Monday, November 17, 2014

SfN14 blogging: Careers Beyond the Bench with Dr. Sally Rockey from the NIH

This is a guest blog post by Bruce Felts, PhD candidate at the University of North Dakota.

On the opening morning of SfN 2014 I had the pleasure of attending a workshop entitled "Careers Beyond the Bench." The tone was set right away to start the morning by the fact that even prior to the session getting started at 9 AM, the conference room was completely packed with graduate students and postdocs interested in paths outside of the traditional career trajectory of academia. Interestingly, at the exact same time on Saturday morning was a second workshop entitled "Success in Academia," meaning graduate students and postdocs were forced to decide which career path to pursue at that exact moment in time. Unsurprisingly, a long line formed outside of the workshop on academia and there were only a few very persistent people able to enter into the room after the program began.

Figure 1: Number of post-doctorates by type of support.
The opening speaker of the "Careers Beyond the Bench" workshop was Dr. Sally Rockey, a Deputy Director for Extramural Research at the NIH and the author of the blog "Rock Talk", which helps keep the scientific community abreast of the latest trends and challenges faced at the NIH. Dr. Rockey opened her talk by highlighting that the number of postdoctoral fellows working in the US continues to increase. This is especially true in fields that receive the largest portion of NIH funding (IE Genetics, Biochemistry and, of course, Neuroscience). This trend toward an increase in scientific fellows working in the US is presented in the chart below (Figure 1, not presented during the session), which plots the number of post docs supported by specific funding sources between the years 1979 and 2009.

Figure 2: Where college graduates who pursue PhDs end 
up, career-wise.
With this in mind, Dr. Rockey next presented a basic flow chart detailing who is part of the biomedical research workforce and the general paths taken to get to those positions (Figure 2). Here, she highlighted that despite most PhD students thinking their degree means they will pursue a job in scientific academia, less than 50% of biomedical research positions are made up by academic positions. Dr. Rockey also underscored that the transition between graduate education and career positions is very poorly understood (numbers in red are values that are not well studied, and thus the accuracy of these values is not likely correct).

Because a majority of postdoctoral fellows are foreign nationals, along with the fact that postdoctoral fellowships can have a variety of titles, it is difficult to track the average length and structural make-up of the postdoc community. However, Dr. Rockey did say that anecdotal evidence points to the length of postdoctoral positions increasing as vacant jobs in academia continue to decrease. This is somewhat exemplified when examining the median age of graduation from PhD programs along with the median age of first entry into non-postdoctoral positions and then comparing these values between biomedical and other scientific fields (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Average age at the beginning of each career stage. 
Here a couple of noticeable trends are seen. First, the age gap between when biomedical PhDs graduate and when they enter into their first academic position is somewhat larger than the same age gap found with Chemistry PhDs. Moreover, the chart shows that biomedical PhDs pursuing careers outside academia typically receive their first position at a younger age than those pursuing a career in academia.

Career Neuron by Dr. Immy Smith,
Combining the average ~6.5 years of PhD training and 4-5 years of postdoctoral research means that it takes roughly 10 years before a person with a biomedical PhD will begin his/her first non-postdoctoral position, and even longer if he/she chooses the academic tenure-track.

To close the talk, Dr. Rockey ended on a positive note by emphasizing the value of a biomedical PhD degree and encouraged students not to be afraid to look outside of the classic tenure-track faculty position when considering a future career. It may be that your mentor feels it is his/her job to make you into their scientific protégé. However, given what we know about job outlooks and the overall amount of training one gets when going through a PhD degree program/postdoctoral experiences, biomedical PhDs are more than capable of succeeding in a whole host of alternative careers outside of academia.

Other posts in this series:

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