A new Graduate Employees and Students Organization report examining Yale’s alleged heavy reliance on postdoctoral science researchers says a growing number of prospective scientists are finding it more difficult to obtain tenure-track positions at academic institutions.
The report, “Too Casual Too Blue,” tracks the career paths of 200 alumni of Yale’s scientific graduate programs from the years 1983-1999. Of the alumni interviewed, 69 percent said becoming an academic research scientist was their original goal while earning their doctoral degree, but only 30 percent successfully became tenure-track scientists, the report says.
The report explores the “casualization” of scientific research at Yale — the replacement of high-wage, secure jobs with low-wage, “transient” positions. Even though government and private sector funding for the sciences has increased over the past 10 years, the number of permanent faculty positions at Yale has increased by only nine percent, the report says. At the same time, GESO reports that the number of postdoctoral associates increased by 83 percent.
According to the report, postdoctoral associates work long hours for poor compensation and exercise little control over their research. The report calls for improved working conditions, job security and greater influence over the direction of research.
“[Postdoctoral researchers] are looking to raise families, invest in pension plans, but they really struggle to do that,” GESO member Philip Kong GRD ’05, an immunobiology student, said. “When and if people do get real jobs, it becomes a catch-up game in terms of getting themselves decent lives.”
The report emphasizes the plight of women in the sciences. It says 77 percent of the women interviewed expressed a desire to become tenure-track academics, but only 19 percent of them had achieved their goals — two percentage points more than the number who had become full-time mothers.
GESO co-chairwoman Robin Herlands GRD ’07, who is studying the biological sciences, said she was surprised and disturbed that Yale was no exception to the national trends.
“I found it really scary that women from Yale were having such a hard time striking a balance between having a family and having a career,” Herlands said.
Yale University President Richard Levin said research, not teaching, is understood to be the goal of postdoctoral work.
“The postdoctorate researcher doesn’t teach,” he said. “They’re not substitutes for the faculty.”
Vincent Marchesi, a professor of pathology and the director of the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine, said the increase in the number of postdoctoral researchers over the past 10 years is due, in part, to the need for larger research teams. Research is much more complicated now, he said, and the average team now includes around 20 researchers.
“A tiny fraction would go on to becoming faculty,” he said. “It is inappropriate to call postdoctorate associates precursors to faculty.”
Kong said he feels this is something that needs to change, and he said he believes it is possible to create more tenured jobs for research scientists.
Kong and Herlands said they hoped the report would open up constructive dialogue with the University about the issues postdoctoral researchers face. The report lists a number of universities, including Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities, that have postdoctoral associations that regularly lobby their host institutions for representation and job conditions.
GESO recently released another report investigating “transient” teaching at Yale. The group has been trying to form a teaching and research assistant union at Yale for over a decade.