PhD Production and Career Opportunities: More Fuel for Thought in Providing Us Your Input


I recently came across an interesting article External Web Site Policy by Fuhrmann et al. in the fall 2011 edition of CBE—Life Sciences Education. The article talks about the range of career options that eventually attract graduate students who train at UCSF (Figure 1.).

graphic showing the paths students choose: PI in academia, other research careers, and non-research careers

Figure 1. UCSF graduate student career preferences. Courtesy of C.N. Fuhrmann et al., CBE Life Sciences Education, 2011.

The authors argue that a broader curriculum is needed to prepare individuals for careers in different employment settings, especially those outside of research. Shifting employment outcomes are also recognized on a national scale in the recommendations related to training grant peer review that appear in the National Research Council report Research Training in the Biomedical, Behavioral and Clinical Research Sciences External Web Site Policy.  

Thinking about ways to improve research training and the balance between PhD production and future career opportunities reminds me to encourage each of you, either individually or through your professional society or institution, to think about responding to our request for information on the biomedical workforce. As I noted previously, the last day to submit a comment is October 7. This is an important way to communicate your opinions directly to the Advisory Committee to the Director’s study on the biomedical research workforce. Your input is important.


  1. Thanks for the insightful post. I would not have known of the RFI or this article had you not posted this. This made for some great reading and food for thought today.

    For what it’s worth from my naiveness as a PhD candidate, the way I see it, the peer-review system that drives the entire academic machine is broken. It is so essential to getting a grant application accepted, a publication accepted, and so on and so forth. At the end of the day, tenure in an academic position is 90% peer review. Instead of being an objective screen for the quality of work or ideas, it is frequently clouded by politics and the luck of the draw–on whether or not your reviewers are happy.

    There are lots of bright young minds who come through grad school, who, despite their great ideas and work ethic, become disenchanted with what’s needed to navigate the politics, and succeed in academia. These people have the self-initiative to research these ‘alternative’ careers, which eventually led to their ongoing marriages to these careers–many of which are likely doing big and great things within the NIH today. Much power to them. I wish I knew where to start searching.

    All I know is, I hate calling these ‘alternative’ careers when in fact, these non-academic careers are as respectable as their academic counterparts. I’m glad the authors of the paper you cited seem to agree with this sentiment.

    1. I completely agree with you about the misconception on “alternative” careers. This name leads to at least two problems: 1) it makes people feel non-academic jobs inferior, which is absolutely not true; 2) it makes some students think that non-academic careers require less rigorous trainings, which is really detrimental for their career development. It would be nice for NIH to help the awareness of the “equal value, equal rigor” idea in all career options for biomedical graduate students.

  2. I think that it is extremely important to reform the PhD system in the US. First, the time for a young person to invest in a PhD degree is too long, often 6-7 years. We should adopt the Europe system that if a PhD student publishes one paper which takes about 3-4 years, we should let him/her graduate to get a PhD. He/she may not be in academic, but he/she can become a science teacher, which is desperately needed in this country. Second, the government, not the professors’ grants or parents, should pay for the PhD students. Third, the currently system put tremendous pressure on the students’ mental health.

  3. The curriculum of graduate training should be based on the purpose of training. While some of us feel the need of broadening the contents, I would argue for the deepening of critical thoughts. I propose that based on two reasons: 1) the contents of our teaching can never cover all the career options while diluted learning is generally ineffective; 2) the ability to critically deliberate on issues and make wise decisions is a sure way to enhance graduate students career advancement, no matter what professions they choose. Therefore, the teaching in graduate school is not about knowledge. Nor is it about technical skills. Rather the focus should be on the growth of visions. This shift of emphasis will not only pay off for the careers of our graduate students, but also have a very positive impact on the society at large by greatly improving our political and economical infrastructure in the long run.

  4. I think the NIH puts to much emphasis on becoming an independent investigator. Biomedical research has become so expensive, and neither NIH nor universities currently have enough money to fund many more first time PIs. Also, there is a clear lack of senior PhD scientists that can guarantee continuity within a lab, it seems most labs restart in from scratch every few years because of post-doc turnover. While PIs are committed to a department, it is easier to have senior PhD scientists being truly interdisciplinary and shift their focus as the project demands. I would like to see the NIH promote such a senior PhD scientist track.

    1. This is a great idea. It can not only solve many problems but also facilitate the continuity of productivity in many established labs. NIH can help foster such a career path by allocating some funding for “senior scientists”. Of course the practical question is where can this money come from? My thoughts are: 1) these are much needed career path to make US biomedical research sustainable so it’s worth it; 2) this policy should eventually lead to less competitions on R01 so we could move the money over; 3) NIH can give this out as supplement to lab PI’s R01 to mostly cover the salary and benefits of senior scientists. The basis of funding, of course, requires more discussions.

    2. Although it looks like a reasonable solution to the problem is in the funding for the ‘rotating scientist’, since it’s not independent and would have to join a PI’s project, with little saying on everything. So it would be worst than a postdoc, but probably higher salary.

  5. This real problem is that this has long been a well-known problem, and it continues to be discussed without clear steps taken for its resolution.

    Our institution has taken concrete steps to improve biomedical PhD training that anticipates multiple career paths including traditional academic, teaching and industry. The latter is particularly notable – we have a 5 year PhD/MBA program as well as a certificate in science management program, coupled with industry internships and electives in things like intellectual property management. Our PhD/MBA students often skip the traditional postdoc (imagine having that 5-6 years back) and get good jobs either as scientists or in management roles. I’m not saying we’re the role model or that one size fits all, but we have moved beyond the paralysis and timidity that seems to grip faculty and national committees on this issue. For its part NIH needs to allow institutional training grants that permit 25% effort on ‘nontraditional’ activities.

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