Michelle Amaral wanted to be a brain scientist to help cure diseases. She planned a traditional academic science career: PhD, university professorship and, eventually, her own lab.The competition for any sort of prestigious, rewarding work is intense in our world, and no kind of credential guarantees you such a job. The situation has been especially dire in physics for decades, but now that the vast expansion of biological sciences is slowing, the job market for biologists is bad, too.
But three years after earning a doctorate in neuroscience, she gave up trying to find a permanent job in her field. Dropping her dream, she took an administrative position at her university, experiencing firsthand an economic reality that, at first look, is counterintuitive: There are too many laboratory scientists for too few jobs. . . . Although jobs in some high-tech areas, especially computer and petroleum engineering, seem to be booming, the market is much tighter for lab-bound scientists — those seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry and medicine.
In the sciences, one reason for the glut of Ph.D.s is that university laboratories use science graduate students as low-paid laborers in the trenches, doing most of the grinding work at the lab bench. The scientist in charge is often mainly an administrator, dealing with grant proposals and papers and rarely getting his or her hands on an actual experiment. It is thus in their interest to take in large pools of graduate students even as the job market stagnates.