Cynthia Fuhrmann Ph.D. Assistant Professor University of Massachusetts
Ph.D.-Trained Biomedical Scientists Can No Longer Count on Finding Academic Positions Upon Graduation
Ph.D.-trained biomedical scientists have always pursued a variety of career paths. However, the movement of Ph.D.s into diverse careers within the sciences is now a rapidly growing trend, as the number of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars being trained has outpaced the growth in academic scientist positions.1 Without comprehensive tracking of long-term career outcomes, universities and funding agencies for years were able to ignore this reality.2However, in the past decade, trainees have become increasingly disgruntled with their career prospects. Many seeking faculty positions now recognize the extent to which their job search prospects have degraded, while those seeking other scientific careers commonly report feeling unsupported and/or underprepared to pursue them. As a result, graduate students too often move into postdoctoral training positions to buy more time for career exploration, an inefficiency that comes at an opportunity cost for the trainee and for our broader scientific enterprise. Ph.D. trainees generally receive outstanding scientific training, but the challenge in identifying a clear path forward has created a tension within this important segment of our workforce. Advocates for science have raised the concern that our collective disregard of the career development for these trainees could drive talent away from science in upcoming generations2–5—and trainees have begun mobilizing to advocate for change.6,7
There are two key gaps in graduate and postdoctoral education at the core of this issue. First, trainees lack knowledge about the career options available to them. Second, trainees are too often insufficiently prepared—in fundamental career planning skills, professional skills, or areas specific to their intended career path—to transition into these careers efficiently. These gaps in training are compounded by the underlying culture of academe, which strongly values research-intensive academic career paths over other career outcomes8,9 and devalues career development as a distraction from thesis or postdoctoral research. This culture impacts trainees, discouraging students and postdocs from taking their own actions or participating in campus offerings even where they do exist. But in today's competitive and diverse job market, students and postdocs must be empowered to make informed career decisions early in their training and take strategic steps to make themselves competitive candidates (Figure 1).
To support the next generation of scientists, we as faculty mentors, university administrators, and leaders of graduate programs need to develop a culture that encourages the career development of our trainees, and enhance our educational approach such that career exploration and development of our trainees can occur in synchrony with their research. We are at a tipping point: after years of national reports raising concern about the sustainability of the biomedical research work force, many in the scientific community are beginning to embrace formalized career development as one of many parallel approaches toward sustainability. But we have only begun. What should be the next steps forward?
Here, I will reflect on the movement that brought Ph.D. career development into the spotlight, and my observations of how this movement has influenced both the academic community and the field of career development. Then, I will outline next steps we can take to capitalize on the momentum. For universities still on the fence regarding the value of investing in career development programs, I will share my own views on how a relatively small investment can ultimately benefit the university's research and academic missions—and how to get started efficiently by taking advantage of the many models and resources that already exist. I will describe minimal yet meaningful steps that individual faculty can take to support the career development of their students and postdocs. Finally, I will propose actions we can take as a broader scientific community to support the emerging field of biomedical Ph.D. career development as a scholarly endeavor, so that we as a nation can continue to address the evolving needs of the biomedical workforce.
The perspective I offer is rather unique. When I entered the field of career development by joining a career center just over 10 years ago, it was rare for a Ph.D. scientist to be in such a role. Crossing disciplines has helped me appreciate how the academic community and career development community can work toward common goals synergistically. Over the years, I have had the privilege of contributing to national conversation about career development and workforce issues at dozens of universities, professional society meetings, and summits, as well as with funders. These experiences have given me insights into the richness and disparities of structured career development programs across U.S. academic institutions, challenges commonly faced by institutions launching new programs (and solutions to address them), and both the progress and inefficiencies born out of the recent rapid expansion of this already-disperse field.
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Human Gene Therapy, published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., is the premier, multidisciplinary journal covering all aspects of gene therapy. The Journal publishes in-depth coverage of DNA, RNA, and cell therapies by delivering the latest breakthroughs in research and technologies.The above article was first published in the November 2016 issue of Human Gene Therapy with the title “Enhancing Graduate and Postdoctoral Education To Create a Sustainable Biomedical Workforce”. The views expressed here are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of Human Gene Therapy, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers, or their affiliates. No endorsement of any entity or technology is implied.