Research options for PhDs in life sciences

Competition for academic research posts is fierce in the US, but alternative settings offer research opportunities in academia and beyond.

Jesse Richardson-Jones, PhD, works with graduate students at a career symposium called

Jesse Richardson-Jones, PhD, works with graduate students at a career symposium called "What Can You Be With a PhD?" at the NYU Langone Medical Center last November. Dr. Richardson-Jones, a medical writer for BGB New York who was associate scientific director for Medicus International at the time, has a PhD in pharmacology and neuroscience from Columbia University. More than 1,300 people attended the two-day event. (Photos by Jeff Weiner for NYU Langone Medicinal Center)[/caption]

[divider]The Author

Susan Elan

Susan Elan received a Master of Public Health degree this spring from the New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice. Previously, she covered politics and government at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She is fluent in French.


In a market flooded with PhDs, competition for research-focused, tenure-track faculty positions is fierce.

But that need not mean the end of a research career for those with doctoral-level training in the basic biomedical sciences, university-based career advisors say.

According to the US National Science Foundation, 70 percent of PhDs in Life Sciences go on to positions as postdoctoral researchers. For those who want to continue in academic research long-term, however, the prospects are more daunting. Only 14 percent of US-trained PhDs in the biological sciences enter tenure-track positions within five to six years of earning their PhD, with a handful more doing so after more years of postdoctoral training.Cynthia N. Fuhrmann, PhD

"We come from a culture that prizes the tenure track above all other career paths; this creates a conundrum for today's doctoral students," said Dr. Cynthia N. Fuhrmann, who conducted research on career paths for doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences while serving as Program Director of the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Fuhrmann just moved to the University of Massachusetts Medical School as Assistant Dean of Career & Professional Development.

The negative perception that those who do not follow a traditional academic path have somehow failed can hinder career development in an environment with an increasing number of PhDs and a shortage of research funding to employ and support them in academia, Fuhrmann said.

Other research options

Research-intensive scientific careers also exist in government and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. These sectors offer opportunities to maintain a strong presence in the world of scientific research by continuing to publish in peer-review journals and give scientific talks at national and international conferences, she said.

"At the same time they typically don't have to seek external funding to carry out their research," Fuhrmann said.John P. Lombardo, PhD

PhD-level scientists have skills they can apply in a variety of positions from research administration, to technology transfer, science writing or research analysis for philanthropic or venture capital organizations, said Dr. John P. Lombardo, head of Career Services at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

About 30 percent of biomedical PhDs work in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries in research and non-research positions, according to the NSF report.

Competition is stiff, Lombardo concedes. "But if you are willing to relocate to biotech industry hot spots, there is a much larger chance of having choices."

Mergers and moves to offshore locations have shrunk the number of research posts available in the pharmaceutical industry in the US. Contract Research Organizations, referred to as CROs, perform many of the functions formerly done in-house by drug companies and provide employment opportunities for research scientists, Lombardo said.

"Taking a (drug) discovery from basic science to preliminary clinical trials requires scientists who understand the research process," he said.

New jobs

New jobs will come from partnerships of government, business, and academic institutions seeking to bring basic science to practical use faster, Lombardo said.

By 2020, about 2.6 million new and replacement jobs are expected to require an advanced degree, with a projected increase of about 20 percent for jobs requiring a doctorate or professional degree, according to an April 2012 report from the Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service.

"Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers," based on interviews with employers, finds that graduate students often lack adequate information about the full range of career options available to them and therefore may leave academia poorly prepared to develop a career on the outside.

A growing number of academic institutions have taken the matter to heart and are supplementing the doctoral curriculum with career planning and professional skills development.[note color="#f1f9fc" position="left" width=400]What's your country's situation?

