A Solution to a Surplus

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

August 25, 2016

This is a column from Dana's print publication, Brain in the News

A recent article, “Where Will All the New Neuroscientists Go?” highlights a problem that most directors of neuroscience programs don’t like to talk about. The charts included in the article demonstrate the problem. Firstly, the numbers of Ph.D.s in other fields such as biology, biochemistry, psychology, and molecular biology have stayed relatively flat over the past 10 years; the number of Ph.D.s in neuroscience has more than doubled. Secondly, the percentage of people with neuroscience Ph.D.s going the conventional route into academia is decreasing, while non-academic careers are increasing.

This is not a new problem, and not confined to scientific fields. If anything it is worse in the humanities—faculty members stay at jobs longer, decreasing opportunities for younger people, and non-university support is less available than in the sciences. In the clinical neurosciences (neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry) the paucity of academic jobs exists, but non-university opportunities (i.e. clinical practice) are much greater.

The numbers of people in neuroscience are reflected in the membership and meeting attendance at the Society for Neuroscience. There are currently about 40,000 members of the society. The attendance at the annual meeting is about 34,000 (a portion of which are non-US attendees). From a personal perspective, the meeting is overwhelming. It is held in enormous conventions centers, and you need to consult a special app to find the sessions of interest. Further, it can be discouraging to go to a poster session and see six or seven posters, from different groups, all on the same subject.

What is to be done about this assumed surplus of neuroscience graduates? If you consider only academic jobs as a goal, this surplus clearly exists. However, there are a number of other opportunities available; for example, jobs in industry (not only Big Pharma but smaller start-ups). The increasing demand for therapies for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, schizophrenia, depression, and stroke will require neuroscience talent. In the government, particularly the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, there is a demand for neuroscientists not only as active research investigators but also as research administrators. Brain-oriented private foundations are another source for neuroscience experts.

At present, these alternative careers are often considered a failure compared to the conventional academia route; that should not be the case. As part of the Ph.D. training program, these other options should be acknowledged and supported, and information about them made readily available.

However, the real problem may be the current chaos in controlling the number of Ph.D. programs and the numbers of graduates they produce. This problem used to exist in the training programs in neurosurgery. Twenty years ago, though, neurosurgeons sharply limited training opportunities, for two reasons: First, there were too many smaller programs that did not have the facilities or personnel for adequate training. Second, too many trainees were flunking their boards. The neurosurgeons formed a review mechanism that certified training programs and how many trainees could be trained at a particular program. At the time there were screams of anguish and complaints of “restraint of trade” from those feeling that established neurosurgeons were simply trying to defend their turf. But over time it has become apparent that the neurosurgeons were correct—now the training is defined and the outcomes markedly improved. There are fewer and better trained neurosurgeons. Neurology and psychiatry have since followed the neurosurgeons’ lead.

The situation in the training of neuroscience Ph.D.s is more complicated. Perhaps the Society for Neuroscience has a role to play here. It could establish an oversight group that could determine both the criteria for training programs and recommend accounting of outcomes for trainees. If the result is fewer and more competent trainees, all the better.



Elmer Rich III

9/27/2016 4:23:35 PM

Neuroscience seems to be the popular undergrad major as philosophy, English and psychology used to be. That is good, the more evidenced based knowledge the better. I argue there are places for these graduates in business, law and other professions and policy. However, those networks need to be developed. My experience is that the n-science community including SfN is hostile to business, professional and policy ideas, which is predictable. There is however, a LOT more money there then in academics.