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I am currently a fifth year graduate student well on my way to earning my Ph.D. in biological and biomedical sciences (knock on wood). Every year around the holidays I’m bombarded with the same question from friends and family: what exactly are you doing? In the past I’ve answered this question by attempting to explain my thesis research on biofuels production in bacteria (see previous Signal to Noise article http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2013/mimicking-fossil-fuels-through-metabolic-engineering/).

These days, however, this question has taken on a new meaning. Rather than asking what I’m working on right now, I think people want to know what I’m doing with my future.

Personally, I’ve wanted to go into science writing and communication since the start of my graduate career so it is not so difficult for me to answer this question, at least in broad strokes. However, many graduate students have no idea what they’re going to do with their science Ph.D.s. Many people enter graduate school hoping that some day they’ll have careers doing research as professors at academic institutions (1). In reality, this is not actually feasible for the majority of graduate students, but, luckily, there are many other exciting paths graduates can take.

The Academic Route

Figure 1 ~ The linear route to academia. In the past, this career progression has traditionally been thought of as the path most Ph.D.s will take, but is not possible for most Ph.D.s today given the number of professorships available. Assistant professors go up for review before they are granted associate professor status. Once they achieve associate professor status (tenured), their jobs are very secure and they can be promoted to full professor through research and teaching accomplishments. 

The traditional academic route in the United States follows the linear path shown in Figure 1. In this scheme, hopeful young Ph.D. students start their careers by taking classes and doing research under the mentorship of a professor in a particular field. Graduating from a Ph.D. program usually requires a thorough demonstration of independent thinking through the publication of academic papers related to a thesis topic and the formal defense of this thesis before a committee of professors in the field. From here, the fresh Ph.D. must usually complete postdoctoral training (during which time he/she is commonly called a “postdoc”). Postdocs tend to work much more independently than graduate students and are supposed to devote all of their working hours to research, but still work under the mentorship of a chosen professor. During this period, postdocs build their resumes by developing further experimental expertise, continuing to publish papers, and writing research grants to get their work funded. Though highly respected for the skills and expertise required, the postdoc position has been much maligned recently (2-4) because of its poor pay ($42,000 a year starting salary if funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)) and long duration (the median length of postdoctoral training is 4 years (5), but it can last much longer than this) (3,5). Many also feel that postdocs are not adequately trained: despite the fact that postdocs will essentially become managers on top of researchers if they land jobs as professors, they get little formal managerial training or instruction on how to successfully run a lab. In addition, as many postdocs are in their early thirties, this training can be a particularly difficult period as they try to balance starting families with devoting themselves to research.

Nonetheless, after a postdoc has published thoroughly and achieved some degree of success, he or she can begin applying for faculty positions. At this point we come across the most egregious problem with the traditional academic route. Let’s take U.S. biomedical sciences Ph.D.s as a representative example: despite the fact that 70% of  U.S. biomedical Ph.D.s choose to continue onto postdoctoral training, only 23% ever end up with a tenure track academic position (5). In fact, while roughly 36,000 science and engineering Ph.D.s were awarded in the U.S. in 2011, only about 3,000 academic positions were created in the same year (6) (Figure 2). It is currently impossible for academic institutions to absorb all of the science and engineering Ph.D.s that they create.

The precise reasons for this precarious situation are not well mapped out, but some possible causes are the extreme stability of tenured positions (tenured professors can stay in their positions for many years) resulting in few vacancies, the need for a cheap labor source in the biomedical sciences, and the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998-2003. In particular, when the NIH budged was doubled from 1998-2003, degree granting institutions received more money for research and increased the number of Ph.D.s they trained using this money, but did not increase the number of professor positions to the same level (5). Regardless, with the large imbalance between the number of new biomedical Ph.D.s and the number of academic positions available it is imperative that graduate students actively investigate and pursue other careers and that they not be considered “alternatives” or a mark of failure since the academic route is simply not feasible for most.

 Figure 2 ~ The number of science and engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2011 (left) far outstrips the number of academic faculty positions created in the same year (right); this is also true for many years previous to 2011 and will continue for the foreseeable future unless there are drastic changes to current Ph.D. programs. 

