Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Rant on the Scientific Job Market

This post is going to be part rant, part somewhat angst-ridden navel-gazing. It may also ramble a bit. You have been warned.

Last week, I clicked on a link to a CNN story about gifted kids. Or at least, that's what I thought I was clicking on. It turned out to be a summary of comments on a previous article about gifted kids, so I clicked away fairly quickly. Before I clicked away, though, I read part of the first comment, from someone identified as "K":

"So many "gifted" kids out there, yet so few intelligent adults making scientific discoveries, helping mankind move forward."

And that is when my head exploded. Even leaving aside the obvious objections that not all gifted kids are interested in science as a career and that there are many ways to move mankind forward that do not involve science, the comment was so offtrack that it took me a week to calm down enough to trust myself to write a rant on the subject. I fear that if I had attempted this rant earlier, I might have just typed "OMG! SO MUCH FAIL!" over and over. Or screamed at my computer. Or both.

Do people really think that the thing limiting scientific progress is a dearth of smart, talented scientists? REALLY?

Well, "K," from where I sit, I see plenty of smart, talented scientists. The problem is in finding the funding for their work. Let me tell you about the scientific job market, or at least the corner of it that I know well, which is biomedical research and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. In brief, the job market sucks. Academia has turned into some sort of high stakes Ponzi scheme, in which the large number of trainees required to move science forward is so completely mismatched with the number of academic jobs for which they are putatively training that less 25% of them can hope to land a coveted tenure track position. It has become a market in which talent only buys you the initial lottery ticket, much like professional sports. At least the risk of career-ending injury is less, I suppose.

It used to be that industry absorbed most of the remaining trainees, providing good jobs and stable career paths. Those days are gone.  The pharmaceutical industry has turned itself into a basketcase trying to meet investor expectations for growth. I can't remember the last time I read a piece of positive news about the pharma industry- mostly there are just stories about site closures and mass layoffs. Much of the venture capital that funds the biotechnology industry has gone elsewhere, searching for more certain returns. The capital that remains is busy trying to force the 15-20 year drug discovery and development process into 5 year exit strategies. This is just about as painful as it sounds. Yes, it really does take that long to develop a drug. And a lot of the drugs you think you are going to develop fail. This is also just about as painful as it sounds.

I am 40, and have had a fairly lucky career. I've only been laid off twice, and my longest period of unemployment was 4 months. And still, I do not think it is likely that I will retire in 25 years from something that closely resembles my current career. I stay in my field because when things are going well it can be a huge amount of fun, and because I believe in what my industry is trying to do- namely, discover and develop new treatments to help people who are sick. There is still a lot of unmet medical need (to use the industry jargon), and despite what some people may try to tell you, drugs are overwhelmingly discovered and developed by industry. Also, I've seen the boom-bust-boom cycle in other industries, and hold onto hope that perhaps things will improve in mine someday soon. So I don't steer people away from the industry- but I am honest about what it is like right now. When I talk to students and postdocs about career paths now, I emphasize flexibility, transferable skills, and networking.

I can hardly blame someone for surveying the sorry state of the scientific job market and deciding to pursue his or her happiness elsewhere. So where are all those intelligent adults that K thinks have gone missing? Well, a bunch of them were making a fortune as "quants" on Wall Street before the latest financial crisis, and I think quite a few of them are still there. A lot of the smart people with skills similar to mine have decided to go into "big data"- helping companies analyze and learn from the large amounts of data they are now collecting on their customers. That sounds great, until you realize that most of this brain power is currently being used to optimize our shopping experience- optimize from the company's point of view, that is. Of course, it is cool to login into Amazon and have them immediately present you with things you might actually want to buy. But I'd rather have a good treatment for pancreatic cancer or schizophrenia (to pick a couple glaringly unmet medical needs).

A whole bunch of smart folks are working on internet start-ups and mobile apps and the like. This makes perfect sense when you realize that people will happily pay $600 for an iPad that they don't really need, but do not think they should have to pay anywhere near that much for most medicines. (For that matter, they will also complain if asked to spend more than roughly $0.99 for content for said iPad, so a lot of those folks working on mobile apps are likely to be in for some rough times, too.)

I do not mean to denigrate these career paths, and I certainly don't pretend to really understand all the forces at work here, let alone have answers. (Maybe that is because I wasn't really a gifted kid....) I am finding it hard to navigate this career climate, too. This is why I am a bit cynical about Cal Newport's advice to get "so good that they can't ignore you" and build career capital so that I can trade it for the lifestyle I want.  It seems that in some industries, career capital can at best be traded for the chance to stay employed. Figuring out what skills to invest in building is difficult, to say the least.

