The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts – The Atlantic

The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts – The Atlantic.


4 thoughts on “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts – The Atlantic

  1. I wandered upon your blog in an attempt to reconcile between a decision of entering the medical versus research field. I find the article on the PhD bust incredibly saddening. It seems that research is still ill appreciated and provides little job security. However, I noticed that the unemployment rates were below the national average. In your experience, how fares the life of a PhD student after graduation? Is it worth the pursuit, in regards to overall happiness?

    • Hi Joy,

      Thanks for your question! I think the answer is a bit complicated, and frankly you should consider several opinions and listen to your heart before you make a decision. For my part, I think that you’re absolutely right that research is underappreciated from cultural and funding standpoints. The unemployment figure doesn’t surprise me – if you get a PhD or MD/PhD in a biomedical field, there will likely be work available for you, it’s just that the work may not be what you were hoping to find. As you’ll find in a lot of other posts and articles, the biggest problem is that grad school is mostly geared toward training you to be a tenured professor someday, and those jobs are vanishing rapidly. What’s more, they’re so cushy at the end stage that you basically have to wait for the old professors to die or become physically unable to work before their position opens up. (And that’s if they decide to replace them at all, instead of just bridging the gap with non-tenured positions.) Graduate school can be incredibly depressing, and it’s definitely been hard for me for a number of reasons, but that’s going to vary from person to person. For one thing, it seems that the field rewards a very specific kind of person. If you are willing to elevate school above all else, you may do very well. If you are more interested in work/life balance, plan to start a family, or dare to have any passions outside of the laboratory, you may find that the going is tough. If you have a burning desire to do biomedical research and believe that you wouldn’t be happy doing anything else, I do think it’s still worth it. It helps if you’re off-the-charts intelligent – the very top of the grad student pile tends to get showered with all kinds of awards and adoration, whereas the rest of the grad school class, most of whom excelled in undergrad, are expected to get by on internal motivation alone. This is kind of a key point: If you think you’ll still want to do research even if you’re bad at it, even if you’re unlucky for years and get burned by bad projects and decisions made by others, then you’ll be just fine. On the other hand, you could be one of the lucky/smart ones who flies through it and has a wonderful time.

      Sorry if this comes off a bit rambly, and I’ll be happy to clarify any of these points if you’re interested. Most PhD graduates from the biomedical sciences end up in some kind of employment. Postdoctoral positions are kind of a piece of cake to find, but after that it’s fairly common for people to be forced from academia. There is work available in industry, and there are some jobs available at smaller teaching-focused colleges, but you have to ask yourself if you’re comfortable with the fact that your career trajectory will lie largely outside your control. Of course your abilities and your effort matter to some extent, but there’s a lot of luck involved.

      Also, a piece of advice if you go for it: Obtain a specific skill, preferably a complicated one. People who can do basic RNA, Protein, and DNA work aren’t in that much demand, but if you’re an MRI expert, or you know some cutting edge form of microscopy or bioinformatics, you’ll be in a much better position to sell yourself later.

      tl,dr: If you want to do science more than anything, go ahead and get the PhD. You’ll be able to do science somehow. Just know that you might not have much say in the specifics of where you end up.

      Good luck, whatever you decide.


  2. Howdy!

    Wow, that was such a quick and thorough response! Thank you. I’m very interested in hearing more about your experiences as a MD/PhD student. I’ve discussed a similar topic with quite a few professors. Interestingly, opinions of their experiences in a biology PhD profession diverged depending upon their sex. This is concerning. Would you consider the research field to still be primarily male dominated? Quite a few of my professors brought that to my attention. Also, they noted that the competition in the field is ridiculous and has led towards a continual loss of unity between fellow researchers. In my personal research experience, I felt minimal amounts of competition but recognize that I might have been lucky in that regard. Concerning graduate school though, I do not hail from a top-tiered school. Would that greatly diminish my chances of entering a good graduate program, despite having a strong research background and publication? As you might have already discerned, I lean more towards entering the PhD field rather than MD. I adore the research atmosphere and the related highs/lows that stem from it. My primary concern is that very few of my PhD friends have lives outside of their work. It appears to be an occupation that is entirely consuming.

