Matching Expectations and Training with 21st Century Career Outcomes in the Biomedical Sciences

So what do you want to do after you finish your scientific training? This is a common question an applicant will hear during graduate school interviews, and the most common answer usually involves seeking a tenured track faculty position at a top ranking research institution. Regardless of the actual aspirations of the applicant, this is inevitably their answer because most applicants assume that any other response is sure to decrease their chances of being accepted into a biomedical PhD program. This mindset may have originated from that fact that career choices outside of the traditional tenured track research position have long been frowned upon be academics and may be routed in the fact that most agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Nation Institutes of Health (NIH) which fund the training grants utilized by most biomedical training programs, have traditionally judged programs based on the “academic” success of their graduates. Thus, this one-path-fits-all career focus has led to training programs which exclusively emphasize preparing students for a career in academia, and not necessarily meeting the actual needs of the trainee or the modern day scientific community.

The average biomedical graduate program involves course work in both general biological principles (e.g. molecular and cellular biology) and more specialized material related to the particular program of interest (e.g. genetics, bioinformatics, oncology, etc.). Throughout the training process additional instruction for specialized skill sets that are important for success as an academic are often emphasized, including grantsmanship, presentation skills and the critical evaluation of research publications.  Most programs also require some form of “pro-bono” teaching, such as becoming a teacher’s assistant, however, often no real teaching experience is gained and students are asked to carry out menial tasks such as grading exams and making photocopies of course materials.  Finally, what is considered “the meat” of graduate education, students receive rigorous hands on training in how one conducts a research project and carries out the act of “science” by designing experiments, interpreting results, troubleshooting problems and learning how to effectively communicate their findings to an audience of their peers. While in the United States this approach undoubtedly produces world class scientists, as demonstrated by the fact that the best and brightest are still sent to U.S. universities from all around the world for training, the process itself has changed very little over the last century. At best one could see how this methodology would be effective at training the next generation of world class academic researchers, ready to seek out the quintessential tenure track faculty position, but is this the desired or even realistically obtainable career path for the majority of biomedical PhD graduates?

To address these issues the NIH commissioned an Advisory Committee to develop a model for a sustainable and diverse biomedical research workforce. This report would then be utilized to aid future decisions about training and maintaining an optimal number of people for the career paths that will facilitate the advancement of science, the improvement of health and ensure the United States’ competiveness in the global biomedical economy. In their report the Advisory Committee provide several interesting findings and recommendations which will be discussed here in brief. For further information see

So, where do the majority of biomedical PhDs find employment after graduation and does the training they receive mirror these career outcomes? Since the current training scheme is built around training graduates for tenure track faculty positions, let’s start there. First, it should be noted that the NIH represents the primary funding source for the vast majority of biomedical graduate level training programs (both PhD and post-doctoral) and provides over 50% of all the funding given for non-for-profit biomedical research conducted in the United States. Thus, the NIH budget often dictates the number of students which can be trained per year and the availability of faculty positions for those trainees following completion of their studies. Shortly after the NIH’s budget more than doubled between 1998 and 2003, the number of basic biomedical PhDs also began to rise significantly (shown here from Figure 1 from the NIH report).

Fig 1

Unfortunately, since the NIH budget has essentially remained stagnant since 2003, the increased number of biomedical PhDs has not been met with an increase in available tenure track positions, thus the percentage of PhDs holding tenure track position has dropped from 34% in 1993, to 26% in 2012. That is correct! Currently only 1 in 4 PhDs will go into a tenured track position, yet we continue to exclusively train for this career path.

This is not to say that biomedical PhDs have trouble finding employment, since they currently have less than a 2% unemployment rate; far better than the current U.S. unemployment average of 7.4%. So where are they finding jobs? By utilizing the data presented by the NIH Advisory Council in 2009 and studies conducted by the NSF in 2011 we constructed a career outcomes chart depicting the approximate proportions of Biomedical PhDs within a variety of broad employment sectors (shown here).

Fig 2

In 2009, while approximately 24% of biomedical PhDs found employment in jobs conducting research, 17% held positions in science-related but non-research oriented positions. Additionally, in 2011 9% held managerial or administrative positions while 14% fell under professional services classifications. To summarize, excluding unemployment and non-science related employment, 60% of biomedical PhDs will not go into a tenured track faculty position and could potentially benefit from a more diverse graduate and post-graduate training experience.

