Posts Tagged ‘Postdoctoral research’

Heroes in Medical Research: The Postdoctoral Fellow

Writer: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D

Thank your Postdoc

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) had its Fifth Annual Celebration Of National Postdoc Appreciation Week (NPAW) in September and I wanted to focus a posting on curating stories from postdoctoral fellows as well as private investigators (PIs) and mentors on the impacts that postdoctoral fellows had in research and to recognize the critical and tremendous contributions which postdocs make to science.

During our postdoctoral years, we develop deep friendships which last a lifetime, a close bonding to our kindred scientists different in nature than our bonding with our mentors.  Nothing can replace a great mentor but our fellow postdocs make a huge difference in our complete scientific training.

                                   It’s always the little things that stand out in our fondest memories

Unfortunately I have a plethora of fond, little memories; too many for this posting but just want to ad in a few things:

  • Thank you!    –  To all those postdocs who worked tirelessly to make a memorable PostDoc Day!
  • Thank you!  –  To all my postdoc colleagues who stayed late n the lab with me giving each other moral and scientific support
  • Thank you!  – All my postdoc friends who would give up their time to show me how to make and use a text box correctly in Word
  • Thank you!  =-  for your friendship and understanding in those rough times we had experienced

To enliven the discussion, I ask that postdocs, past, present, and future, as well as PI’s and postdoc mentors comment on their postdoc experience. I also would like PI’s to share the stories how their postdocs made an impact to their labs.

A few interesting links and articles from the web on the importance and struggles of postdocs are included below:

Keith Micoli, from New York University Langone Medical Center states in an Elsevier article on The Academic Executive Brief

Consequently, it’s very difficult to come up with accurate numbers. Current estimates on number of postdocs come between 40,000 and 90,000 — a range that is unacceptable. A solid bet is that there are 60,000 postdocs and that more than half, if not two thirds or higher, are international.

– from US research enterprise powered by international postdocs by Keith Micoli at NYU

Survey Methodology

Since Science started conducting annual surveys seven years ago, alternating between polling postdocs and postdoc advisors, the attributes that survey respondents select as being most important to a successful postdoc have not varied much.This year’s survey was launched on March 15, 2011, with e-mail invitations sent out to about 40,000 current and former postdoc advisors worldwide. Of the 798 completed surveys that were collected, 71 percent came from Europe (39 percent) and North America (32 percent). The remaining respondents were located in Asia/Australia/Pacific Rim (20 percent) or other areas of the world (9 percent). Most were males (72 percent) 40 years of age and older (76 percent) and worked in academic institutions (70 percent) and government organizations (13 percent). The primary area represented was the life sciences (57 percent).

However only a handful of institutions were featured.

An open letter to AAAS journal “Science”: Postdocs need to address the “The Future of Research”


This letter, posted on the Winnower.com, was a response to Callier’s article “Ailing academia needs culture change”1 and discussed how postdoctoral fellows have to lead in effecting change if the US research enterprise is to flourish in the future. In addition, the authors have been organizing Boston area postdoctoral associations and are sponsoring a symposium to be held at Boston University October 2-3 2014, focusing on the challenges facing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows: the “Future of Research” symposium (futureofresearch.org, @FORsymp).

  1. V. Callier, N. L. Vanderford. “Ailing academia needs culture change.” Science, 2014: 345; 6199: 885. DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6199.885-b

On the surface, many acknowledge the importance of postdoctoral fellows to the US research effort,


Please read Jacquelyn Gil, Ph.D.’s GREAT blog post

Have you hugged your postdoc today?

in The Contemplative Mammoth about her surviving postdoctoral life.

For some postdoc humor go to

http://phdcomics.com/comics.php where Jorge Cham, Ph.D. has been satiring the Ph.D. life since he was a graduate student in the late 90’s.

and see if you could be a star in their movie about Ph.D.’s: The PhD Movie and the sequel.

Don’t Underestimate Your Postdoc

Dr. Thomas C. Sudhof, MD is an example of a postdoctoral fellow making great contributions to a lab. A summary of his work is seen below and obtained from the site thebestschools.org on the “50 Most Influential Scientists”.


Thomas C. Südhof

Thomas C. Südhof is a biochemist and professor in the School of Medicine in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. He is best known for his work in the area of synaptic transmission, which is the process by which signaling chemicals known as neurotransmitters are released by one neuron and bind to and activate the receptors of another neuron.

