Too Many Scientists? NIH Chats About the Future of Training Biomedical Researchers

As available research funding shrinks, job opportunities for PhD students and postdocs become fewer and fewer. In a live chat last week, sponsored by Science’s Careers section, we listened in on discussion about the latest NIH report regarding job shortages for PhD holders in research – particularly biomedical research. Shirley Tilghman, co-chair of the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, and Joseph LeManna, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, answered questions about a recent NIH draft report on the topic.

The NIH report laid out several suggestions for improving the PhD and postdoc experience, while avoiding the risk of training researchers for jobs that do not exist. Key points included:

•    Diversifying experiences for PhD students, exposing them to career paths outside the ivory towers of academia.
•    Incentivize universities to record the career progress of past trainees, in order to educate prospective students about all future opportunities. NIH suggested making this recording and reporting a requirement before universities are eligible to receive federal grants.
•    Place a five year limit on NIH support for graduate students.
•    Encourage grant holders to use full time staff scientists instead of just PhD students or post docs. Ideally, this could both stabilize the career path, making it more attractive, and ensure PIs have the consistent, experienced help they need.

Of course, there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve these issues. At this point, NIH does not have a timeline for implementing any of the proposed changes.

In the meantime, what can current PhD students, post docs, PIs and universities do to avoid creating an unemployable workforce of PhD researchers? What do you think of NIH’s suggestions?

You can read the full transcript of the chat on the Science Careers Blog.
You can read the complete report on the NIH website [pdf].

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