The Branching Career Pipeline: What, You Mean I Have Options?

New data about career paths for biomedical PhDs has been published by a group led by Cynthia Fuhrmann and Bill Lindstaedt from the University of California, San Francisco (essay in CBE-Life Sciences Education). They report data they have collected from graduate students in biomedical PhD programs at their school career centers.  The statistic that jumps off the page is that 71.2% of all graduate students polled were “strongly considering” a career that was outside of scientific research.  The non-scientific research careers were broad ranging (business of science, science policy, education-related, writing, etc.). 

There is a nice summary of the paper on Bio Job Blog that you can read by clicking here.  This poignant sentence should fuel the conversation to reshape graduate education and training: “Fuhrmann and Lindstaedt’s current study clearly shows that tenure track positions are no longer traditional career options for most graduate students and postdocs and paradoxically they have actually become a ‘nontraditional or alternate career route.’”


Here are some other points not presented at Bio Job Blog that we find of interest.

  • When asked to choose a single career path, students could select a particular career or select “still considering a range of options.”  Selecting “still considering a range of options” was interpreted as having low confidence in a career choice. Students entered their first year with high confidence in their career choices with 51% of students being certain of their career direction.  By the second year, confidence in career choices had decreased dramatically, with a mere 33% of students indicating they were certain of their career choice.  While confidence increased every year after the second year regression, only in the year of expected completion was confidence as high as first year graduate students. 
  • That decrease in confidence between years one and two is followed by an increase in the number of students changing their career goals in their third year, with the largest change being away from desiring to be a tenure track PI and towards non-research careers.
  • The changes in confidence and the changes in career choice were both statistically independent of gender. 
  • The reasons provided for the change in career choice were “negative perceptions related to the career path” (91%), “inadequate quality-of-life or work-life balance” (33%) and “difficulty getting funding” (24%).  Less than 25% of respondents indicated positive factors encouraging them to pursue a different career choice.

All these data are interesting and certainly validating for those who are having or have had the desires to move from the “traditional” career path for a bioscience PhD.  However, the impetus behind the study and the publishing of the results is to drive home the point that there is a need for graduate education to evolve. That is why here at OITE we not only provide a variety of resources for career exploration, and career development workshops and seminars, but we work on changing conversations to support all career paths.