Südhof won the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Randy Schekman and James Rothman.

Südhof, a native of Germany, obtained his MD from the University of Göttingen and conducted his postdoctoral training in the department of molecular genetics at the University of Texas’s Health Science Center. During his postdoctoral training, he worked on describing the role of the LDL receptor in cholesterol metabolism, for which Michael S. Brown and Joseph L. Goldstein were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1985.


Another example from the site includes Dr. Craig Mello (Craig C. Mello’s Home Page.) who, along with Dr., Andrew Fire discovered RNAi when both at Carnegie Institute. Both received a Nobel for their work.

So again would love to hear and curate personal stories highlighting how postdocs make a great contribution to US science.

More articles in this “Heroes in Medical Research” series and posts on Scientific Careers from this site include:

Heroes in Medical Research: Green Fluorescent Protein and the Rough Road in Science

Heroes in Medical Research: Developing Models for Cancer Research

Heroes in Medical Research: Dr. Carmine Paul Bianchi Pharmacologist, Leader, and Mentor

Heroes in Medical Research: Dr. Robert Ting, Ph.D. and Retrovirus in AIDS and Cancer

Heroes in Medical Research: Barnett Rosenberg and the Discovery of Cisplatin

Science Budget FY’14: Stakeholders’ Reactions on Selective Budget Drops and Priorities Shift

Careers for Researchers Beyond Academia


Read Full Post »

Reporter: Aviva lev-Ari, PhD, RN

Rock Talk

Helping connect you with the NIH perspective

Diversifying the Training Experiences of the Biomedical Research Workforce

Posted on March 8, 2013 by 

I’m eager to tell you about another important biomedical workforce-related initiative that NIH is launching based on the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) working group recommendations. This initiative seeks to expand existing research training and allow research institutions to best prepare their trainees for a variety of research-related career outcomes. The ACD working group report showed that while almost half of US-trained doctorates work in academia, an increasing proportion of newly trained doctorates finds employment opportunities in non-academic sectors and in other research-related occupations.

US-trained doctorates post-training employment as of 2008: 18% non science related, 18% science-related non-research, 6% government research, 18% industry research, 43% academia. NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates data based on 130,000 individuals which is an underestimate of total biomedical research workforce

Especially in challenging financial times, it is important to not only prepare trainees for a diverse set of career outcomes, but to leverage existing resources and enlist additional support from the potential beneficiaries of NIH-supported training – the employers of PhD scientists. TheBroadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program aims to do just that.

The BEST awards will be piloted through the NIH Common Fund, and support the development of new and innovative methods for preparing graduate students for the full breadth of research and research-related careers in the biomedical, behavioral, social, or clinical sciences. How applicant research institutions choose to approach this may vary. For example, scientific research institutions might initiate mutually beneficial collaborations with schools of business, public policy or economics, or might propose developing partnerships beyond academia and engaging the private sector or non-profit entities. But all programs should introduce students and postdoctoral scientists to the wide array of biomedical careers early in their training, and provide them with experiences in the career they plan to pursue, in addition to their PhD studies and traditional postdoctoral training.

BEST intends to change the culture of biomedical graduate education by seeding the development of diverse training experiences. Up to 15 BEST awards will be made in fiscal year 2013 to support research institutions’ program and administrative needs during the initial stages of development, and to create self-sustaining programs in collaboration with external support. Communication among awardees and rigorous monitoring of outcomes are essential aspects of this award program so that effective and proven models for training can be shared with universities across the United States.

We plan to review applications to the BEST funding opportunity this summer. An informational webinar to advise applicants will be held in March, letters of intent are due in April, and applications are due in May of this year; more details on the program are in the NIH GuideNotice and on the program website.

As the centerpiece of all the ACD biomedical workforce recommendations, this program is an important part of supporting the biomedical research enterprise as a whole, at all stages of the scientific process. This investment is just the beginning of how we prepare biomedical research trainees for a broader set of career options, and I look forward to following the work of BEST awardees as they pioneer these diverse training programs.



