For Graduate Science Programs, It's Time to Get Real

February 25, 2013

The relationship between the number of Ph.D.'s in the sciences and the academic jobs available to them is, to put it scientifically, inversely related. Money for science has stagnated over the last decade and will most likely continue to do so, leading to too many Ph.D.'s competing for too few teaching and research jobs in academe.

Despite that troubling trend, graduate schools across the United States continue to try to increase enrollments of science students, only exacerbating the problem. While one solution would be to limit the number of students entering graduate schools, an alternate, and perhaps more constructive solution, would be to restructure graduate programs to reflect those changes and prepare students for jobs outside of academe.

Most graduate programs in the sciences are research-based, training students to critically evaluate questions in science and then learn to develop and carry out effective plans to answer those questions through research and analysis. While such training certainly fosters qualities useful in and out of science, doctoral students are generally encouraged to pursue tenure-track research-faculty positions or similar careers as independent researchers.

However, as the number of Ph.D.'s increases, their academic job prospects are diminishing. Indeed, the number of students receiving doctorates in biology increased from 3,803 in 1981 to 8,135 in 2011, while the number of biological-science Ph.D. recipients in tenure-track positions dropped precipitously from 55 percent in 1973 to 15 percent in 2006. Thus, a large majority of students are being trained for jobs they will never obtain.

Along with the decreasing job prospects, the time spent as a graduate student and as a postdoc is increasing. In 2007 the average total time to degree in the United States was almost seven years in biological sciences and nearly 10 years in medical and other life sciences, up from six and eight years, respectively, in 1977.

The number of graduates in postdoctoral positions has also drastically increased along with the percentage of graduates completing more than one postdoc position. Tellingly, the average age of a first-time National Institutes of Health grant recipient was 42 in 2008, up from 36 in 1980. As tenure-track faculty positions become less obtainable, many Ph.D.'s spend increasing amounts of time in a postdoctoral "holding pattern," waiting for an academic job.

In recent discussions about what to do with the surplus of Ph.D.'s, there has been a push to encourage them to pursue alternative careers. In a recent newsletter of the American Society for Cell Biology, President Ron Vale wrote a column suggesting that an acceptable, if not good, alternative career for science Ph.D.'s is to become elementary- or secondary-school science teachers. Other suggested options have included careers in science policy, start-up businesses, science communication/writing, nonprofit work, science publishing, patent law, technology transfer, and consulting.

While those are all commendable options, pursuing alternative careers might not be the most efficient use of time and resources after spending an average of seven years in training toward being an independent researcher. Thus, instead of trying to figure out what to do with Ph.D.'s after they have finished their training, a better alternative might be to revamp graduate education to approach the problem earlier.

Unlike law, medical, or business schools, few science departments appear to track salaries or jobs of graduates, give students an accurate picture of the job market, or make job placement a priority. Professors should make the dismal grant-proposal success rates and slim likelihood of becoming an independent investigator at a university more apparent to their students.

Similarly, career paths, including traditional and alternative careers, should be discussed at the beginning of graduate school, and more well-rounded curricula should be developed. Science programs should provide structured mentorship to students and should strengthen master's and certificate programs while encouraging interdisciplinary work. Many students enter graduate school because they have a strong interest in the sciences, but they are unsure of exactly what career they will pursue.

With Ph.D. programs centered almost entirely around a single research topic, graduates may not acquire skills translatable to various careers, and thus they may feel pressured to pursue a path toward academe. The traditional approach toward a research-based Ph.D. should certainly be available for those who are aware of the job market and want careers in higher education.

However, there should also be additional options for those who want to go further than their bachelor's but may have nontraditional needs or desires. Graduate schools could help by: increasing their connections with industry so that students could experience working in the private sector; providing more opportunities for students to engage in elementary- and secondary-school teaching; and encouraging collaboration between science departments and business, communication, and public-policy departments.

More-integrated programs would help students develop the skills necessary to use their knowledge of science in more effective ways and could help students discover their niche in science. After all, not everyone has to run a lab to be a part of the science community.

Graduate programs that provide more support to students in the sciences will most likely see more successful and more fulfilled graduates. And while this whole approach may initially take more effort on the part of colleges, in the long run it could benefit the scientific enterprise as a whole and provide a more meaningful experience in graduate education.

Amanda A. Shea is a doctoral student in human nutrition at Virginia Tech.