This past summer, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued report on the need for additional training and preparation for early-career researchers who may transition to non-academic positions. The report follows a multi-year investigation of employment outcomes for PhD and post-doctoral research students. The report found that throughout academia – regardless of global location – early career researcher jobs are precarious. Job insecurity leads to attrition among researchers who opt to leave the field rather than continue to work towards an ambiguous future.
Unfortunately, the report concludes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving the stability of early career research jobs.
In an article published by the journal Nature, investigative co-chair Roseanne Diab, Director of UNESCO’s Gender in Science, Innovation, Technology and Engineering program, says that a core issue for research institutions around the world is that new PhD and post-doctoral students far outnumber the tenured research positions that become available each year. This leaves early-career researchers without a stable employment plan following the conclusion of their academic pursuits.
The Impact On Researcher Jobs
While the number of researcher jobs remains viable, early career researchers cannot depend upon grant funding indefinitely. This is especially true because there is a strong bias in research funding toward established- and late-career researchers, who receive the lion’s share of available funding each year.
In addition, the small number of available positions each year tends to disfavor female and minority researchers. In the United States alone, the number of PhDs awarded has grown by more than one-third in the past two decades. This only serves to increase the competition among graduates for permanent researcher jobs.
A Larger Issue
The problem is not limited to the US. Finland estimates that the number of PhD candidates has increased by 1.5 times in the past decade alone. France estimates that there are now 10 doctoral/post-doctoral candidates for each permanent research position that opens there. The result is that the vast majority of basic research is now conducted by scientists who work either on short-term contracts or on grant-funded projects. Switzerland estimates that temporary workers conduct about 80% of the country’s basic research.
The investigators concluded that lack of funding for basic research is not the root of the problem. In fact, grant funding may encourage universities and research institutions to adopt a short-term approach to creating permanent researcher jobs. One of the report’s conclusions find that universities may be erroneously preparing students exclusively for careers in academic research, when only a small number of permanent researcher jobs will ever materialize.
How To Stabilize Researcher Jobs
To correct this, the report suggests that university research programs should prepare the majority of students to seek researcher jobs in the private sector. This preparation may include more contact with private industry in the form of internships with corporations, governmental agencies, non-profit research institutions and foundations. It may also include finding ways to incorporate career counseling into PhD programs.
The report also encouraged research institutions to develop policy frameworks to realign their graduate and post-graduate programs. In doing so, it may better prepare early-career scientists for non-academic researcher jobs.
Diab suggests that taking a measured approach to shifting career focus and long-term goals for new researchers will help academic programs around the globe better understand and manage the career and employment challenges that their former students face once they leave academia.
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