  1. It’s fantastic that the ACD is recognizing the need for training and experiential learning outside of pure academic career tracks! I am part of a group of graduate students and postdocs at Washington University School of Medicine who, while looking for an opportunity to gain training and experience, formed a nonprofit consulting company that forms collaborations between early and late stage life sciences companies and small groups of graduate students and postdocs. Through these team strategic consulting projects, all participants whether academic or non-academic focused, receive hands-on, real-world learning experiences. These opportunities train participants in becoming effective communicators, collaborators, leaders, and managers—skills that are often under-developed in many recent graduates and aspiring principal investigators. The group has had tremendous success over the past two years working with 32 companies and 140+ student consultants, many of whom have gone onto academic and non-academic careers and even started their own company. The group also earmarks a significant portion of their revenue for outreach initiatives to support science and career development throughout the community. Importantly, because these projects are inexpensive, the demand for the services is high throughout the country, opening up a huge opportunity for similar initiatives to develop at other universities. Indeed, several groups of graduate students around the U.S are currently taking steps to creating similar initiatives at their institution. We hope the BEST program can foster similar self-sustaining initiatives.

  2. Could anyone from the Rock Talk Blog team comment on why NSF survey data from 2008 is being shown here instead of data from 2011 which was released in December? It would seem to me that the 2011 data would be much more relevant given that 2008 was the start of the recession and that 2% unemployment number back then must have surely risen since then. I would also be curious to see how the percent of people in “Academia” and “Industry research” has changed from 2008 to 2011. My guess is that in the three years from 2008-2011 there have been some dramatic changes in these percentages with “Academia” and “Industry research” comprising now less than 40% combined.


Read Full Post »

A P(hD)aradox

Author: Ziv Raviv, PhD


The educative and manpower training method in natural sciences faculties in their essence are unique among the other academics units. The fundamental differences lie in the fact that research in natural science is extremely expensive, extensive, time consuming, and requires a team effort within the research group and cooperation between research laboratories. The reasons for natural science research being so expensive start from high costly equipment, tremendous expensive costs of research materials (particularly in life science and medical research but not restricted to these fields), and as a direct derivative from the very nature of such research, the costs of training personal. As a research student, all along the way, one is usually being paid by a stipend that should be sufficient to cover the costs of living, giving the research student the “industrial peace” needed to be focused on his/her laboratory studies efforts. Some of the money for scholarship comes from institutional built-in funding mechanisms while other could come from training-directed governmental or privet funds, or directly from PI research grants. This money is very supportive to the research student; however, it is given usually without any social benefits. This way, a PhD student that is rolling in the system, going on further with post-doc studies, could found himself losing about 10 years of social benefits rights that he could have accumulate otherwise. Moreover, upon termination of training period as a PhD or post-doc, one has no guarantee for getting a job. That is since the different universities and research institutes are recruiting only a very limited amount of new PIs, and positions such as research associates and lab managers are not so common and usually are only partially funded by the research institute/university while the rest is funded by PIs own research grants which are not a stable source for salary (at least in the EU and Israel, where the author of these lines comes from). Those facts leave PhD scientists with very limited choices working in the academy.  On the other hand, given the restricted academic-directed training that had been given to the PhD student, one has limited tools and chances to be integrated in the industry. This creates a tremendous crisis for the PhD researcher’s career that found himself in an advanced stage of his life without a real dissent career choice and with no social benefits, forcing him to make decisions of alternate careers pathways and directions that not always fit and justify the tremendous efforts and investments he and the system had made thus far. Yes, life sometimes is not fair, however, a systematic drastic changed should arise in order to recompense an average PhD researcher on his unlimited effort he made. The current situation is very cynical. One is working very hard trying the best to publish well and go on further in the academic scale, but if not succeeds (and to be honest, how many of post-docs are really successive?), many PhD scientists find themselves without any further actual career choice, discovering that they are overqualified to the few jobs around.  So, the academic system that relies on the manpower of PhD students and post-docs, where there is no doubt regarding to their crucial role in carrying the scientific research efforts on their back, is not supporting a PhD scientist beyond his training period. I am not getting into the point of young PIs difficulty of recruiting money, although it is part of the problem. For this matter please see the article by Lawrence PA [1].

Thus, what are the optional solutions for this unfortunate condition? No easy resolutions and no guaranties that the following suggestions will actually work. The first one would be more governmental funding for research combined with restricting the amount of research laboratories in each university and research institute. The rational is that most of the laboratories are competing on the same pool of grants available, therefore increasing funding in on hand while decreasing the number of research labs on the other hand will be resulted in a grater probability for a single laboratory to obtain grants and to be able to fund its research students.  In addition, the research institutes and universities must include at least a minimal built-in social benefits package to research students, and that is without affecting the salary value i.e., because a scholarship in this avenue is similar to a salary and IRS rules would be applied, as a consequence that could decrease the net sum being finally reaching the student pocket. Therefore, there is a need to increase the gross being paid. However, this is costly, thus a governmental intervention and assistance is needed in this case as well. In order it to succeed, for every laboratory there will be a limited and restricted number of master, PhD, and post-doc researchers to be allowed. A laboratory that has an excess funding from privet funds would be allowed to hire more students yet will have to follow the rules mentioned above. All of the above should give result to stopping the current absurd condition of training too many PhDs and consequently will prevent many of them from being facing a severe situation upon graduation and post-doc training termination.

