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"You couldn't find me there, even though I had been teaching insect biology for several years," he says. "I was invisible." Bean realized he had to stop waiting for that elusive tenure-track faculty position and take charge of his career.
Today he is happily ensconced as the State of Colorado's chief biocontrol officer, overseeing the state's efforts to use insects to control invasive plant species. Bean attributes his current position to taking time away from the lab to create a professional network in the field he wanted to pursue. He volunteered to organize sessions at professional meetings and engaged in several collaborative research projects that opened doors for him.
"I looked around at how people advance," he says, "and I realized I could only get so far hunkered over a lab bench."
Bean's experience as a postdoc is hardly unique. In a 2005 survey of 7,600 postdocs, the research society Sigma Xi noted that 73 percent of respondents were "very interested" and another 23 percent were "somewhat interested" in a research faculty position. Yet, their chances of getting a faculty job are on the decline. According to the National Science Foundation's report Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, for those employed in academia 4 to7 years after earning their doctorates, about 65 percent had faculty rank in 2003, compared with about 89 percent in 1973.
The result for postdocs, says Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), has been "a major disconnect between expectations and outcomes." The sobering truth is that a generation of highly educated and capable scientists has been reaching for a brass ring that many of them may never grasp.
Ironically, the employment outlook for Ph.D.-level life scientists has never been better, but seeing past doom-and-gloom scenarios requires an open mind and take-charge attitude among job seekers and a major shift in the culture of science.
Today, there are no accurate data on the number of postdoctoral scientists working in the United States or on where they eventually find employment. However, the biomedical research enterprise is dependent on postdocs, who carry out a large percentage of the nation's grant-funded biomedical research. And several groups have taken notice.
In recent years, high-profile reports, such as Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research (National Academies Press, 2005), written by a National Research Council (NRC) committee chaired by HHMI President Thomas Cech, and the Sigma Xi survey among others, have drawn attention to the challenges faced by postdocs and made recommendations to help them transition to permanent employment. The NRC report calls for several policy changes to improve training and resources for young investigators.