The future for biomedical PhDs – significantly less than promising?

Over the last several decades, there have been several insightful scientists who have carefully considered the increasing degree of imbalance between the number of doctoral degrees awarded in the biomedical sciences and the reality of an academic career of teaching and research in fields related to these disciplines. In fact, several years ago Professor Bruce Alberts from UCSF (a former President of the National Academy of Sciences) pointed out that, “The real world for biomedical PhD students is that maybe one-fifth will ever get academic jobs.”, as cited by Catherine Offord in an article published in the January 1, 2017 Careers issue of The Scientist.  Dr. Offord, in fact, offers her own perspective that “PhD degrees aren’t what they used to be” citing the fact that only 15% of current students pursuing PhD degrees in the biomedical sciences will likely land a tenure-track position within six years of graduation. In fact, as pointed out by Dr. Offord, unemployment following a postdoctoral position rose from 2% to 10% over the same timeframe (2010 to 2012). This is likely to (or at least should) serve as a serious wake-up call to students currently pursuing the doctorate degree in any of the various biomedical disciplines.

While there are a number of reasons that have contributed to this increasing degree of imbalance, the bottom line is that there are more and more PhD degrees being awarded and relatively few tenure-track positions opening up, at least in part because a good percentage of such positions require that faculty candidates be good investments for attracting research funding from competitive, peer reviewed funding agencies. As we have discussed a number of times in earlier blog posts, the fact is that funding for biomedical research (primarily supported by research grants from the National Institutes of Health and, to a limited extent, other federal funding agencies) has become exceptionally competitive. This, in turn, is the result of an increasing number of highly qualified applicants and a relatively limited number of dollars allocated by the U.S. Congress for research. In reality, success rates in most NIH institutes, as measured by number of awards divided by number of applicants, usually hovers around 10%.

As a consequence, recent PhD graduates often spend many years in relatively low paying postdoctoral positions (with “good” postdoctoral positions themselves becoming highly competitive). Thus, when a tenure-track position is posted, individuals with many years of postdoctoral experience (sometimes resulting in opportunities to compete for grant support successfully) are likely to have a significant competitive advantage relative to the newly graduated PhD. Thus, this population of PhDs is relegated to many years of postdoctoral training and the cycle continues. As earlier advocated by Prof. Alberts, it is time for new, and perhaps not so attractive, solutions for those PhDs truly wedded to a future of academic research and teaching. While the longer-term solution would include markedly increased funding for biomedical research (highly unlikely in today’s economic climate) or significantly decreased PhD programs at major academic research centers (certainly not an attractive alternative to current faculty who need graduate students and postdocs to man the research programs) or their affiliated institutions (who have likely invested megabucks into modern biomedical research facilities).

Given these options, one potentially viable solution offered by several writers would be to provide PhD students with a solid conceptual framework for PhD graduate career opportunities not directly involving an academic faculty position. Dr. Offord summarizes a number of institutions, private companies (a “handful”) and various websites in which alternatives to an academic research career are described. Indeed, there are some imaginative academic institutions that also provide career guidance to PhD candidates students. We would strongly encourage readers of this blog who either are responsible for training their own future PhD candidates, or who are themselves future PhD candidates, to not ignore this issue but rather to very carefully consider all of their future options.

As astutely pointed out by Prof. Alberts, the concept that “anyone who’s any good will get a job they want in academic or biotech” is no longer even remotely true. Prof. Alberts concludes: “But now we know that’s not true. Those of us that are older, who lived in an era where that was true, have to wake up and look at the data.” Wise words indeed!