Why Biologists’ Career Problems Are Unique: Life Outside of Academia

So my post about why biomedical scientists suffer more than others in STEM fields seems to have received some attention. ScienceBlogling Chad Orzel writes:

That’s true, but here’s the thing: it’s not unique to biomedical science. The same problem afflicts physics– every time I post something about wanting to attract more students into physics, I’m guaranteed to get a few hectoring comments about how irresponsible it is to try to recruit students to a field with too many Ph.D.’s and not enough jobs. And it’s not like being on the tenure track in physics is all hugs and flowers and adorable puppies– also crossing my RSS reader yesterday was Sean’s brutally honest assessment of the tenure process at research universities, in physics. That’s a pretty good match for what commenters on the Science Professor post say about biomed.

If you want to assert that biomedical scientists are uniquely unhappy, you need to come up with some problem that is unique to biomedical sciences. The two best candidates I saw in my quick skim of the comments to the original post are the doubling of the NIH budget in the 1990′s, which led to a probably unsustainable increase in the number of students taken on, and what I’ll snarkily summarize as “Doctors are assholes.”

I don’t disagree with Chad; in fact, within academia, I think physicists have it worse.

But note that key phrase: within academia.

My experience, being in a place with a lot of physics Ph.D’s, is that they have far better options outside of academia than do biomed scientists. Math and programming skills, along with a good dollop of brains, aren’t a bad skill set. At the Major Genome Center we have quite a few physics Ph.D’s who were hired for their math and computer skills–often from a sojourn in industry. Biomed Ph.D’s are too often trained very narrowly with a skill set that is only useful within biomedical science: they really don’t have a lot of fallback options. But since I guess I didn’t make the point clearly, I’ll turn it over to ScienceBlogling Jessica Palmer:

This is something I’ve tried to explain many times to nonscientists: most of the esoteric techniques I mastered during my thesis aren’t useful outside a Drosophila lab. They’re not transferable to any other field of biology, let alone any other scientific or nonscientific profession. Those skills I picked up on my own – speaking, writing, teaching, how to think about problems and dig into the literature unaided, how to handle severe setbacks, find ways to motivate myself – those are all transferable to virtually any career. But you have to teach those to yourself….

Within your research, also, you should focus as much as you can on learning broadly applicable skills – programming, statistics, how to handle large datasets. Later on, your obscure skills will impress nonscientists, but it’s your transferable skills that will make them want to hire you, and help them envision what you could do for their organization.

…acquiring transferable skills is only a good investment if everyone accepts that graduate students are not going to follow their PIs into academia in exactly the same field using the same techniques. Until the “traditional model” of academia dies, graduate schools will be turning out students prepared to compete for a handful of academic jobs, and unprepared to do anything else.

And while I don’t know if this qualifies as a unique problem, I think the other thing to note is that I think this problem is much greater for biomedical scientists than it is for those Science Professor called “ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot.” I had lunch this week with a senior evolutionary biologist (I guess that falls under “whatnot”…) who agreed with my speculation and then added that, in his department, a good portion of the ecology and evolutionary Ph.D’s go onto public policy or government positions (e.g., one student will be joining the USGS to track coyote populations). Between a good background in statistics and more public service options (you don’t find too many cell biologists who become wildlife biologists), ‘E&E’-ers seem to have more options. In my experience, this coincides with less graduate student and post-doc misery.

Yes, funding is limited across the STEM fields in academia–and that makes everyone miserable. But I still contend that biomedical scientists are trapped within academia far more than other STEM disciplines. They need more options.

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9 Responses to Why Biologists’ Career Problems Are Unique: Life Outside of Academia

  1. Thiago Silva says:

    One thing to consider however, is that (at least in my experience in Brazil/Canada), the vast majority of “ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot” jobs in the government, NGO and public policy require either a Bachelor’s or a Masters. In fact, I have two MSc. lab mates already employed in the Canadian government (marine biology and scientific programming), while me and another Ph.D. colleague are still submitting endless faculty job applications.
    Not that we couldn’t apply for a M.Sc. or B.Sc. level position (the pay scale can often be comparable to a starting faculty). But, if you’re going for these jobs, why spend another 5 years (and a chunk of cash in tuition fees) on a Ph.D.? If the job doesn’t require the actual degree, can it be really considered an “alternative career”? Are plumber, bus driver, grocery store clerk, business owner, or “whatnot” all “alternative PhD careers” as well?
    Nowadays, when undergrads and masters students ask me “should I go for the PhD?”, I mention the dire situation, and the fact that for any other job than faculty, they probably don’t need it. Surprisingly, most of the time they say they’ll do it anyway. I guess years of indoctrination
    do work, after all.

