Ask any astrophysicist to describe the “two-body problem,” and the answer will involve orbiting celestial bodies. Ask a young scientist, and the question takes on a very earthly meaning.
Years of tight budgets and decreasing paylines at the National Institutes of Health have pushed the average age of first-time grant recipients to 42, effectively turning the entirety of scientists’ 20s and 30s into years of training and instability. At the same time, more than two-thirds of life sciences postdoctoral fellows are married, and more than one-third have children (1).
Young would-be academics must confront the two-body problem, balancing their spouse’s career aspirations with the mobility demanded by the postdoctoral training cycle. Finding solutions to the two-body problem has become paramount in ensuring the best scientists continue to fill the highest ranks of research.
Career Prospects and Tenure Track Postions
The career prospects for biomedical postdocs are daunting. While the postdoctoral work force has tripled, the tenure-track positions have remained stagnant (adapted with permission from (2)).
A Dream Deferred
“People aren’t finding places where both partners can work,” says Kristofor Langlais, a postdoctoral genetics research fellow at the NIH. “Opportunities are practically nil.” Langlais and his wife are both Ph.D. scientists who have struggled to find tenure-track faculty positions in the same location. The lack of faculty jobs gradually has forced them both toward nonacademic careers.
Over the past 30 years, the number of biomedical postdoctoral researchers has more than tripled, while the number of tenured or tenure-track positions has remained virtually static (2). This imbalance has led to greatly increased competition and longer years of training as scientists amass the increased credentials required to earn a job. Statistics from the National Postdoctoral Association show that only 18 percent of recent graduates obtain such positions within six years of graduating (1). Researchers can expect to spend their 20s and 30s moving from their undergraduate school to a Ph.D. lab to one or more postdoctoral positions, relocating on average every four years.
Do scientists make different career choices after being fed up with the academic job market? “We certainly did,” says Langlais.
Like Langlais and his wife, Ph.D. scientists are increasingly turning to alternative careers. In 1972, nearly 70 percent of all biomedical Ph.D.s were employed in academic science. Today, that number has dwindled to 50 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of Ph.D.s employed in industry has more than doubled and now makes up roughly one-quarter of the postdoctoral biomedical work force. Part of the appeal of industry jobs may include the prospect for scientists to choose where they would like to live, perhaps finding a rewarding career in a place where their partner also is employed (2).
Employment of Biomedical Science Ph.D. by economic sector
Smaller percentages of biomedical Ph.D.s are employed in academia. The portion of biomedical Ph.D.s in industry and other sectors has grown steadily (adapted with permission from (2)).
Among many causes of the “leaky pipeline” (3), the two-body problem is likely to be a significant factor in forcing women from the ranks of academic researchers. According to Karen Ruff, a graduate student in chemical biology and former co-chair of Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, “Many women feel like they must choose either an academic career or a family.” Fifty-seven percent of undergraduates are women, and approximately half of all graduates with science degrees are women (2, 4, 5). However, less than 15 percent of tenured faculty members are women, even though women have made up more than 20 percent of all life science Ph.D. recipients in the past 30 years (5).
Historically, women have sacrificed their own careers to follow their husbands’ career ambitions. While this may be less true today, many women in academia still play the career equivalent of “follow the leader” (6). According to Ruff, “Because of the lingering expectations of gender roles, as well as the biological burden of carrying any children, a disproportionate number of women choose to be the nonacademic spouse.” Male researchers often undertake nationwide searches for the few available academic jobs, while female scientists find a way to make do wherever their spouses are given a job.
But the pressures of the two-body problem are not entirely confined to women. Men also are forced to piece together a career wherever their wives land a faculty position.
When his wife received an offer from Castleton State College, Langlais moved with his wife from Oregon to Vermont. There, Langlais took a number of short-term teaching positions in local high schools and colleges. However, a permanent, full-time academic position eluded him.
“There were just no opportunities for me,” Langlais says.
The work-life balance struggles in academia are intimately familiar to the authors of this article. Allen’s Ph.D. training kept him apart from his wife for four years. Were it not for his decision to pursue a career outside academia (see his “Career Insights” article in this issue), they might still be struggling to find careers that would allow them to live in the same city. Meanwhile, Kyle and his wife are living apart for a year as she finishes her degree.
Implications for ASBMB and Beyond
In his January 2009 “President’s Message,” Greg Petsko expressed concern about the rising age of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology membership and noted that the occupations of working biochemists are shifting toward industry. Though the two-body problem is certainly not the only cause of these demographic trends, it may play a larger role than is widely discussed. In good economic times, a job in industry or outside academia means being able to choose where you live and work. This factor could prove to be a powerful incentive that affects the willingness of young researchers to remain in the geographic limbo of academic training.
Given the current academic job market, providing career paths sensitive to the work-life balance is vital to ensure that most qualified scientists will remain in innovative biomedical research.
1. National Postdoctoral Association (2008) Postdoctoral Scholars Fact Sheet.
2. Garrison, H., and McGuire, K. (2008). Education and Employment of Biological and Medical Scientists 2008: Data from National Surveys. PowerPoint presentation prepared by FASEB Office for Public Affairs.
3. Kresge, N. (2008) Keeping Women in Science. ASBMB Today. December.
4. Association of American Colleges and Universities (2009) The Intellectual Architects of Inclusive Institutions in On Campus with Women 38, 1.
5. Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (2007) Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. The National Academies Press.
6. Jamieson, V. (2001) Love and the two-body problem. www.physicsworld.com. October 3.
Kyle M. Brown is the 2009–2010 ASBMB science policy fellow and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Allen Dodson was the 2008–2009 ASBMB science policy fellow and can be reached at email@example.com.