When the Obstacle is the Course: Job Security in Academia

This post is part of the series called Obstacles in Academia, which aims to highlight the many challenges young scientists face today.

One of the biggest challenges facing young scientists today is the extreme competition for positions at researching universities and delayed (if at all) job security. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrollment. (Economist) Even more grim is the fact that only 12.8% of those PhD students actually end up as a tenured professor. (Larson 2013) Out of every 1,000 science PhD grads, only around 45 of them end up a full-time professor at a research university.
Data from The Royal Society's 2010 report, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity.
The average age of those offered tenureship has also increased to 39 years. Watson was 24 when he did the double helix work. Yet according to European University Institute, the average age of Full Professors is 55.
Full-time faculty includes full professors, associate professors, and assistant professors. Data from: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 1973–2013. Special tabulations (2014) of 1997–2013 SDR.

Slimming Chances

Universities today often think of themselves as businesses—running surpluses, admitting more students, cutting whole departments., and relying on part-time faculty. While it can be argued that having PhD students teach undergraduates prepares them for their future roles, it also decreases the number of full-time positions. The result? What many often refer to as the academic pyramid scheme. This comic below by PhD Comics, may not be entirely accurate but captures how many students and post-docs feel.
To give you an idea, many young scientists (especially those in physical and life sciences) need to spend 10 to 15 years after college in training before they can secure a tenure-track position. Because science PhDs can’t get professorship without a portfolio of independent research and their research requires greater funding than that of humanities of social sciences, science PhDs must often do many, post-docs. Two is very common. After moving through the ranks of assistant and associate professor, the time between entering graduate school and becoming a Full Professor (of science) can be 17-20 year—and that's not even counting tenure!

"This widening at the bottom of the pyramid has been essential to maintain the publication output of PIs at the top, who face increasing competition to secure limited government funding..." says David Keays, Group Leader at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology Vienna. "As a consequence, it’s child’s play to get a PhD position but almost impossible to secure a faculty job. You might argue that this is natural selection at work, but I’m unconvinced it’s selecting for the best science.” Allison Schrager notes that “the increase in post-docs or multiple post-docs before a professorship may reflect... that some science professors are using their students as cheap labor instead of training them to be independent researchers.” 

According to American Association of University Professors (AAUP), full time tenured and tenure-track professors are decreasing significantly over time. From 1975 to 2011, tenure-line faculty dropped from 57% of staff to just 30%, while contingent faculty (comprised of non-tenure-track and part-time faculty) grew from 43% to 70%. 

Source: AAUP. Click here for original PDF.

Slimmer Pickings

Students are becoming increasingly aware. “The result is that I see many of the most talented, insightful, and creative people I've ever met leaving science...” says Erez Lieberman Aiden, Assistant Professor at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University. “They just reach a certain point where they decide that the promise of science—of following the beat of your own intellectual drum, of going where your imagination leads you, of pursuing some crazy idea that's been in the back of your mind since freshman biology—isn't happening for them.”

Source: The Royal Society's 2010 report, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity.
Depending on the discipline, the upside potential to having a PhD over a BA is over $70,000 a year. (Bloomberg) Doctorates in science, math, and engineering have higher paying job opportunities than those in comparative literature. But overall, having a PhD does not gaurantee a higher salary than having a MA. For many, the costs associated with getting a doctorate degree may not be worth it. Authorea CEO and cofounder Alberto Pepe advises, “play with the idea that you may end up somewhere else. And in preparation for that possibility, think of ways to repurpose your work and “remarket” yourself early on. You will not regret it.”

What To Do?

The tenure system (while highly controversial today) was created to provide protection for teachers and professors and acts as a major incentive to individuals interested in academic research. However, the mismatch of supply and demand and the erosion of tenureship have endangered job security for many promising young scientists, who are seriously feeling the heat.

David Keays suggests that “at the very least… universities should stop handing out PhDs like complimentary muffins.” But with the state of funding (stay tuned for the next post in this series), this is easier said than done.

We advise being a part of a community that aims to both advance science and the conditions for researchers. At Authorea, we want to start the conversation. If you're looking to join a advocacy group, we recommend Future of Research (US), Academics for the Future of Science (US), and Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (UK).

Comment on this section to let us know what other communities you're a part of!


  1. Richard C. Larson, Navid Ghaffarzadegan, Yi Xue. Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R 0 in Academia. Syst. Res. 31, 745–750 Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Link

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