Four evidence-based ways universities can enhance graduate training

The biomedical and life sciences have a longstanding culture of postdoctoral training with the ultimate goal of a career as academic faculty or research tenure. Today’s industry, however, doesn’t support that model anymore, according to a study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The majority of postdoctoral scholars do not transition into faculty careers, and graduating PhDs have less interest in pursuing academia as a career path in general (Schnoes, et al).

Mark Ramsay, 2012.

Instead, some students are pursuing careers in labs, as consultants, transitioning to an MD program, and changing the landscape of the job description “biomedical scientist.” To best serve their students and subsequently the scientific fields as a whole, institutions are seeking to develop ways to improve pre- and postdoctoral training, given the many different career paths possible.

Scientific Identity

One of the biggest challenges facing PhD graduates and postdocs alike is the lack of scientific identity. That is, where am I going with this? What type of scientist am I? A 2018 University of Washington study revealed that many graduating PhD students are unsure which direction to take their work in, so they default to a postdoc position in lieu of sharpening their focus and working toward career placement. Rebecca Price noted in the paper that postdoctoral scholars will stay at their institution, languishing with long hours and low pay, with the assumption that it will become a tenured position, which is less and less likely going to be the case. This study of researchers in their postdoctoral positions examines their scientific identities via discourse analysis and interviews. The study found that the trainee or postdoc period would be far more successful with more career and technical training, sponsored by the institution.

Internships and Job Search Skills

Doctoral students may very likely never have been afforded the time or the need to work outside of an academic setting. Their mentor might have discouraged them from doing so, either because they disagree with PhD students pursuing any careers outside of a faculty-tenure track, or because honestly, that’s all they know. Another way that PhD students can absolutely better prepare themselves for post-graduate life is through an internship.

During the study conducted at USCF, collected data from its PhD internship program, The Graduate Student Internships for Career Exploration (GSICE), indicated that participating students reported gaining more confidence in their ability to make decisions regarding career choices.

The program was so successful at UCSF that it was replicated at UC Davis (Career Exploration Through Internships, or CETI), and earned similar results. A little over 20% of students in the program knew what they wanted to do after graduation, career-wise before they started, and almost 60% were confident they did afterward. The program assisted with resume writing, interview protocol, job searching, and workplace behavior, as well as providing a focus group like atmosphere for students to share experiences and figure it all out together. Having the institution support postgraduate career training with a program like this has definitely served the students well—25% of UCSF students in the study reported entry into a postdoc program, as compared with the national average of 70%.

Increasing Diversity

Improvement to graduate and postdoctoral training doesn’t necessarily only mean job placement. Institutions have also been studying the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in the biomedical sciences. The lack of diversity in the broader life sciences is a notable downfall, due to the fact that diverse groups statistically outperform homogeneous groups. A study of the challenges and interventions experienced by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) uncovered that diversifying the population of the student body can be accomplished by changes to recruitment (including financial waivers for fees), a holistic approach to admissions, and improving faculty demographics. Many URM students expressed concern and frustration in a study conducted at the University of Texas at El Paso, where they reported poor mentorship, unclear criteria for tenure and promotion, and the fact that they are less likely to receive grant funding. This has resulted in a high attrition rate of URMs in biomedical research. Institutions should pay close attention to the data and observe what URMs consider an enabler of success, and then tailor their postgraduate and postdoc programs accordingly.

As biomedical science changes, institutions can better prepare their graduate and postdoctoral students by adapting some of these evidence-based ideas to improve the trainee experience. This will result in a new style of scientist–one who knows what they are going to do with that degree.


Price, R.M., Kantrowitz-Gordon, I., & Gordon, S.E. (2018). Competing discourses of scientific identity among postdoctoral scholars in the biomedical sciences. CBE Life Sci Educ, Spring 2018(17:ar29), 1-12.

Schnoes, A.M., et al (2018). Internship experiences contribute to confident career decision making for doctoral students in the life sciences. CBE Life Sci Educ, Spring 2018(17:ar16), 1-14.

Wilson, M.A., DePass, A.L. & Bean, A.J. (2018). Institutional interventions that remove barriers to recruit and retain diverse biomedical PhD students. CBE Life Sci Educ, Spring 2018(17:ar27), 1-14.

Martinez, L.R., Boucaud, D.W., Casadevall, A. & August, A. (2018). Factors contributing to the success of NIH-designated underrepresented minorities in academic and nonacademic research positions. CBE Life Sci Educ, Spring 2018(17:ar35), 1-10.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Beth is working on her BS in Psychology at University of Maryland University College and is the summer writing intern at the American Society for Cell Biology. Email: