Two groups seem to be doing better than other scientists: physicists and physicians. The unemployment rate among those two groups hovers around 1 to 2 percent, according to surveys from NSF and other groups. Physicists end up working in many technical fields — and some go to Wall Street — while the demand for doctors continues to climb as the U.S. population grows and ages.
But for the much larger pool of biologists and chemists, “It’s a particularly difficult time right now,” Stephan said.
One reason: A glut of new biomedical scientists that entered the field when the economy was healthier. From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled to $30 billion per year. That boost — much of which flows to universities — drew in new, young scientists. The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF.
But that boom is about to go bust, because an equal number of permanent jobs failed to follow. One big factor: Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Although the injection of $10 billion in federal stimulus funds to the NIH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “created or retained” 50,000 science jobs, according to the NIH, that money is running dry, putting those positions at risk.
The lack of permanent jobs leaves many PhD scientists doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as “post-docs,” or postdoctoral fellowships. Post-docs used to last a year or two, but now it’s not unusual to find scientists toiling away for six, seven, even 10 years.
Until recently, Amaral, the neuroscientist, was one of perhaps 100,000 scientists — the figures are fuzzy — in the United States working as a post-doc. After earning her expensive doctorate in neuroscience over seven years, which she financed by working and drawing down her savings, Amaral spent a year counting blips on a computer screen for another scientist.
“I couldn’t answer the question of how this was any different from undergraduate work,” said Amaral, 39.
Salaries for university post-doc jobs start at about $39,000, according to the National Postdoctoral Association. They require a science PhD — which can leave the recipient buried in debt. Benefits are usually minimal and, until a decade ago, even health insurance was rare.
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 don’t think anybody minds sucking it up for a year or two, seeing it as an apprenticeship,” said Zoe Fonseca-Kelly, a PhD geneticist who spent seven years as a post-doc at three universities. “What’s very frustrating is that it’s turned into a five-year process. People get very disillusioned with it.”
Fonseca-Kelly got fed up with it, too. She left the lab for an administrative job at Harvard Medical School.
The post-doc system is “dysfunctional and not sustainable in the long term,” Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman told top brass at NIH in June. Tilghman heads an NIH-appointed panel that is wrestling with overhauling how that agency trains new scientists. A new report from her group calls for better pay and more benefits for post-docs and major changes in how NIH funds young scientists.
Like many scientists, Amaral grew disillusioned with the system that left her with an expensive degree but few job options. She left her lab in December after federal funding for her post-doc position ran out. She now works as an administrator at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and is in a “holding pattern,” unsure whether — or how — to advance a science career she spent more than a decade working toward.
“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.”
Haas, the former drug company chemist, has even harsher words. She plans to “get out of Jersey and get out of science” when her daughter graduates from high school in two years. “She’s very good at everything, very smart,” Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”