The changing biology PhD job market

According to legend, the story of the career of a biology PhD used to go like this: 1) student joins a lab, 2) student spends 4-8 years doing research and honing specific skills in their chosen field, 3) student gets a tenure-track job at a college/university and becomes a professor after 5 more years or so, 4) with essentially a guaranteed job for life, professor gets to do interesting scientific research and live happily ever after. Somewhere along the way another step was added between steps 2 and 3 (step 2.5: the post-doctoral research position). This story, whether actually the norm or not back in the day, is clearly not the story today. And it's freaking a lot of people out.

It feels like almost every day I read another article or blog post about how screwed biology PhDs currently are in terms of the job market. Whether its the Washington Post or the Atlantic Monthly or many other news outlets, the prospects don't look too good in academia for biology PhDs. This "crisis" is generally attributed to too many new PhDs entering the job market each year and not enough tenure-track positions to go around due to the steady decrease in federal science funding over the past couple of decades and recent budget cuts that have hit many academic institutions hard. This leads to PhDs getting stuck in holding patterns and forced to become mercenary visiting professors and post-docs, never having any job security and moving around the country wherever the scarce jobs pop up.

Now we can add in to the mix the news that funding for scientific research seems to be getting worse by the day. The National Science Foundation is projecting that they will have to fund approximately 1000 fewer grant proposals in 2013 than they normally would because of the "sequestration" budget cuts taking effect tomorrow. Many intelligent people have argued that this is a pretty bad move by the government because reducing funding for scientific research that creates jobs and will help solve technological and environmental problems down the road will reduce our country's ability to adapt and compete in a rapidly changing world. But hey, common sense has never really been the government's strongest attribute.

So what's the solution? An equally large number of articles suggest that biology PhDs need to consider "non-traditional" careers, like science writing, entrepreneurship, or consulting (whatever that means). Unfortunately, most PhDs don't have the skills or training to compete for or succeed in these kinds of jobs because our graduate school experiences are focused almost entirely on teaching and research skills, not business skills or other "intangibles." Thus we come to the crux of our current predicament in this country: academic jobs don't exist in high enough numbers to accommodate all biology PhDs, but all our PhD training is carried out at these same academic institutions which, intentionally or not, try to make us fit into the traditional paradigm.

I really don't know what the solutions are for this problem, and at the same time I don't want to make it sound like the sky is falling. After all, biology PhDs still have lower unemployment rates than most other groups of workers, but the jobs are increasingly scattered all over different sectors of the economy and it all comes down to how resourceful we can be. It seems that to carve out successful livelihoods biology PhDs have to follow the core principle of modern biology: evolve.  



  1. Thank you so much... i didnt have the knowledge in this now i get an idea about this.. thks a lot

    PhD Environmental Science


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