Science Careers Circa 1990

I finished my Ph.D. in 1992, a bad time for a young physicist to be entering the job market. Just a few years before, Physics Today had predicted a shortage of well-trained physicists, an imminent national emergency. Yet, when I started applying for jobs, just a few years after that warning, I found myself in a crowd of talented young physicists competing for a very small number of jobs. Some people don't believe me when I tell them that one job posting I responded to produced more than 1300 applications. I don't know how well I fared, but even if I had been in the top 1%, I still might not have gotten an interview.

The years between that prediction and my entry into the job market brought many changes. Scientists in Eastern Europe, and then in Russia, became mobile. Accomplished scientists streamed west. Corporate labs at IBM and AT&T, among others, cut back their research operations, casting distinguished corporate physicists into the applicant pool with promising but clueless young people like me. I continue to believe that I could have found a tenure-track job if I had kept at it; it was clear, though, that it wouldn't have been the kind of job I was looking for in a place I wanted to live. So I moved on.

Science Careers Circa 2004

Today's situation is different, but not radically different. An open tenure-track position may draw only a few hundred applications. Industrial science and technology is healthier than it was in the early 1990s. Non-tenure-track positions--especially postdocs--are more abundant today than they were back then.

The biggest difference is that today the United States has more competition in fulfilling its thirst for scientists. Governments around the world have fallen in love with science. Canada, with its Canadian Research Chairs program, is trying to keep more scientists at home and attract some expatriates back. Europe hopes to train no fewer than 700,000 new scientists just to keep up with the demand its models predict. Other foreign governments, including Australia, the subject of our July feature, are pouring money into science and scientific training at unprecedented rates and competing aggressively for scientific immigrants with the United States and Europe. China's economy continues to grow and modernize. Every government, it seems, has decided that you can't have too many scientists. Nearly everyone is planning to train more of them, including the United States.

Not Economics, Economic Security

The U.S. National Science Board (NSB) was created in 1950 to oversee and set policy for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and to advise the president and Congress on scientific issues. Last year, in The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential , NSB issued an urgent call for the United States to train more American scientists, a call that was echoed a few months later in its A Companion to Science and Engineering Indicators, 2004 .

In recent years, the increased U.S. demand for scientific labor has been met, NSB noted, by an increased foreign supply. Events like September 11 and the increasing international demand for scientists are likely to imperil that supply. Add to this the prediction (as expressed in the Science and Economic Indicators, 2004) of an increased demand for scientists and engineers and a flat domestic supply, and you have the makings of a national crisis. "All stakeholders," wrote the workforce report's authors, "must mobilize and initiate efforts that increase the number of U.S. citizens pursuing science and engineering studies and careers."

Nothing in NSB's report called for a reduction in the foreign supply. The United States should continue to work to attract the best and brightest from overseas, the board said, even as they work to increase the domestic supply.

Why It Won't Work

What if the United States starts to make headway in increasing the domestic supply of scientists? What happens then?

The supply of scientists increases. Salaries fall. Working conditions deteriorate. Promising young scientists seek better opportunities elsewhere. Domestic production falls again and we'll find ourselves, very likely, back where we started, with America still vulnerable to future reductions in the foreign supply.

It won't be until scientists are really in demand--old fashioned, economic demand--that salaries will rise, working conditions will improve, and the best and brightest Americans will choose science in greater numbers.

NSB believes those days are coming. If it is right, the problem will fix itself, with the help of a free market, in a decade or so. That time lag is reason for concern, but there's no other way to do it. Only a healthy demand for new scientists can produce a sustainable, healthy supply.

But What If It Does Work?

If NSB's plan does work, salaries will stay low, maybe get lower, and working conditions for scientists will continue to deteriorate. We'll find ourselves, at least temporarily, with plenty of well-trained, miserable scientists and engineers. But they won't have good jobs. And a miserable knowledge worker is an unproductive knowledge worker.

