In Chapter 18 of 18 in her 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, Neuroscience Institute Executive Director Stacie Grossman Bloom notes the push toward promoting STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math - careers. She also notes the need for role models. She then details the distinct challenges presented in scientific research careers, from the competitive education constraints to the financial constraints of National Institute of Health (NIH) early career salaries.
Erik: What opportunities do you see to better encourage people to pursue careers in the sciences? Stacie: So, you know, in this country, I think there’s a big emphasis now on trying to improve STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in younger people. I think that in order to pursue a career in research, there have to be role models and incentives, it’s not the same as law or finance or business where you know that you can go out and become a very successful person. A life in scientific research is unbelievably daunting and challenging, for a lot of reasons, I mean first of all, it’s hard. You go to school for a very long time, but when you get out of school, after 5 years, for doing a PhD, at that point, you’re generally about 30 years old, sometimes older, sometimes younger, you still have to go and do a postdoc, and postdoc salaries are really dictated by the NIH, by the National Institutes of Health. And those salaries are very hard to live on. So a starting postdoc, a 30-year-old person with a PhD might be making $42,000 a year, and you can see why many people maybe wouldn’t choose that path, but even if you do choose that path, and you are gonna live on $42,000 a year in a place like New York City, which—a lot of people do it. Obviously I did it. And at the time, not even making $42,000 a year, I think my salary was $33,000 a year. You know, you still have a very challenging future ahead of you if you’re on the track that where you’re pursuing the traditional scientific career, where you do a postdoc, maybe you do a second postdoc, and then you interview for an assistant professor, tenure track assistant professor job, and get on, you know, the path to a tenured full professor position, maybe even a chairman position. There’s a big drop off at the postdoc stage because making that transition to the next phase is really, really difficult because you have to be unbelievably successful scientifically, you have to publish your work. It would be great if you were funded independently as a researcher, and then those positions for assistant professors, associate professors, full professors, they just don’t come up very often. So it’s hard to be positively reinforced I think, and it’s hard to succeed. I mean it’s hard to compete with the giant pool of postdocs that are out there. Erik: Where’s the inflexion point, how do you make it easier? Stacie: I don’t think it’s gonna become easier until the NIH changes their funding structure. The budget for the NIH has been basically flat for a while, which doesn’t give you a lot of incentive to go that route. I mean the success of your grand proposal is not very promising. I think there have to be big changes in the way that we support scientists and fund scientists in this country.