Winter is Coming Part II: Be Prepared for the Long Winter

stock_snowflakeBy Joseph Provost

In this follow-up to a previous post on the Substrate, “Winter is Coming: Why do I want to become a Biochemistry or Molecular Biology Major,” we talked about career options for biochemistry and molecular biology majors.

What I have to say today isn’t nearly as dramatic as watching Game of Thrones, but some melodramatic musical accompaniment is recommended.

For those of you entering graduate school or finishing your post-doctorate training, you already know that “winter is coming”. To many, the future looks bleak. However, your PI is NOT a white walker from North of the wall, and there IS hope. Let me explain.

Over the years, many of my former students have approached me for advice about their careers at various stages of their training. This past year, two of my students even asked if going into science is a good idea. My own daughter is a biochemistry major, so I’ve found myself asking the same question.

It certainly is not an easy time to be in science. How you choose and prepare for your career is more critical now than ever. Funding is getting increasingly difficult and the economy is not picking up nearly as well as we would all like. At a networking session after an ASBMB meeting recently, a group of postdocs gathered to share concerns about their future. I told them about a current faculty search being conducted at my school, and that six or seven of the top candidates were given multiple interviews and offers. Many were surprised to hear this. Their focus is primarily on getting a position at a major research university. That has been the only vocation many graduate students and postdocs are taught to value. I too remember looking at tenure track positions at major research institutions. Family and location eventually led me to a mid-sized, primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) where research was only part of the professional obligations expected of faculty. While I had doubts about my choice at first, I soon discovered my passion for teaching and am happy with the way I chose to use my PhD I find that it is this passion for what I do that gets me past the rough patches in life.

A study conducted by the NIH on trends in biomedical training changes what many consider to be alternative careers. The numbers of biomedical graduate students and post-doctorates have steadily increased over the past several years. Such growth creates pressure on those competing for positions, making the outlook particularly scary. While the report investigates a range of factors impacting the biomedical workforce, a couple of numbers jumped out at me. First is that the unemployment numbers of those with a biomedical PhD is very low. Over 80% of those with a doctorate are employed full-time. Over 10% are employed part-time. Just over 91% of those working are employed in an area either closely related to their field (60%), or somewhat related to their field (32%). What is changing is where and how scientists use their degrees. The number of tenure track positions (especially in biomedical positions) continues to decrease. 34% of newly minted biomedical doctorates moved into tenure track positions in 1993 as compared to a dismal 26% today. So where are people going? Industry and government jobs have remained somewhat constant (although small companies have taken many of the large pharmaceutical/biotechnology companies’ places as employers). The shift, according to the NIH report, is into areas that do not require research. What used to be considered the “alternative” career, anything other than a research intensive medical school, has become the main career path. Becoming a medical school professor has perhaps become the alternative career of today’s job market. It is my opinion that we should value all these other ways to utilize a science degree. Being a tenured professor at a medical school is an amazing vocation. But so is being a science writer, a quality control manager at a pharmaceutical industry, or a teaching/research professor at a PUI.

If being prepared is important to achieving your career goals, how does one best prepare? If your passion is to be a PI at a major research university, talk to their existing faculty (both new and experienced professors), and ask them what they find interesting and attractive when choosing a new faculty member. Ask them to think beyond the research and fundability of the candidate. You might be surprised at what you learn. For other careers, I recommend doing the same. Seek out those who are in the field. The ASBMB offers a number of workshops for graduate students and postdocs at the Annual Meeting to help them with their choices. For jobs in industry, talk to human resources and scientists working in industry. Finding ways to get additional training in teaching, management, science writing, computer science, political science, economics, or regulatory affairs can also make you attractive to potential employers. Of course, you’ll need to balance that with the demands of your research advisor and department needs. Remember, you are preparing for your career AND supporting the boss’s research projects.

Planning for the long winter means getting more than the typical research or teaching assistant experience. You must think about these choices early in your graduate and post-doctorate training and act accordingly. Winter is coming and you must be ready for it. For those interested in a career at a PUI and how to become a competitive applicant, I will cover that topic in my next post, which will also spell out the challenges of getting a position at a PUI.


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