I’m Not Suprised That NIH Officials Are Surprised That Most PhDs Don’t End Up in Academia

By way of DrugMonkey, we come across this post by NIH’s Sally Rocker who actually writes, “I was quite surprised by the idea that the majority of our [PhD] trainees do not end up in academia. Did this surprise you?”

I’ll wait until you stop laughing.

Actually, this doesn’t surprise me. First, an anecdote. A colleague in her mid-30s, with whom I had lunch, was telling me that an MIT PhD classmate of hers works at NIH as a program officer. He has told my friend that the program officers, most of whom are well into the fifties (or older) really don’t realize that the biomedical academic market has imploded. They don’t have any comprehension that the growth trajectory in the biomedical sciences is unsustainable without a massive infusion of support (either governmental or private). They don’t realize how different the jobs landscape is for those under 45 (give or take). They also didn’t know that most PhDs didn’t get tenure-track jobs (including those from MIT…).

So Rocker’s statement, while frustrating, wasn’t surprising. The question is why are program officers so ignorant of the realities of the under-45 set? First, there is simply an age issue: if you’re fifty to your early sixties, by and large, you experienced an era of massive job expansion in the biomedical sciences (there were some down cycles, but there were also some boom cycles too). Second, program officers have a massive bias: they don’t talk to many people outside of academia because they don’t fund many people outside of academia. The R01 system in particular is essentially an academic system, so they don’t come in contact with PhDs who left.

Something else to rattle around in your noggin: there are often arguments about a surplus of PhDs is a good thing even if they don’t go into basic research. Rocker’s statement would suggest that a surplus pool of biomedical PhDs is not NIH’s intent. Just saying.

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5 Responses to I’m Not Suprised That NIH Officials Are Surprised That Most PhDs Don’t End Up in Academia

  1. Colin Rosenthal says:

    … because academics average one PhD student in their career?

  2. sciliz says:

    Rockey’s statement would suggest that a surplus pool of biomedical PhDs cannot be NIH’s *admitted* intent. Because supply and demand means that such a thing sounds far too much like “we want the cheapest possible labor force”

  3. JohnV says:

    Indeed sciliz. I would not be too shocked if the response to this is to import as many PhD students and post-docs as possible from the rest of the world to solve the crisis of PhDs not going into academia.

  4. JohnV says:

    altho to be fair to the NIH, a few weeks ago I attended a career symposium there (like 1000 people, half of which were NIH employees) and there were essentially 3 “tracks” for the seminars, academia, industry and other. So the careers people at the NIH are aware of the presence of things outside of academia.

  5. Pingback: The STEM PhD Glut Makes the Mainstream Media | Mike the Mad Biologist

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