Protracted apprenticeships, meagre pay and a surfeit of postdoctorates vying for scant full-time openings are degrading the quality of US academic science careers, delegates at the annual Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Denver heard.
A panel of experts depicted many academic career paths as a thankless grind. Typically, more than ten years elapsed between completion of science baccalaureates and doctorates, compared with 8.8 years 25 years ago, said AAAS researcher Jolene Jesse. US scientists do not enter the academic job market on average until the age of 33.3.
Having been consigned to student penury until their mid-30s, aspirant professors stood only a remote chance of getting tenured positions as cash-strapped universities turned to cheaper, part-time temporary contracts.
The proportion of US science postdoctorates acquiring full-time faculty footholds within three years declined from three-quarters in 1973 to barely more than one-third in 1999.
The postdoctoral bottleneck is particularly acute in the life sciences. The proportion of under-35s applying for research funding from the National Institutes of Health slumped from 22.6 per cent in 1980 to 3.8 per cent in 2001. Most young biological scientists are confined to the lab.
Research by Richard Freeman, professor of economics at Harvard University and the London School of Economics, highlights growing pay disparities between established science faculty and junior colleagues.
In 1973, the top 10 per cent of earners raked in barely twice what the lowest 10 per cent earned. By 1999, the gap had almost quadrupled. Senior scientists described the situation "as a plantation with masters and servants", Professor Freeman said.