August 2012

Thanks, but we need more

ASBMB 100 Meetings Challenge infographic

Last month, the National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director’s Biomedical Workforce Working Group (known as the Tilghman Group) published its draft report on the state of the biomedical work force. The group was charged with developing a model for a sustainable and diverse U.S. biomedical research work force that could inform decisions about training the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions that will advance science and promote health — a heavy lift, to be sure! To its credit, the Tilghman Group provided hard evidence to support what many in the community have been saying for years: that the manner in which we train our work force has put the community on an unsustainable path.

While today’s trainees are sold promises that their hard work in the lab will pay off with tenure-track positions in academia, the report shows only 23 percent of biomedical Ph.D.s actually reach that promised land. Nearly one in three biomedical Ph.D.s will end up with a career in the private sector, and yet our community rarely if ever provides training to Ph.D.s that will both prepare them for alternative careers and educate them on realistic employment options that will be available. This is surprising considering that the study shows that academia is quickly becoming the alternative career path.

If we are using NIH dollars to train Ph.D.s for the research and academic careers we want for them but only 23 percent of them are reaching that goal, it is time to find answers to critical questions. Are we promising young scientists a future we simply cannot deliver? Are we training too many Ph.D.s? Do we prepare our trainees for the future they will have or the future we think they should have? After asking ourselves these critical questions, we owe it to the trainees — we owe it to ourselves as the stewards of biomedical research — to restructure training experiences for the realities of today.

It is here that the Tilghman Group’s report seems to fall flat. The community waited eagerly for a game-changing report with recommendations and a plan for how to build a sustainable work force, but what we got was less. The report’s conclusions admit as much, saying, “The working group is aware that similar recommendations have been made in the past by other groups that studied the biomedical research workforce.” Where the group had an opportunity to make strong, possibly unpopular recommendations on how to implement change for the good of the community, it seems to have punted that responsibility to others. That is unfortunate.

I am reminded of a quote by President Kennedy early in his administration. While talking about what he liked and disliked about the presidency, he noted that the problems that cross his desk are not easy to solve. If they were, they’d have been solved long before they reached the White House. There are difficult problems in our training system, many with unpopular solutions. It’s time the leaders of our community accept the responsibility to help find the answers.

Think you have a solution? I want to hear it! E-mail me your recommendations to create a sustainable work force, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology public affairs team will deliver them to the leadership at the NIH.


Benjamin CorbBenjamin Corb ( is director of public affairs at the ASBMB.


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This article raises a number of important and complex issues that deserve further discussion.  One of these is highlighted by the comment by Judith Bond.  The key issue is the relationship between what trainees are "sold" compared with what they perceive.  Many individuals enter graduate school with the anticipation that they will pursue academic careers because that is the only career path that they have been exposed to in any depth.  Furthermore, some components of academia have (intentionally or otherwise) placed academic careers on a higher plane than other careers, as noted by Martin Rosenberg in his essay in this issue.  Dr. Bond is correct that many institutions and organizations have taken steps to provide trainees with clearly perspectives on the wide range of career options that are potentially available to individuals with Ph.D. training in biomedical fields.  It is important that such efforts continue and reach down earlier into training period.  Jeremy Berg 

To Julie Montgomery: See the accompanying essay by Jon Lorsch on this issue. I agree completely that acknowledging that there is a range of successful career outcomes, academic and non-academic, for biomedical Ph.D.s is an important step. We tried to raise this issue in the Training Strategic Plan I was involved in at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and we need to reinforce this point, both with faculty and with trainees. Jeremy Berg 




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One of the biggest issues facing the biomedical workforce is that there are simply too many graduate students and postdocs compared to the number of positions that require their research skills. Laws of supply and demand are working unfavorably against us, hence one of the reasons there is resistance to increasing stipend levels and benefits. Also, many PIs feel that they had to "suffer" through it so others should too. However, many PIs went through the system in a completely different era. If that era was the 1970's or 1980's then chances are they obtained their PhD in 4 years, did a two or three year postdoc and then had a 1/3 chance of obtaining a tenure track faculty position. Industry jobs were expanding, so that was a healthy alternative. Those days are gone. The numbers now... 5-6 years after obtaining a PhD the percent of PhDs in a tenure-track position is down to 15% percent (See 2011 FASEB Report) and there has been 300,000 jobs lost in industry since the year 2000.


The first comment on this article that suggested the postdoc position should be entirely removed sparked quite a debate. The debate was on Twitter and you can read it here - .The views are mostly from academics and phd students in the UK and EU rather than in the USA, but many interesting points are made, both for and against the current postdoc system.


Get rid of the postdoc position entirely. PhD scientists should be treated and paid like real professionals. Instead, 6 years of training and you are still considered a trainee and given a modest stipend because you are "in training" as a post-doc. And to really hammer home your lowly status, you'll get less benefits than all the other staff. It is exploitive and part of a slave-labor culture that hurts science long term.


As a PhD graduate in molecular Biology, I very much understand the challenges that face graduate students. While I fully believe the training is valuable and your training is much more than the technical skills, businesses want more than your academic training. They want real-world experiences. Currently, I am a scientific recruiter, and I daily work with businesses to connect them to the right talent. I am constantly told that a PhD can't do this job because they have no experience, they want too much money, they aren't good team players, they are "weird," they don't know how to work on an fast time-table. While these are untrue, graduate students need more "outside of lab" time to develop their unique talents (both technical and non-bench skills), understand the market, and figure out how they can "sell" their individual skills/value to the private sector. -Idella Yamben


I am overjoyed to see this topic being discussed at this level. While I agree with Judith Bond that the PhD does not promise a specific type of employment, there is a clear expectation in most departments that most students will pursue academic careers. Given the results of this study, perhaps the first step is to stop referring to non-academic positions as "alternative" careers for PhD scientists. Fundemental changes to training programs will not happen until there is a cultural shift in the attitude towards non-academic career paths. Julie Montgomery


The article by Benjamin Corb has a number of statements that are misleading or erroneous. The most egregious is the phrase “today’s trainees are sold promises that their hard work in the lab will pay off with tenure-track positions in academia”. This is an unwarranted allegation. The statement incorrectly portrays the faculty in our profession. The PhD never promised a specific type of employment. The PhD aims to develop critical thinking and analytical skills, experimental design, communication of science, creation of new knowledge, and problem solving. These are the tools/fundamentals that are essential for a variety of employment opportunities. There are many ongoing initiatives today at universities and professional organizations (such as ASBMB and FASEB) that address the variety of career pathways for PhD scientists. It is unfortunate that the strides being made now and the opportunities that we see for the future are not fully recognized and applauded. Judith Bond



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