Monday, May 18, 2009

The Making of a Scientist

Welcome back to the Human Capital and Knowledge-based Economy series. As I mentioned in previous posts, the economy is changing and ideas and innovation are drivers of the knowledge-based economy. Hence, researchers are one of the bases of the economic infrastructure. I've examine what it takes to train a researcher- the investment needed both financial and in terms of time and I wanted to focus on life scientists.

To become a researcher today one can take many routes, and the options are ever increasing. To make things easier lets follow the journey of Cy Ence. He's about to finish his first year in kindergarten, and though he doesn't know it yet, he has just taken his first step on his path towards becoming an independent researcher. Like many who'll enter the life sciences, Cy will eventually want to become an independent academic researcher* (a principal investigator or PI) so he can spend his days working in his own lab at a university.

But that's a long time from now. Right now, he's looking forward to a summer of catching tadpoles and we're going to look at how much time and money it's going to take to get Cy from Hometown Elementary to his dream job. All of this will be based on using the most recent numbers available and assuming that nothing changes in the next 30 some-odd years.

So here's Cy's basic path**:
  1. K-12 Education (13 years)
  2. College (4 years)
  3. Graduate School- PhD (7 years)
  4. Post-doctoral training(2-7 years)
  5. Independent researcher
Step1- K-12 education.

The Department of Education charts the average cost per student per school year across the U.S. They have been maintaining their records going back to the early 1900s. I've started in the late 70s- a time when some of you (and many of today's young researchers) started school.

Graph 1 - U.S Investment in K-12 education

In the late 70's, the average investment per child per school year was $1,855. Today, that figure stands at $8,701. These are just the directly measurable costs meaning, teacher's salaries, school lunches, books etc., so the actual number is a lot higher. But, for simplicity's sake, we'll stick with the smaller and more easily obtainable data.

So the investment in young Cy (@ $8,701 / year - if nothing changes) - will be about $113,000.

After he graduates high school, Cy will be heading off to Average American University.

Graph 2 - Average Annual Cost for U.S. Undergraduate Education (room, board, tuition)

As the graph shows, the investment in room, board and tuition alone per student per year of college across the U.S (both public and private schools) was $7,452 in the early 90's. Today, that figure is about $14,629. This of course, does not take into account all the other expenses associated with college - books, transportation, beer and the like.

For Cy - the minimum investment will probably be about $58,000 and 4 years.

Since Cy Ence, B.S. will not be enough for our favorite student, he's going to head off to another university to work towards his PhD. Assuming it takes him the median seven years*** to finish his doctoral degree, the total investment for his graduate stipend will be about $145,000. This is not accounting for the reagents he uses for his experiments, his animals etc.

Graph 3 - Average Annual Graduate Student Stipends

Now it is officially Dr. Cy Ence and he is well on his way to becoming an independent academic researcher. In the life sciences, there is often one more step: post-doctoral training. Post-docs can range from two to seven years and it is becoming common to do more than one post-doc.

Graph 4 - Average Annual Post-doc Stipends

Since Cy Ence, PhD is the average American researcher, he is not going to immediately find a permanent academic position. Instead, he is going to follow his first (short) post-doc with a much longer one. When he is finally done being a student (29 years from now), the minimum investment in his education and training will be about $633,000 dollars.

Graph 5 - Total Educational Investment in Cy Ence
That's right. Training a single independent researcher requires a minimum investment of $630 thousand dollars and over 30 years.

We'll continue following Cy and discuss what the future holds for him as we continue our series on Wednesday with a look at the competition for academic positions and how independent researchers are funded.

*Independent researchers can be employed in many sectors - Academia, Industry, Government etc. I have chosen to focus on Academia because, our current graduate curricula are largely structured to train Academic researchers.

**This is the most common path today, but by no means the only path taken to become a researcher ;some people go to community college first or work towards Masters, Medical, or Veterinary degrees, etc. before becoming researchers.

*** According to NSF, the median time for graduating with a PhD in the life sciences today is 7 years.

Sources: Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Institutes of Health (NIH)/Office of Extramural Research (OER), National Research Service Award (NRSA), National Science Foundation (NSF)/Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS).

This is Part 3 of 6 in our Human Capital and Knowledge-based Economy series.
Part 1 - A Knowledge-based Economy
Part 2 - U.S Competitiveness and Innovation

Part 3 - The Making of a Scientist
Part 4 - From Training to Practice: Joining the Faculty
Part 5 - A Race to Save the Lab Rats
Part 6 - Advocating for Human Capital


  1. The time it takes for training needs to be shortened. The sooner the researcher can pursue his/her ideas independently, the sooner society at large will reap the benefits. For the investment to pay off, the gauntlet of training has to proceed more quickly, and researchers have to emerge from it without being demoralized and burdened by debt!

  2. I agree. And I did not even touch upon MD/PhDs or MDs who graduate with significantly greater debts. I'll be tackling these issues in next week's posts, so do check back with us.