Dean Watkins Reveals Recent UCSF Postdoc Career Outcomes

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Nowhere are the systemic problems in academia more apparent than in the lives of postdocs. Almost all current postdocs received their PhD in a time where the NIH budget stagnated, leaving an excess of PhDs entering the workforce.

If you ask postdocs how they feel about their situation and career prospects, many will answer that they are unhappy, disillusioned and disgruntled. “I don’t think the administration really understands how upset we postdocs are,” said Stephanie Vlachos, a postdoc entering her third year in the Center for Reproductive Science. “We don’t feel like our voices are being heard, even though we are the ones who are most affected by the postdoc situation.”

Data on postdocs are notoriously difficult to come by, as institutions typically have very little infrastructure in place to track them. Until recently this was the case for UCSF.  However, on Sept. 23, Graduate Dean Elizabeth Watkins unveiled the first institution-wide retrospective study on where postdocs end up after leaving UCSF, covering postdocs who left UCSF from 2000 to 2013.

The study found reported that 53 percent of postdocs are still in academia but only 27 percent of the total are tenure-track faculty. These figures only encompass postdocs holding only a PhD who are still residing in the United States, which most closely matches data collected nationwide by the NIH in 2012. Of those who are not in academia, the next most common career is industry research at 27 percent, with fewer in science-related non-research careers, government research such as the NIH, and some whose employment could not be verified. See the infographic for more details.

Outcomes for MD-PhDs at UCSF are slightly different, with 70 percent staying in academia and 34 percent of the total in tenure-track faculty positions. 

Therefore, although the majority of these UCSF postdocs ended up in some kind of research-related position, the vast majority do not hold the position for which they were ostensibly training, a tenure-track faculty position. This disconnect between reality and the myth that a PhD and postdoctoral position leads invariably to a  job as a professor certainly is not unique to UCSF.

In 2012, the NIH released a report on the biomedical workforce that showed that 43 percent of PhD graduates in the life sciences end up in academia, but only 23 percent overall ended up in tenure-track faculty positions.  Similarly, UCSF data from PhD students who graduated from 1997-2006 shows that 53 percent are in academia, with a total of 16 percent in tenured faculty positions.

The study did not report the average length of a postdoc at UCSF or whether or not the length of a postdoc correlated to success in landing an academic position.

Concern was also raised by the fact that the data was sourced from T32 training grants.  There are two potential problems with using these data. First, the data gathered only represent about 40 percent of all postdocs, and secondly, since T32 grants are only awarded to labs that are competitive for such funding, it is possible that this group is not representative of all UCSF postdocs.

Essentially, this study confirms what many, especially postdocs themselves, might have already suspected—event for UCSF postdocs, tenure-track faculty positions are difficult to come by, with nearly half of UCSF scientists leave academia altogether.

UCSF recognizes this problem, and has started piloting programs aimed at helping both graduate students and postdocs understand and implement other career options. After the 2012 NIH report was released, UCSF received one of only ten NIH grant awards aimed at “Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training” to launch the MIND (Motivating INformed Decisions) Program. Currently in its pilot year, this is the first career development program available to postdocs, and it is aimed at connecting trainees with in-depth information about all the career paths available to them by talking to professionals currently working in those fields.

For graduate students interested in exploring career options via an internship, the GSICE (Graduate Student Internships for Career Explorations) Program, has been in existence for several years. Additionally, the Office of Career and Professional Development regularly runs seminars and workshops for developing different sets of professional skills.

Although these programs are a step in the right direction, UCSF currently has about 1100 postdocs, and only a tiny fraction of these will participate in any type of career and professional development program. Based on the overwhelming data, a dramatic shift in the perception of what it means to be a successful scientist and what it means to train researchers is necessary. As a leader in science, medicine, and technology, hopefully UCSF will also lead the way into forging a radical shift in the perception of what graduate and postdoctoral training mean at UCSF. For further discussion of the postdoc problem, see the other articles in this issue on Keith Yamamoto and Gregory Petsko’s Roundtable Discussion.

Links to Dean Watkin’s complete video presentation and slides are available to the UCSF community at