November 2013

Career alternatives, not alternative careers

The topic of alternative careers comes up frequently these days in the context of training programs. The term “alternative careers” tends to have a pejorative connotation that many, including me, feel is unjustified.
I’m often asked to give talks about careers, and at each, in addition to presenting general data about career options, I describe the outcomes for the 24.9 graduate students who have worked under my supervision over the course of my career.
I looked at this group because I have direct knowledge of their careers and have at least some insights into how and why they pursued the paths that they did. Of course, I do not know to what extent my experiences are representative, but I have no reason to believe that they are vastly different from those of others.
In describing their career outcomes here, I will use four categories: faculty positions in academia with both research and teaching responsibilities, other active research positions, nonresearch activities using deep scientific knowledge, and other, keeping in mind that this is not the only way of binning career outcomes and that even within these categories placement of some individuals may be ambiguous.
Within these categories, my students fall as follows:

  • • faculty positions: 7
  • • other active research positions: 7
  • • nonresearch science positions: 8
  • • other: 2.9

You probably are wondering about the 0.9. That corresponds to a student who completed all of the research for his thesis but then, against my strong advice, elected not to write up his dissertation. Instead, he went in a very different direction, spending a year selling wine and then opening his own restaurant. With plenty of hard work, this proved to be a great success, as did his second restaurant. As he approached his 50th birthday, he was considering retirement. The remaining two in the “other” category chose to pursue nonscience careers directly out of graduate school.
Each of the remaining categories is quite diverse. The nonresearch science positions include a patent attorney in private practice, a patent attorney working as an examiner in the patent office, an associate editor at a major science journal, a science writer in the pharmaceutical industry, an M.D./Ph.D. physician primarily in private practice, and two faculty members at purely teaching institutions. In about a quarter of these cases, the individuals who pursued these paths knew that they wanted to pursue careers outside of research-focused academia from fairly early in their graduate training.
The nonfaculty research positions include individuals in many sectors and at many career stages. These include three research leaders in biotechnology companies, two senior investigators in major pharmaceutical companies, the director of a core facility at a university, a chemist running her own consulting company and a post-doctoral fellow who took a decade off after graduate school to care for his children. I believe that most of the students who went into the biotech or pharmaceutical sectors were interested in this career path from early in their graduate student days or before, although one left a blossoming faculty position for an exciting opportunity in a young company and has thrived there.
The details of the faculty positions also are remarkably diverse. Two students are now in departments focused on biochemistry and are working on projects that align at least to some extent with the sorts of research they did as graduate students. Two more who worked with me when I was a chemistry faculty member are in departments of biological sciences, one working on plants and the other on viruses. One used his training in protein nuclear magnetic resonance methods and moved into magnetic resonance imaging and is now a professor of radiology. Finally, two M.D./Ph.D. students are pursuing careers in academic medicine, one in pediatrics and one in otolaryngology. The diversity of these academic career paths reflects both my rather eclectic research interests and my time in a medical school.
I am immensely proud of my students. Almost all of them are using their scientific training to contribute to society in important ways from discovery to technology development to teaching. Each has found his or her own way, sometimes in a straightforward manner and sometimes by a more circuitous path, to a position that plays to his or her skills and interests and provides an appropriate work-life balance. Some of them have risen to high positions within their organizations, including one who is now a dean.
As I hope I have illustrated above, students with training in biomedical sciences can and do go on to a wide range of different careers that depend on their scientific training. That is not to say that all career alternatives meet this criterion.
The shortage of job opportunities for scientists completing their graduate studies and postdoctoral training is a major driver of the current discussion.
Remarkably, National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins and Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey recently wrote, “We are, however, firmly committed to the premise that bioscience Ph.D.s provide invaluable contributions to a whole variety of fields. Furthermore, there is no definitive evidence that Ph.D. production exceeds current employment opportunities.”
I clearly agree with the first statement, but the second is painfully disconnected from reality. Almost anyone who has talked with or tried to help young scientists launch their independent careers knows that current employment opportunities are extremely competitive in all sectors.
This is truer than it was a decade or even five years ago, and the number of people competing for each position is the major culprit. The number of biomedical Ph.D.s trained increased by nearly 50 percent from 2002 to 2009.
This was not driven by an analysis that revealed a shortage of Ph.D.s. Rather, more students were trained because of the increase in the NIH research budget and the fact that scientists in training are the major workforce in the academic biomedical research enterprise.
Regulating the number of trainees is more complicated in biomedicine than it is in most other fields. The duration of biomedical training presents a major challenge.
In law, for example, where career opportunities changed significantly concomitant with the economic downturn, many schools responded by decreasing their class sizes by 20 percent or more. However, completion of a law degree takes only three years, so the job market usually does not change dramatically from the initiation of training to its completion. In biomedicine, with an average of more than five years for a Ph.D. and then three to six years of postdoctoral training for many positions, the job market can change dramatically over the training period.
A student who started a Ph.D. program in 2002 — with the NIH budget doubling in progress, many academic institutions adding faculty positions, and opportunities in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries relatively strong — completed his or her training within the past few years and emerged in a completely different environment. Furthermore, regulation of training class sizes is less direct in biomedicine than it is in some other fields.
Nonetheless, denial of the issue is not an acceptable option. Students must be made aware of the wide range of career options and also current job prospects in all sectors prior to or early in their training so that they can make informed decisions.
Steps should be taken to reduce the strong coupling of research activity with training so that such activity does not inevitably lead to more young scientists competing for scarce positions. Seriously addressing these issues is a key component of building a sustainable biomedical research enterprise, a topic on which the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is taking a leadership role.

Photo of Jeremy BergJeremy Berg ( is the associate senior vice-chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences and a professor in the computational and systems biology department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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