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What’s Trending in PhD Fields of Study for NIH Trainees and Fellows?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the NIH Data Book on contains biomedical workforce data from NIH databases as well as data from national surveys sponsored by NSF and NIH. I thought it would be interesting to highlight the data on what’s trending for NIH-supported trainees and fellows receiving PhDs, in terms of fields of study. The chart below uses NIH trainee and fellow records and self-reported data on field of study from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, a census of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from a US university within a given academic year.

Graph showing trends in major fields of study for NIH-supported Ph.D. recipients. For more information read the associated blog post ( ) and the data table on RePORT:

As you can see here, in some fields — such as molecular biology and biochemistry — the number of NIH-supported Ph.D. recipients has flattened out. Other fields, such as immunology, have increased steadily.  The most striking trend, however, is in the field of neuroscience, where there has been a huge spike within the last decade. This likely comes as no surprise to the over 30,000 expected attendees at the Society for Neuroscience meeting which just wrapped up. Stay tuned next year for the next round of data from those receiving their doctoral degree in the 2012 academic year.

10 thoughts on “What’s Trending in PhD Fields of Study for NIH Trainees and Fellows?

  1. Dr. Rockey,

    It seemed off to me that there were only a few hundred people earning PhDs in each of these categories. I went to the Biomedical workforce data set, and in 2009 the biomedical workforce committee was confident that ~9000 people earned PhDs in biomedical sciences. So my question is, do the numbers in the graph you have displayed here (say for 2009) add up to that total (~9000), because at first glance this graph suggests that the total number of people earning PhDs in biomedical sciences is only about 1500 or so, which is considerably less than the number (9000) reported on the biomedical workforce report. If you have a chance to explain that would be helpful. Thanks!

    • This data is focused on individuals who were supported by NIH training grants or fellowships during graduate school, while the BMW committee looked at PhD numbers regardless of how the individuals were supported. Please see the footnote here for additional info on the data in the chart above.

  2. Would it be possible to include the total number of applicants for each subdivision of biological sciences? And/or the estimated total number of students in each subdivision for each year?

    Without it, it’s hard to tell if NIH is simply funding a greater percentage of NS grad students who apply when compared to other biological science students, vs. there simply being many more NS grad applicants.

  3. One problem with this for the poor PhD students is that the pharma industry, once a large employer of neuroscientists has cut to the bare bones, or less, their research efforts in psychiatric and neurological disorders. There are not the jobs for PhDs.

  4. Does “NIH Trainees and Fellows” include doctoral students supported by R awards, as well as T and F awards? If so, then R-supported trainees are the majority of NIH-funded doctoral students. To what extent do these trends reflect the distribution of research opportunities created by R dollars awarded? In other words, to what extent are these trends driven by faculty funding rather than by planning and preferences of doctoral students? In still other words, are we looking at a snapshot of the present state of research, or a prediction for the future?

  5. I think the great issue here is that the number of newly minted PhDs seems to be increasing and these are just the NIH fellowship-funded number, many more were likely funded through research grants. At such a trying time when jobs in academia have shrunk as well as in industry shouldn’t the NIH consider turning the spigot lower so as not to over-saturate already burgeoning numbers of biosciences PhDs?

    Many will leave science having wasted taxpayer monies for training that they will never be able to use or be under-employed in permanant “training” positions (e.g. perma-doc). Change needs to start at the NIH in decreasing graduate and post-doc fellowships, limiting the number of trainees able to be put on research grants, but also increase transition awards to move more PhDs into careers. We do not need more new PhDs.

  6. I 100% agree with the previous post. The NIH funding squeeze has been in place for at least 6 years with no end in sight. As it stands, it will almost certainly surpass the WWII and match the Great Depression in its duration.

    It is so entertaining to watch the NIH and NSF and other goverment agencies still throwing in big chunk of funds in “training”. For what? there is literally no faculty position, or industrial positon, or government position for PhDs. I have always advised the graduate students to change to other career in their 1st and 2nd year. They are too young to realize that the “free” PhD training is actually hugly expensive if the opportinuity cost being taken into account.

  7. I love how these posts inevitably turn towards the glut of PhDs and the NIH unwillingness to do anything about it. Of course, they are not merely unwilling; it is NIH policy to maintain the current pyramid scheme. Even though the cost of graduate students has gone up considerably in the last 15 or so years, they are still way cheaper than the alternative of a professional class of researchers, i.e. people willing to make a career as laboratory technicians. In order to attract enough qualified technicians to do the work currently done by graduate students and post docs would require much higher salaries than most of them currently make.

    • Unlike any other profession, in biomedical research the more training and education level you have the less you make (when actual hours worked and productivity are accounted for). The exception is when one is lucky enough to become a tenured track faculty. In NYC technicians with bachelor degrees and zero years experience have annual salaries in the range of 35-40K, work 40 hours a week and have decent benefits packages including employer contributions to retirement accounts. Graduate students who generally work more hours than technicians and potentially have more experience make between 31-35K, less benefits and no retirement. Once a PhD is earned and one becomes a postdoc, they work generally 50+ hours a week, yet in NYC are paid NIH minimum, ~$39K a year to start. Thus if one just stays as a tech after a few years they will easily outearn postdocs and have a stable income and retirement (401K with employer contributions). People wonder why postdocs are so unhappy and why so many leave research all together (now the majority of postdocs switch to non research careers)…. this together with almost no chance of becoming a tenure track faculty seals the deal for most. Eventually this will no longer be sustainable and quality researchers will no longer pursue postdoc training. The outlook for new faculty positions looks worse, not better in the years to come which will further exacerbate this problem. The NIH recognizes these problems but refuses to do anything meaningful about it. Increasing NRSA levels by a few hundred or a few thousand dollars every few years is not a solution. Dramatic changes need to come from the NIH to correct this problem. Some of the ideas in the biomedical workforce report were interesting, but the NIH needs to actually bite the bullet and enforce these potential policy changes instead of merely encouraging or suggesting institutes and universities do them themselves.

  8. “Eventually this will no longer be sustainable and quality researchers will no longer pursue postdoc training.”
    That is what I thought 15 years ago when I finally realized how massively glutted the PhD market was. I assumed that word would get out, but apparently it has not. Heck, the NIH director and deputy director made the outrageous statement in a recent blog that there is no evidence that PhD production is exceeding demand. Some years ago, the AAAS addressed this PhD oversupply problem, and the NIH official response was essentially to say that you never know when you might need some extra PhDs. Clearly NIH policy is to keep stuffing as much fresh young meat as possible through the sausage machine.

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