So, if we were to ask current graduate and post-doctoral students what their primary career interests are, would their interests and expectations resemble the career outcomes observed by the NIH and NSF? Would they be interested in diversifying their training experience if given the opportunity? In order to assess the career goals and aspirations of PhD students and postdoctoral trainee’s the University of Chicago Biotechnology Association (UCBA) surveyed currently enrolled students/trainee’s at the University of Chicago, the results of which are shown below. The survey was well received with 123 responses (84 PhD students/39 Postdocs) and queried the scientists’ primary and secondary career objectives and interest in learning or training opportunities in a range of academic and non-academic career paths. In line with the current graduate school training, most respondents indicated that a tenured track faculty position was their primary career goal (45%), followed by a position in the Biotech/Pharmaceutical industry (24%), teaching (9%), medicine (7%) and Government/Public Policy (4%). Additionally, when asked about their ‘plan B’ or second choice, most respondents chose industry (41%), emphasizing the need for training for alternative careers outside of academia.


The survey also queried interest in learning about topics associated with alternative careers.  Interestingly, most respondents indicated high interest in learning more about translational science, with moderate interest in Technology commercialization/ development, Science Policy, Entrepreneurship and Partnering with Industry as an Academic.  Furthermore, respondents expressed strong interest in completing an externship at a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company.

In conclusion, the UCBA has compiled a set of recommendations for how various contributors to biomedical science education could improve the current training process in order to better prepare students.

Recommendations for the NIH

  • Make Increasing the Diversity of Biomedical Training a Priority for the NIH
    • Update your Current Measures of “Trainee Success”: If training programs are to broaden their focus to include a more diverse range of learning experiences in order to include preparation for careers outside of academia, the NIH’s rubric for evaluating academic success of trainees for the renewal of training grants must also be updated.  
    • Increase Funding Opportunities for Innovative Training Programs Addressing the Training Gap: By creating contracts for novel training approaches to fill the gaps in training in the Biomedical Sciences and then critically evaluating the best resulting practices, the NIH can lead the way for designing training programs which better fit the needs of the contemporary biomedical workforce.
  • Commission an Advisory Committee to Evaluate the Needs of the Current Biomedical Workforce and Facilitate Industry/Academia Training Collaborations: The NIH could construct a Committee who in collaboration with biotech, pharmaceutical and governmental leaders could rigorously determine what the current needs are in the biomedical workplace. Such a study could then be utilized to design new curriculum and training collaborations with industry to help better prepare scientists for career paths most in need of qualified applicants.

Recommendations for Graduate and Postdoctoral Training Programs

  • Provide Quality Teaching Experiences: Considering that 23% of PhDs will find employment as educators who’s primary role is to teach, a stronger emphasis needs to be placed on quality teaching opportunities. Teaching assistantships where trainees actively assist in the curriculum design and lectureship of a course, and not simply the grading and photocopying of materials, needs to be promoted. Such experiential learning should be accompanied by formal course work explaining the theory and logistics of teaching a course.
  • Better Inform Trainees of Current Career Outcomes for Biomedical Science PhDs: If trainees are better informed about the various career paths available in the biomedical sciences and the availability of these positions based on the current career outcomes published by the NIH and NSF, they can then weigh the pros and cons of each career path and diversify their training accordingly. Just as all NIH funded trainees must take a course on Bioethics early on in their PhD curriculum, they should also be asked to take a course focused on the various career paths available to a Biomedical PhD.
  • Find Ways to Diversify Training without Extending the Time to Graduation: Since the median graduate age of a biomedical sciences PhD is already 32, new ways of diversifying graduate education which do not extend the time to graduation need to be implemented. This could be accomplished by incorporating topics which are mutually beneficial to those trainees who will end up in academia and those who will find employment in biotech/pharma. Examples of this include project management, leadership, personnel management, communications, professional selling, and entrepreneurship. Additional courses focusing on the translation of basic scientific findings into the clinic, such as clinical trial design and biostatics, would also be mutually beneficial.  
  • Establish Connections with Potential Employers: Training programs could establish collaborations with potential employers to create experiential learning opportunities, generate industry specific curriculum and provide a direct link to employment and post-doctoral opportunities for after graduation.  

