Diversifying the Training Experiences of the Biomedical Research Workforce


I’m eager to tell you about another important biomedical workforce-related initiative that NIH is launching based on the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) working group recommendations. This initiative seeks to expand existing research training and allow research institutions to best prepare their trainees for a variety of research-related career outcomes. The ACD working group report showed that while almost half of US-trained doctorates work in academia, an increasing proportion of newly trained doctorates finds employment opportunities in non-academic sectors and in other research-related occupations.

US-trained doctorates post-training employment as of 2008: 18% non science related, 18% science-related non-research, 6% government research, 18% industry research, 43% academia. NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates data based on 130,000 individuals which is an underestimate of total biomedical research workforce

Especially in challenging financial times, it is important to not only prepare trainees for a diverse set of career outcomes, but to leverage existing resources and enlist additional support from the potential beneficiaries of NIH-supported training – the employers of PhD scientists. The Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program aims to do just that.

The BEST awards will be piloted through the NIH Common Fund, and support the development of new and innovative methods for preparing graduate students for the full breadth of research and research-related careers in the biomedical, behavioral, social, or clinical sciences. How applicant research institutions choose to approach this may vary. For example, scientific research institutions might initiate mutually beneficial collaborations with schools of business, public policy or economics, or might propose developing partnerships beyond academia and engaging the private sector or non-profit entities. But all programs should introduce students and postdoctoral scientists to the wide array of biomedical careers early in their training, and provide them with experiences in the career they plan to pursue, in addition to their PhD studies and traditional postdoctoral training.

BEST intends to change the culture of biomedical graduate education by seeding the development of diverse training experiences. Up to 15 BEST awards will be made in fiscal year 2013 to support research institutions’ program and administrative needs during the initial stages of development, and to create self-sustaining programs in collaboration with external support. Communication among awardees and rigorous monitoring of outcomes are essential aspects of this award program so that effective and proven models for training can be shared with universities across the United States.

We plan to review applications to the BEST funding opportunity this summer. An informational webinar to advise applicants will be held in March, letters of intent are due in April, and applications are due in May of this year; more details on the program are in the NIH Guide Notice and on the program website.

As the centerpiece of all the ACD biomedical workforce recommendations, this program is an important part of supporting the biomedical research enterprise as a whole, at all stages of the scientific process. This investment is just the beginning of how we prepare biomedical research trainees for a broader set of career options, and I look forward to following the work of BEST awardees as they pioneer these diverse training programs.



  1. It’s fantastic that the ACD is recognizing the need for training and experiential learning outside of pure academic career tracks! I am part of a group of graduate students and postdocs at Washington University School of Medicine who, while looking for an opportunity to gain training and experience, formed a nonprofit consulting company that forms collaborations between early and late stage life sciences companies and small groups of graduate students and postdocs. Through these team strategic consulting projects, all participants whether academic or non-academic focused, receive hands-on, real-world learning experiences. These opportunities train participants in becoming effective communicators, collaborators, leaders, and managers—skills that are often under-developed in many recent graduates and aspiring principal investigators. The group has had tremendous success over the past two years working with 32 companies and 140+ student consultants, many of whom have gone onto academic and non-academic careers and even started their own company. The group also earmarks a significant portion of their revenue for outreach initiatives to support science and career development throughout the community. Importantly, because these projects are inexpensive, the demand for the services is high throughout the country, opening up a huge opportunity for similar initiatives to develop at other universities. Indeed, several groups of graduate students around the U.S are currently taking steps to creating similar initiatives at their institution. We hope the BEST program can foster similar self-sustaining initiatives.

  2. Could anyone from the Rock Talk Blog team comment on why NSF survey data from 2008 is being shown here instead of data from 2011 which was released in December? It would seem to me that the 2011 data would be much more relevant given that 2008 was the start of the recession and that 2% unemployment number back then must have surely risen since then. I would also be curious to see how the percent of people in “Academia” and “Industry research” has changed from 2008 to 2011. My guess is that in the three years from 2008-2011 there have been some dramatic changes in these percentages with “Academia” and “Industry research” comprising now less than 40% combined.

    1. The NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which has been updated to 2011, collects data on individuals’ postgraduation plans.
      The NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) is the longitudinal study used to gather data on the occupational achievements and careers of doctoral scientists, and it is still in its 2008 data cycle. As the SDR and other Science and Engineering Workforce data is updated, we’ll take a closer look as it pertains to these new initiatives. If you are interested in more details of the content of these surveys (and others), check out their descriptions at: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/survey.cfm

  3. Worthwhile initiative — Congratulations! But, in 2016, disturbing conceptual contradictions still persist. For example, in 2016 there is at least one NIH-funded MSTP (MD/PhD program) site that refuses to value the (diverse) extra training and experience of MD/PhD post docs. That is, at least one major research center insists that an MD/PhD post-doc with 9-years of training cannot be paid more than an MD-only post-doc with no research experience (and no PhD degree).

    Consistent with NIH’s BEST initiative, it seems that “intellectual diversity” — “diverse training” — should be recognized as having value via policies being used in 2016. I suggest that NIH ask that research centers which accept NIH funds comply with, and enthusiastically embrace, the policies and guidelines of NIH regarding multi-doctorate post docs. That is, NIH recognizes the value of the extra training and experience of multi-doctorate post docs (like MD-PhDs, DVM-PhDs, etc.) via “supplemental pay” or total “years of experience.” Despite this NIH policy, at least one MSTP site vehemently insists that it will not recognize the special value of MD/PhD post docs because they are proud that “We are not the NIH.” Seems contradictory and disappointing that a major research center will take NIH money but reject NIH core values, policies, and guidelines.

    NIH should consider reviewing — and correcting — this contradiction which ultimately has unintended, adverse impacts on the recruitment and retention of MD/PhD students, translational research, innovations, and patient care. If an institution seeks recognition from NIH for its own MD/PhD program — seeks recognition via MSTP designation — this institution should, in turn, be willing to bestow recognition onto its own MD/PhD post docs. Seems like a serious core-values contradiction — even embarrassing.

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