Oh, the places you will go with a PhD in biology!

How can we empower students and postdocs to cope with the scarcity of academic jobs by embarking on other careers where their skills are needed?

When I first came to the United States in 2006 as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Miami, I was struck by how many of my colleagues had been working as postdocs for years. Being somewhat naïve, I had assumed that a typical postdoc experience lasts for about three to four years, after which one would transition to a faculty position or move to industry. Unfortunately, in reality things are a lot different. For most postdocs, a faculty position is a distant dream. There are very few jobs and too many postdocs. This has led some to suggest that the postdoctoral system is a pyramid scheme.1 Lab heads recruit postdocs to do research, publish papers, and help get funding. But there aren’t nearly enough faculty opportunities for the number of postdocs. So how should we address this problem? Should we stop recruiting postdocs? Or worse, not train as many graduate students? While I have heard that argument in some circles, I do not agree with it. In our current environment, where science is greeted with much skepticism, we need more people trained in the scientific method and possessing scientific expertise.

Not Enough Jobs?

In the United States, about 12,500 students obtained a PhD degree in 2014.2 While in the 1970s more than 50% of PhDs in biology successfully transitioned to a faculty position, this number currently is less than 15%. Just because we are graduating more PhD students each year does not mean that universities will grow their departments and faculty accordingly. Outside of jobs in academia, trainees can consider working in industry. But even here, there aren’t enough jobs for the majority of PhD graduates.

Most students who obtain a PhD degree do not follow a traditional career path in academia. Given the broad range of skills doctoral students acquire during their training, this should come as no surprise. Our students are not trained just to design experiments and test hypotheses; they are trained in skills that are very easily transferred to other fields of work. The way I describe it, a graduate student practices and perfects over five to six years what students pursuing a master of business administration degree learn in only about 18 months. A graduate student is trained to think critically, troubleshoot effectively, manage projects, communicate complex information, train peers and subordinates, work in teams, gather new information, network, and the list goes on. Most importantly, graduate students learn how to learn. This large repertoire of skills is valuable to most industries, and there is no reason why students should limit themselves to academia or research industry positions after graduation.

Changing the Culture

I have heard PIs lament that their trainees are not pursuing careers in academia. Some believe that if you do a PhD and pursue a career outside academia, you are wasting your training. This is a culture that is frankly not helpful to either the trainees or society in general. Insisting that trainees pursue a career in academia contributes to a society where scientists continue to live in their bubbles and fail to interact with the public at large. Some of this skepticism about careers outside academia is understandable. Most PIs are not well informed about such careers. We are not equipped to provide our trainees with useful career advice in other fields. Since academia is all we know, that is what we insist on and push for. Most graduate training programs do not emphasize formally training their students for the nonacademic careers on which most STEM PhD graduates will embark. This dissonance creates ill-prepared students who do not consider nonacademic careers.

An argument against obtaining a PhD to pursue a career outside academia is that a doctoral degree takes longer than other degrees. Thus, PhD graduates starting out in nonacademic careers fall behind in pay in comparison with non-PhD graduates in the same age group. While this may be true in some cases, in several jobs a PhD degree is very valuable and enhances the ability of the individual to excel. For example, science communication, scientific writing, and research development are careers where a PhD degree provides an invaluable advantage. One must also take into consideration the cost of the degree. Most PhD programs pay a stipend and students pay nearly nothing out of pocket for tuition and fees. Almost all other terminal degrees are expensive and often result in significant student debt. A PhD degree is often the only terminal degree that students from humble means can afford.

Professional Development for Graduate Students

We at the Department of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are not immune to these challenges. To improve our students’ preparedness for entering the workforce, we organized a seminar series that featured speakers with PhDs working in diverse fields. This seminar series was funded by the National Science Foundation supplement “Improving Graduate Student Preparedness for Entering the Workforce, Opportunities for Supplemental Support.” We invited speakers with expertise in patent law, scientific writing and editing, start-ups and entrepreneurship, business consulting, science policy, government sector, and pharmaceutical industry. The seminar presentations were designed to introduce students to different careers and familiarize the students with the requirements for each career. For longer-lasting impact, the seminar speakers discussed with departmental faculty how to best prepare our graduate students for a career like theirs. Apart from the valuable information that the students learned, they also got an opportunity to network with the speakers. In some cases, the speakers expressed an interest in extending internships for students interested in their respective careers.

University career services should be more active in helping trainees navigate different career options. We also need to redesign the PhD curriculum to meet the careers goals of the degree recipients. It may be worthwhile to train students in formal project management courses, scientific writing, or other relevant courses. With a changing career landscape for PhD graduates, it is indeed time to modernize the curriculum and optimize it to the students’ needs.

In the past few years, several universities have developed strategies to improve career development for trainees. In addition to the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health has also funded several initiatives to promote career development (www.nigms.nih.gov/training/instpredoc/Pages/car-cur-dev.aspx). There is clearly a change in the culture, and students should feel more empowered now to venture into diverse careers after graduation.


1Lowe D (January 24, 2013). Too many scientists: A “pyramid scheme.” Science Translational Medicine.

2Offord C (January 1, 2017). Addressing biomedical science’s PhD problem. The Scientist.

About the Author:

Maitreyi Das is assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.