On the research career pyramid

Are we training too many scientists? That question is posed by Paula Stephan in a recent post at Chemistry World. Stephan explains very clearly the notion of the career pyramid, and wonders why people entering research careers are so surprised that there aren’t jobs at the top of the academic pyramid for everyone. She has some good explanations for this, observing, among other factors, that:

Overconfidence also plays a role: students in science persistently see themselves as better than the average student in their program – something that is statistically impossible.

Stephan goes on to propose some potential solutions to the issues. It’s well worth a read.

Another useful question to consider on this subject is why research is different from other career paths. After all, almost every profession has fewer jobs at the top than the number of entrants into the career. What makes research different? I would offer two observations.

First, there are very few steps on the research career path and almost all of them are temporary positions. Career progression in academic research is binary – either you have a tenured academic position or you don’t. There are very few intermediate levels. In other career structures almost everyone who enters reaches a certain level and then accepts, either willingly or otherwise, that they won’t progress any further. This doesn’t happen in academic research careers because the intermediate steps are too few and too temporary.

The other feature of other career pyramids is that people leave them for other classes of job. Of course this happens in academic research careers too, but all too often the individuals concerned think that they have ‘failed’ when this happens. They are wrong, but there is still a strong perception in that direction. Stephan’s piece touches on this point, but I think there is another important factor. There is a strong cultural bias within the research community that elevates research above other career options, and elevates fundamental research above other types. This gives those entering the profession the sense that the only way they can succeed is by pursuing fundamental research in an academic setting. Challenging this prejudice will not only help those aspiring to a research career, but might also have wider benefits too.