So, What Does the Biomedical Research Workforce Look Like?


Update 6/27/12: The full report is now posted on the ACD website.

As I blogged last week, and most of you have heard by now, a working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) that I co-chaired with Shirley Tilghman from Princeton just completed a study of the biomedical research workforce. We reported our findings to the ACD last Thursday (you can find a link to the videocast here). 

We gathered a lot of data during this study, which are included in the report (see the ACD site for the executive summary and instructions for obtaining a copy of the full report). The data also are posted on an accompanying website. I plan to highlight some of the specific data in future posts, but first, I’d like to discuss the outcome—the conceptual framework that presents a snapshot of the biomedical research workforce, incorporating the latest available data. The framework of the PhD workforce is presented below, and a companion framework for MDs and MD/PhDs in the biomedical research workforce can be seen in the report and on the website.

First, 9,000 biomedical PhDs graduated in the US in 2009 (including basic biomedical and clinical sciences), and 70% of these went on to do postdoctoral research. As we conducted our analysis, it became clear that there are few reliable data on the number of biomedical postdoctoral researchers in the US. We lack solid information on foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers, and many postdoctoral researchers change their title as they proceed through their training, complicating the data collection. That’s why the estimate of postdoctoral researchers ranges from 37,000 to 68,000. 

Looking at the career paths taken by these US-trained biomedical PhDs, we can see that fewer than half end up in academia, either in research or in teaching, and only 23% of the total are in tenured or tenure-track positions. Many other people are conducting research, however, with 18% in industry and 6% in government. 

The science related non-research box includes individuals working in industry, government, or other settings who do not conduct research but are part of the scientific enterprise. Many of the career paths represented by this box contribute to the scientific research enterprise and require graduate training in biomedical science. For example, program and review officers at NIH and managers in many biotechnology companies would be included in this group. This is my box too. It’s interesting to note the 18% included in this group is made up of PhDs employed in industry (13% of the total workforce), in government (2.5%), and in other settings (2.5%). This means that all individuals working in industry (research plus non-research occupations) represent about 30% of the workforce, and all those working in government represent about 9% (more than 10,000 individuals).   

That leaves 13% in non-science related occupations and 2% unemployed (this does not include retirees or those who choose not to work). These are 2008 data, the latest available from the NSF Survey of Doctoral Recipients.

If you’re a graduate student or postdoc looking at these numbers, particularly the proportion of people in industry and government settings, it makes sense to learn as much about these career paths as possible. I’m very proud that we were able to develop this framework, as it seems that for the first time we have an idea of where domestically trained biomedical researchers are going. I was quite surprised by the idea that the majority of our trainees do not end up in academia. Did this surprise you?

diagram shows the flow of college graduates through graduate and postgraduate training and into the workforce

Notes on the figure

The main sources of the original data, from which the graphs in the report were made and these numbers were derived, come from three NSF surveys: the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates, the Survey of Earned Doctorates, and the Survey of Doctorate Recipients. You can see the specific sources of each number by clicking on the relevant box on the website.

The color of the numbers reflects our confidence in the accuracy of the data: high (green), medium (yellow), or low (red). For more details see colors. In this case, the red numbers in the post-training workforce box are accurate, but the color reflects the fact that we know almost nothing about the distribution of foreign-trained PhDs in the workforce, so the overall picture is an under-estimate.

The post-training workforce boxes are color coded, with light blue denoting those in research positions and academic teaching positions. The science related non-research box is colored dark blue to indicate that many of the careers represented in this box are closely related to the conduct of biomedical research.


  1. I was quite surprised by the idea that the majority of our trainees do not end up in academia. Did this surprise you?

    Ummm, no. It’s not at all surprising if you think about how many academic positions there are, and long they are occupied for.

  2. I certainly was not surprised by these numbers–well, maybe that the percentage going into academia is that high–but I am surprised that *you* would be surprised by it. The numbers simply aren’t sustainable if the goal is to get all PhDs into an academic position. If 9,000 grad students receive their PhDs in a year, then approximately 9,000 postdocs should be finishing their postdoctoral research. Even if the number of postdocs looking for a permanent job is only half the number of PhD graduates in a year, there still are not 4,500 tenure track positions available each year.

    I think that graduate students, and certainly postdocs, are becoming aware that considering only an academic career path is not a smart career plan. And it is encouraging that there is starting to be some noise about training biomedical PhD students for “alternative” career paths. However, the pervasive culture in academia is that you are a failure somehow for going into another career. This is not to say that everyone feels that way, simply that it too many people still feel that way. The proportion of postdocs that leave a lab for academic positions even figures into the funding that a lab will receive.

    Before we start talking about PhD training for “alternative” career paths, we first have to have a serious discussion about the culture of academia and the stigma of choosing a career in industry or other non-academic sectors.

