By Swagata Roychowdhury, PhD
With the increased numbers of biomedical Ph.D. graduates in the last decade, competition for academic positions has become fierce. On average, there is a 3.4 percent annual growth in the number of doctoral degrees awarded in the United States.1 Last year, a staggering 211,900 doctoral degrees were awarded in the life sciences, with 12,100 postdoctoral scientists already appointed in postdoctoral positions for at least five years.1 Coupled with this, research funding opportunities from the NIH continue to wane, and the availability of academic positions hasn’t been able to keep up with demand. This has led to a gradual shift in the traditional academic career path for qualified doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers.
The introduction of diverse career opportunities requiring advanced science degrees has created a need to evaluate the end-goal of doctoral and postdoctoral training. What was once considered “falling off the bandwagon” of academic research has transformed into rich careers in science policy, communication, industry, and the list goes on. Take the recent statistics for the career paths adopted by NICHD alumni. Only 20 percent continued into an academic research position (See Fig 1). So where do the bulk of the alumni go, and what career choices do trainees have after years of developing fine-tuned skills at the bench?
But before delving into a world outside the lab, let’s look into how prepared we are to accept this transition. Postdoctoral years have traditionally served to jump-start a young scientist into his or her own independent research. But given the increasing length of postdoctoral tenures and the decreasing number of academic positions available, many top scientists are venturing into careers that have very little to do with pipetting microliter solutions or running Western blots.2 This transition creates new questions: Who is a scientist? What is the purpose of postdoctoral training if not to develop an independent line of study? How can advisors mentor and support students who will enter a career track different from their own?
Ultimately, we all want to find a career that allows us to use our high level of scientific training in a way that is both meaningful and satisfying. There is much to learn and what better place to start than within our own NICHD community, whose alumni represent a collection of diverse career fields.
In the forthcoming editions of the newsletter, we will talk about this topic from the perspective of our alumni, current postdocs and graduate students, as well as our principal investigators. It is a matter that has taken center stage and hence requires our attention and scrutiny. How we are trained and informed will help us shape our future, be it inside or outside academia. Join us as we explore what a scientific career looks like. I have a hunch that no two look the same.
- National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2014. Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2012. Special Report NSF 14-305. Arlington, VA.
- Callaway E. “Life outside the lab: The ones who got away.” Nature. 2014 Sep 4; 513(7516):20-2.