What’s the Purpose of a Graduate Education in 2013 and Beyond? Hopes and Hollows of Job Prospects for PhDs in the Biomedical Sciences

by Leah Guthrie

The origin of the scientist as a professional is a story worth telling. It dates back to 1833 at the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cambridge. Early on in the proceedings the philosopher and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, causing much chaos and discontent, confronted the group and said, “You must stop calling yourselves natural philosophers”(6). His argument? Philosophers spent their time in their armchairs pondering the mysteries of the universe, not running experiments like practical men (6).  William Whewell, a young scholar, agreed with Coleridge and suggested that more fittingly the members of the group could call themselves “scientists,” in analogy to “artists” who produce art (6).  Whewell along with some of his colleagues would go on to shape the image of the modern scientist that we are familiar with today. No longer mere curious tinkerers, natural philosophers evolved into members of a profession that have particular methods, economic value, specific institutions and funding.

In the current moment, the biomedical scientist in particular is very much embedded and integral to the life of the university with the expectation that faculty get funding through the acquisition of outside grants from government sources like the NIH and NSF.  The current economic downturn and sequestration has stripped NIH of approximately 5 % of its budget for the 2013 fiscal year, magnifying the risks stemming from the dependence of our biomedical research workforce on government funding, especially during a time of economic austerity (2).  This represents the visible tip of the iceberg of a larger problem: the unsustainable nature of the biomedical research pipeline and infrastructure. Doctoral training programs, which are key components of the biomedical research pipeline, are still most exclusively geared towards training doctoral students to become research scientists. Universities produce far more PhDs than there are positions available as independent investigators. What does this mean for those who are currently enrolled in or recently graduated from biomedical PhD programs?

This dilemma makes the present another contentious moment at which it is necessary for the biomedical scientific community to reflect, debate and act on several questions yet again. What do scientists do? How should scientists be trained?  And more pragmatically, what can be done to increase the job prospects of PhDs in the biomedical sciences?

Cycles or disruptive pathways?

US biomedical research institutions have historically experienced cycles of ups and downs in government funding depending on the ebb and flow of the economy and politics. NIH Director, Dr. Francis, in his rendition of the “Sequester Blues,” aptly expresses the dismay and impact of the most recent budget cuts.

However, I would like to argue that the instability of funding is only part of a larger problem facing the biomedical research community. In an article for the Atlantic, senior editor Jordan Weissman condensed NSF Survey data demonstrating the decline in the number of doctoral recipients with a definite commitment of employment or postdoctoral study at the time of graduation (Figure 1).  From the chart it is apparent that amount of young scientists with unknown futures is on the rise.

Acquiring a job or a post-doctoral position does take time so it can be reasonably argued that graduate student outcomes should be analyzed over a broader range of time.  A taskforce at NIH recently did just that. NIH’s Biomedical Work Force Committee published a report last June with recommendations for improvement of the biomedical research infrastructure. Their report provides insight into the career outcomes of PhD students in a timeframe ranging from the first to twenty years after receiving their degree (Figure 2).  From the analysis you can see that the number of PhDs in academic, tenured positions has been in decline and having more time and experience does not serve as a rescuing factor.

Figure 1

Figure 1 

Figure 2

Figure 2

The PhD surplus has been a noted but minimized issue in the scientific community for some time.  In 1976, the National Research Service Award (NRSA) reported, “that a slower rate of growth in labor force in these fields [biomedical sciences] was advisable.” Again, in 1995, an editorial was published in Nature Medicine titled, “Too many scientists, too few academic jobs,” with the following straight-to-the-point abstract: “Graduate education in science is not doing its job. By preparing students only for academic research, the system neglects the range of opportunities for work in science that you scientists want and society needs”(4). Some may argue that graduate training programs have recognized and reacted to the need to offer resources for non-academic career paths.  Unquestionably, scientists have made valuable contributions to society away from the bench since the time they were still calling themselves natural philosophers. Furthermore, it is common for scientists to move from a focus on bench research, to administration, science education or policy, as examples. So then perhaps this particular moment requires a new and more inclusive definition of the scientist—one that includes the broader roles of scientists in society—to the point where other careers paths are not viewed as alternative? I argue yes and no.

Is de-centering academia enough?

There has been a recent push to de-center a career in academia as the main and traditional route for PhDs and to broaden the definition of who a scientist is and what a scientist does. In their recent report, the Biomedical Workforce Working Group provides three lenses for defining the goal of graduate education, each presenting different ideas of who a scientist is and how a scientist should be trained.

Graduate Training Lens 1: Training graduate students exclusively for research careers. This lens gives graduate education the singular purpose of developing research scientists and if taken on would result in a significantly reduced pool of potential scientists being trained—not everyone applying for PhD programs intends to stay in research.

Graduate Training Lens 2: Tracking graduate students into research and non-traditional careers. This lens accepts that there are multiple career paths that are available and of interest to students. A graduate program using this approach would have a pool of students that are ineligible for NIH training programs, as these programs currently exist. Programs using this approach are likely to incorporate more dual degree programs.

Graduate Training Lens 3: Training graduate students for a wider range of science related careers.  The assumption crucial to this lens is that all students should receive broader training that prepares them for non-academic tracks in addition to training geared towards the research doctorate. Taking on this viewpoint would likely increase the length of time that students stay in school.