My own situation is not helped by the fact that I excel at execution in an industry that is enamored with people who have big ideas, often overlooking the fact that someone has to figure out how to break those big ideas down into manageable steps and actually get them done. My own scientific ideas rarely qualify as "big," but I am good at understanding other people's big ideas and figuring out how to make them reality. I also specialize in a field that is most useful for medium to large companies, and those are thin on the ground right now. A lot of biotechs are "virtual" these days, or are very small and trying to bootstrap their way to success with minimal funding. While small companies have data management problems, they can rarely afford to invest in solving them. I think that handling their data better might make them more likely to succeed, but I also recognize that this is similar to the argument I sometimes heard in graduate school about how I'd save a lot of money if I'd buy my toilet paper and other paper goods in bulk. This was true, but if I spent my paycheck on a year's supply toilet paper, I wouldn't have any money left to buy food for the week. Sometimes, you have to do something that is suboptimal in the long run in order to survive in the short term.

So maybe the job market is looking especially bleak to me because of my particular situation. I should also be clear: right now, my life is pretty darn good. I have a good job, paying a good salary and affording me a lot of independence and flexibility. If I could guarantee it would last, I'd have no worries. Perhaps I should just stop trying to figure out the "right" thing to do with my career, and just double down on my "save money so that job insecurity isn't financial insecurity" strategy, while trying to find ways to diversify my skills (and my income streams). But the lure of the lifestyle I wish I could have is strong and seems tantalizingly close to being within reach... and I'm a planner by nature, so I suspect I'll keeping thinking about these things. But maybe I will click away a little faster next time I find myself on a page summarizing comments on a CNN story.


  1. So true. Also, there's lots of evidence that elementary school gifted kids run out of motivation and may not score as gifted if retested in high school or college. Perhaps this explains why many gifted minority elementary schoolers in bad school districts don't end up with PhDs when they're 30. Focusing on a) engaging all kids with education and b) making sure they still have jobs that a smart person would want to keep when they're adults would probably result in more of the discoveries that K wants!

  2. My colleague recently had a partial mastectomy. She was in the classroom the *next day*. Science is moving forward.

    Smart people were responsible for credit default swaps-- not all people use their genius for good.

    You don't have to be gifted to move science forward. Hard work, luck, and persistence can also create. Giftedness is more a way of learning and perceiving the world than anything else.

    Many gifted kids burn out (boredom, self-medication, trouble-making etc.) because they don't get their needs met in the American Public School systems. They have a higher rate of dropout than normal kids.

    Science is a public good (it benefits society more than what industry can capture). That means industry on its own will not produce enough for the optimal amount. That means we need more government funding, especially of basic science.

    That last paragraph really speaks to me. Everybody is reading Mr. Money Moustache these days, and I went through his archives this weekend. He's an early retirement guy (like Your Money or Your Life, but less flexible). Next week we have an article titled "Mr. Money Moustache vs. Laura Vanderkam." He's very persuasive, but in the end I don't really want his life. I want *my* career. And my career means that's where the bulk of my time goes, so some outsourcing makes sense. I don't want to do it part-time. (Also I like restaurants and fancy food and not biking in Southern heat. And I don't think that makes me a complainypants. Also, there's no way we're jettisoning daycare or private school.)

    1. Oh, I agree that we need basic science, both because of its hard to quantify "increasing our knowledge" benefits and because it is a necessary first step towards the new cures and other things that industry produces. But it drives me crazy when people suggest- or even outright argue!- that academic research is producing drugs and that all industry does is leech off of that and mint money. That is so far from the truth it is laughable.

      Part of my point is also that the biotech and pharma industries are really screwed up right now. Our progress towards drugs is not limited by the number of smart scientists willing to work on the problems. It is limited by the money to invest in developing drugs, and by the mismatch between the investment timeframe the people with the money want and the actual amount of time it takes to develop a drug- even if everything goes right.

    2. Right, so this is an area that economic theory suggests there needs to be more government funding for because of the public goods problem. (And there would be more academic positions providing more employment for people in general-- the government can't make industry jobs like it can public jobs.)

      There may also be an infant industry argument (suggesting government should directly fun private industry) for the long production times, but I'm less convinced by that argument. Even though long production times are more likely to lead to larger companies and monopoly and monopsony power, there still seem to be lots of scrappy start-ups and the "innovate in a small start-up company that gets bought out by a big company" model seems to be one that works for this industry and many other tech industries (as Paul Graham likes to talk about).

      Should the drug-approval process be faster... that I'm not sure about. There's safety trade-offs.

    3. *fund, not fun

      (Also, gov't does directly fund biomed industry with SBIRs... but they should probably be doing more of that)

    4. Actually, the government DOES directly fund small biotechs- there are SBIR grants. They do great good in helping people get enough data together to convince a venture capitalist to invest. I don't know whether more money in that program would help or not- possibly, but I am not familiar enough with that phase of the start up process to have a personal opinion. As I mentioned in the post, I tend to work in larger companies because of my specialty.

