Faculty jobs may be few, but other options are numerous

Much of the science community has been keeping a watchful eye on graduate student education.  Over the summer, this topic has made headlines as the NIH released a report of recommendations for improving education, and BCMB itself has been instituting new changes, policies, and programs to try and improve the graduate school experience.  BCMB student Laurel Oldach reports on some of the latest information on the outcomes of graduate student education.  

According to the numbers, most Ph.D. candidates studying today will not go on to jobs in the traditional postdoc-to-tenured-professor career path.  The Washington Post reports that just 14% of new Ph.D. scientists get a tenure track job within five years of earning their degrees, with about a quarter eventually landing faculty positions. Meanwhile, the number of biomedical Ph.Ds has doubled in the last twenty years.  The average age at which scientists move into tenure-track positions has steadily increased, while the proportion who are able to find such positions has decreased, reflecting a shortage of the academic jobs that many students anticipate when they begin graduate school. Last year, the NIH commissioned a working group to investigate young scientists’ prospects and find a way to address the mismatch between the Ph.D. workforce and the academic job market.

Fortunately for those of us already in graduate school, the working group found that most Ph.D. scientists who leave the ivory tower do not end up unemployed. When workers in academic, government and industrial labs are considered together, roughly two-thirds of Ph.D. scientists continue to do research. About 18% go into science-related fields doing something other than research; 13% opt for one of many possibilities unrelated to science.

The NIH working group does not offer a magic-wand solution for the mismatch between competent scientists and tenure-track positions. For the short term, most of the committee’s suggestions aim to change young scientists’ expectations about the kind of work they will do. It recommends that grad programs address students’ likelihood of landing in a non-academic career by presenting alternative options earlier in training, and by sharing information about alumni’s career outcomes.  The working group points out as a caveat that normalizing non-academic career paths will “require a change in the definition of ‘success’ in the evaluation of NIH training grants.”

Just as important is a re-definition of success in the minds of students. In an environment surrounded by successful professors, and with little exposure to other highly successful professionals, deviating from the professorial track can feel like failure. In his Experimental Error column at Science Careers, Adam Ruben acknowledges that, “yes, we’ll find work doing something, so we shouldn’t complain too loudly. But will that ‘something’ justify the years we’ve spent preparing for ‘something else’?”

In a recent article in ASBMB Today, Dr. Jon Lorsch of the Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry Department describes how his own definition of successful research training has grown.  He writes about the experience of mentoring two BCMB students through graduation: one was eager to apply for postdoctoral fellowships and now works as a senior scientist in industry, while the other plans on a career in teaching, which she is pursuing through Teach for America. Lorsch was surprised when his student decided against a traditional postdoc; he had never really considered any other option.  Having gotten over the surprise, though, he now considers both students successful scientists—applying their training equally, and with equal importance, in the lab and the classroom.

The NIH report deems it “imperative to provide as much information as possible to prospective graduate students and postdoctoral researchers on career outcomes… so they can make more informed decisions about their future.”  But in many cases, faculty mentors are not the best-equipped individuals to provide such information; as Lorsch points out, “by definition our experiences revolved around how to become professors at graduate institutions.”

This is where program directors like Dr. Carolyn Machamer come in. In the same issue of ASBMB Today, she writes about BCMB’s new third-year career workshops.  Begun this May, the workshops feature recent BCMB graduates and older alumni who work in the fields of biotechnology, science policy, science writing, and undergraduate education. According to Machamer, various students have come away from the workshops with new insights into becoming competitive in non-research fields and with reinforced commitment to research as a career.

This sounds like exactly what the NIH recommended: a clearer view of our possible futures, an understanding of the uncertainties inherent in the field, and a decision to proceed in the direction that fits us best.  BCMB students are fortunate to have the support of a program that is forward-thinking and has quickly adapted to the changing job market for PhDs.

-Laurel Oldach

2 thoughts on “Faculty jobs may be few, but other options are numerous

  1. Pingback: September Issue | BCMB News

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