Careers and Outcomes for Biomed PhDs

Today, we have a post from Dr. Roger Chalkley, Senior Associate Dean for Education in Biomedical Sciences at Vandy. Roger has been one of the leaders and developers of career development in biomedical graduate programs. Here he shares the stats on career options and outcomes of biomed PhDs. He also has some tips for young biomedical researchers on how to find programs with this focus.

-by Dr. Roger Chalkley

The First Step: Getting your PhD

Thinking of doing biomedical research?

If you are seriously thinking of applying to graduate school to do biomedical research, then I would like to bring you up to speed in terms of what this involves.

First of all, there is no doubt that doing biomed research can be a fascinating challenge. There are some moments of immense satisfaction as you discover new and unexpected things. There is also a lot of frustration when your best ideas don’t work out (nature doesn’t work that way!). You also need to know that most biomed research is painstakingly slow and often frustrating. But there is no doubt that it can also be a lot of fun.

Research for graduate students and for postdocs is in a sense part of a grand bargain that you strike with the NIH and with the taxpayers who underwrite the cost of this research and training. You are provided free tuition and a stipend, you are trained to be a fantastic biomed scientist, and in return you work long and hard in the lab pushing the boundaries of biological science.

There is no doubt that this approach has worked incredibly well and the advances in biomed research over the last 40 years are mind boggling…largely due to the creativity and hard work of students and postdocs like you.

Career Outcomes of Biomedical PhDs

Once you have completed this stage of your development, what careers can you move into? The answer is that there is a huge range of different careers, but not all of them involve doing research in the lab, or even developing your own research lab at a research-intensive university. In fact, the likelihood of having your own lab is 15-20%, the chance of teaching STEM science at a four-year college is around 10-15%, working for a large pharmaceutical company or smaller biotech company is around 25%, and continuing to do research in someone else’s lab is near 30%. That leaves about 20 % of any entering cohort who will be “doing science”, but likely not pushing test tubes in the lab. These positions may be administrative, providing educational support, being involved with policy, working for the government or for philanthropic research foundations or national scientific organizations and journals. Some of our students/postdocs become science writers and work for drug companies to educate physicians in new drug use. Clearly, there is a whole host of different career options that you can pursue with a PhD!

One exceptionally positive note is that students/postdocs trained in biomedical research have vanishingly low levels of unemployment. Don’t buy the somewhat sniffy argument that biomedical PhDs are under-employed, whatever that is. Over the course of a long career, I have inquired about the satisfaction of very many of the students/postdoc with whom I have worked, and uniformly they have reported great career satisfaction, and that is over a wide variety of jobs.

Finding a Graduate Program focused on Career Development

How do you find out about the range of career possibilities? How do you prepare yourself for whatever career you believe interests you now? What about if you change your mind over the next several years? Your graduate program can be the key to all of these questions!

First, you should check around in the web site of the programs you might be interested in. Look for information about their outcomes over the last few years. Good programs will provide this information, oftentimes in the form of informative “pie” charts. I expect that within a few years students will not even apply to programs that do not provide this invaluable information! (Vanderbilt’s site is here)

Second, look for programs that have an extensive and well-established career development resource (here is Vandy’s!). This can provide information about a range of careers as well as strategies to help you reach your goals no matter what they may be. You may wish to check out the so-called NIH-BEST sites wherein the NIH has supported detailed and extensive commitment to career development.

The information to help you develop the best and most exciting career is out there, you just have to hunt it down. Good luck!

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