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
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