Careers close to critical mass

May 15, 1998

Ayala Ochert examines disturbing evidence that shows that only a minority of scientists can look forward to a lifelong career in their chosen field

What does a scientist's career have in common with a radioactive element like tritium? They both have a half-life that is measured in years, not decades. In the case of tritium, it has a half-life of just over 12 years, but the "career half-life" of the typical biomedical scientist may be only half as long. The half-life of tritium is how long it takes before 50 per cent of the atoms have decomposed, but in the case of a group of scientists, their career half-life is how long it takes before half of them have left the profession, which may be as little as six years. Lawyers and doctors, on the other hand, can generally look forward to a career that lasts until retirement.

Young people embarking on a career in science are generally well aware that they will be paid much less than similarly qualified people in the so-called professions. It is something that many accept, albeit reluctantly, in return for that "warm feeling inside" that comes from doing what they love best.

But far fewer realise how much worse their career prospects are. "Most are overconfident and totally unaware that they will face a rude awakening when they go out and look for work, and most will find low pay, low job security, and limited potential for the future. Doctors and lawyers will be much better off," says Art Sowers, who compiled the figures on career half-lives.

Sowers, an ex-scientist, has devoted himself to the cause of scientists whose hopes of a lifelong career in science remain unfulfilled. This is a group of people who are often highly qualified and talented yet confronted the enduring imbalance between the large numbers of PhDs and postdocs and the much smaller number of permanent academic posts. Last year, Sowers, who now runs his own computer consultancy business, decided to conduct a simple exercise to see how long scientists typically last. He defined a "functioning scientist" in the biomedical field as a person who would publish at least one paper per year in an academic journal covered by Current Contents, a journal indexing service covering the top 1,200 journals in the life sciences. He then looked at an issue of Science dating back to 1989, copied down a number of author names on biological articles and compared the list with that produced by Current Contents for 1996. Despite Science being the foremost journal for biological scientists in the United States, there was an "attrition rate" of 29 per cent over six years. The same study following authors in another top journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, showed up a 40 per cent attrition rate over five years. And the situation was no better for authors based at pharmaceutical and biotech companies than in universities.

He then went through old telephone directories at the University of Maryland, where he once had a tenured post, and found that they had lost 40 per cent of researchers in four years. A similar analysis of doctors listed in the local Yellow Pages revealed an attrition rate of just 10 per cent in the same period.

Sowers admits that his studies, carried out in his spare moments, are less than rigorous, but they are consistent with US-government generated statistics. These show that only 41 per cent of those with PhDs in science are actively involved in research, while official figures state that 89 per cent of those with law degrees are working in their chosen profession. Although these figures relate only to the US, career uncertainty faces scientists all over the world, not least in the UK. When he is not reading telephone books, Sowers contributes regularly to discussions on the newsgroup . LESS THAN LESS THAN sci.research.careers

/, where often bitter scientists share anecdotes about lab heads ending up as truck drivers, and PhDs working in McDonalds or living on the streets. Their resentment is fuelled by a sense that they have been cheated by a system seeking to maximise its own benefits at the expense of the individuals who are part of it.

Sowers believes that the problem boils down to an overproduction of PhDs. While medical schools respond to a glut of doctors by tightening up their admissions or even closing down medical schools, there are no such checks and balances in the sciences. With production far outstripping consumption, Sowers predicts a crisis in the not-too-distant future. PhD scientists may have a short career half-life - are they now also reaching critical mass?

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