Ph.D.s Ditch the Lab

Science grad students face grim job market—‘It’s a pyramid scheme’

CORRECTION APPENDED

As Harvard expands its Ph.D. programs in the sciences, graduates seeking jobs in academia face the bleakest employment prospects in decades.

Alumni like Donald M. Prather, who left Harvard in 2005 with a Ph.D. in genetics, have been forced to seek jobs with higher pay and better prospects outside the ivory tower.

“Ten to twenty years ago, I...would have ended up in academics,” says Prather, who instead took a job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But with a family—I already had one kid and another on the way—I couldn’t. Not in the current job market.”

That market has been stretched thin by a ballooning number of science Ph.D.’s across the U.S., from under 4,000 a year in 1980 to over 7,000 in 2006, according to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Harvard’s science Ph.D.’s have increased steadily since 2000, and the University announced a new initiative last week to further expand enrollment.

But tenured and tenure-track positions in the sciences have remained constant over the past two decades, according to FASEB, upping the competition among newly minted Ph.D.’s.

As a result, Harvard’s graduates in the sciences are departing the traditional path to academia for careers in consulting, law, and government. Many say the University’s curriculum should adapt to the new job market.

“It’s a hard question especially for a place like Harvard,” Prather says. “Their goal is still academics, but I just think they’re going to have to gradually introduce more real-world, industry, and business applications.”

‘PYRAMID SCHEME’

Freddie W. Peyerl graduated from Harvard’s Ph.D. program in virology in 2004, hoping to land a faculty post. Like most of his peers on that path, he first accepted a postdoctoral position at a research laboratory—in his case, one run by scientists from the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Typically Ph.D.’s will take one or more “postdocs,” as they are colloquially known, before seeking a permanent University position. Fifty-eight percent of employed life-sciences Ph.D.’s entered postdoctoral positions in 1995, more than twice the figure in 1973, according to the National Science Foundation.

But surveying his colleagues in the lab, Peyerl saw many of their careers stalling.

“I watched several of them who had successful postdocs and spent several years doing so,” Peyerl says. “They were struggling to find faculty positions, and this is after five years in a Howard Hughes lab!”

Peyerl decided to get out after two years and started consulting for Boston Strategic Partners. The job pays over 3.5 times more than his old salary, and much better than the median salary for postdoctoral researchers, which was $38,000 a year in 2005, according to Sigma Xi, an international scientific research society.

Christina M. Hughes, who earned a Ph.D. in virology from Harvard last year, is still on the academic track, having taken a postdoc at the Rockefeller University in New York. But she says that eight of her nine classmates in the virology program have already decided against university positions.

“It’s not that big a deal to get a postdoc if you want one,” Hughes says. “It’s a pyramid scheme. The next jump”—from postdoc to professor—“is really hard.”

Roughly 80 percent of Harvard science Ph.D.’s seek academic positions after graduation, according to Robin Mount, an associate director at Harvard’s Office of Career Services. She declined to give historical data but said the figure has dropped only slightly in recent years.

However, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), which awards Ph.D.’s at Harvard, does not collect data on its alumni after graduation. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

So alumni like Peyerl, who abandoned the university track, are counted as academics.

“It’s an extremely competitive market,” says Kyle M. Brown, a graduate student in an organismic and evolutionary biology and president of the GSAS student government. “There’s a severe bottleneck between people who get Ph.D.’s and people who get faculty positions.”

‘BEYOND THE BENCH’

Peyerl and other science Ph.D.’s from Harvard say the University’s curriculum and advising programs should include exposure to careers outside of academia.

“I don’t think there was much of anything that was discussed outside the traditional academic career path,” Peyerl says of his time at Harvard. “That was the career path that most graduate advisers thought you would take.”

Prather had a similar experience, leafing through career services materials while his faculty mentor, whom he described as “a wonderful, old-school Harvard researcher,” offered little guidance off the academic road.

John M. McNally, the assistant dean in charge of Harvard’s life sciences graduate programs, says the departments have recently sought to provide alternative career guidance.

The efforts are unofficially termed “Beyond the Bench,” a reference to the lab bench that many of the University’s graduates now eschew.

“There’s a lot more representation of science graduates or science students who come back to talk to the current students who have not been within academe,” McNally says. “The days of Harvard being focused exclusively on preparing for academic careers are behind us.”

Brent A. Appleton, a Ph.D. student who graduated in 2004, took a position at Genentech, a biotechnology company based in San Francisco.

“When I was starting grad school, there was much more still a strong wind against having students go into industry, he says. “I don’t think the overtones were as harsh as they once were.”

But some mentors still make their academic preference clear.

“If students have other career interests they generally keep them to themselves,” says Brown, the GSAS student government president.

“There’s a traditional bias in research: If you’re not at the bench doing hard, objective science, you’re not contributing to the scientific community.”

But even for those who endure postdocs and obtain a faculty position, the prospects for funding and advancement can be harrowing.

The average age for a science Ph.D. to receive her first grant was 34.3 years in 1970, according to the National Institutes of Health. Today, it’s 41.8.

Watching his colleagues struggle down a narrowing path, Prather says he is certain his decision was the right one.

“Even with your Harvard degree, it’s still tough,” he says. “You just kind of have to leave your Ph.D. behind.”

—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION:
The Dec. 13 news article "Ph.D.s Ditch the Lab" incorrectly stated that the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences does not collect data on alumni employment after graduation. In fact, the school conducts a survey of its former students three years after graduation.

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