For neuroscientists finishing a Ph.D. program or a postdoctoral position, the mysteries of neuronal circuits and genetic markers for disease pale compared to one puzzling question: Where are the jobs?

That question was debated this week at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, Neuroscience 2011, in Washington, D.C. Speakers -- most of them scientists in secure careers -- addressed large crowds of early-career scientists eager to learn how successful neuroscientists found their jobs and to hear their advice for those just starting out. The speakers mostly struck an optimistic tone, telling their audience that jobs are out there -- in or out of academia -- for those who work hard, set realistic goals, and network, network, network. Meanwhile, some attendees expressed frustration over their failure so far to find one of those jobs, despite their best job-seeking efforts.

Student views

After a preconference job-hunting workshop on Friday at which University of Pittsburgh neuroscientists Michael Zigmond and Beth Fischer discussed the challenge of landing a job as a professor at a research institution and suggested alternatives to academia, a handful of students told Science Careers that they had been planning to pursue academic research careers prior to the workshop. But after the workshop, many were having second thoughts.

Jose Rodriguez-Romaguera, a grad student studying behavioral neuroscience at the University of Puerto Rico, hasn't changed his mind about chasing an academic job, but he's now considering other possibilities. "One of the slides [shown in the workshop] had a little circle with things one can do," Rodriguez-Romaguera said, "and even though I want to go into academia, ... for the first time ever I pictured myself doing one of those things."

"With the economy the way it is now, universities should promote alternate careers just as much as they promote classic academics," said Ketan Marballi, a graduate student at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, who is studying the biomolecular bases of behavior. "There are budget cuts everywhere, people are being laid off everywhere, [and] departments are downsizing their lab space."

Shruti Muralidhar, a Ph.D. student studying neuroscience at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, noted that in a university setting, "everybody expects you to follow this path" -- the academic path -- "and nothing else. You're surrounded by all the same mindsets and you don't have any way of getting more information." Muralidhar says that she had begun to notice early in grad school that many of the academics she encountered didn't seem happy or professionally fulfilled. "And somewhere down the line I realized I don't really want to do that," she said.

Alternative paths

Over the weekend, neuroscientists speaking in a series of professional development sessions attempted to address the concerns of Muralidhar and the other students. At one session, which covered research careers in industry and the private sector, Lawrence Fitzgerald, vice president of neuroscience research at Lundbeck Pharmaceuticals in New York City, said he had started to consider a job outside academia when he realized he cared more about the science than the setting. "I never fell in love with a technique," he told a standing-room-only crowd. "I fell in love with the scientific problems."

Many jobs offer neuroscientists the opportunity to deal with some of those problems without working at a lab bench, said Fitzgerald and several other speakers over the course of the day. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies, venture capital firms, scientific consulting firms, medical and scientific journals, law firms dealing in intellectual property, science-focused nonprofit organizations and foundations, government agencies, and K–12 schools are among the "alternative" career options the speakers mentioned.

Within the private sector, the pharmaceutical industry is probably the biggest hirer of neuroscientists with Ph.D.s, said Michy Kelly, a neuroscientist who worked for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals until it was bought by Pfizer, then continued at Pfizer until her department was shut down. She is now returning to academia, having just accepted an associate professor job at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.


Michy Kelly and Lawrence Fitzgerald speak to attendees following a session on careers in industry.
CREDIT: Michael Price

Both Kelly and Fitzgerald acknowledged that while pharmaceutical companies often hire Ph.D. scientists with postdoctoral experience, the industry is currently in turmoil. Scientists who wish to succeed there must be willing to relocate and to take on projects beyond their expertise and interests, they agreed.

Patricia Camp worked as an academic scientist for several years until she figured out that her passion for teaching exceeded her desire to do research. She left her academic post to become a high school science teacher. Now she is superintendent of the Delran Township School District in New Jersey. Camp told attendees that for pedagogically inclined neuroscientists, teaching high school can be rewarding both financially and professionally. "There's not a whole lot of us who have Ph.D.s who go into K–12 education, but it's a reasonably viable field," she said. Camp noted that a National Center on Education Statistics study predicts that more than 125,000 high school and middle school science teaching jobs will open up in the next few years.

A unique skill set

Stacie Grossman Bloom, executive director for the New York University Neuroscience Institute in New York City, said that neuroscientists often fail to recognize the value of their skills to employers outside of academia. "If you're getting a Ph.D. or you have a Ph.D., you're in this environment where everyone around you also has a Ph.D.," she said. "It's important to take a step back and realize [that] the degree you have is unique in the world. And when you leave an environment where everyone around you has a Ph.D., you become, miraculously, a really credible, smart person."

Neuroscientists -- indeed, most scientists with Ph.D.s -- excel at data analysis, project management, communication, computer and technical skills, teaching and leadership, problem solving and critical thinking, patience, dealing with setbacks, and grant writing, Bloom said. "When you look at the kinds of skills employers want, they really align well with that skill set."

What do neuroscientists do after a postdoc? Here are numbers from the most recent (2009) report by the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (part of the Society for Neuroscience), which surveyed 114 graduate and postdoctoral programs in the United States and Canada.

Went on to another postdoc 39%
Took a faculty position 36%
Other 13%
Took a position in industry 7%
Enrolled in medical school 3%
Unemployed 1%
Employed outside field of neuroscience 0%

Set on academia

Other speakers had advice for those whose hearts are set on a tenure-track post. Lakshmi Devi, a neuroscientist and director of a lab studying the molecular underpinnings of drug abuse at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, began her research career studying a soil bacterium that grows on dead wood. Noticing that both grants and jobs in that field were few, she identified her most readily transferrable skill: her insight into cellular signal transduction. She searched for other systems in which signal transduction is important and ended up studying opiate response in the brain. "The fundamental mechanisms were the same," she says. "It was just the system was different. The system doesn't matter. The questions matter."

Devi took postdoc positions at the Addiction Research Foundation in Palo Alto, California, and then at the Vollum Institute in Portland, Oregon. She landed on the faculty at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City and later was recruited by Mount Sinai.

Devi recommended developing an individual career plan early on in your career and consulting with mentors who can tell you whether you're likely to achieve your academic goals or whether you would be better off pursuing a different line of research or a career outside of academia. Reevaluate that plan every 6 months or so to see if you're still on track, Devi said. And follow your passions. "You don't have to be a clone of your PI [principal investigator]," she said.

Charles Greer, director of the neuroscience graduate program at Yale University, urged neuroscientists interested in academic work to widen their sights to include smaller universities and liberal arts colleges.


Charles Greer
CREDIT: Michael Price

Pittsburgh’s Zigmond said that aspiring neuroscientists should be prepared to pursue another line of work if job prospects don't materialize relatively quickly. He recommends spending no more than 5 years in postdocs. "That's a long time to be not making a lot of money," he said -- and if you aren't receiving job offers from universities by then, it's probably time to look into one of the other available careers.

Several students asked speakers whether universities are producing more neuroscience Ph.D.s than the job market can bear. Newton Agrawal, who has an M.D. and a Ph.D. in neurology and is currently between postdocs, said he has struggled to move on to a permanent position. Agrawal told Science Careers that he suspects there are fewer job opportunities out there -- alternative or not -- than the speakers apparently believe.

Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1100128