    Sorry about the endless stream of questions! Thank you for taking the time to answer my previous ones, as well. I will take your advice. If accepted, I’ll strive to learn a molecular technique that would be invaluable to a potential employer.


    • Hi Joy,
      My experiences as an MD/PhD student have been far from typical thanks to some outside circumstances, but I can tell you that it’s definitely a good way to go if you think translational research appeals to you. I can go into more detail on this if you’re interested, but I figure I should address your other questions before I go off on that tangent.
      As for the women in science issue, you’re correct in sensing that it’s kind of a loaded topic. At the higher levels, most of the biological sciences are pretty male dominated, but that’s largely a holdover from the fact that these people have been around for so long. When you look at the graduate student pool and younger faculty, there are plenty of women in the field, and I believe women are outnumbering men in several PhD programs and medical schools. As a man, I can only give you indirect input on this, so I would refer you to a colleague of mine, Dominique Leitner, who has been pretty involved with the Women in Science organizations on campus. I’ve asked her permission to share her contact information with you. (
      For my part, I’ll tell you that there’s no reason you’re necessarily at a disadvantage. A common complaint is that it’s difficult to start a family without disrupting your momentum in your career track. That’s probably worth considering if that’s a factor for you. There are active efforts, like the aforementioned organizations, that offer networking opportunities and can help you get to where you want to be. The women who have made it to the top in the old boys’ club seem to be really receptive to helping the new batch of scientists. In that way, you might have an easier time finding a committed mentor than I have.
      The competition is ridiculous, particularly in academia. There is the possibility that this will change, in time. The funding climate, as it is, isn’t really sustainable and I believe that funding will either have to increase or interest in science will diminish to the point where there’s more money per scientist than there currently is. Some people and institutions are more collegial/helpful than others, and some house more of the arrogant egotists you may hope to avoid. This would be something you could find out during the interview process for grad schools. You’ll be able to find at least one jaded, burned out student at any given institution, and they’ll be happy to tell you everything that they think is wrong with their university. This can be helpful information, for sure.
      In my experience as an undergraduate, I was insulated from the feelings of competition as well. It’s possible you’re experiencing the same thing. It’s also possible that you’re working with good people who still have their heads on straight despite the climate. The higher you go, the more you stand to lose if you can’t keep innovating. This tends to alter people’s attitudes.
      I wouldn’t worry about coming from a small school. If your grades and scores are competitive and you have a good research record, you will probably get into a respectable grad program someplace. Make sure you have good letters from the people who can recommend you, and try to get a feel for where you stand with your numbers. If you can clear those hurdles, few will care if your undergrad was a lesser-known institution. Also, I didn’t have any publications. Publications before graduate school are definitely a plus, and that’s going to get you noticed. They’re not a necessity, but they’re very handy.
      Hopefully you’ve read my post about PhD vs. MD/PhD, since both of those tracks would allow you to do mostly research. I would also add this: Sun Tzu, in his “Art of War,” suggests that your soldiers will fight better if there is no safe route for retreat, if their backs are against the wall and they have to win or die. Similarly, a pure PhD scientist might do better work simply because their survival depends on it, whereas the dual degree people can cop out and practice medicine instead. (as many do.)
      The PhD life can consume your life, for sure. However, there is some room for flexibility. I have my own gripes that we’re promoting unhealthy life balance by applauding people who work all the time and aren’t well rounded in the least. Still, you have some degree of autonomy, and you can carve out some time to be “you.” For my part, I manage to have things in my life outside of research, and I intend to fight for that sort of balance for the rest of my career. I have to believe it can be done, even if the absolute best don’t often do it. What’s more, a culture arises from the people who make it up. It’s possible that, since our generation seems to value time more than money in a lot of cases, the culture will begin to shift in the next decade or two. Hopefully that’s not just idle hoping.
      It sounds like you’re on the right track in your thinking, and if you’re passionate about science and have the stomach for all the baggage that comes with it, I think you’ll probably do fine. Without trying, you’ll never know if you would’ve been one of the greats.
      Hope this helps, and let me know if you have any other questions. I don’t mind answering, I figure I can always clean this information up into a post of its own if it makes sense to.


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