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Opinion: We need to improve the welfare of life science trainees
Thursday, 2021/01/07 | 08:32:23

Daniele Simoneschi

PNAS January 5, 2021 118 (1) e2024143118

Figure: Many scientist trainees in academia strive in vain for a sustainable career path. Their plight is well known, and yet trainees still struggle with poor living and working conditions. It's a plight made worse by the pandemic and recently implemented immigration restrictions. Image credit: Dave Cutler (artist).


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the globe, the media and the general public are turning to biomedical scientists in hopes of quick remedies. And while terms such as “contact tracing,” “convalescent plasma,” and “PCR testing” become part of our daily vocabulary, a new spotlight has been shone on the importance of academic scientists in the fight for human healthcare and well-being. Yet, for years, few have acknowledged the lack of appreciation experienced by science’s primary workforce: graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.


Indeed, to anticipate and prevent the next pandemic, biomedical science must provide its labor force with the backing and respect it deserves. More vigorous aid of academic science would infuse trainees with much needed assistance that could lead to novel ideas and solutions for the fight against human diseases, including COVID-19. In light of this devastating health crisis as well as some very unfavorable recent changes in immigration policies, we must address the persistent challenges across academia and envision a future in which institutions and governments fully recognize the value of a life science trainee.


In 2009, I moved to the United States as a young and perhaps naïve Italian undergraduate student looking for an excellent education and a better future. When I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences, little did I know just how undervalued a graduate student would be—and how much self-sacrifice would be required. On realizing that most of the fellows in training shared my same tormented condition, reality soon crushed my dreams.


I later discovered that the neglect of scientist trainees in academia was not a new concern. And yet, the conditions have not substantially improved. Although oft discussed among peers, the poor working condition of life science trainees is frequently branded as a taboo subject. Everyone knows the circumstances, but no real, lasting actions have been taken to correct the status quo.


A quick refresher: The yearly stipend of a biomedical Ph.D. student in the United States averages $30,000, with only a few schools disbursing stipends that barely exceed poverty thresholds. Pursuing a doctorate in life science routinely requires 12-hour shifts (often including weekends) and an average of 6 years. Thus, students often enter early adulthood with lots of uncertainty. Struggling to pay for their shared apartment and unable to save for future milestones (e.g., buying a house, having children, investing in their retirement), students let themselves envision a future in which their sacrifices will pay off. But the next “academic step” will again disappoint, as the life of a postdoc often isn’t much better. Stipends are relatively low, and these highly educated, skilled individuals are forced to scrimp and save. I have witnessed many senior postdocs in their mid-to-late 30s gleefully smuggle out entire boxes of pizza at the end of a seminar—a trophy to showcase to their lab members for dinner. And yes, dinner most often takes place in the lab’s break room!


In a sense, the inequities of the system fall even more heavily on postdoctoral fellows, who are more apt to be supporting families as well as more likely to experience poverty, anxiety, and depression (1). Postdoctoral fellowships can help nurture careers; but with an annual salary of about $50,000, the perils of life science postdocs can also last well after the completion of their training (23). Still, postdoctoral training remains a needed stepping stone for academic positions in the life sciences; students would be wise to consider making career plans early in their Ph.D. studies. And graduate schools should offer courses that explore various career paths for students seeking life science job positions, helping them see the advantages and disadvantages of postdocs and other early-career moves.


Importantly, all life scientists in academia are regarded as “trainees” for the duration of their research work [i.e., from the beginning of their Ph.D. studies to the completion of their postdoctoral fellowships—an estimated 11–12 years of combined training (4)], hence the long-standing debate over whether trainees should be treated as employees and thus compensated accordingly. With more intense competition for academic positions and higher demands to publish more comprehensive, nearly “encyclopedic” articles, the perils that scientist trainees experience have profound consequences on their welfare.


They also pose relatively novel challenges. For instance, the average price of an undergraduate degree has skyrocketed 161% since 1987 [adjusted for inflation (56)], forcing many students into graduate school with an estimated $50,000 to $100,000 in student loans. Moreover, rent in several cities in the United States has dramatically soared without a commensurate increase in salaries. Rent in Boston, New York City, and San Francisco—three important university hubs—is up as much as 70% since 2010.


See more: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/1/e2024143118

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