It’s not always easy being a scientist. Just ask Shweta Sharma.

After spending two years on a master’s and five years on a doctoral degree in biochemistry, Sharma, an immigrant from India, spent six years in a postdoctoral fellowship — a temporary position for recent doctoral graduates seeking additional training before embarking on an academic career.

Today, Sharma works in an assistant-level position in a lab at University of California, San Diego. Now that she’s obtained permanent residency, she can finally move on to the next stage in her career. But like many San Diego postdocs, she confronts some difficult decisions.

Faculty positions at universities are scarce and growing scarcer as state funding dwindles. The biotech industry is typically the other option, but after last year’s cash crunch, jobs are still rare.

“I’ve struggled many times to figure out what are my best options,” Sharma said. “Academia is more glamorous, but at the same time, the reality is that with the budget constraints, there’s going to be a lot of competition.”

Given that reality, Sharma plans to look for work in the biotech sector instead. Many companies, however, want experience in management or business — a background postdocs seldom possess.

This is the reality of a job search today in San Diego’s life science field. Even those who are smart, skilled and supremely qualified can have a tough time finding a job where their expertise can make a difference. Competition for tenure-track posts at universities is especially fierce, since people in those coveted positions have the freedom to conduct their own independent research.

“The last time I was involved in a search for a faculty position, we had 300 applicants” for one slot, said Faramarz Valafar, director of San Diego State’s bioinformatics and medical informatics graduate program.

It hasn’t always been this way. The original notion was that after earning their doctoral degree, a recent graduate would do a postdoc as an apprenticeship for their academic career. University faculty members needed skilled assistants to help oversee grad students, write papers, run experiments and write grant applications. Newly minted doctoral graduates, on the other hand, needed experience.

Such was the theory. In practice, though, the length of time spent in postdocs and other standby positions has increased over the years. Postdoc positions have grown rapidly. But the number of academic slots hasn’t kept pace.

Rod Ulane, research training officer with the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., likens the situation to careers in sports or music, where many are called but few are chosen. “I’m sure there are a lot of musicians across the country that would love to be concert master at the New York symphony orchestra,” he said, “but the reality is there are only so many that can do that.”

And California’s budget crisis is making things worse. Last year, the cash-strapped state government slashed funding for the CSU and UC systems. Many institutions responded by slowing or halting hiring and relying more heavily on part-time faculty.

“In California, you have what is essentially a hiring freeze,” said Al Kern, the director of biotechnology programs at CSU San Marcos and chairman at a local biotech company, Pasteuria Bioscience. “Opportunities are slim at the moment.”

Stopped short of their goal, some postdocs end up in a holding pattern, going on to second or third postdoctoral fellowships or assistant-level positions. Together with grad students, they carry out much of the research that earns their mentors fame and acclaim. The postdocs earn valuable experience and modest pay. In 2006, the median salary was $40,000, according to a National Science Foundation survey.

Ultimately the chances of landing a tenure-track position depend on past publications in scientific journals and ability to procure funding. Universities prefer applicants who demonstrate they can win grants. The pressure to secure funding is a constant in academic life science — and grant applications are competitive, too.

Obstacles like these explain why many postdocs pursue careers in private industry instead. The financial crisis dealt a brutal blow to San Diego biotech, although there are some recovery signs.

“It’s very competitive right now,” said Rama Manam, who recently completed a three-year postdoc at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He’s been looking for a job in the biotech sector but hasn’t found one yet — despite his Ph.D. in chemistry.

This isn’t very surprising, given that chemistry has been hard-hit by the cash crunch and offshore outsourcing. “We’ve got some good medicinal chemists who’ve been out of work for six, seven months,” said Meredith Dow, a senior partner at Proven, a San Diego staffing and consulting firm.

Even in better years, many candidates scramble to find jobs. With hundreds of biology majors heading to grad school, “the turnover is such for many of these people there’s no way they’re going to find jobs in industry,” said Sandra Slivka, director of the Southern California Biotechnology Center at Miramar College.

And postdocs confront another conundrum: They have a wealth of knowledge, but not necessarily what employers want. Postdoctoral training is seldom geared towards careers in industry. “They don’t always have the correct skill sets for employment,” Slivka said. “They’re not well matched to what people are looking for.”

To address this problem, CSU recently instituted a professional science master’s degree — a program blending business acumen with scientific study. “This gives students a way to keep all doors open,” said Valafar at SDSU. “If I want to go on to a Ph.D., I still can. But if I want to into industry instead, I have the training I’ll need.”

Similar programs have now been adopted at more than 160 colleges nationwide, although it’s too soon to tell what difference this local innovation might make. For now, the challenges facing San Diego postdocs boils down to a question of numbers.

“At the Ph.D. level, I think you can talk about overproduction,” said Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. “The jobs (in academia) are just not there.”

Jonathan Parkinson is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at jlparkinson1@gmail.com.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.