50% of academic scientists quit after just 5 years—here's why

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Students are often told that a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will lead to a long and profitable career.

For many, this is true. STEM majors consistently have some of the highest rates of employment and the highest incomes. But according to a new study, published Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, half of all people pursuing careers as scientists at institutions of higher education drop out of the field after just five years. (By comparison, in the 1960s, half of academic scientists remained in the field for 35 years.)

The research, lead by Staša Milojević, associate professor at the Indiana University School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, tracked more than 100,000 scientific careers over 50 years across physical sciences, life sciences and engineering and computer science.

Milojević and her team discovered a steep increase in what researchers describe as the "dropout" rate among academic scientists, as well as a dramatic increase in the number of scientists who worked as temporary or supportive researchers.

"Between 1960 and 2010, we found the number of scientists who spent their entire career in academia as supporting scientists — rather than a faculty scientist — has risen from 25 percent to 60 percent," writes Milojević. "There seems to be a broad trend across fields in science: It's increasingly a revolving door."

Staša Milojević
Courtesy of Indiana University

The study, "Changing demographics of scientific careers: The rise of the temporary workforce," also revealed a 35 percent increase in the number of scientists who are never credited as the primary author of an academic publication.

"Academia isn't really set up to provide supporting scientists with long-term career opportunities," she explains. "A lot of this work used to be performed by graduate students, but now it's typical to hire a 'postdoc' — a position that practically didn't exist in the U.S. until the 1950s but has since become a virtual prerequisite for faculty positions in many fields."

Milojević continues, "You can keep moving from postdoc to postdoc — or you might get hired as a research scientist — but there really isn't a lot of job security. It's a difficult position to survive in…The core issue is the number of Ph.D.s being produced is much larger than the number of tenure-track jobs."

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Additionally, those with science backgrounds can also find lucrative opportunities in the private sector. For instance, academic scientists with robotics backgrounds had the highest dropout rates, perhaps because of the large number of consumer applications. Scientists with astronomy backgrounds, however, were more likely to stay in academia.

The research raises an important question about how students should make decisions about their careers.

"It is important for students who are considering entering graduate programs to understand the realities in terms of the diminishing prospects for a stable, long-term research career, versus temporary employment opportunities that eventually result in leaving active research," Milojević tells CNBC Make It. "This knowledge can help them plan both their careers and lives accordingly, for example by keeping their backup options open and considering them early."

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