The degree of policy change and structural re-organization is dependent on the lens that funding institutions and graduate training programs choose to adopt.  There are good arguments and counter arguments for a more definite expansion of the goal of graduate training and possible outcomes.  Many have argued that graduate schools should do more to encourage students to go into careers in industry, science writing, finance, consulting, law, public policy, teaching, technology transfer and venture capital.  Advocates of this approach acknowledge that graduate training equips students with the analytical skills to thrive in a variety of career settings and that not all students want to carry out their passion for science as an independent investigator.

However, it is important to ask, does a student that is interested in pursuing a career in science writing really need to complete a graduate training program? Are there more appropriate training approaches that would make better use of the trainee’s time? While doctoral training does a great job of priming your analytical abilities, is it feasible and sustainable to encourage the use of doctoral training for the end pursuit of a career in venture capital? These are questions that need to be addressed by the current leaders in the biomedical research community. More graduate students are completing their doctoral training with uncertainty that can be attributed to the fact these questions have remained largely unanswered.

What can funding agencies and graduate training programs do?

Pulling from recommendations made by the Biomedical Workforce Working Group, the list below identifies policy changes that specifically target doctoral training periods of the biomedical research pipeline:

  • NIH should sponsor supplements to training grants that support training and career development opportunities for a wider variety of career options
  • NIH could cap the number of years that a student can be supported on a NIH grant at five to incentivize the completion of graduate degrees in a shorter time
  • Increase the amount of students supported by NIH training grants and fellowships without promoting an increase in the total number of graduate student positions
  • Revise the peer review criteria for training grants to include outcomes of all students in the relevant PhD program at an institution
  • Standardization of training programs and fellowship requirements across all NIH ICs

Further recommendations were made, by working group member and economist Dr. Paula Stephan, whose book titled, How Economics Shapes Science, discusses recommendations not included in the final list of the NIH taskforce. Dr. Paula Stephan makes the following recommendations:

  • Lessen coupling between research and training:  Effective training requires a research environment but effective research does not require a training environment
  • Discourage overreliance on graduate students and postdocs by raising salaries and benefits, thereby making costs reflect their social cost
  • Require departments to post placement information online
  • Provide information regarding different career paths early in the graduate training experience
  • Encourage internships during graduate school experience
  • Encourage institutions to provide incentives for institutions to create more staff scientists positions
  • Limit amount of salary charged off grants, thereby diminishing demand for graduate students and postdocs
  • Reallocate within NIH funds available for training grants and increase the indirect rate on training grants, thereby making training grants more attractive

ImageImportantly, these recommendations acknowledge that the trajectories of PhDs in the biomedical sciences has changed over time and recognizes that students are interested in carrying out their pursuit of knowledge and discovery in a variety of ways. At the level of the graduate training program several of these recommendations can be implemented fairly quickly. These include the placement of student outcome data online in a central location, providing information on a variety of career paths early on in the process.

An upcoming event, which serves as an example of graduate schools can provide graduate students with a diverse set of tools, is the advertised What Can You Be With a PhD symposium hosted NYU, which is now open for registration using the following Einstein specific research link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/WCUBEinstein.

Exclusivity will lead to obscurity.

Important factors not explored in this blog post that deserve attention include the need for increased efforts of communication between the scientific and general community to promote a shared sense of value for biomedical and scientific research overall. This can be achieved, in part by continuing efforts to diversify the biomedical research workforce.

Presumably those who choose to purse a career in biomedical research like to meet challenges and solve puzzles. However self-advocacy and the political nature of addressing structural problems in the biomedical research pipeline may be an unappealing barrier to engaging in scientific discovery for some. Yet, the current challenges are more puzzles, and represent an exciting opportunity to reinvigorate national interest and to responsibly train and develop future generations of scientists.

After the meeting at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in which the scientist was born, many natural philosophers were reluctant to take on the term, feeling that as philosophers they had more independence. The reluctance was recognized by supporters and in its first publication, Nature magazine embraced the term hoping to encourage its use and the professionalization of the field. Even still there were many people who were concerned about the increasing specialization and isolation of scientific study from other fields of study. We have the opportunity to bridge the distance between biomedical research and other fields through explicit policy changes that strengthen the biomedical research pipeline and infrastructure for the future.

Leah Guthrie is a first year PhD student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and recent graduate of Swarthmore College.  She is inspired by the intersections between science and technology and looks forward to a career in problem solving.


1. Biomedical Workforce Task Force. (2012). Biomedical research workforce working group report national institutes of health. Available at acd. od. nih. gov/Biomedical_research_wgreport. pdf.

2. Fact sheet: Impact of Sequestration on the National Institutes of Health http://www.nih.gov/news/health/jun2013/nih-03.htm

3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbJ8wEhlsvc

4. Kerr, E. (1995). Too many scientists, too few academic jobs. Nature Medicine, 1(1), 14-14.

5. National Research Council 2011

6. Snyder, L. J. (2011). The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four remarkable friends who transformed science and changed the world. Random House Digital, Inc..

7. Stephan, P. (2012). How economics shapes science. Harvard University Press.

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