    1. I agree about the stigma and belittling careers outside of Academia for PhDs is still prevailing.

      Got my PhD at UC, Berkeley in 1983. First position at SRI International as Program Director one of 100 in the largest Think Tank in the US. The stigma of a non-academic career lingered for +25 years and it is present in 2012, unfortunately.

      Transition from Postdoc to Biotech is not straightforward for most Postdocs.
      The industry requires amny skills the current PhD+Postdoc does not offer

    2. Brooke has it exactly right – I’m shocked the numbers in academia are that high. In my PhD class of about 30 or so, I know *two* of my colleagues who remain on tenure-track positions. There are a few others from the class such as myself who managed to get good industry jobs, but the great majority of my classmates are either 1) still doing postdocs or 2) out of science entirely (one even became a fireman because of the pay and benefits).

      The problem right now is threefold: 1) Graduate programs are accepting too many students and 2) there are no academic jobs and 3) professors continue to push students to stay in academia. All of these things need to change.

      In addition, the postdoc position needs to become a job with a higher salary and benefits rather than a dead-end position promising scientists get stuck in for a decade or more simply because there’s no other place for them to go.

      The system needs to change – I’m surprised no one at the NIH seems to realize this.

  3. Because jobs are found to be trending out of academia, it seems that the recommendation arises to suggest that graduate programs broaden preparation for other career paths. I thought that generally academic powerhouses, effective incubation of ideas, etc. was thought to assure American preeminence in many fields. You see to be giving this up. This indeed surprised me. Asking graduate programs to broaden at a time when achieving quality with what we do best – research and training particularly through interdisciplinary collaboration – is strengthening, seems counterproductive and perhaps unrealistic. (This is my observation and doesn’t reflect the views of our PIs.) I ask: why is there a drain from academia? Is it purely economic or is it serendipitous?

  4. There is no way that even close to “23% of the total {PhD graduates} are in tenured or tenure-track positions.” This is just not possible. There are clearly not even close to that many position available each year. I would be surprised if the percentage was even half of that.

  5. I was surprised that 85% of US PhDs remain in scientific careers. I thought the numbers were much worse than that. Perhaps we are preparing the students for non-academic careers, and the major issue is the notion that academia is the only “successful” job. We faculty need to start taking pride in mentoring those students who go on to successful careers in industry and other so-called non-traditional careers.

  6. I am not the least bit surprised at the trend away from academia; I’m only surprised that people are surprised! I’ve been told more than once, “I don’t want your job.” Students and postdocs are dismayed by the career path in academics, particularly the relentless and difficult struggle to achieve and maintain grant funding, which comes on top of full time teaching, administrative, and service responsibilities. Seeing labs shut down when PIs lose their grants does not foster optimism in young people for the prospects of an academic career path. If what someone loves is actually doing science, they see other ways to fulfill that, particularly now. And, students see an added benefit that these other career paths actually allow them to have a real life with a family and weekends not in the lab, which they don’t see in pre-tenure faculty.

    We need to address major structural issues in the academic sector to ensure we can continue fulfill our critical roles not only in generating top notch basic research, but in training students and postdocs who will be able to make important contributions across the spectrum of opportunities (and not just academic ones).

  7. One important fact that is mentioned in the article that can account for the overestimation of the 23% in tenured track position is ” this does not include those who choose not to work”. Among the female Ph.D populace “those who choose not to work..” is a significant portion, not because they actually “choose” so, but because of the stringency in the career path and lack of support to women who would like to have both a research career and a family. I am fortunate in my support structure that I am still able to have a fulfilling career so far.

    Another aspect is that very few graduate students in biomedical research realize that they will be close to 40 before they get their first tenured track position. And only a very minute proportion achieve this goal. Very few realize that in their 30s, they are likely to live with a fairly meager income (in academia) compared to their non-graduate peers or their peers in other engineering disciplines who have been in the workforce for a longer period and thus are in better earning positions. Dissemination of information presented here, is now slowly becoming available to new graduate students today .

    I think during graduate school every student should be exposed to this information, as much as they have to take a class in research ethics. This will allow students to focus their energies not only in asking excellent scientific questions, but also on understanding their best skills and honing it to what is available in the workforce today.
    Gaining the soft-skills is now critical for graduate to students to gain very early in their career to maintain a successful and fulfilling career no matter where they choose to work.

  8. It was interesting when you talked about how 70% of those with a biomedical PhD went on do to further research after getting a degree. I was catching up with my sister on the phone this morning and learned that she’s interested in pursuing further education for herself now that her daughter has grown and moved out. I know she’s always been interested in biomedical training, so I’ll share this into to give her an idea of what that career path could look like!

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