DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Imagine a job where about half of all the work is being done by people who are in training. That's what happens in the world of biological and medical research. In this country, more than 40,000 temporary employees called postdocs are doing the work a bargain price, and most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don't actually exist. NPR's Richard Harris reports on what's often called a pyramid scheme.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Most people go into science because they love it, not for the money. But even by those standards, it's a hard life being a postdoctoral researcher.
VANESSA HUBBARD-LUCEY: I work over here.
HARRIS: Vanessa Hubbard-Lucey is doing her postdoc at one of the top institutions in the nation, New York University's Langone Medical Center on Manhattan's East Side.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: Actually I processed some mouse spleens yesterday, and I grew them in culture with different treatments.
HARRIS: She's 35, and after getting an undergraduate degree and then a PhD, she now works for a professor who's trying understand what causes inflammatory bowel disease.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: I hope it works. This is very important to some of the stuff that I have to show for my paper.
HARRIS: If she's lucky and this experiment turns out to give an interesting result - and you never know in science - she might get her results published in a top scientific journal. That could be the ticket to get an interview for a rare job in academia. She is now, nominally at least, training for that academic job. But she's actually part of a shadow workforce made up of highly qualified scientists working long hours and making about $40,000 a year, which is far less than other PhDs are typically paid.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: A definition the postdoc is a temporary, mentored training. We're supposed to acquire professional skills in order to pursue a career of your own choosing - the key word being temporary, which is not very temporary for many people. There's - you know, many people go on and do many postdocs.
HARRIS: And the truth is American science couldn't survive without this shadow labor force. Some 40,000 postdocs do the day-to-day work in academic labs. But only about 15 percent will get tenure-track jobs, heading a lab like the one where Hubbard-Lucey works today. This was not at all what she expected when she started down this path a decade ago.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: Actually, I remember this person saying, you know, funding is kind of tough now, things will be better by the time you finish graduate school. I'm sure things are going to be better for you. So I was like, OK.
HARRIS: In fact, they haven't gotten better; they've gotten worse. Support for biomedical research has declined by more than 20 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars in the past decade. And even in good times, postdocs had a raw deal. Keith Micoli, who heads the postdoc program at NYU Medical Center, says the entire system in science is built up around the false idea that these postdocs are actually training for a career in academia.
KEITH MICOLI: That's obviously unsustainable. You can't have one manager training 10 subordinates who all think that they're going to take over that boss's position one day. That's just mathematically impossible. But we've grown so dependent on this relatively cheap, seemingly inexhaustible supply of young scientists who do great work, that, you know, from pure dollars and cents, they're a great investment.
HARRIS: Even if a postdoc is among the lucky few who lands an academic job, it's increasingly difficult to get federal funding to run a lab. There's simply not enough money to go around for the number of scientists working in academia today.
MICOLI: Why go into an academic career when you know you have little chance of success and the funding gets tighter and tighter? It's diminishing returns.
HARRIS: This is very much on the mind of the postdocs. Some of them gather regularly for a lunchtime meeting over pizza and soda in a drab medical center conference room. Vanessa Hubbard-Lucey holds a metaphorical gavel.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: So there are a few people who weren't here last time. Would you guys like introduce yourselves?
VICTORIA RUIZ: Hi, I'm Victoria Ruiz. I'm a second-year postdoc. I live in Brooklyn. I have a dog and a husband. That's it.
HARRIS: Not necessarily in that order, she adds. Ruiz grew up in modest circumstances in Brooklyn. She says her dad struggled with health issues for many years.
RUIZ: And I saw how troubling it can be being a patient and being a patient's family, and I wanted to do something to help.
HARRIS: But after getting a PhD from Brown University and now working at a top lab, she knows she may not end up running her own medical research lab.
RUIZ: What would I do instead? I would love to work with inner-city youth and show them different careers that are available to them and how, you know, I came from a poorer community. And so I would love to go back and give back to the community.
HARRIS: There are still plenty of good careers for people with biomedical PhDs, even though few end up running the academic lab of their dreams. Kishore Kuchibohotla still holds out that hope. He landed a lucrative consulting gig after earning his PhD from Harvard, but it didn't inspire him. So he says he took an 80 percent pay cut to come back to the world of academic research as a postdoc.
KISHORE KUCHIBOHOTLA: We'll see if it's a foolhardy decision after a few more years.
HARRIS: For now, he's following his passion.
KUCHIBOHOTLA: I'm very excited about really understanding how brains work, how brain circuits work, both in health and in disease. Is there a way we can slowly figure that out or unpack that so we can get a better handle on what's up in our skull, right? I mean, we all walk around with one of these every day. And it's really just one of the most fascinating organs to me.
HARRIS: But Kuchibohotla knows that he faces long odds in a system that's stacked against him.
KUCHIBOHOTLA: I sometimes like to think about it like medical residents, right? Medical residents do need a few years of training before they can become attendings. The difference is there's not always a job on the other end.
HARRIS: And despite these long odds, Vanessa Hubbard-Lucey was also holding out hope on the rainy spring day when we talked.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: You have a PhD - it's supposed to be the highest degree you can get. So you feel like, well, I've worked this hard; I've done so much. When am I going to get something good out of this? I mean, I'm sort of at the point where, you know, I'm hopeful that my paper is going to go in, and it's going to get published and that I have - at least I'll have something to show for it.
HARRIS: A paper, then maybe an interview in academia. And at the end of that rainbow, a job running her own research lab from the honcho's office, not the lab bench.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: The boss occasionally comes in and wants to know what's going on, but he's mostly holed away in his office trying to write grants.
HARRIS: So you want to pursue that as a career - sitting in an office, writing grants and telling postdocs what to do?
HUBBARD-LUCEY: I would love to actually be telling other postdocs what to do. That would be the best part.
HARRIS: The worst part is that the boss spends a huge amount of time in his office writing grants because money is so tight these days, even many top-flight ideas don't make the cut. Nearly 90 percent of grant proposals to National Institutes of Health get rejected.
HUBBARD-LUCEY: Rejection's a little hard. You have to get used to rejection, yeah.
HARRIS: That conversation took place in May. Over the summer, Hubbard- Lucey heard about a job where she could make good use of her PhD. She wouldn't be running a lab or working in academia, but she would be advancing cancer research at a nonprofit institute. She got the job. And now she says she's happy with the new path that she's chosen. Richard Harris, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.