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 Corb (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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