Versatile Scientists

Excess scientists, though, won't just sit and feel sorry for themselves. If, after completing their training, they don't find the jobs they were hoping for, they'll find another way to be creative, productive members of society. If they aren't satisfied with the salaries they are being paid and the status of their chosen profession, they'll change their situation. I did it, and so did many people I know. In recommending an expansion in the supply of scientists, NSB isn't damning then to a miserable future; it is just making that future more challenging and less certain. This uncertainty may even have a positive effect for the nation: By putting yet another obstacle in their way, NSB may just inspire them to still higher levels of resourcefulness and creativity. One way or another, they'll probably manage to make their lives, and the world, better.

Science's Next Wave was founded, years ago, on this very idea: That, although they could use help and information, scientists are likely to thrive in whatever environment you dump them into. Early-career scientists are bright, resourceful, sexy, good-looking, and they know how to solve problems. How could you have too many of these wonderful creatures?

A Helping Hand

The determination and resourcefulness of young scientists, though, doesn't let NSB completely off the hook. The board has dumped another obstacle in their way. Training opportunities will be abundant--stipends and benefits might even improve--but competition for the few stable career opportunities will be stiffer than ever. But NSB has offered little help for the folks their recommendations will hurt the most.

NSB has an obligation to help the new American scientists it creates. It should do another study, consulting economists, entrepreneurial experts, and technical career professionals, analyzing the career paths of the folks left over when all the available faculty positions have been filled. NSB should direct NSF, and advise the president and congress, to provide the resources early-career scientists need to navigate the increasingly treacherous waters of their scientific careers. Here follow a couple of suggestions:

  • The best way to stimulate supply is to stimulate demand. The best jobs program is one that directs money towards high-priority research in key strategic areas. This has to be done carefully though: When the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tried it, we learned a lot about human health and disease, and the size of the average research portfolio grew, but few new, permanent, independent research jobs were created, and the average age of NIH New Investigators continued to increase. Investing more in science is the best way to expand the workforce, but we have to make sure that good, permanent jobs are created in the process. It's a difficult challenge, but I'm confident that NSB can figure out how to meet it.

  • No matter how much new money we put into science, it's unlikely that all the new scientists will find research positions to move into. Many will need to find stable, rewarding careers in other areas. Efforts to help young scientists to make transitions--to industrial research, science-related jobs away from the bench, entrepreneurial endeavors, or jobs outside science--will pay off quickly for the scientists and for the nation's economy. Questionable claims about the need for high school science teachers, for example, aren't enough. (Sure, the nation needs more science teachers, but all the good teaching jobs, the ones offering good salaries and good students, are highly competitive. The demand is mainly in rural areas and inner cities, where the work is hard and the pay is low. It's a valuable career and rewarding for the right people, but it's not for everyone.) What is needed is serious, comprehensive research on nontraditional career paths.

University-based career offices are well positioned to collect, process, and disseminate information on the career paths of recent science graduates and postgraduates. NSF and other funding agencies should create new funding programs to improve the collection and dissemination of information on nontraditional scientific careers. Programs like this would have a desirable secondary effect: Few university career planning and placement offices have the expertise to help advanced-degreed scientists make well informed career decisions. The same program that funds research on career outcomes could also enhance the services offered by career offices to advanced-degreed scientists seeking their niche.

The Nation Can Learn From My Mistakes

Like thousands of others who finished physics Ph.D.s in the early 1990s, I chose to study physics because I loved it. But my decisions were influenced by those predictions of labor shortages. Physics seemed a safe choice; I was certain that physics would allow me to make a good living while doing work I enjoyed.

When those shortages failed to appear and my job prospects were bleak, I successfully engineered a transition. I did it on my own, because no one I knew had the knowledge to advise me. I ultimately succeeded, but my transition took a very long time--about 5 years--to accomplish.

I don't regret the career change, and I learned important lessons from those difficult transitional years. But after spending some 15 years preparing for a physics career, another 5 years in transition seems a very high price. I could have done it much more quickly, with less heartache and economic loss to me and to the nation that paid for my training and stood to benefit from my work, if someone could have offered a little help and advice.

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers. @SciCareerEditor on Twitter