The second point would be increasing the amount of research associate/lab manager positions in the laboratories within the academy, maybe even as a mandatory policy. This position should be funded by the institute and by governmental money. The advantage of hiring a PhD level research associate is priceless. Such personal comes with excess of experience and knowledge in conducting scientific research with all that entails, giving a strong contribution to the research lab and a close assistance to the lab PI. Such stable position of a research associate together with that of a lab technician would establish a firm core for the laboratory existence and operation.

The third issue would be increasing the portion of industry-directed academic research. This would be achieved by developing specific educative programs directed to the privet market needs. There are too many occasions where a PhD scientist encountered the almost sealed wall of “experience in the industry”. Industrial R&D is different from academic in some very core issues yet at the same time relays on solid scientific basic academic research and manpower. Educative programs in universities for shifting from pure academic/scientific research toward industrial directed research should be developed. These programs should include courses in economics, business and market regulations. This definitely will allow the opening of new avenues for PhD researchers. The realization of such programs could be achieved for example by doing a post-doc training at the industry, however, to date only few companies are having such programs pointing that the industry should be involved directly in such means. As for all of the above solutions, here as well, a governmental support for such programs should be taken in consideration.

The governmental interest of supporting these three solutions is evident. A government that invests so much money in one’s education should perform a tremendous effort to keep this individual under its mandatory; otherwise, the “brain drain” outside of a certain country would not be stopped. It should be an interest of governmental establishment to keep and preserve such talented personal. Surly academic and industry are not alike and the very essence of science is international cooperation, nevertheless, a nation should invest more in “excellence centers” to try and keep its human recourses within its arms.


1. Lawrence PA (2009) Real lives and white lies in the funding of scientific research: the granting system turns young scientists into bureaucrats and then betrays them. PLoS Biol 7 (9):e1000197

Read Full Post »

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

The information below is posted on our Scientific Web Site in solidarity with all the Young Life Sciences Scientists in the US, Canada and around the Globe regarding the discrepancy in the marketplace between high supply of highly qualified young scientists and the low demand for their talent by Academia and by the Pharmaceutical and Biotech Industries as evidenced by few jobs for that valuable talent.

The matter has been address by the NIH and was reported in my post on June 27, 2012

Picturing US-Trained PhDs’ Paths and Pharmaceutical Industry’s Crisis of Productivity: Partnerships between Industry and Academia


Related matters on that subject are addressed in the following Posts by Dr. Jonathan Thon

Dr. Thon holds joint appointments within the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston, and is an American Society of Hematology Scholar.

The truly bleak job prospects for young scientists in the life sciences

Posted on July 30, 2012 by Jonathan Thon

The following is my response to a letter from Canada’s federal minister of health, Leona Aglukkaq, who was in turn responding to an earlier letter from me:

Honourable Leona Aglukkaq,

Thank you first and foremost for taking the time to respond to my letter on February 7, 2012, regarding the lack of opportunity for early-career scientists in Canada (see the health minister’s response here). While the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is taking positive steps to meet its stated goals of attracting and retaining the best researchers, the Canadian government is failing to acknowledge how truly bleak the job prospects for young scientists are in the life sciences. While resources will always be limiting, the government needs to appreciate that current federal investment in biomedical science is insufficient to maintain the present rate of scientific advancement and falls short of supporting a sustainable pipeline of talented new health researchers. What’s more, this country’s overabundance of PhDs has kept postdoctoral salaries at a rate of $38,000 per year, which is shockingly low when one considers that a four-year undergraduate degree and five-year graduate program are required to fill the role. Worse still, it has extended postdoctoral fellowships (considered neither “student” nor “faculty” positions in Canada) to between four and eight years, creating a temporary “holding pattern” from which most young scientists ultimately transition to other careers.

