Last week’s special issue of Nature Magazine “The Future of PhDs” contains no fewer than six independently written articles assessing the value, importance worth etc of a PhD degree in the life sciences. All of the articles are extremely well written and insightful. The opinions of the authors range from maintaining the status quo to questioning whether a PhD degree is important for life scientists to completely revamping the requirements to obtain the degree. While I think that Nature’s decision to devote an entire special issue to problems facing PhD students and postdoctoral fellows is courageous and laudable, I can not help but ask “What took you so long?” That said, there is no questions that the proverbial “cat is out of the bag”—there was an article in last Friday’s USA Today
—which means that the American public (maybe) is now aware of the “problem.” Rather than immediately react to the plethora of posts, LinkedIn discussions and comments from bloggers and recruiters, I decided to take some time to organize my thoughts and offer some of my own insights and ideas about the issue.
For the past seven years, I, along with a few fellow career development experts, have been outspoken about the diminishing career and job prospects for PhD-trained life scientists. Like the authors of the recent Nature papers, we had determined in the early 2000s that career opportunities and job prospects for life sciences PhDs and postdoctoral fellows were rapidly declining in both academia and industry. And, more important, that there was an emerging “glut” of life sciences PhDs (mainly basic researchers) on the job market. Not surprisingly, many of the hundreds of graduate students and postdoctoral scientists—who we counseled during career development sessions at various national scientific meetings—were finding it increasingly difficult or nearly impossible to find jobs in their chosen fields of endeavors. While we were able to advise them on how to write a better resume/CV or provide them with alternate career options, we all knew that their prospects for gainful employment were severely limited. I cannot tell you how difficult and emotionally-wrenching it is to tell extremely talented graduate students and postdoctoral scientists that their prospects for gainful employment are bleak.
Yet, despite a rapidly deteriorating job market and our best efforts to alert those “in charge,” graduate training programs recklessly continue to annually “mint” as many new PhDs as possible. While the reasons for this are obvious—graduate students and postdoctoral scientists are sources of “cheap and reliable labor”— the conscious decision to continue to produce as many PhDs as possible flies in the face of basic supply and demand economics. While I can go on and on with finger pointing and assessing blame, it is not productive or helpful; nor will it help to solve the bleak employment prospects facing many PhD-trained life scientists. However, there are a few strategies that, if appropriately implemented, can help to improve the job prospects for graduate students and postdoctoral scientists.
First, graduate and postdoctoral programs could create career development programs and experiences for their students and postdocs. These programs could include seminars on alternate career options, job counseling, resume writing and interviewing clinics, internship opportunities and even annual career fairs at attended by local or national prospective employers. While many PIs will complain that this will take graduate students and postdocs out of the laboratory and impede their progress, I submit that career development activities will reduce stress and anxiety and allow persons to develop a career plan or roadmap. This, in turn, will allow them to establish goals better budget/manage their time and be more productive in the lab. Moreover, it will likely shorten the time to earn a PhD degree which will provide PIs with more employee turnover and allow them to take larger numbers of new students into their labs.
Second, training programs ought to develop and formalize alternate career tracks for their graduate students and postdocs. For example, if a student is interested in medical writing rather than a traditional academic research career he/she ought to be encouraged to take some medical writing courses or be allowed to do a medical writing internship as part of their training. If a student is interested in business, then it may make sense for the student to be able to take business courses or enroll in an online biotechnology training programs. In fact, several institutions now offer a joint PhD/MBA degree option. The bottom line here is that providing students and postdocs with alternate exit strategies will incentivize them to be more productive so that they can “get on with their careers.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, graduate training programs need to limit the number of PhDs that they train and produce. This means, admitting fewer graduate students each year until the demand for PhDs begins to rise again. While this is the easiest and most cost effective solution to the problem, I suspect that it is the one that will meet with most resistance and objections. After all, fewer graduate students means fewer postdoctoral scientists which translates into fewer bodies to do the research necessary to win grants and publish peer-reviewed papers. However, it is important to note that the increasingly competitive and challenging job market for life scientists has already taken a toll on US preparedness in science and engineering. To that end, fewer American undergraduate students are majoring in the life sciences than ever before. In fact, the most popular undergraduate major in the US today is business. Further, over the past 20 years or so, fewer American students have entered graduate school in the life sciences. A quick perusal of the rosters of graduate students and postdoctoral scientists at almost any major US research institution will reveal that a majority are foreign born nationals! New research reveals that many US-trained foreign nationals are going back to their home countries to work and in many instances, compete with American life sciences companies.
There is no longer any question that “something” must be done to improve the career and employment prospects for American life scientists. Regardless of the solution, it will likely be painful. However, this is no longer a problem that can easily be “swept under the rug” or consciously ignored by the “powers at be.” Failure to adequately and seriously address the issue may not only have serious consequences for the current American life sciences training paradigm (don’t be surprised when academic tenure is eliminated) but also may affect the future competitiveness and economic well-being of the US.
Until next time…
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!