Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

As Biomedical Researchers Face Tough Job Market, Experts Offer Advice and Propose Changes

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) — The job market for people with a PhD in the biomedical sciences has seemed pretty tough for the last several years.

There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment for biomedical researchers as funding has declined — the US National Institutes of Health budget took a hit with the sequester in 2013, sending the average size of awarded grants sliding to $441,404 from $454,588 in 2012 while also sending the success rates for competing research grants down to 16.8 percent in 2013 from 17.6 percent in 2012, according to the NIH Data Book. This translates to some 530 fewer grants awarded in 2013 than in 2012 — and those that were awarded were, on average, smaller.

At the same time, the unemployment rate for science, engineering, and health PhDs reached 2.4 percent in October 2010, the most recent year for which there is data according to statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation, bringing it close in line with October 2003 unemployment levels.

"There's a lot doom and gloom these days about the tenure-track job market, and I think that varies widely by field," Michael Hoffman, a principal investigator at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center in Toronto, told GenomeWeb Daily News.

While the biomedical workforce faces a number of challenges — some argue that the research system as a whole is flawed and is following an unsustainable path that is hurting the career prospects of new investigators — some so-called hot fields, such as genomics, may be less affected.

Additionally, there are possible fixes under discussion and there are strategies that new investigators can employ to prepare themselves for venturing into the job market and determining whether they are interested in academia, industry, or other careers.

"The opportunities are definitely there and opportunities are broader than ever before," said Keith Micoli, the director of the Postdoctoral Program at New York University School of Medicine and the chair of the board of directors of the National Postdoctoral Association. "I think the job market is tough, but it's been tough for a long time."

Flawed and unsustainable

The root of the problem, some experts say, is that the biomedical system in the US is flawed.

In a recent editorial that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Princeton University's Shirley Tilghman, along with Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner and Harold Varmus wrote that the system-wide flaws could mostly be traced back to one assumption: that the field would continue to expand indefinitely.

"We now know that that assumption was wrong and we're living with the consequences," Tilghman told GenomeWeb Daily News.

Now that federal research funding has slowed, cracks that weren't previously apparent are becoming visible.

Biomedical research in the US relies on trainees — graduate students and postdocs — to do the bulk of the work and keep labs humming along and producing papers. While the budget for the NIH was growing, more and more trainees entered the field — but now there are many more, Tilghman said, than there may be jobs for.

"Basically, we are producing more biomedical PhDs than the entire ecosystem can absorb," she said. That ecosystem, she noted, includes so-called alternative science careers in pharma or biotech and in government or policy.

"If you add up all of those jobs, they still don't sum up to the number of PhDs that we are producing," she added.

Because of this, biomedical scientists are staying in trainee positions for longer and longer — there are an estimated 40,000 postdocs in the US, and that number is projected to climb. It's not uncommon, Tilghman said, for someone to do a five or six year postdoc when not too long ago a two-year postdoc was more the norm.

"They are basically in what I have always called the LaGuardia effect — they're circling LaGuardia [Airport], waiting for their turn to land," she said.

This, Howard Garrison, the deputy executive director for policy and director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, added, has led to a sort of credential creep in which scientists need more and more training and papers to be considered for a position that didn't used to have such requirements.

"Because there are fewer academic jobs [for] other jobs, the credentials have ramped up," he said.

PIs, though, have a motivation to rely on trainees to keep their research moving along, as postdocs and graduate students aren't paid as much as more senior people would be.

"Labs are fairly large and the incentives are there for faculty to hire people to work with them and the cost of graduate students and postdocs are low relative to anybody else who works in the lab," said Paula Stephan, an economist at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

According to the National Postdoctoral Association, the baseline stipend for postdocs on Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards is $42,000 —a number that universities commonly rely on to set their own postdoc pay rates, Micoli noted. Many postdocs, though, are supported through research grant funds.

"It reduces the investment that the university has in the research staff, like postdocs, [who] are 100 percent funded on the research grant. If the grant goes away, the postdoc goes away, too," Micoli added. "It's a really unstable system that's been out of balance for a long time."

Though PhD-educated people have lower unemployment rates than the general US population, experts like Tilghman and Garrison worry some may not be finding jobs that reflect their years of training and societal investment into that training.

"I don't think it is sufficient to say that someone who is selling car insurance with a PhD in biomedical science is a good investment for the federal government," Tilghman said.

Determining what is an appropriate job for a PhD-trained researcher often depends on the researcher and his or her circumstances, interests, and desires, Garrison noted.

"We make decisions to take jobs because they allow us to raise a family," he said. "We take jobs because we have family responsibilities, attachment to a region, lifestyle choices. I may turn down a promotion if it involves a move."

