By Swagata Roychowdhury, PhD
An imbalance between the number of biomedical scientists in training and the availability of academic research career opportunities has led to more trainees opting for a career outside academia. Although less than 15 percent of biomedical PhDs move into tenured or tenure-track faculty positions,1 there has traditionally been an emphasis on training graduates and postdocs for academic research positions.2 According to the NIH Biomedical Workforce Working Group, it is essential to broaden both pre- and postdoctoral training to include exposure and preparation for “non-traditional careers.” A major challenge is to encourage discussion and sharing of information on training outcomes and focus on preparing trainees for a larger range of career options. This brief introduction to the topic examines the current state of training, covers several suggested changes to the biomedical workforce “pipeline,” and presents the viewpoints of two successful NICHD alumni on the purpose of graduate and postdoctoral years.
In her keynote address at the 2013 NICHD retreat, Dr. Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University, voiced her concerns about the current postdoctoral training process and recommended that major changes must be implemented to alter the culture of biomedical education. She emphasized the role of graduate training as a time of learning, not labor, the need to utilize training grants, rather than research grants, to fund fellowships, and the need to increase stipends and benefits for postdocs. Without these and other changes, uncertainties, lack of funding, and excessive competition are some of the major issues that will affect the future of the biomedical workforce.2, 3
As a solution, the NIH Workforce Working Group recommends access to diverse types of training during graduate and postdoctoral years. This additional training may include project management, science education, or science communication, to name a few, which are valuable for both academic and nonacademic career track scientists. The purpose of postdoctoral training must be to ensure that fellows are better aligned with the required skill sets for any career that they opt for in the future, not just an academic track. The in-depth knowledge that we gain can be leveraged towards multiple fields that are available beyond the bench and improve the chances of success in today’s exceptionally competitive job market.
To encourage discussion on this topic, Dr. Kristofor Langlais, a health science policy analyst at the NIH, and Dr. Silviya Zustiak, a tenure-track assistant professor at Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology at Saint Louis University, offer their ideas about graduate and postdoctoral training in a Q&A with The NICHD Connection:
What do you think the purpose of graduate training is?
K.L. The primary purpose of graduate training should be to gain all of the fundamentals that one would need to become an independent practicing scientist: attain an advanced base of knowledge, learn how to develop hypotheses and put together a comprehensive plan to test them, learn how to build a compelling story for presentations and publications, gain insight into the real-world practice of science, and gain technical skill and the ability to innovate to break new ground. At the same time, this is also the time to fail repeatedly and learn the value of failure and persistence. The last year or two of the training should be a time of self-assessment and exploration of how scientists can apply themselves outside of academia, in a supportive and nonjudgmental environment.
S.Z. I would say that the most important part of graduate training is to create independent thinkers and researchers. Undergraduate education gives a broad knowledge base usually imparted through rigorous coursework and guided hands-on labs and activities. Graduate training takes the students to a new level where the broad preparation is funneled into a narrower research topic and the student learns how to apply the acquired knowledge to the advancement of their field.
What do you think the purpose of postdoctoral training is?
K.L. Postdoctoral training should be thought of as a temporary transition period from day zero. At no time should the trainee ever forget that they are a trainee about to go out into the real world sooner rather than later, and that they are not a lab technician chained to the bench. The trainee is already an accomplished, but not yet independent, scientist with a degree of more focused subject matter expertise and finely honed technical skills. The primary purpose now is to discover and choose a career path and do whatever it takes to identify any gaps that will give the trainee a fighting chance to get a foot in the door for that chosen path. This takes long-term planning. The purpose is also to become an expert in their field.
S.Z. When a graduate trainee decides on a postdoctoral training, he or she should be considering what specific skills and additional knowledge he or she is hoping to acquire. I believe that postdoctoral training is a venue for an independent researcher to learn a complementary skill set or hone his or her existing skills and knowledge so that he or she is prepared to establish an independent line of research if an academic path is pursued. It is also a time when various future career opportunities might be explored.
What sort of support did you received from a mentor (PI or other) to prepare you for your long-term goals during graduate/postdoctoral training?
K.L. My postdoctoral mentor was very supportive of my long-term plans to move into science policy. She understood that I needed to spend a significant amount of time outside the lab to engage in other types of training and activities that would allow me to be successful in reaching my goals. She understood that scientists could and should break out of the box and apply themselves to any number of other career paths. I was lucky to find such a supportive advisor, and I encourage trainees to ask the potential advisor how they would support a trainee in this way.
S.Z. Both my doctoral and postdoctoral PIs have been very supportive, yet hands-off. I would say that they taught me to believe in myself and to keep pursuing new challenges. They continue to be supportive of me and my career by showing active interest in my well-being, alerting me to new opportunities, and offering advice when needed. For example, my doctoral advisor recently became the editor of a new book on Neuromethods, and she invited me to submit a chapter.
How does the competitive nature of finding an academic position affect how you view the purpose of graduate or postdoctoral training, if at all?
K.L. I think that training programs should reevaluate their purpose and modify their programs to provide support, education, and resources for trainees to explore and gain skills to allow more flexibility in what they may do with their degree. It is common knowledge that at a minimum only 1 in 10 graduates will end up running their own lab, and that society would greatly benefit from having highly trained scientists placed in nearly all other fields, scientific or not. Basically, the purpose of training programs is to produce highly trained scientists and sprinkle them everywhere throughout society.
S.Z. The competitiveness of acquiring an academic position has affected the way I think about postdoctoral training but not doctoral training. I believe that doctoral graduates are very valuable in industry just as much as they are valued in academia. However, I do believe that postdoctoral training would be more valuable for people interested in academia than in industry. That said, regardless of how competitive the academic market is I believe that if someone is interested in that career path, he or she should not get discouraged but work harder to achieve his or her career goals. An alternative path can always be chosen along the way, but the probability of success should not in itself deter us from our dreams.
- Cyranoski et al. (2011). “Education: the PhD Factory.” Nature 472, 276-279.
- Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report, National Institutes of Health. 2012.
- “Trends in the early careers of life scientists.” National Research Council (US) Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implications of Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1998.