This article focuses on the career situation in the US. What is the situation in your country? We welcome you to tell us in the comments, and if you have a story suggestion for another area of research, please email Alison Bert, Editor-in-Chief ([/note]

New York University Langone Medical Center, in conjunction with graduate and postdoctoral programs at Yale, Columbia, Weill Cornell Medical College and a dozen others in the New York area, held a two-day career symposium last fall called "What Can You Be With a PhD?" It offered workshops on careers in science policy, science writing/editing/publishing, consulting, technology transfer, science administration, entrepreneurship, education and consulting.Lyndon Mitnaul of Merck Research Laboratories talks to PhD students at a symposium called "What Can You Be With a PhD?" The event was held at the NYU School of Medicine in conjunction with graduate and postdoctoral programs at Yale, Columbia, Weill Cornell Medical College and other schools in New York.

Keith Micoli, DDS Although most PhDs in biomedical research go on to do one or a series of post-doctoral fellowships that can last from two to seven years, "there is a general lack of security career wise," said Dr. Keith Micoli, Director of New York University's Postdoctoral Program and a symposium organizer.

Some PhDs transition to research scientist, a faculty position created for those who do not need further training but are not going to get a tenure-track position, Micoli said.

"This is seen more or less as an end point because they will always work under the direction of a senior faculty member," he said.

Even those who manage to secure a tenure-track faculty position often find themselves struggling to run a lab for the first time and would benefit from management skills training not currently included in most curricula.

"They are hired because they are wonderful scientists and technically very skilled," Micoli said. "But there is a lot more to running a successful lab. You have to be good manager, leader and administrator. Understanding all of those things allows you to be a successful researcher."

To prepare their students, NYU offers lectures by faculty and Human Resources professionals "on how to run a lab in real world," he said.

A societal challenge

Tom Parks, PhD National data show unemployment among PhDs in the biomedical sciences at about 2 percent. But Dr. Tom Parks , VP for Research at the University of Utah, worries that the PhD surplus has stranded many of this highly educated work force in jobs that formerly would not have required PhD-level skills.

"Ten to 15 years ago, most patent lawyers had undergraduate engineering or science degrees, and the patents they wrote and prosecuted are the mainstay of today's high-technology industries" Parks said. "Today, employers can hire lawyers with PhDs, so they take them. This is an example of how credential inflation can drive out equally competent people with bachelor degrees."

At the same time, graduate students in some fields are spending their 20s getting heavily-subsidized educations but working for low pay and accumulating no wealth or benefits in order to acquire a degree that often is not essential for the work they are going to do, Parks indicated.

"We face a societal challenge," he said. "We have all this talent and we are willing to spend government and institutional funds to educate people in whatever graduate field they're interested in, but then we don't have suitably challenging work for many of them to do where they can use that education. Is that a good use of society's money or of these highly-capable young people's time?"

Currently, the US remains at the pinnacle of research worldwide, but some countries are investing more in their research infrastructure making it less important for their students to come to the US to do cutting edge research.

"There is a lot of concern nationally over whether we are in a position to stay competitive," Micoli said. "Germany, France, Portugal are putting a lot more into research. Big nations like China and India are dramatically increasing their PhD production and starting to recruit top level scientists from the US to come and run their facilities."Joann Halpern, PhD, Director of the German Center for Research and Innovation in New York, said Germany is making significant investments in research and development despite the global economic crisis.

From 2005 to 2008, German federal expenditures on R&D increased by about 21 percent. In 2010, Germany invested 2.8 percent of its GDP on R&D, and its goal is to invest 10% in research and education by 2015 (3 percent on research and 7 percent on education). The 2012 budget of Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research was 12.9 billion euros — up 11 percent from the previous year.

"Germany understands that investing in  R&D has a positive impact on the country's overall economy," Dr. Halpern said, citing the examples of the Excellence Initiative, the Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation, and the Higher Education Pact as programs that have accelerated the development of universities and other research institutions in Germany.

"As a result of these initiatives combined with a successful research marketing strategy and innovative funding programs," she said, "Germany has been able to recruit some of the world's top researchers."

comments powered by Disqus