If Canada is not prepared to make the necessary investment in academic biomedical research, universities must not be permitted to continue to push PhD students and postdoctoral fellows through the present system blindly, with complete disregard to the lack of academic career opportunities that await them. By failing to adapt to current labour market trends, the Canadian people are investing a significant amount of time and money into training highly-educated life scientists to take up positions that simply do not exist, forcing them into under-employment in the private sector. Not only does this represent a terrible return on investment, but it is stunting economic growth. The number of graduate students being trained for academic science positions that 80 percent of them will never fill needs to decrease significantly and the focus needs to shift from academic professorships to alternative professions as support scientists and consultants in neighbouring industries including medicine, finance, teaching and law.

Recently, both the U.S. National Academies and the National Institutes of Health’s Biomedical Workforce issued reports exhorting universities to “improve the capacity of graduate programs to attract talented students by addressing issues such as attrition rates, time-to-degree, funding, and alignment with both student career opportunities and national interests.” To accomplish this, the U.S. National Academies recommend that institutions “restructure doctoral education to […] shorten time-to-degree and strengthen the preparation of graduates for careers both in and beyond the academy.” The NIH concurred, citing the need to “involve relevant employers in the public and private sector in designing and training paths for students.” Among the reforms called for are:

  • Information and guidance about career opportunities and training in skills relevant to non-academic jobs to be provided to all graduate students and post-doctoral fellows on fellowships or principal investigator grants as normal parts of their programs.
  • Limitations to the period any individual can spend as a graduate student of post-doctoral fellow, which must be covered in its entirety under “any combination of training grants, fellowships and research project grants.”
  • Increasing the proportion of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows that receive support through fellowships and training grants versus faculty research grants, to shift the focus from the principal investigators’ labour needs to young scientists’ professional development. The report emphasizes that the overall number of young scientists supported should not increase.
  • Institutional tracking over time of career outcomes for all their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, which should be made publicly available.

The last two recommendations are perhaps the most important and I have separated them here for added emphasis.

  • To improve career opportunities and limit the overproduction of transient trainees, labs should replace many of their post-doctoral fellow slots with permanent staff scientist positions.
  • Post-doctoral pay and benefits must improve. The Biomedical Workforce proposes implementing a starting salary of $42,000 (which I still consider to be a discouraging return on the increasingly lengthening 5-year investment necessary to earn a PhD), with a “large jump between [post-doctoral] years 3 and 4” intended “to incentivize principal investigators to move fellows to permanent positions.” Given the current state of academic science, the Biomedical Workforce felt it necessary to add that “all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers on any form of support (training grants, fellowships, or research project grants) [should] receive benefits that are comparable to other employees at the institution,” including paid vacation, parental leave, healthcare, and retirement plans.

The government of Canada has done little to acknowledge and less to address the current overabundance of highly-trained young PhD scientists in low-paying dead-end jobs whose expertise will ultimately (after a significant period of re-training) be better served in other industries. While the CIHR’s efforts to improve current funding practices are necessary, they will not prove sufficient to resolve this issue. The current approach to training scientists and moving them through the labour force is frighteningly inefficient. Training more research scientists than we have the funds to support is not the solution – it is the problem. Acknowledging that we are facing a crisis and implementing the aforementioned recommendations will dramatically improve working conditions for young scientists while curbing inefficiencies in our labour market that are serving to limit economic growth.

Post to Twitter

In a concerted effort to practice what I preach, I write often to the Office of the Prime Minister to highlight issues facing early-career scientists in Canada. To their credit, I always receive a response. Below is a transcript of the most recent letter I received from the Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq. Please see ‘Bring home the scientific troops’ to review previous transcripts.

Dear Dr. Thon:

The office of the Prime Minister has forwarded to me a copy of your correspondence of February 7, 2012, concerning opportunities for young scientists in Canada.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recognizes the role that new and early career investigators play in creating a sustainable foundation for Canadian health research. In its second strategic plan entitled Health Research Roadmap: Creating innovative research for better health and health care, the CIHR stated its intention to build capacity to attract and retain the best researchers by working with partners at all levels, including teaching hospitals, other federal funding agencies and federal departments. This will involve, among other things, ensuring that sufficient operational support is provided by rectifying the inconsistencies in postdoctoral funding and reviewing the level and form of financial assistance provided.

As part of the CIHR’s commitment to ensuring the long-term sustainability of its contribution to the Canadian health research enterprise, the CIHR has also initiated a process to design a new open suite of programs and peer review system. The new design responds to concerns such as yours from the health community that we need to be providing more support for new and early career investigators.

