds of career paths that will attract the best people to research careers.

Stephan is clearly not happy with how academia appears to be taking advantage of the surplus of science PhDs, creating an atmosphere bordering on abuse (emphasis mine):

But increasingly a postdoc doesn’t lead (certainly not quickly) to an independent, tenure-track position, Stephan said. And postdocs are being used, not trained, she said. “Postdocs have become cheap staff scientists,” she said.

A sustained succession of postdoctoral positions, with their associated low pay in the formative years of a scientist’s career, harkens to what Chemjobber and others have referred to as opportunity costs. Paula Stephan proposes a substantial increase in the salaries of post docs, which she recognizes would result in fewer available postdoctoral positions.

Stephan sees this as a good thing, because “universities would then use postdocs when there is an agenda that benefits both the postdoc and the senior scientist running the lab, and other positions would be created to support the lab. Meanwhile, postdoc positions wouldn’t hold out false hope for tenure-track positions that may not exist.”

Clearly, the current situation is not sustainable, and something needs to change. I, for one, hope this recent trend does not possess enough longevity to become tomorrow’s tradition.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/glenernst

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