  2. Thiago Silva says:

    Addendum to above: A while ago I had a conversation with a headhunter looking to fill an industry position in my field (remote sensing). After looking at my C.V, all he said was “Well, I see you have papers and stuff, but it’s all very academic. Where’s your consulting/business experience”?
    That’s how he summarized my 7 years of training and hard work. I’m still waiting for that call back.

  3. Paul Orwin says:

    I think our SciBlogling is at once too generous with her praise (for herself) and too harsh in her criticism (of her grad training). Of course she (and anyone else) deserves credit for the initiative she (or anyone else) takes to learn a useful skill outside what was proscribed by her training program/lab, but where did she get the idea that she wasn’t taught any of those things in the lab/classroom/academia environment? Did she never notice a bad lecture in a class? a good one? did she never give a practice talk before a meeting presentation? or go to one? does she think that if it wasn’t written on a syllabus or a research plan it doesn’t count? A lot of teaching and learning goes on when people don’t realize it – if you realize it it makes you a better teacher (and learner). This is why student evals are so often useless, by the way. Ask them again in a couple of years what they thought of that really hard science/math class – after they’ve had a chance to realize how useful it was.
    As far as useful skills for outside academia, I think the issue is basically math/CS. In finance and business, people who can do math or program a computer are “smart”. Planning, executing, and communicating complex biomedical scientific results is not seen the same way, for some reason. I’m sure the relative prevalence of women in biomedical science is completely unrelated to this factoid.

  4. HFM says:

    I’m not sure that transferable skills are the major determinant of trainee misery. Yes, these skills make it easier for a trainee to spin their resume for an alternate career, making it more likely that plausible faculty candidates will find something else to do, which helps decrease the time the other pre-academics must spend as miserable trainees. However, I submit two pieces of evidence:
    1) The average misery level seems to apply to the whole training population, even (especially?) those who are hell-bent on academia. These people are firmly convinced they don’t need to worry about Plan B; some are delusional, some aren’t, but they’re at least as miserable as the rest of us.
    2) In my experience, biomedical science is NOT the worst – organic chemistry makes us look like the proverbial carebear tea party. (I spent a summer in a synthesis lab once; that was more than enough.) Inorganic chemistry has a reputation for being much saner and happier, even though (back in the day) the organic chemists were the ones who could run off and get a job in industry.
    I have a different hypothesis: the more mindless labor is involved in the research, the more miserable the trainees will be.
    Most science trainees enjoy intellectual labor. We were lured in by visions of cool shiny puzzles to solve. The reality in biomedicine…you spend the vast majority of your time moving liquids from one tube to another. The reason a robot isn’t doing your job is because robots cost more than you do. After awhile, this gets frustrating.
    Worse, the more mindless labor is involved, the greater incentive there is to work more hours. If you’re thinking, your brain needs to be sharp; you can only do so much of that before it’s time to go home and recharge. Nobody ever tells stories about math professors calling the office at 3am on a Saturday to make sure the students are still there. It’s counterproductive. They tell those stories about biomedical and chemistry professors, because if you’re just turning the crank, you should be going at it every waking hour to maximize the output. This doesn’t exactly encourage a happy, balanced life, nor does it encourage taking the time to learn the broader, transferable skills a trainee ought to be learning.
    (I’m in biomed, and I like it…well, I like the problems. I’m not much use at proving theorems, but give me a hairball of noisy data, and I’ll find the structure in it. And I’m semi-reluctantly considering a switch to bioinformatics, where I can actually put that talent to work a greater percentage of the time.)

