This week’s Nature has a horribly depressing article. If you’re a graduate student, don’t read any further.

Really, stop. I hate to see young biologists cry.

NSF data show that the number of students in US graduate programmes in the biological sciences has increased steadily since 1966. In 2005, around 7,000 graduates earned a doctorate. But the number of biomedical PhDs with academic tenure has remained steady since 1981, at just over 20,000. During that period the percentage of US biomedical PhDs with tenure or tenure-track jobs dropped from nearly 45% to just below 30%.

7,000 students per year casting a covetous eye on a total of 20,000 positions? You’re all waiting for me to die, aren’t you?

What about the post-docs?

Although numbers of applicants for postdoctoral fellowships awarded by the NIH increased between 2002 and 2006, the percentage who were successful dropped sharply (see graphic). And the average age of scientists earning their first R01 grant — the NIH’s bread-and-butter grant to an independent researcher — has risen from 34 in 1970 to 42 now.


A suggestion:

A posting to an online careers discussion group puts the matter bluntly: “If you aren’t thinking about ‘alternative careers’ before ever setting foot in graduate school, then you’re being foolish.”

The article does mention that the number of Ph.D.s going into industry has tripled in recent years, so it’s not totally hopeless … but we are seeing a shift in the biology profession, that’s for sure.

Check, E (2007) More biologists but tenure stays static. Nature 448:848-849.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    August 23, 2007

    Finally, I really wish the government/whoever else says it would stop saying that we have a shortage of scientists and that everybody should study science. I wish people were more science-literate, but I don’t that we need more scientists.

    No. The whole world needs more scientists. Lots more scientists. Of course, what needs to be done is to create lots more positions for them, and because that would tackle the problem at the root, it’s extremely unlikely to happen.

    Great postdocs get great jobs, good postdocs get good jobs, and bad postdocs get bad jobs. But everybody gets a job.

    Those were the times…

    I’m not suggesting this isn’t an issue, but how did the get that number of 20,000? I’m wondering if someone like me (liberal arts bio prof) is counted. 20,000 seems kind of small. The society for neuroscience meeting alone attracts over 30,000 participants

    …from all over the world, not just the USA!