November 2009

Careers in Motion

Employment of Biomedical Science Ph.D. by economic sector

Employment of Biomedical Science Ph.D. by economic sector
Smaller percentages of biomedical Ph.D.s are employed in academia. The portion of biomedical Ph.D.s in industry and other sectors has grown steadily (adapted with permission from (2)).

Disproportionate Effects

Among many causes of the “leaky pipeline” (3), the two-body problem is likely to be a significant factor in forcing women from the ranks of academic researchers. According to Karen Ruff, a graduate student in chemical biology and former co-chair of Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, “Many women feel like they must choose either an academic career or a family.” Fifty-seven percent of undergraduates are women, and approximately half of all graduates with science degrees are women (2, 4, 5). However, less than 15 percent of tenured faculty members are women, even though women have made up more than 20 percent of all life science Ph.D. recipients in the past 30 years (5).

Historically, women have sacrificed their own careers to follow their husbands’ career ambitions. While this may be less true today, many women in academia still play the career equivalent of “follow the leader” (6). According to Ruff, “Because of the lingering expectations of gender roles, as well as the biological burden of carrying any children, a disproportionate number of women choose to be the nonacademic spouse.” Male researchers often undertake nationwide searches for the few available academic jobs, while female scientists find a way to make do wherever their spouses are given a job.

But the pressures of the two-body problem are not entirely confined to women. Men also are forced to piece together a career wherever their wives land a faculty position.

When his wife received an offer from Castleton State College, Langlais moved with his wife from Oregon to Vermont. There, Langlais took a number of short-term teaching positions in local high schools and colleges. However, a permanent, full-time academic position eluded him.

“There were just no opportunities for me,” Langlais says.

The work-life balance struggles in academia are intimately familiar to the authors of this article. Allen’s Ph.D. training kept him apart from his wife for four years. Were it not for his decision to pursue a career outside academia (see his “Career Insights” article in this issue), they might still be struggling to find careers that would allow them to live in the same city. Meanwhile, Kyle and his wife are living apart for a year as she finishes her degree.

Implications for ASBMB and Beyond

In his January 2009 “President’s Message,” Greg Petsko expressed concern about the rising age of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology membership and noted that the occupations of working biochemists are shifting toward industry. Though the two-body problem is certainly not the only cause of these demographic trends, it may play a larger role than is widely discussed. In good economic times, a job in industry or outside academia means being able to choose where you live and work. This factor could prove to be a powerful incentive that affects the willingness of young researchers to remain in the geographic limbo of academic training.

Given the current academic job market, providing career paths sensitive to the work-life balance is vital to ensure that most qualified scientists will remain in innovative biomedical research.


1. National Postdoctoral Association (2008) Postdoctoral Scholars Fact Sheet.

2. Garrison, H., and McGuire, K. (2008). Education and Employment of Biological and Medical Scientists 2008: Data from National Surveys. PowerPoint presentation prepared by FASEB Office for Public Affairs.

3. Kresge, N. (2008) Keeping Women in Science. ASBMB Today. December.

4. Association of American Colleges and Universities (2009) The Intellectual Architects of Inclusive Institutions in On Campus with Women 38, 1.

5. Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (2007) Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. The National Academies Press.

6. Jamieson, V. (2001) Love and the two-body problem. October 3.


Kyle M. Brown is the 2009–2010 ASBMB science policy fellow and can be reached at Allen Dodson was the 2008–2009 ASBMB science policy fellow and can be reached at


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