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Branching Careers Pipeline - Not all paths lead to academic careers

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Most local and national initiatives have focused on assisting young biomedical investigators as they transition to academic positions. A gaping hole remains: as a scientific community we have ignored the many doctoral trainees who will pursue non-traditional career paths



The excerpts below are from an important new study showing that interest in non-academic, non-research careers is increasing among PhD and postdocs in the biomedical sciences. They are from the original peer-reviewed essay, "Improving Graduate Education to Support a Branching Career Pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences," published in the Fall 2011 issue of CBE-Life Sciences Education by C. N. Fuhrmann and colleagues. For a complete statistical analysis of the data and further discussion (including a comparison of these data to those published for the humanities and social sciences), please see the complete article: [] Fuhrmann, C.N.*, Halme, D. G., O'Sullivan, P., Lindstaedt, B. (2011) "Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences." CBE-Life Sciences Education 10: 239-249.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Money, Happiness, and a Fulfilling Retirement


Tomorrow's Academic Careers 

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Branching Careers Pipeline - Not all paths lead to academic careers




Forty years ago, the career trajectory of PhD-level basic biomedical scientists could be described as a linear pipeline. Trainees moved from doctoral to postdoctoral training, and ultimately to tenure-track faculty positions. As the number of trainees has outpaced the availability of academic positions, an increasing number of PhD-trained scientists have pursued careers outside of academia. In fact, today's PhD students and postdoctoral scholars commonly follow diverse career paths. Not only are PhD-trained scientists pursuing research careers beyond academe, but increasing numbers are leaving research altogether.

To better understand the career choices-and timing of these choices-among doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences, we surveyed graduate students at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a campus whose graduate programs are among the top-ranked in the nation. We found that large numbers of students are considering paths beyond academe-and even beyond research. While early-stage students reported strong interest for the "traditional" academic path (i.e., becoming a principle investigator (PI) in an academic setting), interest in this career path dropped during the first three years of training. Interestingly, there was no significant change in interest for other research career paths (i.e., research-intensive careers in biotechnology/pharmaceuticals, in government, or non-principal investigator research careers in academia). Instead, student interest in non-research career paths increased. By the later years in graduate school, fully one-third of students would choose a non-research career path (such as the business of science, teaching - or education-related, science policy, and science writing; see paper for figures and statistical analyses). The prevalent interest in such diverse career paths-and the early timing of students' career decisions-are important to consider as we ensure that the training offered appropriately prepares these talented scientists for their future careers.

Are these local effects or a national trend?

While UCSF may be unusual among graduate institutions in certain ways (discussed in the complete article), it is hardly unique. Many basic biomedical sciences doctoral programs are similarly housed in research-intensive academic medical centers. Many of these programs also attract highly talented students. We predict that a national survey of similar institutions would reveal that graduate students' career decisions follow a similar trend, with a drop in interest for research-intensive academic positions following a year of full-time experience at the bench. Preliminary discussions of the data with colleagues at other institutions support this prediction, but a formal cross-institutional study should be done.

How should we react to these data?

In combination, our data and data from prior studies (Aanerud, et al., 2006; Golde and Dore, 2001; Mason, et al., 2009) support three recommendations for how we as scientists, educators, and policy makers can strengthen graduate training, improve student wellness and satisfaction, and produce a more highly-skilled national scientific workforce.

1. Shift academic culture to embrace the "branching" science career pipeline

We believe that the academic community should be supportive of individual PhD-level trainees who are interested in pursuing careers beyond the traditional academic path. Our data show that trainees do not make major career decisions lightly; respondents shared thoughtful reasons for changing their career choice away from the traditional research-intensive PI track. The PI track, and the lifestyle, stressors, and lack of security currently associated with it, is not a fit for everyone. Moreover, there are not enough jobs in the academic sector for all PhD-trained life scientists, and this "supply-demand" gap is growing each year (Cyranoski, et al., 2011; National Research Council, 2011; Teitelbaum, 2008). With only 14% of PhD's in the biological sciences entering tenure-track positions within 5-6 years of earning their PhD (2006 data; Stephan, 2012), how can we continue to devalue other career paths? Finally, it is important for us to have PhD-trained scientists in roles that will benefit the scientific enterprise as a whole. They provide services that are critical to the advancement of science in today's world, by developing and running research facilities, working with researchers to patent discoveries, bringing those discoveries to market, funding research, setting policies, and teaching future generations of scientists. As a scientific community and as individual mentors, we should be applauding PhD graduates who move on to become leaders in any science-related career path.

2. Integrate career development into the graduate curriculum

Our national investment in graduate-level training will be optimized when trainees have a positive graduate experience, and then move on equipped to succeed in their future career paths.

The branching nature of today's biomedical sciences career pipeline-and trainees' low confidence in their career choices within this pipeline-underscores the need for structured career planning at the doctoral level, yet few science trainees are provided with career planning assistance. A lack of career planning is likely one factor that contributes to the high proportion of students who move on to postdoctoral training (80% of all biological sciences PhD's nationally (National Research Council, 2011)), even though this additional training is unnecessary for most of the students who prefer to follow a non-research career path.

