Three female scientists chat in front of a computer in their laboratory

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A study conducted over more than two decades at a major European research institute has recorded a marked drop in the percentage of trainees who become principal investigators (PIs) in academia.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), based in Heidelberg, Germany, tracked the career outcomes of 2,284 researchers who had completed PhDs or postdoctoral positions at one of the six EMBL campuses between 1997 and 2020.

The preprint study, which was published this month, found that the road to a PI role has clearly narrowed. Among researchers whose careers arcs could be verified through online searches, 44% of those who finished their postdoc positions between 1997 and 2004 had become PIs within five years1. For those who finished after 2013, only 30% were PIs five years later. Study co-author Rachel Coulthard-Graf, a career-development adviser at the EMBL, says that although she wouldn’t discourage anyone who aspired to become a PI, she wants researchers to be aware that many other career options exist. Being a PI “is still a realistic career option,” she says, “but we want to be transparent.”

The career paths of EMBL alumni also varied according to gender. Among those who had completed postdoctoral positions at the laboratory, 26% of women and 35% of men were PIs within five years. And EMBL postdocs were more likely to have non-research roles in science if they were female (17%) than if they were male (11%).

Fifteen per cent of alumni in the study currently work as researchers in industry, and 15% hold other science-related roles; these include positions in patent law and science communication, and management posts at funding agencies. The study didn’t distinguish between permanent positions and short-term contracts, so it’s unclear how many respondents enjoyed true job security.

About 10% of the alumni could not be located through online searches, so their current status is unknown. Some are presumably out of the workforce, although Coulthard-Graf suspects that some are still employed in science but lack a strong online presence.

Branching out

The findings underscore the importance of training for careers beyond academia, says Marta Agostinho, executive director of EU-LIFE, an alliance of 15 European life science research centres that’s based in Barcelona, Spain. “Due to a reduced funding landscape, scientific careers within academia are outrageously competitive,” she says.

Agostinho says that although many universities could improve their career training, trainees don’t always have time or permission to make the most of resources that are available. PIs are under pressure to keep their labs as productive as possible, she says, so they’re often reluctant to let their trainees take time out for career training. She also notes that, in the past, a PI’s success was often measured largely by the number of trainees that went on to become lead researchers themselves. Now, however, PIs are starting to gain recognition for supporting trainees who go on to other sectors. “Our perception of success is becoming broader,” she says.

A study published in February used US National Science Foundation data from 2008 to 2018 to follow the career trajectories of nearly 41,000 postdocs in the life sciences and just over 40,500 postdocs in the physical sciences and engineering2. The analysis found much mobility between the sectors of government, industry and academia, another sign that postdocs have career options beyond the traditional straight-line path from graduate student to lab head.

The study, published in PLoS ONE, tracked outcomes for postdocs working in a wide variety of fields and sectors. Most postdocs had jobs in academia, including 72% of those in the physical sciences and engineering and 80% of those in the life sciences. The rest worked in government, industry or non-profit organizations in the United States, or had overseas roles.

Making the shift

Researchers in the sample proved willing and able to shift sectors when moving from training to full-time employment. Of those who had taken up postdoc positions in government-run physical sciences or engineering facilities, 28% had moved on to a full-time government position within five to six years of receiving their PhD. However, another 22% had left government for tenure-track positions in academia, 12% had taken other academic positions, and 39% were working in industry. “That was more movement than we expected,” says study lead author Maya Denton, a science-education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

As well as being a starting point for a wide variety of job roles, postdoctoral positions in government seemed to increase earning potential. For example, government-sector postdocs who went on to careers in industry earned US$4,500 to $7,350 more per year than academic postdocs who followed that same path. “There may be a salary advantage to starting out as a government postdoc,” Denton says. She adds that one potential takeaway from the study is that the US government could support junior researchers and their future careers by creating more postdoctoral opportunities in that sector.

Room to manoeuvre

The surprising range of career outcomes could offer some comfort to PhD students who feel pressure to find the ideal postdoctoral position immediately after graduation, says study co-author Maura Borrego, also a science-education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. She says that many graduate students worry that their first postdoctoral placement will lock them into a path from which they can’t escape. “If people have this information, maybe they can be open to more possibilities,” she says.

Some career paths tended to be more linear than others. For example, 84% of industry postdocs in the physical sciences and engineering remained in industry five to six years after graduation. It’s not possible to know from the data how many of those postdocs had their sights set on industry from the beginning, Borrego says. “We don’t know what people’s goals were.”

Joyce Main, a higher-education researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says that her studies of postdoctoral career paths have also found significant mobility3. “I see a lot of switching sectors across time,” she says.

Postdocs often earn less during their training than other PhD-level researchers who find permanent work straight after graduation, but Main says that a postdoctoral position can still be a reasonable career move, especially for those willing to consider a broad range of career options. “Getting a postdoc is a good step,” she says. “It means you’re increasing your network, you’re receiving additional mentorship, and you’re working on projects that can help you expand your research skills and opportunities.”



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