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How the Career Path to Principal Investigator is Narrowing


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A study conducted over more than two decades at a major European research institute recorded a marked decline in the percentage of trainees who become principal investigators (PIs) in academia.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), based in Heidelberg, Germany, tracked the career outcomes of 2,284 researchers who obtained doctoral or postdoctoral positions at one of EMBL’s six campuses between 1997 and 2020. .

The pre-print study, which was published this month, found that the road to a PI role has clearly narrowed. Among researchers whose career paths could be verified by online searches, 44% of those who completed their postdoc between 1997 and 2004 became a CP within five years.1. For those who finished after 2013, only 30% were CP five years later. Study co-author Rachel Coulthard-Graf, career development advisor at EMBL, says that while she wouldn’t discourage anyone who aspires to become a principal investigator, she wants researchers to know that there are many other career options. Being a PI “remains a realistic career option,” she says, “but we want to be transparent.”

The career paths of EMBL graduates also varied by gender. Of those who had completed postdoctoral positions in the lab, 26% of women and 35% of men were NPs within five years. And EMBL postdocs were more likely to have non-science research roles if they were women (17%) than if they were men (11%).

Fifteen percent of the study’s alumni currently work as researchers in industry and 15% work in other science-related roles; these include positions in patent law and science communication, and senior positions in funding agencies. The study did not distinguish between permanent positions and short-term contracts, so it is unclear how many respondents experienced real job security.

About 10% of alumni could not be located through online searches, so their current status is unknown. Some are likely out of the job market, although Coulthard-Graf suspects some are still employed in science but lack a strong online presence.

Branching out

The findings underscore the importance of training for careers beyond academia, says Marta Agostinho, executive director of EU-LIFE, an alliance of 15 European life science research centers based in Barcelona, ​​Spain. . “Due to a reduced funding landscape, science careers in academia are outrageously competitive,” she says.

Agostinho says that while many universities could improve their professional training, interns don’t always have the time or permission to make the most of available resources. PIs are under pressure to keep their labs as productive as possible, she says, so they’re often reluctant to let their interns take time off for professional training. She also notes that in the past, the success of a PI was often measured largely by the number of trainees who became Principal Investigators themselves. Today, however, NPs are beginning to gain recognition for supporting interns moving on to other sectors. “Our perception of success is broadening,” she says.

A study published in February used US National Science Foundation data from 2008 to 2018 to track the career trajectories of nearly 41,000 postdocs in the life sciences and just over 40,500 postdocs in the physical sciences and in engineering.2. The analysis revealed high mobility between sectors of government, industry and academia, another sign that postdocs have career options beyond the traditional linear path from graduate student to lab leader.

The study, published in PLoS ONE, tracked the outcomes of postdocs working in a wide variety of fields and sectors. Most postdocs had jobs in academia, including 72% of those in physical sciences and engineering and 80% of those in life sciences. The rest worked in government, industry, or nonprofit organizations in the United States, or held positions overseas.

make the change

The researchers in the sample showed a willingness and ability to change sectors when moving from training to full-time employment. Of those who had accepted postdoctoral positions at public physical science or engineering institutions, 28% had moved into a full-time government position within five to six years of obtaining their doctorate. However, a further 22% had left government for tenure-track positions in academia, 12% had held other academic positions, and 39% worked in industry. “It was more movement than expected,” says study lead author Maya Denton, a science education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

In addition to being a starting point for a wide variety of professional roles, postdoctoral positions in government seemed to increase earning potential. For example, public sector postdocs who pursued a career in industry earned between US$4,500 and $7,350 more per year than university postdocs who followed the same path. “There may be a salary advantage to starting out as a postdoc in government,” Denton says. She adds that one of the potential lessons from the study is that the US government could support young researchers and their future careers by creating more postdoctoral opportunities in this sector.


The startling range of career outcomes could offer some comfort to doctoral students who feel pressured to find the perfect postdoctoral position immediately after graduation, says study co-author Maura Borrego, also an education researcher scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. She says many graduate students worry that their first postdoctoral fellowship will lock them into a path from which they cannot escape. “If people have this information, maybe they can be open to more possibilities,” she says.

Some career paths tended to be more linear than others. For example, 84% of industrial postdocs in the physical sciences and engineering stayed in industry five to six years after graduation. It’s not possible to know from the data how many of these postdocs were targeting industry from the start, says Borrego. “We don’t know what people’s goals were.”

Joyce Main, a higher education researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says her studies of postgraduate career paths have also found significant mobility.3. “I see a lot of sectors changing over time,” she says.

Postdocs often earn less during their training than other researchers with PhDs who find permanent employment right after graduation, but Main says a postdoctoral position can still be a reasonable career move, especially for those wishing to consider a wide range of career options. “Getting a postdoc is a good step,” she says. “That means you increase your network, get additional mentorship, and work on projects that can help you develop your skills and research opportunities.