The branching career path

Fortunately, the career path for Ph.D.s does not have to be as gloomy as presented above. If a Ph.D. is lucky enough to end up as a tenured professor, the job security of the position will give him or her the freedom to pursue whatever research he or she finds interesting (provided there’s funding for the work of course). For those who don’t end up in academia, there are many exciting opportunities out there. In fact, from a simple employment perspective those with Ph.D.s in science, engineering, and health are doing much better than the general population. In February 2013, the unemployment rate for the general U.S. population was at 6.3% while that of U.S. science, engineering, and health Ph.D.s was way down at 2.1% (7). This is similar to the 2.3% unemployment rate of those with professional degrees, such as in architechture, engineering, law, medicine etc(8). There has been a recent drop in Ph.D. employment at graduation (9), and this phenomena should certainly be monitored, but Ph.D.s still fair much better than the general US populous in terms of employment.

Figure 3 ~ There are many options for Ph.D.s other than the linear progression to the academic life of a professor and many Ph.D.s begin thinking about these different options only after they enter graduate school (1). More details about many careers can be found in Table 1.

 

These low unemployment statistics clearly mean one thing: there are many jobs for Ph.D.s outside of academia. Rather than following the linear academic route presented in Figure 1, most Ph.D.s are branching out into many different positions (Figure 3). Some of these positions are research oriented and some are not. A smattering of these career possibilities is presented in Table 1. These careers have a large range of salaries and life styles that can differ substantially from those expected for professors. More information about many of these can be found in references (10) and (11), but it’s generally understood that the analytical and independent thinking skills developed during a Ph.D. are applicable to a wide variety of positions.

Despite this reality, many institutions still structure their Ph.D. programs with the academic career path in mind. This will hopefully change in the near future. Indeed, the NIH, which is the major biomedical research funding agency in the United States,  is beginning to take note of this, as are academic leaders (1,5,12). It’s been recommended that granting agencies, when reviewing the successfulness of a Ph.D. program, place value on programs that promote professional development and not just the academic route. It has additionally been recommended that universities create shorter programs wherein scientists interested in non-academic careers can get the training they need without having to do an entire Ph.D. (5). Such programs would still be science oriented but would better prepare students for lives outside of academia than a traditional Ph.D. program and could help rebalance the number of Ph.D.s awarded with the academic positions available.

This focus on the branching career path for Ph.D.s should come with the understanding that it’s incredibly important for scientifically trained individuals to hold positions in many different parts of society. Rather than being hunkered down in academia, scientists in these many different careers can help improve society’s appreciation for scientists and science at large. With humanity facing huge and complex problems like global warming and food scarcity, it is imperative the people with an appreciation and understanding of science permeate society such that we can help others make informed decisions about how to combat these problems. The branching career path for Ph.D.s represents a small but important step toward broadening humanity’s scientific understanding.

Table 1 ~ A small sample of career options for Ph.D.s (here focused on Ph.D.s in the life sciences). Information compiled from references (10,11), indeed.com, and salary.com. Salaries are rough estimates.

 

Tyler J. Ford is a fifth year graduate student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program at Harvard University

 

REFERENCES

1.         Fuhrmann, C. N., Halme, D. G., O’Sullivan, P. S., and Lindstaedt, B. (2011) Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. CBE life sciences education 10, 239-249

2.         Johnson, C. Y. (2014) Report suggests higher pay, better mentoring for postdocs. The Boston Globe

3.         GS, M., and al, e. (2014) Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists [v1; ref status: approved 1, approved with reservations 1, http://f1000r.es/4ug]. F1000 Research 3

4.         Johnson, C. Y. (2014) Excess postdocs causes quiet crisis. The Tech Online

5.         (2012) BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH WORKFORCE WORKING GROUP

REPORT. National Institutes of Health

6.         Schillebeeckx, M., Maricque, B., and Lewis, C. (2013) The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nat. Biotechnol. 31, 938-941

7.         LA, S., and S, P. (2014) Unemployment among Doctoral Scientists and Engineers Remained Below the National Average in 2013. The National Science Foundation

8.         (2014) Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment. in Bureau of Labor Statistics

9.         J, W. (2013) The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists-in 7 Charts. The Atlantic

10.       http://www.phdcareerguide.com/ (2014) PhD Career Guide.  

11.       Janssen, K., and Sever, R. (2015) Career Options for Biomedical Scientists, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor

12.       Alberts, B., Kirschner, M. W., Tilghman, S., and Varmus, H. (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 111, 5773-5777

 

 

9 thoughts on “What the heck do you do with a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences?

  1. It is very eye opening article. I just completed my MRes in biomedical sciences and this article gives a good perspective of what my options are if I opt for a PhD. Thanks!

