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Date: Sept. 9, 1998
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Officer
David Schneier, Media Relations Assistant
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Graduate Education Programs in Life Sciences
Should Curtail Growth

WASHINGTON -- The number of doctorate recipients in life sciences exceeds the research positions available in academia, government, and industry, says a new report by a committee of the National Research Council. To help improve the employment opportunities for such Ph.D.s and ensure that the most talented students will pursue careers in life sciences, universities and research institutions should not continue to expand enrollment in existing graduate education programs or develop new ones unless they are directed at a specific need -- such as increasing the number of minority students in a certain area or providing trained researchers for emerging new fields.

"The contributions that research in life sciences has made over the years in medicine, agriculture, and the environment have immensely improved the quality of our lives," said committee chair Shirley Tilghman, Howard A. Prior Professor of the Life Sciences, Princeton University, and investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "But to continue that success and attract the best and the brightest researchers, they must have reasonable expectations of building meaningful careers. Federal funding agencies and universities should work together to achieve a better balance between graduate education programs and needs of the research enterprise."

Since 1987, the number of doctorates awarded in life sciences by U.S. universities has risen 42 percent, from about 5,000 annually in the mid-1980s to more than 7,600 in 1996. But opportunities for doctorate recipients to pursue their own research projects at universities, industry, or in government laboratories are not growing as quickly. The number of life scientists holding faculty positions at universities has increased only 2.5 percent a year since 1973. Industry appointments have risen almost 7 percent each year during the same period, and employment at government laboratories has shown only modest growth.

As a result, five or six years after receiving their doctorates, as many as 38 percent of Ph.D. recipients still are unable to establish independent research projects. About 20,000 postdoctoral fellows, large numbers of whom are at least 35 years old, are working for independent investigators and receiving additional training as they seek permanent positions. Many of them will spend up to five years in these typically low-paying fellowships, competing with a rapidly growing pool of young doctorate recipients for a limited number of permanent jobs.

Moreover, the job market is unlikely to improve in the near future, the committee said. Although federal and private funding for life sciences research has been increasing steadily for years, the money is not being used to create permanent research jobs. Universities receiving the funding are instead creating laboratory-research and other non-tenured positions, such as research assistants and adjunct instructors.

Even though an ample number of doctorates in life sciences are being awarded now, the committee said, rapidly reducing the size of graduate student populations could be disruptive to scientific research. Currently, funded research requires the services of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; a sudden reduction in doctoral candidates could delay this work.

Funding agencies and universities instead should gear efforts to ensure that graduate education programs do not grow beyond current levels, the report says. Because prospective graduate students in life sciences need accurate employment information to make informed decisions about pursuing further training, every life science department that receives federal funding should be required to provide information about the employment experiences of all predoctoral students enrolled in the program during the previous decade, the committee said.

As many as a quarter of all Ph.D. degrees awarded annually since 1987 have gone to students who were not U.S. citizens, and many recipients are recruited from abroad to fill postdoctoral fellowships. Immigration laws allow universities to make their own admission and funding decisions. Universities should restrain the enrollment of both foreign and U.S. students equally, the report says, but setting limits on the number of visas issued to foreign students is not advisable. Foreign nationals have contributed greatly to U.S. science leadership and achievements and modern science has become an international endeavor. However, the committee urged universities not to increase the number of foreign nationals admitted if efforts are made to limit overall enrollment in life sciences graduate programs.

Improving Ph.D. Training

Almost two-thirds of life-sciences graduate students supported by federal funds in 1995 were, at some point in their training, paid from research grants awarded to faculty. The quality of the training that students get under these grants receives very little external evaluation from funding agencies. Because such Ph.D. training does not have a fixed term, faculty members decide when a candidate has completed training. This could result in conflicts of interest, however, since professors may be reluctant to lose highly productive workers, or a student may be discouraged from taking additional coursework or teaching a class because the activities take time away from grant-supported research.

Rather than supporting these types of research grants so heavily for training purposes, all federal agencies involved in education and research in life sciences should increasingly place more emphasis on training grants and individual graduate fellowships, the committee said. Graduate training programs funded by these grants receive much more scrutiny, and universities and research institutions are held accountable for the quality of training provided. For example, under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards, training grants are provided only after the graduate program has been peer-reviewed by an NIH-appointed committee. The review process examines such factors as length of time to obtain a degree, students' accomplishments, and post-graduation careers.

In addition, public and private funding agencies should establish and annually award some 200 career-transition grants to promising postdoctoral fellows, the committee said. These grants would be given to fellows with more than two years' postdoctoral experience. While only about 1 percent of Ph.D. recipients would be awarded these grants, they could allow the most talented Ph.D. fellows an opportunity to begin new scientific research projects independently.

Doctorate recipients have been encouraged in recent years to consider alternative careers such as law, finance, and journalism, but these opportunities also are often extremely competitive and do not make full use of Ph.D.-level skills. In 1995, only 7 percent of the life sciences Ph.D.s held full-time positions outside of academia, industry, and government nine or 10 years after receiving their doctorates. Rather than encouraging students to obtain Ph.D.s for these types of careers, universities should identify specific areas in biomedical and biological sciences for which a focused master's degree program would be more appropriate than doctoral training, the committee said. For example, an interdisciplinary master's program might combine life-sciences training with fields such as management, public affairs, and engineering. Such programs should be geared toward opportunities in the labor market.

One committee member provided an alternative perspective from the committee's view on training grants, stating that the recommendation was outside of the committee's charge.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund, and the National Research Council. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientistsfor free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web siteor at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Commission on Life Sciences

Committee on Dimensions, Causes, and Implications of
Recent Trends in the Careers of Life Scientists