Currently, career discussions between students and mentors often occur near the end of training, if at all. Our data emphasizes that this is too late; students are making career decisions early in their doctoral research experience. Career education, guidance and mentoring-tailored to the needs of students in the basic biomedical sciences and provided early in students' graduate education-would help students make career decisions from a well-informed position. Students considering non-research career paths (or research career paths outside of academia) may greatly benefit from an opportunity to try out this new role through a short-term internship. This would help ensure that career decisions are made based on realistic expectations.

Skills in areas such as interpersonal communication, presentation, leadership, management, and networking are imperative for success in all careers. Teaching skills are also needed in many of the career choices. Yet, with our traditional emphasis on developing scientific knowledge and research skills in graduate education, few if any resources are dedicated to the broader professional development of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Graduate education should be supplemented to include structured training and mentoring in these broader professional skills areas-to prepare students for success in the broad range of traditional or non-traditional science-related careers. Students could each create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) to design and then discuss their own professional skills training with mentors, to help ensure that it is pursued in a time efficient and productive manner.

Some will argue that encouraging students to explore career options and prepare for these careers will take time away from the lab, and detract from research training. However, recent studies suggest that career development activities do not negatively impact research training or productivity (in fact, the opposite may be true-see complete article). Even so, there is typically pressure on trainees to minimize distractions from research. Graduate students and postdocs make up as much as 50% of the basic biomedical research workforce (National Research Council, 2011), and their tuition and stipends are increasingly funded by PIs' research grants (National Institute of General Medical Sciences, 2011). This creates an inherent conflict of interest for the PI: maintaining a successful lab while also mentoring trainees within that lab (Benderly, 2010; National Institute of General Medical Sciences, 2011). One way to alleviate this conflict of interest is to give thesis committees, rather than individual PI's, the responsibility of overseeing student career development. It would be appropriate for thesis committees to participate in career-related mentoring, discuss with the student his/her Individual Development Plan, and help the student and PI negotiate an appropriate level of time spent toward career-related activities.

3. Transform graduate education policy at the national level

Change in graduate education is often motivated by policies set at the national level. As such, it is important to consider how actions by national agencies might impact our view of the branching scientific pipeline and our ability to assist trainees in their career development.

Although the concept of the branching pipeline is becoming more broadly accepted at the institutional level and by individual faculty mentors, national funding agencies continue to use the traditional academic pathway as the formal definition of success. For example, in a ranking of graduate schools released in 2010 by the National Research Council, student career outcome was defined as the percent of PhD's "with definite plans for an academic position" (National Research Council, 2010). In addition, currently most-if not all-biomedical funding sources evaluate U.S. doctoral training programs based in part on the success of alumni, with many measures of success pointing to principal investigator-level positions in academia. Funding agencies and review committees should explicitly re-define the description of a "successful" PhD graduate as one whose contributions promote the scientific enterprise, including a variety of research and non-research career paths, in both academic and non-academic sectors. This would allow graduate schools to more freely support and encourage graduate students who are considering such career paths.

In addition to redefining a successful career outcome, funding agencies could urge institutions to incorporate career development components into all graduate programs. As discussed above, preparation of our future scientific leaders should include training beyond scientific knowledge and research skills. To promote this broader curriculum, funding agencies should define national expectations for mentoring, professional skills training, and career development for graduate and postdoctoral trainees, and provide funding to implement the recommendations described above.

Concluding Remarks

Part of our responsibility as educators is to adequately prepare doctoral students for success in their upcoming careers. To achieve this, we will need to realign our goals in graduate education with the realities of today's "branching science career pipeline". Pursued simultaneously, the cultural, academic, and policy changes recommended in this and other reports will help us continue to develop talented, confident, and well-trained scientific professionals who will contribute directly to our research enterprise as trainees, then move on to diverse careers that will elevate the pace and quality of scientific discovery, improving the health of our nation and our world.


Aanerud, R., Homer, L., Nerad, M., Cerny, J. (2006). Paths and perceptions: Assessing doctoral education using career path analysis. In: The Assessment of Doctoral Education: Emerging Criteria and New Models for Improving Outcomes. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Benderly, B. L. (2010). The real science gap. Miller-McCune, June 14, 2010. (accessed 24 January 2011).

Cyranoski, D., Gilbert, N., Ledford, H., Nayar, A., Yahia, M. (2011). The PhD Factory: The world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop? Nature, 472, 276-279.

Golde, C.M. and Dore, T. M. (2001). At cross purposes: What the experiences of doctoral students reveal about doctoral education, Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Mason, M. A., Goulden, M., and Frasch, K. (2009). Why graduate students reject the fast track. Academe 95, 11-16.

National Institute of General Medical Science (2011). Investing in the future: The National Institute of General Medical Sciences strategic plan for biomedical and behavioral research training, Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health. (accessed 6 March 2011).

National Research Council (2010). A data-based assessment of research-doctorate programs in the United States, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council (2011). Research training in the biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research sciences, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Stephan, P. (2012) How economics shapes science. Harvard University Press, in press.

Teitelbaum, M. (2008). Research funding: Structural disequilibria in biomedical research. Science, 321, 644-645.