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What We’ve Learned About Graduate Students

Now that I’ve discussed the consolidated snapshot of the PhD biomedical research workforce, I’d like to focus on some trend data about graduate students gathered by the biomedical workforce working group. 

Before I get to the data, however, I want to provide some details about these analyses. As you will see in the report and on the accompanying website, many of our analyses separated out basic biomedical science, clinical sciences, and behavioral and social sciences (see what these fields include). There are a large number of PhDs in behavioral and social sciences research but only a portion conducts NIH-funded research. Therefore, the framework summary in the previous post included only basic biomedical and clinical sciences. That said, because the behavioral and social sciences research we fund is an essential part of NIH’s mission, we included these fields in as many of the trend analyses as we could. In addition, to put the data in context, wherever possible we compared biomedical research to chemistry, which seems to be more constant in numbers of students and faculty. 

Let’s take a look at some data on graduate and medical students. As you can see in the figure below, the number of PhDs granted in biomedical science in the US has risen substantially over the past decade. In contrast, the number of PhDs awarded in behavioral and social sciences and in chemistry has been stable over the same period, as has the number of MDs. The steep increase in the number of biomedical PhDs awarded began in 2004, reflecting an increase in graduate enrollments that began with the doubling of the NIH budget from 1999 to 2004 (see the second figure). Given an average training period of 6 years or so, this underlines the close relationship between the size of the NIH budget and the number of biomedical PhD slots. Graduate degrees awarded 1970-2008

Source: NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates and AAMC Data Book

How are these graduate students supported? 

In the following figure, data from the NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates (which includes all sources of support, not just NIH) show that the vast majority of basic biomedical PhDs are supported as research assistants, and this number has grown considerably over the past decade, again in parallel with the doubling of the NIH budget. The number of students supported on fellowships and training grants has remained stable over that time, as also is evident from the NIH-specific data posted on the RePORT website.Grad student numbers shown by type of support 1979-2009 showing the growth of research assistantships

Source: NSF Graduate Student Survey

How long does it take to get a biomedical PhD? 

Among the anecdotes we heard when we started this study was that training for a career in biomedical research is getting longer every year. When we looked at the data shown below, however, we saw that the average time to a basic biomedical PhD has remained relatively stable since 1985—between 6 and 7 years. In recent years the training period has been shorter. Both clinical and behavioral and social sciences degrees take somewhat longer, but these too have decreased over the past decade. This is reflected in the average age at degree, which is about 30 or so years of age.

Age at degree and time to degree for US doctorates 1970-2008

These data do beg the question of how people get their PhD at 30 or 31 when the degree only takes 6 or so years on average. There seem to be couple of years missing. We did not find data to address this question specifically, but anecdotes from working group members and others suggest that more and more people are working or doing postbaccalaureate research before going to graduate school.

Even though the time to degree of biomedical researchers has not increased significantly, it is important to remember that most biomedical research fields also require a period of postdoctoral training, so the total period before people embark on their career is considerably longer. We’ll discuss postdoctoral researchers in my next post.

17 thoughts on “What We’ve Learned About Graduate Students

  1. I believe that was the first round of “There will be a massive retirement and thousands of professorships opening up”, Comrade.

    Dr. Rockey, thanks for posting, the recent trends are made very obvious by these graphs. How can we judge this as anything other than workforce exploitation resulting from the doubling. One thing you should monitor *directly* (from the annual reporting) is the relative proportions of techs, grads, postdocs and senior scientists on R grants. The superannuated postdoc category could be made more tractable by you issuing some category definitions, no need to throw up your hands in the face of all the local job titles.

  2. Regarding your comment before the first graph, “Given an average training period of 6 years or so, this underlines the close relationship between the size of the NIH budget and the number of biomedical PhD slots”. This relationship appears to go only in one direction. We have yet to see if this is bidirectional, and whether the (relative to RPI) shrinking NIH budget will result in fewer biomedical PhD slots. Notably, your data suggest the down-side of the curve may take significantly longer to kick in…

    From ’95 to ’00 the 2nd graph shows a dip in # of students on fellowships (i.e., RO1 supported), but over the same period only a flattening of # of PhDs awarded (1st graph), and a small decrease in time to degree (3rd graph on right). This suggests that when budgets get tight, PI’s drive their students harder to get them to finish sooner, rather than actually cut the number of students entering the pipeline.

    It’s nice to see some internal consistencies elsewhere in the data… The 1st graph shows ~8k biomed PhDs a year, and the 3rd graph on the right shows 6.5 years to get a PhD, which suggests about 50-55k total students in the pipeline, which is exactly what the 2nd graph shows if you add up the different groups.

    Greatly anticipating the post-doc’ post!