Still, he said that he worried that if there aren't attractive career options, top people may skip over the field. While some people may choose a scientific career path no matter the obstacles, others may take a more rational approach.

"They say, 'Well let me look at this. If I go this way, my prospects of a career have this probability and if I go this way, my prospects are greater,'" he said. "Once you start making those calculations, I think we need to make sure the research career in the biomedical sciences remains attractive."

At the same time, though, politicians often lament that not enough students are pursuing degrees and careers in science, engineering, and related fields. But whether or not there is actually a shortage of scientifically trained workers is field-specific, Tilghman said.

"In biomedical sciences that it is absolutely not true, but in some other fields like computer science and engineering, it is true. There is more demand for well-trained computer scientists and electrical engineers than we're training," Tilghman said. "So when you hear President Obama say we need to train more scientists, I think you have to realize that it is very field specific."

Genomics: hot right now

Similarly, different sub-disciplines within the biomedical sciences may have varying job markets. There are, as Garrison from FASEB said, hot fields and not-so-hot fields.

"I hear from people saying, 'I wish I had a person with these skills, I can't find them, they're impossible to find, I need one,'" he added, "and other people coming to me, saying 'We're looking to get out of research because there are no jobs in our area.'"

Luckily, genomics — particularly bioinformatics and computational biology — still seems to be one of those hot fields.

"I think genomics is an interesting case because it is a relatively new sub-discipline," Princeton's Tilghman noted. "There is, I think, a very significant demand right now for individuals who are trained in mathematics, computer science, and physics who can come into biology and learn biology in order to manage the crushing demand right now on the amount of data that we are generating.

"I think that if you are such an individual, it's probably a seller's market right now, and that's the good news," she added.

For example, both Princess Margaret's Hoffman, who is now also affiliated with the University of Toronto, and Robert Schmitz at the University of Georgia said that their recent experiences searching for academic positions were better than they had expected.

Departments and institutes seem to be seeking out genomics and computational biology researchers in particular as they build up that aspect of their research portfolios.

"I would argue that if you have any component of genomics right now in your research program, you have a far more competitive advantage than those that don't," said Schmitz, who started as an assistant professor at the University of Georgia last year, though he began his job hunt some three and a half years ago and wound up deferring his position until 2013.

He said that some of his colleagues who don't have genomics as part of their research are having a much harder time on the job market.

"There are a lot of institutions that are trying to invest in [genomics]," Hoffman added. "At least in the last couple of years, people have been very much in demand in those sorts of areas."

Small changes

While fixing the biomedical scientist labor market would likely take major changes, smaller changes like better educating trainees may also help them find their niche in the market.

One step that Georgia State's Stephan has championed is getting prospective graduate students to be better informed about the job market. She and her colleagues have suggested that graduate school departments put together and make available a list of careers that their graduates pursue that prospective students can consult.

"I think that students get recruited without really understanding what the career outcomes are," she said.

She noted, though, that getting departments to collect and share that data would likely have to be because NIH or NSF required it.

"I really don't think that [PIs] should continue to be able to get funding unless they post their outcomes," she added.

On a smaller scale, the immunology department at the University of Toronto recently surveyed its alumni to see what their career choices were. As Yuriy Baglaenko and Eric Gracey, both from that department, wrote at the Nature Jobs Blog, recent PhD graduates — those less than five years out — were evenly split between academia, including postdoc positions, and alternative careers, such as consulting or government positions.

The longer ago someone had graduated, they noted, the more likely that person was to hold a faculty job, indicating that since that time, there's been a shift in the field away from most graduates being able to secure such a position.

Alternative careers, some are arguing, are now the norm, rather than staying in academia, and students need to be exposed to those options — and many universities have programs in place to do just that.

While at the University of Washington for his postdoc, Hoffman said a careers program run by PhD students and supported by the institution would bring in speakers every month to talk about different career paths. Schmitz added that there is a similar program at the University of Georgia.

"The goal is to bring all those people in so your students can each week meet someone in [a different] field and hopefully earlier on in graduate school figure out where this will take them," Schmitz said.

At NYU's medical school, Micoli is hoping to put numbers on how well such programs work. He and Carol Reiss received a Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST) grant from NIH for the Scientific Training Enhancement (STEP) at NYU that aims to prepare postdocs and PhD students for careers outside of academia.

Part of the program, Micoli said, is to get the trainees to better understand themselves and what careers would be the best fit for them. This, he noted, is a bit of a shift away from a common strategy of going after whatever field appears to be the one undergoing the fastest growth.

"What we're trying to say is, the jobs are there, and it'll be more productive if you know yourself and really go hard after the jobs that mean most to you," Micoli said. "The best job for you may not necessarily be the best job for me."