      I stayed away from the issues with the FDA approval process both because that is a huge can of worms and because it is another area in which I don't have a lot of personal experience. I tend to think that the safety regulations are a good thing, and the balance provided by programs like fast tracking and orphan drug status are doing a good job. But I'm sure there is room for improving efficiency.

      I think academic science needs to reorganize itself a bit, too, to make more permanent, decent-paying jobs with benefits for the PhDs that are needed to make other people's labs run. But that is also a whole 'nother can of worms!

      On your original comment about retiring early versus making working longer more appealing- I definitely come down on the side of the latter, both for practical reasons and personal preference. I do want more flexibility to travel, though. That's in the lifestyle I want to aim for.

    5. Oops, cross-posted with your second post.

      I have friends who know more about the SBIR process than I do. Maybe one of them will weigh in on whether more money there would help!

    6. We had a friend work for a think-tank that basically spent its time writing SBIRs. Then they'd do a slap-dash job on the product and it would go nowhere. I'm a bit skeptical about those shops. At the same time, it is a way to fund non-basic research and successes can be bought by big companies and not all small companies getting SBIRs are these SBIR running shops. (Of course, there's an art to writing a successful proposal, so you're more likely to be successful if you belong to one of these shops or have other experience writing grant proposals.)

    7. "Next week we have an article titled "Mr. Money Moustache vs. Laura Vanderkam."

      Oh my! I look forward to this... I think?

    8. You'll have to check it out!

  3. Anonymous9:23 AM

    My own situation is not helped by the fact that I excel at execution in an industry that is enamored with people who have big ideas, often overlooking the fact that someone has to figure out how to break those big ideas down into manageable steps and actually get them done.

    That is my skill base in a nutshell. My field is hitting major funding cuts now after many fat years and to watch senior faculty deal with this is depressing. Please, go ahead and hire that 26 year old who has done one thing in the current trendy topic but then don't come crying to me when the skilled people who actually build your instruments for you leave the field for lack of funding. If I may rant a bit, lol.

  4. Anonymous9:39 AM

    Good article. You should try to shop it somewhere more general -- I don't know anything about how to do that, but the Chronicle? the Glamour mags? Huff Post? or even a more general pub, once they post something about the lack of kids capable of pursuing STEM.

    I think you're absolutely right that STEM is vital, but that the bottleneck for the "smart kids" going into it has little to do with preparation of those smart kids and instead is the incentives away from STEM, as a longer term career, especially in biology.

    It's not being lost to parents who are posting articles at the college admissions web sites asking "What do you do with a degree in biology?" and seeing followups along the lines of "What do you do with a degree in philosophy?"

  5. Anonymous9:40 AM

    PS, I, the anonymous above found your link from Jenny F Scientist's blogroll.

  6. Ah - good one, Cloud! I think there is so much oversimplification in the workforce rhetoric these days; the we-need-more STEM graduates really frustrates me too. Bottom line I do agree that science & technologies will probably pave the progressive road(s) of the future. Discussing just what those paths will be makes me tired. Can't we encourage and provide tools to our students and children so they can be creative, curious and fearless (& surprise us!)?

    One the side point re: the importance of SBIR grants in funding small biotech startups. I think the Phase II awards are a good size (I saw a Twitter convo last week bemoaning the lack of $1-5M tranches of funds). I'm not sure the size of SBIRs is a problem. More grants are needed; but the size of the awards seems OK.

    But I frequently hear academics (and NIH program officers and leaders!) bemoan the fact that the quality of SBIR proposals is not as high as the typical RO1 project. I am also aware of the "think tank" (fake) companies that survive on SBIRs - they've sprouted since the eligibility rules were changed back in the early 2000s. I think they are fake companies since they never plan to put a product on the market - they are just trying to get paid to do science. I think both outcomes reflect shoddy administration. I was the only industry person on the last three study sections I sat on that reviewed SBIRs. Those near-and-dear to me (at real startups) find that their SBIRs (Phase IIs!) are reviewed by panels with NO industry scientists/technologists. Fake SBIR companies are pretty easy to nip in the bud (much like NIH's abolishing third resubmittals). Now that the SBIR eligibility rules have changed again - I think "crappy science" and "fake companies" will have a harder time competing and winning grants. But NIH (and others) really need to do something about the quality of SBIR reviews.

    1. I find it ridiculous that SBIR review panels aren't at least 50% industry people. You want people who can evaluate ideas for commercial feasibility as well as scientific merit. The fact that there are fake companies surviving on SBIRs is pretty sad, too.

      I totally agree that we should stop worrying so much about preparing our kids for careers and start worrying more about developing them into smart, creative, and resilient people. If we do that, chances are they can sort out the career part on their own.

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