In the new open suite of programs, the CIHR is considering specific support to new and early career investigators with excellent training and early career productivity to ensure that these researchers have an opportunity to build promising programs of research and knowledge translation. In a new scheme that focuses on projects, the CIHR is considering giving priority in the first stage of review to the quality of the idea with limited information about the track record of the applicant. This would remove some of the biases or barriers (real or perceived) for new and early career investigators.

The CIHR’s direct training programs are not changing as part of this process and will continue to be a part of the CIHR’s strategy to support a sustainable pipeline of talented new health researchers into the health research enterprise.

It should also be noted that the CIHR’s Strategy for Patient Oriented Research also has a focus on developing the talent pool for clinical research in Canada. You can follow the development of this important strategy on their website athttp://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

With regard to your concern about the low levels of successful applications in the CIHR’s Open Operating Grants Program, it should be noted that in February 2008, the CIHR pledged to create and maintain a stable Open Operating Grant Program. This included a commitment to fund at least 400 new grants per competition (800 per year). This commitment will be maintained with the new program structure.

The CIHR currently funds some 14,000 researchers and trainees. In designing the new funding program, the CIHR’s intent is to continue supporting a similar number of investigators and trainees. Furthermore, the CIHR is committed to ensuring that approximately 70 percent of the grants and awards budget continues to be allocated to support investigator-initiated research.

I appreciate having had this opportunity to respond to your concerns.


Leona Aglukkaq

c.c. Office of the Prime Minister

I will be responding to Ms. Aglukkaq’s letter in my following post – and I encourage you to do the same. You can contact the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq at:

House of Commons
458 Confederation Building
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Tel: (613) 992-2848
Fax: (613) 996-9764
Email: Leona.Aglukkaq@parl.gc.ca

The research bottleneck – flying blind

Posted on June 25, 2012 by Jonathan Thon

Post to Twitter

The Bridges to Independence report (NRC, 2005) reveals that the number of PhD-trained life scientists in the United States ages 35 and younger increased by 59 percent between 1993 and 2001 while the number of these scientists in tenure-track positions increased by only 7 percent. At research institutions this number decreased by 12 percent over the same period of time. Studies by Michael S. Teitelbaum (Research funding: structural disequilibria in biomedical research. Science 321, 644-645. 2008) and Cyranoski, D. et al. (The PhD factory: the world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop? Nature 472, 276-279. 2011) support these observations and show that the supply-demand gap continues to grow.

Studies from the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the British university and college lecturer’s union, and the BETT Report, published in June 1999 by the Independent Review of Higher Education, Pay and Conditions, paint a similar picture for scientists in the United Kingdom and suggest a similar situation worldwide. With limited employment opportunities in academia as it is (Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. 2011.), this statistic reflects a bad situation only getting worse.

To better assess the magnitude of this problem and compel academic institutions to address it, I suggest federal departments require universities to submit a detailed account of the placement histories of their recent graduates, which should be made available freely online. Another statistic worth tracking is the percentage of graduate students or research fellows training under principal investigators that now support independent research programs of their own. Comparing these figures to research investment practices that have traditionally focused on graduate and postdoctoral funding while avoiding the larger issue of subsequent employment should let us measure the effect these policies have on the knowledge market and provide the impetus to change them. At the very least, it would let prospective scientists know what they were getting into.

Because I am not the first to suggest that dissatisfaction later in their career has less cogency if students investing in a bioscience research career when they choose graduate training are made aware of the risks pursuant, a recent NRC Committee on Trends in the Early Career Patterns of Life Scientists recommended in 1998 “that accurate and up-to-date information on career prospects … and career outcome information … be made widely available to students and faculty. Every life science department receiving federal funding for research training should be required to provide its prospective graduate students specific information regarding all pre-doctoral students enrolled in the graduate program during the preceding 10 years.”

While this is a clear step in the right direction, a recent survey of 10 leading biology departments (experimental group) and professional schools (control group) in the United States concerning the information available to students considering a career in the biosciences showed striking differences between the two groups (Careers and Rewards in Bio Sciences: the disconnect between scientific progress and career progression). As a rule, biology departments had information about time to degree and percentage of matriculating students who obtained their PhD, but not about job placement. No biology department had a job placement adviser, although career counseling offices at some universities did try to help students leaving academic science find non-academic jobs.

