Its Official: The US Doesn’t Need Any More PhD Life Scientists

Posted in BioJobBuzz, Uncategorized

I have been blogging about the glut of life sciences PhDs in the US for the past five years. Sadly, not many people paid much attention to my claims despite repeated discussions with graduate students, postdocs and even tenured faculty members.  Recently, however, there has been a spate of lay media articles shedding light on this very recent phenomenon (yeah right).

One that caught my attention was written by Jordan Weissmann an associate editor at The Atlantic who also writes for the Washington Post and the National Law Journal.  Although the title “The Ph.D Bust:America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts” was not particularly inspiring, it does contain some very interesting data (provided by the National Science Foundation); and as we scientists know the data are incontrovertible (unless fudged or applied to certain esoteric statistical analyses).

Here are the highlights (unfortunately, lowlights for many of you).

First, the big picture view: employment opportunities for all American PhDs including those graduating from humanities, science, education, and other programs.

The pattern reaching back to 2001 is clear — fewer jobs, more unemployment, and more persons doing post-doc work — especially in the sciences.

Second, let’s take a look at employment rates for life scientists (including biologists, chemists, biomedical engineers etc) upon completion of their graduate training.

Since 1991 the number of PhD scientists who choose to engage in postdoctoral training has hovered around 45% (it just seems like the number should be higher).  Interestingly, the number of PhD scientists who were able to secure jobs at the completion of their training (without doing a postdoc) has dropped from a high of almost 30% in 2006 to roughly 19% in 2011. However, the most telling statistic is that the number of PhD scientists who are unable to find employment after receiving their degrees has skyrocketed from 27% in 2006 to almost 40% in 2011.  These data clearly indicate that there were many fewer job opportunities for PhD life scientists over the past five years.  Yep, I started talking about the life sciences PhD glut five years ago.

Finally, Georgia State University Professor Paula Stephan has broken down NSF data on biology Ph.D.’s five or six years after receiving their degrees.

As many of you may have heard, less than 1 in 6 are in tenure track academic positions. What is must troubling, however, is how low the overall employment rates were for most PhD trained scientists as far back as 2006 (before the recession began and US pharmaceutical companies began laying off hundreds of thousands of employees!)

The Bottom Line: There is a glut of PhD-trained life scientists (duh) and we do not need to mint anymore PhDs: there simply aren’t enough jobs. And supply side economics suggests that the only way to make PhD life scientists more valuable to prospective employers is to reduce their overall number.  Sorry guys, the data do not lie!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!!

Is There Really a PhD Glut–You Betcha!

Posted in BioEducation

My colleagues over @ sent me an infographic (these things are very popular these days) explaining why there is a glut of PhDs on today’s job market and how it is affecting undergraduate education in the US. 

Surprisingly, the glut is not restricted to the life sciences; it appears to be universal!  At some point, the education bubble will burst and it is certain to have a marked effect on graduate programs. While I am proud of my PhD degree, I am not sure that getting a PhD degree is a wise career path unless you truly love what you are studying and cannot see yourself doing anything else for the rest of your life. If you have any doubts, I recommend finding a job or world travel before you decide to take the PhD plunge!  

The bottom line: earning a PhD degree is a very personal decision and it does not guarantee you employment at the end of your training!!!!!!!!!!

PhD Job Crisis
Created by: Online PhD

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!!

An Academic Perspective: Explaining the Current Glut of Life Sciences PhDs

Posted in BioEducation

For the past several years, I have been trying to convince anyone who would listen that the reason for the dismal job prospects for most PhD-trained scientists is a simple supply and demand issue. To wit, there are too many PhDs and too few jobs for them! 

While I intuitively understood that this was the case, nobody had ever substantiated the veracity of the claim and consequently I was beginning to think I was wrong. Imagine my joy after reading William Deresiewicz’s piece in this month’s edition of the The Nation magazine. In an article entitled “Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education,” Deresiewicz elegantly and aptly sums up the situation facing today’s newly minted PhDs:

"At Yale, we were overjoyed if half our graduating students found positions. That’s right—half……..You’d think departments would respond to the Somme-like conditions they’re sending out their newly minted PhDs to face by cutting down the size of their graduate programs. If demand drops, supply should drop to meet it. In fact, many departments are doing the opposite, the job market be damned. More important is maintaining the flow of labor to their domestic sweatshops, the pipeline of graduate students who staff discussion sections and teach introductory and service courses like freshman composition and first-year calculus. (Professors also need dissertations to direct, or how would they justify their own existence?)

Further, he asserts:

“……the PhD glut works well for departments at both ends, since it gives them the whip hand when it comes to hiring new professors. Graduate programs occupy a highly unusual, and advantageous, market position: they are both the producers and the consumers of academic labor, but as producers, they have no financial stake in whether their product “sells”—that is, whether their graduates get jobs. Yes, a program’s prestige is related, in part, to its placement rate, but only in relative terms. In a normal industry, if no firm sells more than half of what it produces, then either everyone goes out of business or the industry consolidates. But in academia, if no one does better than 50 percent, then 50 percent is great. Programs have every incentive to keep prices low by maintaining the oversupply.”

Finally he concludes with an eye-opening but sadly accurate observation:

“How professors square their Jekyll-and-Hyde roles in the process—devoted teachers of individual students, co-managers of a system that exploits them as a group—I do not know. Denial, no doubt, along with the rationale that this is just the way it is, so what can you do?”

I am glad that somebody else perceives the problem the way that I do. At least, I now know that I am on the right track! Do any BioJobBlog readers have any suggestions, ideas or insights into how to fix this obviously broken system? 

Let me know!

Until next time…

Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!


Is There a Glut of Life Sciences PhDs? A Commentary

Posted in BioEducation

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!!!!!