August 2011

Why pursue a Ph.D. in the biosciences?

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).

Career choices

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 ( is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University.


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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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