By contrast, all of the professional schools – law, business, medical – tracked the salary and position of their graduates through Student Affairs or Career Services Offices. More often than not this information was advertised on school websites. The inaccessibility of specific information regarding pre-doctoral biosciences students enrolled in graduate programs over the last 10 years means that federal funding agencies regulating scientific development and growth are unequivocally flying blind.

Introducing career streams into academic research

Posted on June 4, 2012 by Jonathan Thon

Post to Twitter

In the 1990s the typical PhD in biological sciences entered the job market in their mid 30s, after spending approximately 3.8 years as a postdoctoral fellow (National Academy of Science, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers). This is 3.6 years longer than it was in 1970 (National Research Council, Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists) and roughly 10 years shorter than what it is today.

It is not surprising then that so few PhDs continue into academic positions after receiving their graduate degree. A major failing of our graduate school system is that despite their program choices both Master’s and doctoral students are exclusively trained to become academic investigators. This is a problem when only 20 percent of doctoral students will ultimately become professors and the average age of independence in academic research is now in the mid-40s (A deeper look into the 80 percent of PhDs who do not become professors, and A new era of science funding – Part 4: Speaking up in support of federally funded research). Meanwhile, industries such as biotechnology, drug development, policy development, and scientific writing (amongst others) employ the remainder.

Indeed, a recent study by Fuhrmann et al. have found that at the University of California, San Francisco, nearly one-third of students midway through their graduate training intend to pursue a non-research career path (Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: Recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. 2011. In other words, we are training our graduate students to excel at professions they will never hold. To support the growing number of research PhDs universities are graduating yearly for which faculty positions are not available, we have extended the duration of the postdoctoral research fellowship position. Originally intended to allow for furthering expertise in a specialist subject, acquiring new skills and methods, and developing one’s ability to run an independent research program by apprenticing under an established professor, this has become a repository of misallocated talent that delay a scientist’s entry into their first “real” jobs by more than five years (Careers for Postdoctoral Scientists: The Ever-Aging Postdoc).

For the majority of scientists that are forced to transition into other industries, the postdoctoral fellow stage represents a significant waste of time that does not adequately prepare them for the career they will ultimately elect – and yet, because of the enormous number of postdoctoral fellows feeding into these professions, it has become a prerequisite for most of these positions. As with any new profession, employment in an altogether different field carries with it its own learning curve, further delaying the career advancement of the scientist.

A significant departure from the current trend of expanding the supply of research scientists without evidence of imminent shortages in either the private or academic sectors is necessary (Supply Without Demand), and could be addressed by implementing career streams at the graduate and postdoctorate levels. While this is not a new idea (Elizabeth Marincola and Frank Solomon. The career structure in biomedical research: Implications for training and trainees, The American Society for Cell Biology on the State of the Profession. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 9:3003-3006. 1998), research institutions such as Harvard are increasingly deciding to go the other way, creating additional temporary, non-tenure-track Instructor and Research Associate positions that are in every way equivalent to a postdoctoral research fellow designation and meant to follow postdoctoral training.

In my next post I will tell you why this is a problem.

A call to arms

Posted on May 17, 2012 by Jonathan Thon

Post to Twitter

Scientific research is a marathon, and if we fall behind now, while we are leaders in health innovation, the cost of recovering our position, in light of emerging economies with which we compete, will become progressively more expensive. Sustained increases in National Institutes of Health and Canadian Institutes of Health Research funding are critical to maintain North America’s innovation engines at a crucial time for research and the economy, and most importantly to improve the health and well-being of our populations.

Now is the time for scientists to advocate most strongly for national investment in biomedical research. Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly in Canada, as well as senators and congresspersons in the United States are the decision-makers you elect to represent you – write to them. You can go to http://www.canada.gc.ca/directories-repertoires/direct-eng.html and enter your postal code (in Canada), orhttp://www.house.gov and enter your zip code (in the United States) to access your representative.

Things to remember when composing your letter:

  • Identify yourself as a constituent and a member of the scientific community
  • Ask that the legislator support sustainable funding priorities for your federal funding agency.
  • Briefly explain why these issues are important to you.
  • Acknowledge the efforts that are being made by their party
  • Give them your contact information and ask to be informed about the actions their office takes in response to your request.

