A Global Glut?

For many years, experts in the United States who’ve been paying attention to the rising number of science graduate students—and the dwindling number of degree-related jobs—have been calling for measures to shrink graduate enrollment, create more positions for scientists, train scientists more broadly, or all of the above. A new report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) suggests that this argument may be catching on down under.

Issued in November 2012,surveyed 1203 Australian scientists—199 graduate students, 215 postdoctoral scientists, 300 early-career scientists, 452 mid- and late-career scientists, 27 retired scientists, and 10 who didn’t specify their career stage—about their feelings on a range of workforce-related topics. The report reveals that, much like their American counterparts, young Australian scientists are finding it very difficult to locate jobs in the fields they’ve trained for after they’ve graduated.

Career Support for Researchers

Why? The respondents pointed to a too-crowded market for Ph.D.s. “The view that too many PhD students are being accepted by universities for the research and teaching positions currently available was a persistent sub-theme in the study group,” the report notes. “They described the scramble for grants and positions as ‘disheartening’ and said too many people were competing for a limited number of positions.”

The report continues: “Participants questioned the motivation of universities in recruiting students, saying the attraction is that students attract government funding and (in some disciplines) are a source of cheap labour in the laboratory or field. These incentives lead university staff to encourage more students to undertake PhDs, to ‘crank out’ graduates even though the employment outlook in research was bleak and the Australian economy currently lacks the capacity to absorb these graduates.”

One respondent said: “I desperately want to stay in research but I’m … being pushed out due to: student researchers being cheaper to employ to do the same thing I do in the lab. … I’ve hit the top of my pay scale and can’t move up the ladder without obtaining a grant. I can’t get a grant because … a poor PhD mentoring experience in my early years left me behind the eight ball in my track record despite being highly productiv[e] in my post-doc years.”

Such views are remarkably similar to those recently offered by several scientific-workforce watchdogs in the United States, such as outgoing Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Georgia State University economist Paula Stephan. Interestingly, many of the Australian respondents pointed to current U.S. training practices as worthy of emulation. For example, one respondent said that Americans are given comparatively more time and latitude to publish while in graduate school than are Australian students, making Americans more competitive in the international job market. Americans “graduate with a bunch of publications,” the respondent said. “They have whole conference sessions on getting ready for the job market. We have nothing like that.”

Additionally, respondents pointed to the need for broader training in graduate school—another argument advanced by U.S. science-workforce experts, and one that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) plans to implement through a proposed grant program for life science departments that offer innovative training programs. “Graduate students want a clearer articulation of a career pathway, supported by professional development and training programs,” the report notes.

Bob Williamson, a molecular genetics professor at the University of Melbourne and secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science (which is a member of ACOLA), writes in an e-mail to Science Careers that the report’s findings are worrisome because “the PhD in Australia involves deep immersion in a narrowly defined research project, and was always seen as training for a research career. … Anyone who wants to see a highly educated cohort of well qualified post-graduates is pleased that so many of our students get PhDs, but also believes that the education they receive should be adapted so PhD students are exposed to and acquire wider skills, in finance, communication and human relations.”

Williamson’s views echo those expressed by the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, which concluded last year that diversifying training could help young science graduates find jobs. At the time, Tilghman and other experts criticized NIH for not taking a stronger stance against graduate student overpopulation.

Williamson says that one of the biggest obstacles to change will be convincing universities to abandon a system that, at the moment, works for them. Real change, he writes, will have to come from students voting with their feet. “I expect the best students will choose universities that offer opportunities to extend career options, especially at a time when every person entering the workforce has to be flexible and anticipate that they will fulfill many roles over a lifetime,” he writes.

Before they can vote with their feet, however, scientists in training need good information about career outcomes, which—in Australia as in the United States—few of them have. As one biochemistry postdoc responded in the report: “I am yet to meet a single PhD student who was told how hard it would be to get a job at the other end.”

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