Alternate reality

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Bridges.

November 18, 2014

After a tectonic shift in Ph.D. careers, biomedical graduate education is retooling itself to ready students for professions beyond the academic lab.


Lillian Klug, Ph.D. student
Contemplating the future: Lillian Klug, fourth-year Ph.D. student, is part of a generation of students acutely aware of the difficulty in landing or keeping an academic research job as a faculty member and principal investigator.

One evening last spring, more than 100 OHSU Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral fellows crowded into the atrium of Richard Jones Hall.

They were drawn there to explore career options outside academia, where the funding crisis bedeviling the National Institutes of Health has clouded prospective career opportunities in university research labs.  A couple of dozen professionals, at least half of them OHSU alumni, representing pursuits ranging from biopharmaceuticals and applied artificial intelligence to patent law and high school and college teaching were posted around the atrium. For two hours they fielded questions from students in a kind of speed-dating format.

Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D. ’12,  a postdoctoral fellow in neurology, who is toying with the idea of a career either in science communications or science policy, found research administration and regulatory affairs particularly interesting. Others sat down with Kyle Ambert, Ph.D. ’13 ─ who oversees life science collaborations for Intel’s Graph Analytics Operation ─ to learn how they might fit into industry.

The path graduate students have traditionally followed for decades ─ almost by rote ─ went from the research lab of their Ph.D. mentor, who nurtured them at the start, to a postdoctoral fellowship or two in other research labs and ultimately to a faculty position in a lab of their own, supported in significant part by research grant money from the National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation.

But more than a few brambles have made that path more difficult, and the robust turnout at this first Graduate Studies Career Networking Night, sponsored by the School of Medicine Alumni Association, spoke volumes about the shifting terrain in the biomedical sciences.

Career outlook

Though 98 percent of Ph.D.-trained scientists land jobs within a few years of earning their degree, just 23 percent of them – compared to 34 percent in 2003 –  now move into tenure-track academic positions as faculty and principal investigators  (PIs) overseeing their own lab, according to the 2012 NIH Biomedical Research Working Group Report produced by an advisory committee co-chaired by Shirley Tilghman, Ph.D., former president of Princeton University, and Sally Rockey, Ph.D., NIH deputy director for extramural research.

"A Ph.D. is not so much narrow training in a specific problem, but a way of learning to think rigorously and thoroughly enough to gain confidence in solving a highly complex problem."  
–Dr. Westbrook 
Why? “Because they know they have only a 15 percent chance of getting a lab funded through NIH, and there’s a lot of work that goes into putting those proposals together,” Dr. Rockey told an audience at the University of California, San Francisco, last year. That compares to a 30 percent funding success rate during NIH’s salad days, a decade ago or so. About a quarter of the buying power of the NIH budget has been lost since 2003, said Dr. Rockey.

Consequently, the doctoral workforce has diversified. Industry employment of biomedical scientists increased almost five percentage points between 1993 and 2008, the group noted. And it has been growing steadily for two decades while job growth in government and the non-profit sector has been stagnant, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science in a 2011 report.  

Little wonder, then, that alternate career paths are a hot topic among current graduate students and postdocs.

Examining the future

Lillian Klug, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Cancer Biology Graduate Program, is torn. “I’m weighing, “Do I want to struggle to try to get funding from NIH or do I want to have a family and have more of a work-life balance? And that’s what a lot of my peers are weighing.”

Given the growing challenges of obtaining independent federal funding for biomedical research, students at OHSU and across the country are increasingly asking themselves this question with significant implications for the future of the U.S. biomedical research workforce. But despite these challenges, there are many non-traditional opportunities for new graduates to apply their knowledge in ways that advance research and health.

Kate Placzek, Ph.D., in her sixth year as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, loves lab research and wants to stay in academic science but as a permanent staff scientist rather than a PI.  Others, like Dr. Ambert, are agnostic about where they pursue their careers, as long as they can follow their passions.

While graduate students and postdocs want and need other career options, it’s clear that the value of the education they are receiving remains unchanged, says Gary Westbrook, M.D, professor of neurology, director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program and co-director of the Vollum Institute.  “A Ph.D. is not so much narrow training in a specific problem, but a way of learning to think rigorously and thoroughly enough to gain confidence in solving a highly complex problem,” he said. Just the type of skill set demanded by a global marketplace.

Fundamental changes

Yet preparing for non-traditional careers during those Ph.D. years hasn’t been easy. The system of supporting Ph.D. trainees on research grants awarded to the laboratories of their mentors has historically locked both students and mentors into a focus on the academic research track. However much PIs might wish to broaden a student’s training beyond the specific work of the lab, doing so could jeopardize the research grant under current rules. The Tilghman/Rockey group suggested the NIH take steps to correct that.

In response, this year NIH is requiring that all its 27 centers and institutes offer individual grants ─ called F awards ─ to support U.S. graduate students. Students apply directly to one of the institutes; say the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute or the National Eye Institute. Previously, these grants were only available through neuroscience and general medicine institutes, but OHSU students in those programs eligible to apply achieved a 40 percent funding success rate.

Every Ph.D. student will now be encouraged to apply for training grants, says Allison Fryer, Ph.D., Professor of Medicine, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and herself a PI overseeing a lab. “This is an enormous and forward-thinking change that we fully support,” she said. “In every way, this is much better for students, it will allow then to be educated as students, as well as enhancing our research enterprise.”   

New resources

NIH hasn’t mandated it yet, but the writing is on the wall that universities need to educate graduate students for a variety of careers. At the OHSU School of Medicine, this shift is already underway, with expanded training in big-data quantitative analysis, collaborative team-based science, project management and communication skills.

In addition, the School of Medicine is offering new resources to assist its graduate students. The new Professional Development Center, headed by Jackie Wirz, Ph.D. ’10, will offer training sessions on everything from leadership and presentation skills to resume writing.

Dr. Wirz is herself a poster child for the alternate career path. She earned her doctorate from the OHSU Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Graduate Program. But, after some soul searching, she decided that science education rather than bench research was her calling.  

The education OHSU’s graduate students receive, Dr. Wirz says, already arms them with an impressive list of proficiencies. “We can help direct them into areas beyond always working as a PI in an academic research lab,” she said. “These other paths are fulfilling and contribute substantially to research in different but no less important ways.”

“In the end,” Dr. Spinelli points out, “it is in the hands of each trainee to explore and seek out new and interesting ways to apply their Ph.D. outside of academia. It is fantastic that OHSU is taking steps to help out, but it is still up to each person to use these resources to create their own path.”

Alumni: Work is underway to develop professional interest groups. These will be comprised of a network of professionals from biotech entrepreneurs to government leaders and science writers willing to meet several times a year with graduate students to talk about different career paths. Are you interested in volunteering for a professional interest group, mentoring a graduate student about careers and/or participating in a future Career Networking Night? Contact the Professional Development Center or Jackie Wirz

Bridges_magazine_fall_2014 cover web

Read more from the Fall issue of Bridges:

  • Questions for nationally-renowned educator, George Mejicano, M.D.
  • Inside the Collaborative Life Sciences Building
  • and more...