Letters need to be kept simple and as personal as possible, with tangible examples of actions MPs, MPPs, and MLAs can take to change the landscape of how biomedical research is supported in Canada. These should be provided to the legislator in the form of a one-page cheat-sheet with your contact information included for reference. If dealing with your senator or congressperson in the United States you will need to ask to speak/meet with your representative’s health legislative assistant who handles health care issues in the district or state.

Giving opposition members speaking points against current government policies, emphasizing the economic relevance/importance of your position, and holding legislators accountable for providing examples of and justifying actions they have taken on their own promises are all good ways of having your opinions considered. After the meeting it is important to follow up with your representative within the week, whether or not the representative was supportive of your position. This is your chance to remind them of what you discussed and further emphasize the importance of their involvement on this issue.


  • Major research funding in Canada is done federally, but provinces are responsible for health spending and many provinces (e.g.: BC, Ontario, Quebec) have contributed to major infrastructure projects.


  • States often put aside money for research into targeted areas (e.g. California’s support of stem cell research) and are generally more independent than Canadian provinces.
  • Many federal representatives will have specific assistants/aides for health related issues -ask to speak/meet with them

Example speaking points:

  • Low funding rates (NSERC PDFs, CIHR operating grants, etc.)
  • Low postdoctoral fellow salaries compared to other countries
  • Plus, 4 or 5 more good statistics that show why basic health research is a good investment or is currently underinvested.

While the argument for the government to prioritize an industry where the number of clinical advances, drug developments and cures is proportional to total research investment is not a difficult case to make – it needs to be made. I and others at The Black Hole continue to work at concentrating and contextualizing some of the more important issues facing early career scientists in Canada and abroad.

Take advantage of this resource and use hard numbers to emphasize your points. Addressing these concerns forces the issue to light, and commits politicians to publicly defensible positions for which they can subsequently be held accountable. Government agencies cannot lobby for themselves and policy makers do not share your unique perspective. Our health, economy, and the future of scientific progress are at stake, so step up and speak out.

Show me the money!

Posted on May 4, 2012 by Jonathan Thon

Post to Twitter

It falls to scientists to speak up in support of federally funding research and in this third installment of a four-part series, I explore the economic cost of doing research in a cash-strapped system and the burden this is placing on young investigators.

To bring yourself up to speed, installements 1 and 2 are referenced below:

  1. Biomedical Research and Broken Clocks: All the Parts, but No Instructions
  2. A Difficult Pill To Swallow: The Harsh Realities of a 15% Funding Rate

As has been discussed here on and off for quite some time, 80% of PhDs in the US will not become professors. For the majority of these scientific investigators, the inability to secure a faculty position has meant that they must languish in a series of post-doctoral positions supported by grant-funded professors who are increasingly finding themselves with limited resources. The average age of independence in research is now in the mid-40s, a testament to the bleak prospects facing young scientists (PDF).

Given this highly unstable state of academic funding, it is not surprising that many investigators have chosen to transition into more secure professions like teaching, medicine or law. For an in-depth review of the career prospects of a post-doctoral research scientist please see Careers and Rewards in the Bio Sciences: The Disconnect Between Scientific Progress and Career Progression(PDF). The loss hurts our competitiveness in biomedical research and forces industry abroad.

Given our current economy, it is imperative that efforts to improve the nation’s fiscal stability be grounded in the long-term competitiveness of industries we currently head, and that we leverage our expertise in medical science and capacity to do high-tech research. This does not need to come from increased government spending alone. Whereas academic medicine cannot build R&D into the pricing of its services, universities profit directly from tuition fees, patents and personal endowments.

Since these revenues are derived from faculty teaching loads, the scientific success of their investigators, and established reputation of their research program, faculty support must be factored into departmental operating budgets, freeing up tax dollars to directly support research innovation. Another idea would be to create tax breaks for private donations to federal funding agencies in an effort to reduce their dependence on public dollars and incentivize industry investment in national research programs. In the United States (the same nation that passed the Bayh-Dole Act to spur commercialization of university research), government funding of university research exceeds business funding by an order of magnitude, and business investment in university research is nearly half that of Canada (PDF).

Finally, limiting the number of federal awards issued per investigator, most of which are held by senior faculty (PDF), would open up more funding opportunities to help support young investigators and significantly lower the age of independence. While the debate of whether to preferentially support established labs with proven track records over younger faculty with new ideas is ongoing, without early career support junior researchers will not succeed.

If we are unwilling to prioritize young faculty and share what wealth there is, perhaps the better question is “Should we continue training so many of them?”

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: