job search

If you’re a PhD student or postdoc and don’t want to end the day drinking, avoid the Tilghman Report (pdf). Even if you do want to end the day drinking – and why not (in this heat, I recommend a Gin Gin Mule) – just avoid it. Lots of online chatter about the PhD oversupply problem, including in the mainstream media. See, for example, the Washington Post: U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there.

Stephan, the Georgia State economist, calls the post-doc system a “pyramid scheme” that enriches — in prestige, scientific publications and federal grant dollars — a few senior scientists at the expense of a large pool of young, cheap ones.


“I’ve listened to this stuff on the news about how we need more scientists and engineers,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ We’re here. We need something to do besides manual labor for another academic person.”

Also see the most recent of many discussions about this over at DrugMonkey and Mike the Mad Biologist. It’s clear that the status quo benefits current PIs and their institutions a great deal – labor is cheap and you can have as many as you can and want to pay for. Their work advances your career. In fact, the goal of hot shot scientists is essentially to have labs of trainees that run themselves (managed by “senior” trainees), while you jet around giving talks, marketing the work, and obtaining more and more grants. Clearly there is a positive feedback cycle of trainees, prestige, and money for PIs, while for the vast majority of trainees there is only disappointment.

My main interest here (completely selfish) is how this changes the dynamics of the job market. There are more and more postdocs because of the huge increase in biomedical research budgets prior to the financial crisis (allowing PIs to “hire” more and more PhD “students”). This was already a supply problem, but the financial crisis has created a demand problem – fewer positions, less research funding – and exacerbated the supply problem by creating a huge backlog of postdocs who have stayed off (or perennially on) the job market for the last several years, hoping things got better.

So, who gets the few, coveted tenure track research faculty under these conditions? My impression and those of many is that these market dynamics have led to what is essentially a peerage system. The trainees of the most prominent scientists get jobs. Period. So, based on a comment I made over at DrugMonkey, here is a flow chart to check yourself before you wreck yourself:


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8 Comments on “job search”

  1. neuroecology says:

    Even better, I have a friend who got their PhDs from a famous lab at a top-tier institution, with good (though not NCS) papers – and they couldn’t find a non-postdoc job that would hire them! They were forced to either get a postdoc at a top-tier institution or teach inner-city students basic math. And that’s how the spiral continues…

  2. Dan says:

    The problem has existed for at least a decade now; however, I think it’s currently being exasperated by the reorganization of pharma where most pharma companies no longer do much primary research of their own (which is almost 100% of the skill set of a recent PhD graduate or postdoc). My wife and I reluctantly exited the rat race a couple years ago. We’re now both in pharma (and I consult on the side as well), but neither of us are doing the research we trained for. Furthermore, both of us were quickly moved overseas. If I had to do it over again, I’d quickly cut out of graduate school and start up a biotech with my grad school peers.

    The frustrating thing for me is the few people I know and worked side-by-side with who “succeeded” either cheated (repeatedly and purposely misrepresented data, or “cherry picked” and published only the data that supported their hypotheses, discarding the rest), used people, or slept with someone in power. Seriously. And I came out of one of those “elite PhD institutes” you reference in your flow chart.

  3. miko says:

    Yes, I think 2 things have happened in the last 10 years: NIH budget crunch and the pharma implosion, which hit neuro particularly hard (though then I’m riding my bike around Cambride and lo — a massive pit that will be a new Novartis facility, and lo — a huge pit that will be a Pfizer institute or something… I think “hit hard” means something different in the private sector). I came very close to jumping to pharma this year — it was actually the only neuro basic-ish research position I’ve ever seen. But the timing was bad for our 2-body problem and I’ve decided to try a year on the academic market. Your words are not encouraging, but then no one’s are.

  4. [...] in any case, some more posts for you. Reader Miko reflects on searching for a job, Mike the Mad Biologist keeps doing his thing, and fellow Discover [...]

  5. [...] bugs What visitors to London’s Science Museum don’t see: The wonders held in storage Job search Subtleties of the Crappy Job Market for [...]

  6. DK says:

    100% on target. Both with N/S/C and pedigree. These days, search committees don’t even look at anything else.

  7. [...] to my previous post on the Washington Post article, I came across a blogpost about the academic job search, with this depressing [...]

  8. [...] July: If you’re a PhD student or postdoc and don’t want to end the day drinking, avoid the Tilghman Report (pdf). [...]

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