  5. qetzal says:

    I’m amazed that no one’s mentioned pharma or biotech as career options. I went into biotech straight out of my PhD (in mol bio), and have been there ever since. Pharma employs lots of biologists, and organic chemists too.
    Of course, both pharma and biotech have been shedding jobs for quite a while now, so it’s far from a guaranteed career path. But obviously academia is no walk in the park these days either.
    Are people not interested in pharma & biotech? Or are the opportunities for new PhD’s there so bad that it’s not an option?

  6. Big Blue says:

    “Are people not interested in pharma & biotech? Or are the opportunities for new PhD’s there so bad that it’s not an option?”
    Pharma is laying off more than hiring, due to all the M&A. I’m in the Boston area, and I can count the major pharmaceutical companies that are actively hiring on one hand–the rest have jobs posted, but are actually having hiring freezes or are laying off. I’ve seen colleagues, laid off from Big Pharma with their severance running out, so desperate for a job that they take the graduate work off their CVs and explain the gap as taking time off for family.
    Biotech has gotten sorta strange these past few years: small startups that are even able to get VC (funding has become thin on the ground) only look to position themselves to be purchased in a few years, and then after they are purchased, suffer from the Pfizer Effect: The company is bought out at just barely enough money to pay back the VC investors, with not much left for the bench scientists who got the company to that point. After the company is purchased and the IP validated and transferred to development scientists by Big Pharma, the original staff is laid off despite their good track record. The development scientists can be a CRO rather than actual internal scientists, so if you’re in Shanghai or WuXi, you have a great career ahead of you. If you’re in the US…not so much, you’re competing with the thousands of experienced development scientists and engineers who were laid off.
    It used to be, you could work in a biotech that would last a while as a small company through the orphan diseases or on grant money, sort of thing. Then when they got bought, you’d get a nice little nest egg out of your shares and a middle-management job in the larger organization. Not the case anymore, the small biotechs will leave you job-hopping every couple of years these days.

  7. qetzal says:

    @Big Blue,
    I agree with all of that. Still, it seems strange to see poeple saying that biomed & chem PhDs have no other prospects except academia. That’s clearly not true. Biotech and pharma are tough careers right now, but so is academia. I can’t say which is better, since I’ve been out of academia since grad school. But given all the horror stories about people having to do 3 and 4 postdocs these days, before finally abandoning science altogether, I have to think that biotech & pharma can’t be enormously worse.

  8. Big Blue says:

    Well, as long as we are talking about trying to have a career in biosciences, and transferable skills, one thing I rather think has been overlooked has been entrepreneurship and tech transfer. When I switched over to more ChemEng (from microbio & molecular bio), one of the first things I noticed was that the local professional societies had a LOT more practical support for engineers who wanted to start their own consulting firms and businesses. They had connections with legitimate, non-scamming IP legal aid, they maintained their connections with members who had successfully launched their businesses, they had connections with IP development consultants and VC, and held inexpensive (like, $30) seminars on the business aspects of starting your own gig. The skills involved in making, say, a biologic drug vs. making a new biocatalyst are not hugely different or un-transferable (see Verenium, DuPont for examples), and there is a definite need for that sort of thing, but the biomed folks do not have the support structure that would enable such a move. With current freeware, it’s very possible to do all the computational work at home, and use an incubator lab to do the molecular bio side, but without the business-y support, the most one might hope to do would be to sell it on InnoCentive–if you can get a buyer.

  9. Mokele says:

    I think HFM is onto something with the lack of intellectual labor. I mean, *all* science requires loads of repetitive data processing and replicating experiments and the like, but not all fields require pushing the same buttons and pipetting the same tubes every day for 6 years.
    I’m only halfway through my PhD after doing an MS, but still, in every single paper/project I’ve had to do something new, whether it’s building a test arena/apparatus for the critter to move on, building a new version of an existing technology, finding a new way to cope with highly limited data, or even inventing a whole new measurement technique.
    It’s not applying for NSF grants on major research problems, but there’s still a fulfillment in solving the problem of “I want to know X, but common technique A would involve putting electronics into saltwater without sealing them, so what now?”

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