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Too many Ph.D.s?

Vincent Shen

A National Institutes of Health working group tackles the problem of too few jobs for too many Ph.D.s.

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A National Institutes of Health (NIH) working group will examine the future of the U.S. biomedical research workforce. The group will provide recommendations to the director’s advisory committee on how to modernize scientific training while ensuring a sustainable research labor force.

“At the root of the problem is the fact that we are overproducing Ph.D.s,” Shirley Tilghman, head of the biomedical working group and president of Princeton University, told the Howard Hughes Medical Institute . “As a consequence, there are too many people chasing too few jobs and too few grant dollars.”

New Ph.D. graduates could be entering an uncertain future. Source: Cornell University

In an effort to remedy this problem, Tilghman’s working group will gather input from the extramural community, including students, postdoctoral fellows, investigators, scientific societies, and grantee institutions, to answer questions such as, What is the right size for the biomedical workforce? What types of positions should be supported to allow people to advance in their careers and to foster the biomedical and behavioral sciences? What is the best way to support these positions, and what types of training are most needed?

Possible solutions that have been discussed by the working group include capping the number of Ph.D. graduates each year and providing scientists with alternative career tracks. Ultimately these policies would attempt to steer students away from biomedical research careers.

But some disagree with Tilghman’s assertion that there are too many Ph.D.s. For example, the privately funded National Research Council (NRC) made its own set of recommendations in a September 2010, report based on data collected from graduate students and postdoctoral researchers; it called for a 20% expansion of M.D. and Ph.D. training programs in science and engineering.

According to the report, the United States has one of the lowest percentages of students studying science and engineering of all developed countries. The NRC suggests that an expanded science Ph.D. workforce could immediately be put to use to improve the country’s K–12 education.

By and large, the 12-member working group—which includes an NIH deputy director, seven university-level administrators, three academic researchers, and a corporate executive from the healthcare industry—has its work cut out for it. They must either find a way to support Ph.D.s who want to dedicate their lives to biomedical research or a way to discourage them from pursuing research careers.

The group’s report is scheduled for release in 2012.

Keywords:  biomedical workforce