  3. I’ll bet the dip in graduate student training between 1993-2004 in graph 2, mainly those on research assistantship support, will coincide exactly with a very large increase in # of post-docs, those being mainly foreign born. We’ll see in your next post-doc data analysis post. Importantly, the data reveal the downward pressure on training efforts aimed toward US PhD graduate students during that period. A similar downward pressure will probably show up for the US post-docs. It is a good reason for decreasing the numbers of trainees on research assistantships via the RO1. These individuals are functioning as overqualified research assistants not mentored trainees excelling in a profession. These are the positions (about 50%) that need to be filled with staff scientists or regular research assistants-not doctoral students or post-docs.

    • There have been several ideas to “professionalize” the postdoc core instead of having these be the traditional short term training position. However, the current funding climate (and the need to renew grants every 3-4 years now that the policy prevents even well scored grants from receiving five years of support) make this a near impossibility. I have been fortunate enough to keep the same excellent staff scientist in my lab for many years. However, every time my grants are up for renewal, her job is in jeopardy. While she is invaluable to my research program, she is now over fifty and many years out of her doctorate. If my funding is not renewed in the current round she will lose her job and is unlikely to find an equivalent position in another academic lab paying a comparable wage. In general, such staff scientist positions will pay less than industry and have even less job security.

  4. The more I look at this, the worse it looks. The NIH doubling interval was 98-03…precisely when grads supported on research assistantships (presumably we can read R-mech and equivalent here?) were flatlined. After the NIH budget stabilized (and with BRDPI, we know that meant a reversal of the doubling) the number of grads supported on grants started into an acceleration phase. What on earth were graduate programs thinking?

    • A big driver of the increase in graduate students was a decent increase in the number of jobs for these folks. There is not a huge glut of unemployed biomedical Ph.Ds. In general, few end up in postdoc training over 4 years according to NSF data and our recent survey of our graduates from the past ten years. Instead, they get jobs in industry or government that need the Ph.D or teach in smaller schools. Others may reply “the students all want faculty jobs like mine and we are training too many”. I would say, start talking to your students. The vast majority I talk to do not want to make a career chasing NIH funding and living the life of a soft money scientist. They want a well paying job in industry or a faculty position teaching in a small college in most cases I know. I am not sure where all of the naval gazing about the supply/demand for biomedical Ph.Ds is coming from suddenly. We are not in the situation of law or history where folks with the terminal degree are unemployed and in large amounts of debt from their training.

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  7. The most interesting follow-up story to this piece would be to address what fraction of biomedical Ph.D.s ultimately find employment in science beyond the level of a postdoc, which includes the various permanent postdoc positions disguised under a variety of titles. I received my Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1998 from a highly regarded university. Among the nine people in my class that eventually graduated, two found employment in industry, one (myself) is employed at a small undergraduate university, and one went into the business side of a tech company (i.e. is making little use of his PhD training). Most of my graduating class became full time moms, following unsuccessful postdocs or job searches. Some of those have since found part time employment or other forms of employment that make little use of there PhD training. I observed similar trends in other classes and at the research institute where I did my postdoc. Because of the grim job market, several PhDs I know decided to retrain as physicians or lawyers. Based simply on anecdotal evidence, it seems that fewer than half of PhDs in the biomedical sciences find employment in science beyond a postdoc. Given the modest salaries earned by postdocs, it is unlikely that these people will ever recover the lost income experienced during their 5-7 years (or more) of graduate school.
    I would appreciate it if anyone can point me to a study that addresses the long term employment fate of biomedical PhDs.

    • The NSF survey of earned doctorates is the most comprehensive data there is as far as I know, unfortunately, the last update on their web site is from 2008. At that time, 88% of life science doctorates were in the labor force and most who were not were retired. One thing about your survey of those you know, I would definitely count your friend on the business side of a biotech company as “employed in the field using the doctorate”. Those jobs usually need the level of science knowledge consistent with a doctorate in addition to business knowledge.

      Overall, my anecdotal survey is the opposite of yours. Everyone I went to grad school and postdoc with (got the Ph.D in the early 1990s) is still working in the profession using science and a recent survey of biomed grad students finishing from my current institution over the last 15 years found that nearly all are working in science ranging from owning their own tech company, working for the government in grant admin, working for a variety of biotech companies, teaching, research intensive faculty members etc. None who graduated more than 5 years ago are still in postdoc training. We do have a one who is disabled and a couple of stay at home moms as well. Those can not be “blamed” on the way students are trained and will keep any set of professional trainees from 100% employment..

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  10. I don’t know if this particular thread is dead, but anyone interested in the real employment prospects of biomedical PhDs might want to follow the drug monkey blog below.

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