A love of science can inspire a career in research, but it is not enough to deliver the goods: Only about 15% of biomedical Ph.D. researchers ever secure a tenure-track position. The rest end up—often after a long, uncertain transition—in a very wide range of careers. In 2012, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) committed to doing more to help this other 85% by (among other initiatives) providing some training for Ph.D. students and postdocs in the skills needed for careers outside academia.
In principle, it's an ambitious expansion of NIH's core agenda. The agency has traditionally existed to facilitate biomedical research and research training. But that objective has long depended, in turn, on an academic workforce made up of largely of trainees. Those trainees are becoming increasingly unhappy with training that is too long and geared to academic positions that most don't achieve. NIH is aiming to help universities provide broader training, and to help demonstrate that the otherwise highly specialized biomedical research training it supports can translate well to other kinds of work.
In a small first step, NIH committed to two rounds of funding for the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) award program, supported by the NIH director's Common Fund. It isn't clear whether more ambitious steps will follow.
The BEST training
BEST awards aim to supply academic biomedical training programs with the resources needed to help their graduate students and postdocs enter a workforce outside of academia but still in research-related positions. BEST programs expose trainees to a variety of careers, such as policy, biotechnology, or science writing. NIH views BEST awards as catalysts, and expects institutions to foot the bill eventually. "The funding is set up to provide faculty time to build a program, so after the 5 years of NIH support, hopefully the university will be committed to running this," says Patricia Labosky, program leader at NIH's Office of Strategic Coordination in Bethesda, Maryland.
Cornell University is one of 10 first-round BEST award recipients; Cornell's strategy is to build on preexisting programs, including the university's Center for Advanced Technology, which for years has offered biotech externships to undergraduates and MBA students. With BEST award support, the program will expand to offer externships to biomedical graduate students and postdocs. "We can actually say that these hands-on experiences will allow the transition to the career in the field because we're already doing this [in] other guises," says Susi Varvayanis, senior director of Cornell University's BEST program.
Cornell will also use BEST funds to expand on or establish new mentored experiences in science communication, entrepreneurship, risk and compliance, and science policy. Chris Schaffer, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at Cornell and a former AAAS (publisher of Science Careers) Science & Technology (S&T) Policy fellow, is leading the science policy charge. So far, one postdoc and one graduate student have secured science policy fellowships. "Our 5 year goal for this BEST award is for students to become very successful in applying for these AAAS S&T Policy fellowship slots and to gain enough credible experience to increase the likelihood of being successful and getting a position in [their chosen] career," Schaffer says.
Another BEST award recipient is the University of California (UC), Davis, which will partner with Science Translational Medicine (Sci TM) to provide editorial experiences for students. Since 2009, the journal has recruited experienced postdocs and early-career principal investigators as editorial advisers, says Kelly LaMarco, senior editor at Sci TM. The affiliation with the journal has helped scientists find academic jobs, she says. Now the journal is setting up an internship program designed to help UC Davis graduate students transition into jobs as journal editors. "The interns would get experience in a lot of different areas of publishing: communication, peer review, soliciting articles, identifying what to cover and from what angle, editing, writing. We want them to have a mature view of the field," LaMarco says.
Some universities are doing it on their own, without BEST awards. The Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) Graduate Program at the University of Washington (UW), for example, lets graduate students obtain a Master of Science degree in epidemiology, an MBA, or a certificate in molecular medicine, concurrent with their Ph.D. studies. Students interested in teaching-intensive tracks are given the option to participate in partnerships with local high schools and museums, instead of working as a teaching assistant for an extra semester. Since 1998, a few MCB students have participated in a 10-week externship at a local biotechnology company. "We have had 33 students participate, so the data set is small. However, they do appear to be more likely to enter biotech after graduation," writes David Raible, professor of biological structure and MCB program director at UW, in an email to Science Careers.
That program suffers from one logistical problem: The externship is restricted to the first year of graduate school, because that's the only time students are supported strictly by institutional funds, Raible explains. (Other sources of support prohibit such activities.) That timing could limit the program's effectiveness. "If there was a way to support students while they are writing their dissertation, then they would be able to sample other things," he says. "But we do believe that doing the externship early helps students set their goals in graduate school," he writes.
Raible's sentiment mirrors NIH's vision for future collaborations. "We hope that the universities will recognize the benefit of these programs and want to develop the partnerships [with companies and institutions] who will eventually be the employers," Labosky says. "If the employers are happy, maybe they can pick up the [funding] burden."
Does the approach work? Raible is confident that these programs develop valuable, widely applicable skills, but he isn't sure "whether they directly impact career choices," he says. Nancy Maizels, director of the Molecular Medicine Certificate Training Program at UW, says that most students still go on to do academic postdocs, but that the program is useful for obtaining other jobs. "I think the students feel empowered because they realize they're at the cutting edge of an area. It raises their aspiration level. You can make better decisions and impressions in an interview," she says.
Schaffer admits that his policy program isn't by itself sufficient to facilitate a career transition. He doesn't expect students and postdocs who focus on policy to go directly to policy careers; the program, he hopes, will position them to obtain additional training. "[W]e would like students to be able to gain serious and credible experience to compete in the job market, but they are unlikely to go directly into NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] or campaign firms."
When you consider the funding level of the BEST program—$11 million over 2 years, against an NIH research budget of more than $30 billion—and the small number of researchers it reaches, it's hard to argue that the BEST award program is more than a small first step. Industry-sponsored programs have been around for more than a decade, at UW and elsewhere, but the investment from industry doesn't come close to supporting career transitions for the number of researchers looking to move to industry.
But NIH itself apparently doesn't plan to do much more. "We won't pay for student or postdoc salaries as they go off and do something outside of the bench," Labosky says. "The goal of the BEST program is to support faculty and staff and give them time to set up their own programs." The scope of the program is also limited. In an interview, Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, adds, "We'd like them to go into research or research-related positions."
What, then, is to be done to help the 85% find jobs? One solution would be to reinvigorate academic research careers—but, as Rockey says, "the research system is highly dependent on NIH funding, so if funding remains flat, how are we to keep this system vigorous?" Another solution would be to reduce the number of graduate students—but that's not NIH's decision, Rockey says, or not exclusively. "It's not just training grants; universities use their own funds. Most institutions have not reduced the number of students they bring in, even in this funding climate," she says.