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Ph.D.s Should Be Trained for a Variety of Positions, Not Just Research

Jesse Jenkins

A NIH’s working group recommends a shorter and more diverse training for graduate students hoping to enter the biomedical workforce. 

Graduate programs must accommodate a greater range of anticipated careers for students outside of research, according to a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) report on the future of the US biomedical workforce.

On June 14, the NIH working group tasked with examining the biomedical workforce presented their report to the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) at a press conference at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.

The number of Ph.D.'s awarded in the basic biomedical field (blue) has increased faster than other fields including behavioural and social sciences (green), clinical sciences (orange), and chemistry (purple). Source: NIH

All in all, the report indicates that the biomedical research workforce infrastructure will continue to decline. While employment for biomedical Ph.D.s remains high, the proportion that obtain tenured or tenure-track faculty position has declined from 34% in 1993 to 26% today. As a result, biomedical graduates have found science-related occupations that do not involve research and occupations that do not require graduate training in science, according to the report.

But most graduate training has not followed this trend. Many biomedical graduate programs continue to simply prepare students for academic research positions, which isn’t much of a surprise given the recent PLoS ONE paper highlighting the same issue (1). Accordingly, the report recommends that these graduate programs better prepare students for alternative careers outside of research.

“We recommended for graduate students that they enhance the training experience to match the various assorted career outcomes that they may have,” said Sally J. Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research and co-chair on the working group. “They should be trained for the variety of positions that they’re going to have, either in industry and government, not just research.”

The report also indicated that the long training and low academic salaries compared to other scientific fields deter students from pursuing biomedical research careers.

For example, in 2001, the median age of a biomedical Ph.D. graduate was 32, and the median age of those who accepted a tenure-track position was 37. But for chemistry Ph.D.s, those median ages were 30 and 33 respectively.

Additionally, the average starting salaries in fiscal year 2011 for biomedical assistant professors was approximately $68,000. Meanwhile, those in chemistry earned an average of $69,000, those in clinical and health fields earned an average of $79,000, and those in economics earned an average of $100,000.

“Over a person’s lifetime, the biomedical scientists catch up and actually exceed all the other fields except for engineering. So, should individuals get out earlier, their lifetime earnings would increase because even though they might start out lower, they would have more time to catch up and exceed other areas,” said Rockey. “The idea is that we get them out earlier into bona fide positions.”

Accordingly, the group recommends shortening the time needed to receive a biomedical Ph.D. and capping the time that students can be supported by NIH funds in order to reduce the length of the Ph.D. experience.

For now, NIH director Francis Collins is reviewing the working group’s recommendations before the NIH takes action on any of them. “If they are accepted then NIH would have to work toward implantation, but until that time we’re not in any position right now to say which recommendations will and won’t be implemented,” said Rockey.


  1. Sauermann, H., and M. Roach. 2012. Science Ph.D. career preferences: Levels, changes, and advisor encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5):e36307+.

Keywords:  biomedical workforce