Where do all the PhDs go?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Ironically, research science has been recognized by institutions like the National Academy of Sciences as lacking research data on itself.

In order to address this problem, organizations like the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council have since placed an increasing emphasis on measuring and publishing data on the outcomes of PhD and postdoctoral training programs, as well as providing career development training at all stages.

This month, in an effort to better understand what happens after students acquire PhDs, UCSF has released numbers for the past decade.

On Jan. 7 and 8, Graduate Dean Elizabeth Watkins presented findings on UCSF graduate students who acquired PhDs between 2004 to 2019 and on postdocs between 2011 to 2019.

The information will not only serve current trainees by informing them about the trends in professional outcomes but will also help prospective students and postdocs fully consider UCSF, Watkins said.

And it will give faculty and administration better materials to advise trainees and structure the programming offered to them.

The data is available at graduate.ucsf.edu/stats and postdocs.ucsf.edu/stats.

The data, which was based on internet searches of sites like Linkedin, showed that a PhD degree at UCSF took a median of 6 years to complete.

Compare that with census data released by the National Science Foundation, which reported that in 2018 a life sciences doctorate took about 6.8 years to complete.

Since 2011, the median length of a postdoctoral appointment at UCSF was around 2.5 years. Between 1980 and 2010, NSF reported a postdoc in biomedical sciences took about 4.5 years.

According to Watkins, after graduation, most UCSF graduate students have continued doing science in some form. This contrasts with a 2010 survey of scientific careers in the UK which estimated that 53% of PhDs were leaving science.

For the oldest cohort of UCSF PhD graduates 50% of tracked graduates were employed in research-focused jobs 10 years after their graduation, while 25.5% were employed in science-related jobs and 5.4% in teaching-focused jobs.

When divided by sector, 44.6% of this group of graduates was working in academia 10 years after graduation, while 35% worked in the for-profit sector, 3.7% in government, and 2.7% in the nonprofit area.

About 25% of the cohort were tenure-track faculty, while approximately 6% were group leaders in for-profit companies.

Notably, these numbers do not track UCSF graduates who were not recorded for the study. Around 10-15% of graduates per year were not found online.

Watkins noted that understanding the UCSF postdoc outcomes is complicated by the fact that until now, UCSF has not separately tracked postdocs who are recent graduates working in their thesis lab.

These short “postdocs” are often followed by more postdoctoral research, which makes it seem like many postdocs leaving UCSF are doing additional postdocs. This year, UCSF will begin tracking this situation separately.

Audience members wondered what happened to the fraction of trainees not found by the study, and how satisfied UCSF trainees were with their jobs.

Researching questions like these could be very valuable, and they “will go in the increasingly long to-do list,” Watkins said.

The unreliability of federal funding sources and misalignment of career expectations for trainees in the biomedical sciences has been described as a “humanitarian issue” by Shirley Tilghman, former biologist and president emerita of Princeton University. Tilghman chaired the committee which released a 1998 report called Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists.

This report called for restructured funding from the federal government and an overhaul by institutions of how scientists are trained.

Follow-up reports by the National Research Council and National Institutes of Health in 2012 have continued to echo these recommendations, and Tilghman co-authored yet another call to action in 2014.

By collecting and publishing data on its trainees in addition to offering broad career development programming, UCSF is answering that call.

In 2017, UCSF became one of the founding members of the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science.

The group, which has grown to 39 schools, commits itself to understanding the professional opportunities that exist today for trainees after a PhD or postdoc.

The coalition founders’ initial announcement published in the journal Science stated that it was formed with “the cardinal goal of making advanced training in the life sciences more efficient and humane.”

Certainly it’s the least we can aim for.