Recommendation for Trainees

  • Network, Network, Network: As a trainee at any level with any career path in mind, building a diverse network of connections within academia, government and industry can be key for future success. Considering that none of us know exactly where we will be 5 or 10 years from now, you should take every professional interaction with someone new as an opportunity to expand your personal network. Through-out your graduate and post-doctoral training, you should take advantage of networking events at conferences or those sponsored by your program, University or professional interest groups in your area in order to build a robust personal network which you can call upon for building your future career.  
  • Informational Interviews: Find someone who is currently working in a position you consider to be the next step in your career path or someone who currently has your “dream”     job. Contact them and inquire how they got to where they are today and if they have any suggestions for a scientist interested in their specific field/position. This person can be a great resource/mentor to help describe the best way to prepare for success in that particular position or field. This could be as simple as meeting up for coffee or sharing a few emails. It is also a great way to expand your personal network.
  • Take Advantage of Any Opportunity to Diversify your Skill Sets: Your program or University may have opportunities already in place for professional development. At the University of Chicago there are mechanisms in place to allow students to attend MBA courses, to get involved with University Start-up companies, to take courses focused on translational science and more. Good resources to learn about these opportunities are the University Office of Professional Development/Career Services, or the University of Chicago Biotechnology Association.

By Daniel Leventhal and Ben Hall

Graduate Students and Postdocs Explore R&D Careers

Graduate Students and Postdocs Explore R&D Careers

University of Chicago graduate-student and postdoctoral researchers recently gathered outside of the Gordon Center for Integrative Science to prepare for a day of career exploration and industry networking. While chatting about personal pursuits and laboratory endeavors, they expectantly awaited transport to the Baxter research and development (R&D) campus in Round Lake, IL. This was to be an experiential trek organized by the University of Chicago Biotechnology Association and sponsored by Career Advancement.

Upon reaching their destination, the travelers were impressed with seeing that theirs was not the only bus converging on the Baxter R&D campus that day; the company clearly values community engagement. They were equally appreciative of the warm reception upon entering the main lobby and prompt escort to the large meeting room where they would soon be presented with a company overview.

In the company’s own words, “Baxter assists healthcare professionals and their patients with treatment of complex medical conditions.”

Following the overview, the budding scientists were engaged in a career panel discussion with Baxter staff from the R&D, project management, marketing, clinical operations, quality, regulatory affairs, and IP law areas. The discussion was spirited and candid with many fundamental questions asked and answered about the diverse career tracks represented by the panelists. After the panel, the group was treated to lunch with the presenting staff. The rate of edibles consumption was dramatically slowed by spontaneous discussion and networking which notably picked up steam after the meal.

The visit culminated in an in-depth tour of the Baxter Round Lake R&D facilities including electron microscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), chemical fabrication, and particle characterization. The facilities do justice to the legacy of industry R&D capabilities of old, such as those of the famed Bell Labs. Photos were not allowed, except for shots of a retired NMR device. The wire at the heart of such apparatuses is a story unto itself: it is wound by specialists who wrap each strand precisely by hand.

The trek was also an opportunity for graduate students and postdocs to consider scientific career paths in industry. Fourth-year PhD student Courtney Kagan, who is studying human genetics, stated “the panel discussion was an incredibly candid and honest talk about getting jobs in industry and specifically at Baxter. Hearing about the panelists’ path to their current position highlighted the non-linear career trajectories that many PhDs outside of academia will have.” Mike Barrows, another fourth-year PhD student studying immunology, agreed: “My favorite part of the visit was the career panel with Baxter employees. There are many career options that we never hear about as graduate students, and seeing how people enjoy their work, make a difference, and use their scientific training in ways beyond bench-work was fascinating.” Fourth-year PhD student Katie Bailey echoed these sentiments: “The Baxter trek was a wonderful networking opportunity to meet PhDs working in a nonacademic setting and to learn about their career paths.”

Career Advancement will offer a range of career treks to various locations focusing on different fields over both College Break Day (February 14) and Spring Break (March 17 – 21). For more details about these trek programs, please visit the Career Advancement trek website. In addition, graduate students, postdocs, and undergraduates with an interest in the sciences are encouraged to keep an eye out for the upcoming Hard Sciences Chile Trek, which will focus on astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, hardware engineering, and science management.

For details about the Baxter Trek, or for more information regarding career resources for graduate students and postdocs, please contact Joe Bernstein, PhD, Associate Director, Graduate Student Preparation, in the Career Advancement office.