August 2011

Why pursue a Ph.D. in the biosciences?

Part 1: Dealing with economic misconceptions and aligning expectations with career realities 


Several criticisms have recently been leveled at biomedical doctorate programs in the U.S. (and elsewhere) (1 – 4). Many of these negative comments stem from the notion that typical doctoral programs are structured to train academic researchers, yet the biomedical academic research job climate has not looked promising since the National Institutes of Health budget doubling (3, 5). The time to degree in doctorate programs has gotten longer on average during the past few decades, and larger proportions of graduates spend increasing periods of time working as postdoctoral researchers (1 – 4). As the number of postdoctoral fellows working at U.S. academic research institutions has skyrocketed during the past couple of decades, competition for faculty positions has intensified (1 – 6). Postdoctoral researchers often feel that applying for academic positions is like a long, drawn-out crapshoot, regardless of publication record (6). So why pursue a doctorate in the biosciences?

This article examines the economic reasons for obtaining a bioscience doctorate. While doctoral programs are not for everyone, the criticisms cited above mostly argue that the time to degree, low wages during training, and poor employment prospects after graduation call into question the choice of pursuing a science doctorate. However, with the exception of challenges in the academic job market, these issues largely are misrepresented compared with recent employment surveys of science degree holders (7, 8). Misaligned expectations and bad advice can make for a depressing graduate school experience and subsequent job search. Conversely, developing a clear sense of what it takes to get the degree and forming realistic career expectations lie at the heart of making sure that pursuing a bioscience doctorate is not a waste of time (2).

Training

There are many mitigating factors that make the actual research training period (graduate school and potentially postdoctoral work) worthwhile. At most institutions in the U.S., graduate students in the biomedical sciences are not charged tuition and are paid a living wage-level stipend. It's not a lot of money, considering that peers with bachelor's and master's degrees working in a variety of fields earn, on average, 50 to 100 percent more money (9). But there is added value that will stay with each student for the rest of his or her professional life (see below).

In addition, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows usually can take advantage of other benefits during training. Most bioscience doctoral programs have excellent healthcare plans at little or no cost to the student. The often-flexible schedules of laboratory research allow for participation in workshops and other nonlaboratory experiences in which students can pick up additional skills including mentoring, negotiating and teaching. Most importantly, graduate students and postdocs in the molecular and cellular biosciences have the opportunity to work on truly fascinating projects.

Careers

Getting a doctoral degree provides a shot at landing a top research job in industry, academia or government. This could lead to a career marked by important discoveries that benefit society and stimulate the economy, new cures for diseases, and new knowledge that lays a foundation for future advances. Certainly such jobs are never guaranteed for a graduate, and landing them likely involves additional postdoctoral training after graduate school. However, is it really a crapshoot for a newly minted doctoral graduate in the biosciences to have a fulfilling and financially rewarding career? Not so, according to a 2010 National Science Foundation report titled "Science and engineering indicators" (7). For example, the report states that doctoral degree holders in science and engineering enjoy lower unemployment rates (typically 1 to 2 percent) and greater gender equality in compensation relative to other science degree holders.

Income

It's true that the initial investment in time spent earning a doctoral degree combined with lower wages, lower savings for buying a house and investing, and lower retirement contributions during the training period could put a graduate student at a financial disadvantage. For many biochemistry and molecular biology students, these issues are outweighed by the satisfaction they get from doing laboratory research. However, the average long-term payoff for the initial time investment also makes a degree worthwhile in purely economic terms. According to a 2002 U.S. Census Bureau report (10), only those with professional degrees make more in average projected lifetime earnings than those holding doctoral degrees. A doctoral degree also increases the likelihood of getting and keeping jobs in science and engineering (7). These jobs collectively have a much larger median salary ($70,600 per year in 2007) than that earned by the total U.S. workforce ($31,400 per year in 2007).

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This article comments on currently available training and employment statistics among Ph.D.-holders in the sciences. The first few references appear to operate under the assumption that all recently minted science Ph.D.s desire an academic career and will be heart broken and doomed to unemployment when the academic jobs don't materialize. According to the NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients, over 50% of science and engineering Ph.D.s (including the large cadre in Biology-related fields) have worked outside of academia since 2006, and the academic slice of the employment pie has steadily shrunk for 30 years. Nevertheless, recent (2010-2011) employment figures put the unemployment rate among Ph.D. scientists at less than 1/2 of the national average. Is getting a Ph.D. for sure worth it? No. Do the benefits and opportunities outweigh the time and costs? Each student must decide for her/himself, but should be aware of the availability of non-academic PhD-level opportunities.

 

What a joke. With articles like this one, PhD programs will never run out of naive suckers (first year graduate students).

 

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