Chapter 04: The Challenging Job Market for Researchers and for Team Scientists


Chapter 04: The Challenging Job Market for Researchers and for Team Scientists



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Dr. Mills says that one of the most exciting things about being a department chair is having a hand in helping trainees mature. Here he reflects on several issues. He begins by observing that it is "painful" that there are so few jobs for talented scientists and explain what the challenges are, including how the focus on team science has created obstacles for individual scientists.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Overview; Understanding Cancer, the History of Science, Cancer Research; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; Mentoring; On Mentoring; Education; On Education; Leadership; On Leadership; On Research and Researchers; Business of Research

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

That theme, of the fellows and trainees having an energy that they bring to an environment, that's something that's come up in other interviews. Other people have observed too, that that energy is really important for the senior researcher, because it keeps them moving, energizes them. You're nodding, so I guess you've had that experience.

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

The most exciting thing about being a department chair at MD Anderson, and anywhere indeed, is the ability to bring in not just trainees, but junior scientists, and watch them mature into the potential that they have. That excitement, I think is what keeps most of us going, but the system right now, with very few positions being available and the over-training, or training too many individuals, and having troubles finding positions where they can use the skills that they acquired during their PhD and their postdoc, has become painful. I, unfortunately, spend far too much of my time and effort with people from other labs, and to a degree from my own lab, saying that the career you envisioned, of moving through the ranks, from assistant to associate to full professor to department chair, is something that, in the current environment, is not going to happen for you. Sometimes, it's not having the right type of skills. Science is a very weird combination of thinking broadly, working narrowly, of being obsessive compulsive and creative, and indeed, in a number of the psychological testing programs, most scientists are in the very narrowest group of individuals, and also intrinsically conflicted. They're not necessarily the most well adapted people in a social environment, because it is a unique set of contradictions that one has to have. But the other part right now is you also have to be lucky, and not just being good enough to know that you were lucky, but you have to be lucky in picking a project that works, that will succeed, that is topical, and will help you get a position. I can tell you that it's not just MD Anderson. I have a number of grants where I mentor at a distance, meaning that I work with a number of people, usually at Harvard, and they're having trouble finding jobs, with beautiful CVs. But if you have a two-body problem, two academically oriented people or two professionals, it can be almost impossible to find an outstanding job. Or if you're geographically restricted because of your spouse, it is very difficult. One of the brightest, most striking young scientists that I've met, at Harvard, has been looking for a job for over two years, a beautiful CV, beautiful productivity, and has only had four or five interviews. He finally has a job and it's a great job, but it's taking an incredible amount of time to get there and many people are moving into career paths that are not what they had expected or fully utilizing the skillsets that we try to give them, to become a successful scientist.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Now is it that the jobs are so niched, in other words, they're looking for such specific qualifications or research interests? What's the cause?

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

I think there are many. The first one is, is that this is a unique time when both industry and academia are contracting. The funding that drives academic research is the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and they have in essence, had a flat budget, which means with the rate of inflation in science, it's a decreased available funds to move forward. Further, there was a massive expansion in the doubling of the budget and the era effort, where many new scientists were brought onboard. And so there really are not a lot of available positions. I think the other problem that has happened is that the length of working time for most people has been extended, and so instead of turnover and opening up positions for bright young scientists, there are a lot more people working into their late sixties, seventies and even eighties, at this point, than there were ten and twenty years ago. And if you look, science went through another expansion about twenty years ago, thirty years ago, and those individuals are still in the system. And so I think that right now, we are training far more people than there are going to be available positions for qualified individuals, over the next ten to fifteen years. That's not just my opinion. I think that's a very broad opinion. I'm not clear what we should do about it. We have, in the past, been able to direct people to industry, to patent law, to other areas, but those are now no longer expanding at the same rate. It's just a bad time, when many different things have come together to make it very hard to find jobs. One of those is, is that much of what we do has coalesced. I think there are thirty departments at MD Anderson with the name molecular in their title, which means all of them use molecular biologies, molecular genetics, technologies that are very similar, and there's not an enormous amount to distinguish different individuals in terms of looking for positions. So, people from our group, who can do the mathematics behind systems biology, big data, and do wet bench work to validate that, are finding positions. People who can cross between bioinformatics and wet bench work are finding positions. So it's really being a little bit different but not too different, that gives you a unique opportunity to find a position. And then the best, and there's no question, the best and the lucky, and those two do need to go together, are finding positions. It's not that there are none. It's just that we are training more people than there are positions for, in academia today.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

This actually, you picked up a lot of themes that other people have talked about. When I interviewed Robert Bast [oral history interview], he talked a lot about training too many individuals. On the one side it's very sad for fields that are obviously exploding, and these individuals are making huge progress, and then on the individual level, how painful for these folks not to be able to use their training, use their passion.

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :

Well, and I think one of the challenges that we have is in this concept of team science. So, how does a member of a team establish that they deserve to be an independent investigator and build their own teams, or as importantly, how do you recognize the person who is in the midst of thirty people in a paper, who was an absolute critical component of making that paper happen, but it isn't obvious. This has worked in physics, where you will have an average paper with 150 to 2[00 authors, and they are frequently alphabetical order, and you have no idea, by looking at the paper, who did what. Instead, it is a community where recommendations and interactions are far more important than publications, whereas in the biological sciences over the last twenty years, it has been your publication list that matters, much more so than the interactions you have with others in finding positions. And so I think that we are in a time where we just don't have a good model, and that model, I think has to change.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Would you like to go back to Toronto?

Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And all of these digressions, by the way, are fabulous.

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Chapter 04: The Challenging Job Market for Researchers and for Team Scientists