Empowering Graduate and Postdoctoral Training

In his recent post, Thomas Calder wrote an article on SPEaC that highlighted the shrinking academic budget and how federal spending cuts have failed to foster the academic research and development enterprise. While echoing this issue, I want to focus on an emerging and related problem: too many academic PhD researchers chasing too little funding. 

Biological and biomedical research accounts for the bulk of growth of the research enterprise, having received more than half of all academic R&D expenditures and tops the chart in infrastructure and research space expenditures (NSF Science and Engineering indicators 2014). By most measures, we have entered upon a golden age for biomedical research. Rapidly advancing knowledge in molecular biology approaches, computation, imaging, microscopy, structural biology and many other enabling technologies have conferred unprecedented opportunities for biomedical scientists to answer questions that were previously completely unapproachable. Yet, after years of rapid growth, the funding for biomedical research has dropped by 25 percent in constant dollar terms since 2003 (It is worth noting that the NIH budget doubled between 1998 and 2003), creating imbalances and hyper-competitiveness. Now, a decade later, success rates for grant proposals have plummeted to historic low, leading to reduced scientific productivity and threatening careers of researchers (NIH RePORT Data BOOK).

The Postdoc dilemma

ASBMB president Jeremy Berg points out that while good scientists insist on obtaining the best available data and foster open and direct communication and criticism to address scientific problems, the same approach is only sometimes used in developing science policy. To do this investigators, academic institutions, federal agencies and policy makers should be working together to develop a robust framework for implementing science and innovation policy. Unfortunately, this is not happening. In a recent perspective in PNAS, Bruce Alberts and co-authors highlight the dismal state of biomedical research and put forth recommendations to “Rescue US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”. One point that resonates is that the biomedical venture is filled with many more graduate students and post-doctorate fellows than there are faculty or industry positions available. They advocate for a more predictable scientific budget, increasing the quantity  of grants, improving the review process and importantly, change the support system for funding early career scientists and non-US citizens to improve the overall quality of scholarly work.

Academic positions are highly competitive and it is not surprising that stellar graduate students and postdocs fail to land a tenure track position because of the highly selective and scarce nature of academic jobs. Unfortunately, very few graduate and postdoctoral programs prepare their students for jobs outside of academia. The net result is a deluge of PhDs in a post-doctoral “holding position” which has expanded to over six to seven years of “training period” until a “real” job is available. There are some options to tackle this, emulating from policy advocates:

1)      Financial support for graduate students should come from specific training grants rather than research grants so that the federal agencies have better oversight on the quality of the research.

2)      Constant reevaluation of career choices and confidence levels of graduate students throughout the PhD program and fortifying hands-on training and experience in non-research careers.

3)      In a recent article in eLife, Henry Bourne suggests that NIH should mandate that universities must confer a Masters of Science degree to all PhD students two years in to PhD program. This provides a branching point (or rather a check point) for students with questionable sustainability in pursuing a research career.

4)      Overhauling and reducing the postdoctoral “holding tank” by career counseling and identifying directions towards permanent positions

5)      Biomedical research in the US has attracted foreign applicants for several reasons including better prospects for training, the availability of resources and relatively stronger commitments from the US federal agencies towards research. Often, foreign PhDs are supported by training grants from their home countries towards the initial few years of training.  Hiring and retaining these very best non-US citizens without introducing increased competition with the grants and opportunities available for US citizens will tremendously enhance the vibrancy of the US biomedical enterprise.

6)      Postdocs are an affordable alternative to graduate students, as tuition must also be paid for the latter. Alberts and co-authors recommend expanding the staff-scientist pool by gradually raising the postdoctoral salaries through the training period to eventually match a staff scientist’s payscale. This, they argue, eliminate cost as a factor for principle investigators to retain postdocs over long training period.

Academy is not just an enterprise, but a key component of the overall research and development enterprise goals of the United States. A huge component of our nation’s gains in biomedical knowledge, treatments and technologies are dependent on discoveries made in academic labs working with federal funding. The future of discovery and innovation happens at the academic bench and the sustainability of this enterprise is critical for science to move forward. Educators and policy makers should spur themselves in to this thinking and take a greater role in robust graduate and postdoctoral training. This column hopes to encourage mentors to evaluate their vision for their trainees and how they can help in not just imparting a successful training but provide a launchpad for career goals.

Suggested reading:

 Editor: A.W.

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