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).
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.
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.
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).
The median income of doctoral degree holders in science and engineering is consistently above both that of master's and bachelor's degree holders (7). While median incomes peak and flatten between $60,000 and $75,000 per year at 10 to15 years post degree for the bachelor's and master's degrees, doctoral degree holders' median income continues to climb, and peaks above $90,000 per year at 25 years post degree.
A recent report (8) by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also noted that direct involvement in research and development, for which many employers require a Ph.D., resulted in a higher wage distribution among scientists. For example, in 2008 the median income among biochemists and biophysicists working in R&D was $85,870 per year.
Growing doctoral demand
The percentage of doctoral degree holders in science and engineering who are nearing retirement is higher than that of other degrees. This will contribute to stronger job growth for doctoral-level candidates in the near future (7).
The BLS report (8) projects a 21 percent growth in employment of biological scientists (37 percent for biochemists/biophysicists) between 2008 and 2018. The growth rate is expected to be driven by new opportunities in biotechnology, including the development of new drugs, medical treatments and diagnostics, efforts to increase crop yields, and biomaterial and biofuel developments. This employment growth forecast also is characterized as "much faster than the average for all occupations."
However it is important to keep in mind that during the past five-plus years, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries have been restructuring, refocusing priorities, and even shrinking their workforce or subcontracting core business-critical R&D components, sometimes abroad (11). Nevertheless, as economic conditions improve, the bioscience industry is expected to grow in the coming years, which will yield new biotechnologies, fuel the economy and create new, high-quality jobs (8).
Simply getting a doctorate in bioscience is no guarantee of gainful lucrative employment. This especially is true for people pursuing a tenure-track bioscience job in academia (1 – 6). However, there are many career choices in industry, government and nonprofit organizations for doctoral degree holders in biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular and cellular biology. A doctoral degree in the biosciences has value in work settings outside of research and development, including management, marketing, consulting, regulatory and government advising, science writing and patent law.
No matter the career, employers value candidates with doctoral degrees for their independence, drive, initiative, creativity, perseverance, work ethic and problem solving capabilities.
1. Benderley, B .L. (June 14, 2010) The Real Science Gap. Miller-McCune.
2. Anonymous (Dec. 16, 2010) The disposable academic: why doing a Ph.D. is often a waste of time. The Economist.
3. Monastersky, R. (Sept. 21, 2007) The Real Science Crisis: Bleak prospects for young researchers. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
4. Cyranoski, D., Gilbert, N., Ledford, H., Nayar, A., Yahia, M. (2011) The Ph.D. Factory. Nature 472, 276 – 279.
5. Lawrence, P.A. (Sept. 2009) Real lives and white lies in the funding of scientific research. PLOS Biology 7, 1 – 4.
6. Brown, K.M., Dodson, A. (Nov. 2009) Careers in motion. ASBMB Today.
7. National Science Board and U.S. National Science Foundation. Science and Engineering Indicators 2010.
8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Labor. Biological Scientists chapter of the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010 – 2011 Edition.
9. U.S. Census Bureau (2010) Current Population Survey, Person Income: 2009, Table PINC-03.
10. Day, J.C., Newburger, E.C. (July 2002) The big payoff: Educational attainment and synthetic estimates of work-life earnings. U.S. Census Bureau.
11. Keen, S. (2011) Pfizer's shakeup means less money for research. Science, 331, 658.
Michael Bradley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University.