So far, in surveys of students who have taken the course, he's found that 43 percent of people in the class didn't even know where to look for a job in the field they were interested in before they took the class — a figure that bumped up to 80 percent at the end of the course. Additionally, after taking the course, the students reported a better understanding of how job candidates are evaluated.

Longer-term, though, Princeton's Tilghman and others say that the biomedical training system needs to undergo a rebalancing so that there are careers for all the researchers being trained.

"There's got to be a better alignment between the number of people we train and what we would consider a healthy, robust budget for biomedical science," she said.

In the PNAS perspectives piece, she and her co-authors argued that graduate students should be supported by training grants and fellowships rather than with research grants and that postdocs should be paid more, at the same level as a staff scientist. At the same time, they argued labs should increasingly rely on staff scientists for conducting research and running labs.

"I really think that to be sustainable, the system is going to have to create more staff scientist positions, permanent types of positions," added Georgia State's Stephan, who made a recommendation similar to that of Tilghman.

Micoli from NYU noted that he likes the idea of a permanent scientist position as a career option for someone who loves doing experiments. But, he cautioned, that position cannot be reliant on research grants for its funding.

"The details of how that's going to be made into a stable career are hard to see with how science is funded right now," he said. "I think it would kind of be like you've just changed what you call that person from a postdoc to a scientist — how much have you really changed the security and the stability of their career?"

Additionally, such a transition would be pricey, noted FASEB's Garrison, though he, too, has called for a similar change.

"It'll be expensive and it will slow progress because if you are hiring people who are senior as opposed to graduate students and postdocs, you will have greater personnel costs, [while] the volume of research will contract," he said, adding that in process, there will be winners and losers.

Tilghman noted that NIH has been addressing a number of the concerns she and her coauthors raised, including through the establishment of the BEST grants and other grants aimed at new investigators. "I know that [NIH Director Francis] Collins is very conscious and concerned about the issues we have raised," she said in an email.

Advice for now

Those longer-term suggested changes don't necessarily help those entering the search now, though.

While some people go into a graduate program knowing exactly what they want, others are unsure or change their minds during the course of their studies.

"People in graduate school and postdoc — [it's a] very formative period of their life," Garrison said. "Their understanding of who they are, what they want to do, what the opportunities are change very dramatically. I know my career goals as a graduate student, they were not the same when I came in when I went out. They were different, and when I hit the job market, they were different still."

Programs like Micoli's STEP program at NYU and efforts at UW and UGA to expose trainees to different career options can help those unsure about just what they want to do.

"I think we are doing a disservice to people by not pushing them out or pushing them and asking them, 'Why do you want this degree?'" Micoli said. "If it's for a degree, it's not going to get you anywhere. It has to be a goal or something this is part of the path to get there."

But even at schools without such programs, trainees can pull together a sort of do-it-yourself version of the courses by keeping up with various scientific news sources, career blogs, and social media, as well as talking to people who've taken those routes. Additionally, Hoffman noted, a speaker series could be something that a trainee could pull together him or herself.

"It'd be a great way to network with people in other career paths," he added.

"I really believe the advice that if you know what you are looking for, finding it is a lot easier," Micoli said. "And it's far better to be very targeted and specific in what you want than the shotgun approach of 'I am just going to apply to everything I can find' because you just don't know when you are going to get a hit."

Knowing early on what career path they want to take can help trainees get the experience and exposure they need to have their CVs stand out and possibly get help from their mentors.

"If you want to teach in a liberal arts college, be sure to get lots of teaching experience while you are training, because that is going to be very important to a future employer. Also make sure you are planning to work on a project that can be done in that environment with largely undergraduates as 'workers,'" Tilghman added in a follow-up email. "If you are interested in policy, get some experience working with senior people in the field."

And figuring out a career path early also may save years of unnecessary training. Someone who realizes early that they don't want to stay in academia doesn't then have to do everything that's required of someone trying to secure a tenure-track position, like taking a postdoc position.

"There is little benefit to someone who is going into patent law or journalism or policy work to spend another six years in the lab," Tilghman noted.

Still, even if you're pretty sure you know what you want to do, it may be worth exploring what else is out there.

Toronto's Hoffman said that though he was fairly certain he wanted to pursue a career in academia, he did apply to some industry positions. Before he'd embarked on his job search, he'd spoken to some colleagues who had recently gone through the job-search process, and one of them told Hoffman that his only regret was not exploring what industry had to offer. To avoid that same lingering doubt, Hoffman spoke with people there as well, though he ultimately stuck to his academic path.

But even long before entering the job market, Tilghman said that trainees should choose their mentors carefully, looking for someone who'll keep their students' careers in mind.

"There is a big difference working for someone who is thinking of your future with you and someone who sees you as a pair of hands," she said.