It seems as if the whole world has a problem with its scientists. Governments and scientific institutions in North America, Europe, and elsewhere have expressed concerns over their nations' futures, concerns that are rooted in changes in the scientific workforce. Early career scientists are likely to agree that there's a problem, but that's about as far as the agreement is likely to go.
If you ask policymakers, most of them will tell you that there are too few scientists--or that there soon will be. Focused on the forest, and in many cases oblivious to the trees, these analysts are concerned that economic growth and international competition for scientists will soon lead to severe local shortages. The answer, then, is to produce more scientists, keep more of them from leaving home, and try to bring in more from overseas.
Scientific Jobs, Not Scientists, in Short Supply
But things look completely different to science trainees and early career scientists following ill-marked trails in that vast and gloomy forest. From their point of view, scientific jobs, not scientists, are in short supply. Bright and serious people who have rarely doubted their abilities, they enter scientific training with grand ambitions and high expectations. Success--even greatness--is, in their view, just a matter of time and effort. Regrettably, for many, that optimism doesn't last. By the time they finish an advanced degree--assuming they make it that far--those ambitions have been tempered and expectations dashed.
It's partly low salary and the absence of basic benefits that are taken for granted by most professionals with far less education. It's partly the difficulty of completing a degree in science, often without serious mentorship or guidance. It's partly a culture of mild exploitation that persists in many academic laboratories. But it is, most of all, the gradual realization that the narrow path to success endorsed by faculty advisers--the one that leads to a tenure-track faculty job at a research university--is nearly impassible. Yet there are other paths through those woods, but few are marked or mapped.
A lucky, talented few end up where they always expected to be. The rest eventually realize they have lost their way and veer off onto unmarked paths that, for many, lead to careers that they could never have foreseen. And then they discover, to their great surprise, that those careers they never sought, and the lives that they support, are deeply satisfying. No regrets. So why didn't somebody tell them about that trail sooner?
Why, indeed? At Science's Next Wave, that has been our mission since the early 1990s. We've been shouting from the rooftops, letting everyone know about the rewarding alternatives to life at the scientific bench, while keeping those who remain on the academic science path apprised of the realities and the rewards of scientific training and careers. For just as long, we've been providing the advice those young scientists needed--advice that no one else was giving them--to improve the odds of landing and sustaining whatever scientific career they aim for.
Reach More of the Scientists Who Need Our Help
If we have a regret it's that we haven't shouted loudly enough. Over the years, too few people have taken advantage of the resources we offer. Next Wave's readership has grown fast and steadily--about 70,000 individual readers visited our site in October alone--but still too few scientists approach their careers with the sort of savvy a careful, regular reading of Next Wave can acquire. So that is one of our goals for the new year: to reach more of the scientists who need our help. Stay tuned.
We have other goals as well. Science's Next Wave enters 2005 with a new editor--me--a new, closer relationship with the best scientific magazine in the world-- Science--and a deeper and wider understanding of the scientific workplace than we have ever had before. In 2005 we aim to take full advantage of these resources to publish better, richer, more career-focused content than we have in the past. We'll be asking the scientists we interview, and the ones who write for us, to answer fundamental questions about the courses of their careers: How did they get to where they are? Why did they succeed while others failed? Why do they have this job and not someone else?
Meanwhile, we will renew our quest to understand the scientific labor market ever more deeply and in more detail. Why is it, we'll wonder out loud, that from the perspective of young scientists there appear to be too many scientists, while policymakers worldwide are certain that there are too few? What scientific opportunities exist in industry, academia, and elsewhere that may not be well known? How can you best prepare yourself for the challenges that lie ahead, so that you enter a postdoc or a job interview with a clear, compelling plan and the confidence you need to do well?
Just as our partner, Science magazine, aims to keep scientists apprised of the most important developments in the world of science, our job in 2005 is to raise the level of knowledge among scientists at every level--from trainee to lab chief to national-level policymaker--about the nature of scientific work and the problems and opportunities that exist in the scientific workplace. We'll do it by telling stories about scientists in the trenches, by passing along the best advice about science career skills, and by providing timely news that's relevant to your scientific career. In short, we'll do pretty much the same thing we've been doing for years. Our challenge in 2005 will be to do it better.
Jim Austin, Editor
Science's Next Wave