  2. This was very informative as I am currently doing my first PhD year (4th month). Having no intention of going into academia but not too sure about the life after it. I just went with believing I can make it work and I’ll figure it out to work with the best biomedical engineering companies worldwide (patent law maybe). I’ve been blessed to have made it this far and I believe I’ll go further.

    1. Hey Carine,
      It’s awesome that you’re already looking into possible careers in your first year. It’s great to be prepared and I always recommend that scientists start thinking about these things early. Start building a network with people who have careers that you’re interested in and you’ll be in a much better position after graduate school.
      Good luck 😀

  3. i would like to know what PhDs do before landing on a real job? it is monthes of being un employment. it feels very humiliating doing a job that even doesnt need a achool diploma. I dunno sb please enlighten me what the heck unemployed PhDs do? all writing and freelancing jobs were crap for me and nothing useful came out of it.

    1. Hello,

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had such a difficult time finding employment. My best advice would be to work on building your personal network (ideally before you leave the lab). You can do this by going go career fairs, talks, and conferences and making an effort to keep in contact with those who you meet and find interesting. For instance, the MA Biotechnology Council hosts a variety of events in the Boston area (https://www.massbio.org/events). It’s not a good idea to go and just ask people for jobs, but you should feel free to talk to them about what they do and how they got into the field.

      In addition to this, don’t be afraid to ask people to set up informational meetings – these are informal conversations with people in careers you find interesting. Reach out to people to grab coffee and pick their brains on their career paths and you can discuss what you’re interested in as well. These people might be able to put you in contact with friends who know of open positions or may even think of you if they have a job opening at their own place of work.

      You can find many more tips from the Addgene Executive Director, Joanne Kamens, on the Addgene blog (http://blog.addgene.org/author/joanne-kamens). I’ve found much of her advice very helpful in my time at Addgene.

      Good Luck!
      Tyler

  4. I find what you have to say more than just enlightening but rivoting at best. I guess my question would be, I am certain that I do want to pursue a PhD in Biomedicine with a specialization in Neurobiological disorders. For me this is important because I am highly interested in delving into neurovascular and cerebrovascular disorders (i.e. brain aneurysm, stroke and tumor research). I am inquiring first is this possible? Secondly, I enjoy biomedical engineering as well because I find the use of designing complex medical equipment namely aneurysm equipment such as the Matrix2Coil and the Hydrocoil in the treatment of wide neck complex aneursyms fascinating. Research in discovering treatment interventions for disorders such as glioblastoma multiforme, neoplasms, vestibular swannomas, as well as astrocytomas with various grades extremely interesting too. Moreover, I can see my research thesis involving most of this but I do want to remain focus in the above mentioned interests. FYI: I do have a background in Architecture as my undergraduate so even structures in the brain and how they function was interesting as I have looked into neurosurgery as well. I feel rested in the biomedical and bioengineering field and I really would enjoy very much if you could elaborate and provide wisdom and or an avenue of how to tie it all together. I will be starting my very first year in the PhD program as well. For the record, I do have two master’s degrees both in Educational Counseling and Clinical Psychology, in which I assist homogenous groups on a daily basis. I can conceptualize your thoughts relational to academia and teaching in which it sounds rewarding. I guess all in all, if I can treat cerebrovascular/neurovascular disorders in research with an engineering twist, neuroimaging, etc, I may just have something that I can build a future in. Presently, I work in a state psychiatric hospital and I have six years experience in the mental health and psychological field. The architectural industry has been good to me for twenty five years. Unfortunately with the housing fiasco I had to reinvent my life. I found a passion for research of the brain and it has been my objective ever since. My aim is to seek employment as a research/principal scientist with a biomedical engineering background in biomedicine/bioengineering as well to preserve my undergraduate skills that I poses in architecture simultaneously. In this, I believe that I can develop a truly magnificent approach in assisting humanity, science, engineering, and promote evidence based policy and research in coming along side our scientific industry. I look forward to your correspondence Tyler!

    Sincerely a very excited biomedical/bioengineering emerging PhD student,

    Hart Taylor

  5. I love that this article shows that there is a real career option available after school. A lot of people look at a degree thinking two things; money and interest. This article shows that it is possible to make money after getting your degree. Which just shows a reason to get a degree.

  6. Hi, its a very impressive article, I just joined PhD before 2 months and still confuse. PhD in Bio engineering ( Neurosciences), What will i do after this? I mean is it possible to join any univeristy as assistant professor after some post docs?

    Regards

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