Newswise — Doctoral and postdoctoral trainees these days may be steering away from what was once thought to be their most obvious career path–academia. That is the thesis of a Perspective column for the July 1, 2017 issue of Molecular Biology of the Cell written by two faculty members from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And, they state, faculty members themselves may be partly to blame for giving the profession a bad rap.

For at least the last decade, headlines in the scientific and popular press have bemoaned the trials of a career in academic biomedical research, Amy Gladfelter and Mark Peifer write in their column. Are faculty positions at research-intensive universities in decline?  Will funding still be available for basic scientific research? Should a recent PhD graduate or postdoc even consider an academic career today when a myriad of career options exist in industry, law, science communications, policy, government, and entrepreneurship?

Yes, write Gladfelter and Peifer, a career in academia can be a wise choice, but faculty needs to do a better job of helping trainees appreciate this fact.

“I worry … that we are failing to convey to many of our students and postdocs the many great things about our job as faculty at a research-intensive university,” writes Gladfelter, associate professor of Biology at UNC-Chapel Hill. “…Even more worrisome, we may be disproportionately discouraging women and those from under-represented groups at a time when our nation needs all of its talent to meet global challenges. While our job, like all jobs, has plusses and minuses, I feel so glad to be in this flexible, creative and impactful profession.” 

Co-author Mark Peifer, the Michael Hooker Distinguished Professor, also in the Department of Biology at UNC-Chapel Hill, concurs that faculty themselves have not showcased the flexibility and personal rewards that come with a life in academia. Furthermore, Peifer writes that studies on the results of funding mechanisms for postdocs such as the NIGMS Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award and the NIH’s F32 award, suggest that they have been successful in preparing trainees for and retaining them in academic tenure-track careers.

Peifer writes, “To me these data say that obtaining a research-intensive faculty job is not an impossible dream.”

Gladfelter and Peifer, both long-time members of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), go on to cite several studies on research funding  and career outcomes, trends in postdoctoral pay. They also briefly discuss the 2012 NIH Workforce Report infographic shared in the COMPASS blog post “Where will a Biology PhD take you?”, written by Jessica Polka for ASCB in 2014. Peifer and Gladfelter hope their MBoC Perspective will open a dialog between faculty members and trainees at research-intensive universities, allowing faculty to provide trainees with a better appreciation of the positive sides of the faculty career path.