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August 9, 2012

The problems of finding employment for the holders of science PhDs in the UK have been well documented, and the situation seems much the same across the Atlantic.

In a post on his blog The Black Hole, Jonathan Thon, research fellow in medicine within the haematology division at Brigham and Women's Hospital and at Harvard Medical School, publishes his latest response in a letter exchange with the Canadian minister of health, Leona Aglukkaq.

The letter reflects the problem that scientists face, and he suggests that the Canadian government is not recognising the struggle.

"[It] is failing to acknowledge how truly bleak the job prospects for young scientists are in the life sciences," writes Dr Thon, who gained his PhD from the University of British Columbia.

"[The] government needs to appreciate that current federal investment in biomedical science is insufficient to maintain the present rate of scientific advancement and falls short of supporting a sustainable pipeline of talented new health researchers."

He says that the "overabundance" of people with PhDs in Canada meant that postdoctoral salaries were at a "shockingly low" level, given the toil students go through to reach such a point.

"Worse still, [Canada] has extended postdoctoral between four and eight years, creating a...'holding pattern' from which most young scientists...transition to other careers."

He suggests that if the country does not provide adequate investment, universities should not be allowed to push PhD students and postdoctoral fellows "through the present system blindly, with complete disregard to the lack of academic career opportunities that await them".

He adds that Canada has failed to adapt to current labour market trends, meaning that it is investing time and money in churning out highly educated life scientists with no jobs to go to.

"Not only does this represent a terrible return on investment, but it is stunting economic growth," he adds. "The number of graduate students being trained for academic science positions that 80 per cent of them will never fill needs to decrease...[The] focus needs to shift from academic professorships to alternative professions as support scientists and consultants in neighbouring industries including medicine, finance, teaching and law."

He cites recommendations made in reports by the US National Academies and by the National Institutes of Health's Biomedical Workforce, which involve reforming doctoral education.

He highlights two recommendations: improving career opportunities and limiting the overproduction of transient trainees by having labs replace many of their postdoctoral fellow slots with permanent staff scientist positions; and improving postdoctoral pay and benefits. "The government has done little to acknowledge and less to address the current overabundance of highly trained young PhD scientists in low-paying dead-end jobs whose expertise will ultimately be better served in other industries," he says.

He adds: "Training more research scientists than we have the funds to support is not the solution...[Implementing] the aforementioned recommendations will dramatically improve working conditions for young scientists while curbing inefficiencies in our labour market that are serving to limit economic growth."

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