Point of View: A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs

  1. Henry R Bourne  Is a corresponding author
  1. University of California at San Francisco, United States
4 tables


Table 1
Number of graduate students supported by different funding sources in 1979 and 2009
19792009Change (%)
NIH research grants8,00025,500219
NIH training grants4,5005,80029
  1. The total number of graduate students in the biomedical sciences in the US increased from about 30,000 in 1979 to 56,800 in 2009 (data from figure 2 of the Workforce report). The biggest increase was in the number of students supported from NIH research grants to academic investigators. Fellowships include both NIH and non-federal fellowships. The actual numbers are probably higher because the numbers in the table represent those subsets of the total graduate student population that can be easily tracked: for example, some estimates put the number of PhD students at 83,000 (see Table 2). However, I believe that the overall distribution between subsets, and also the relative changes between 1979 and 2009, are roughly correct.

Table 2
A “snapshot” of the biomedical workforce from 2009
Biomedical PhD students
 Total number83,000
 Number who started PhDs16,000
 Number awarded PhDs9,000
 Number who started postdoc5,800
 Average time to PhD (years)6–7
Post-PhD workforce%
 Scientific research84,50066
  (Government research)(7,000)(6)
  (Academic research or teaching)(55,000)(43)
  (Industrial research)(22,500)(18)
 Related to science (not research)24,00018
 Unrelated to science17,00013
  1. This snapshot (data from Workforce report, p32) shows that 16,000 students started PhDs in 2009, but only 9,000 students received PhDs in 2009: this suggests a completion rate of just 56%. The table also shows that 66% of PhD graduates go on to pursue careers in research. This suggests that just over one-third (66% of 56% = 37%) of those students who start PhDs go on to become scientific researchers in government, academic or industrial laboratories. The Workforce report emphasizes that these data are only approximate; for instance, estimates of postdoc numbers vary between 37,000 and 68,000, and estimates for the number of PhD students vary between 83,000 (shown here) and 56,800 (Table 1). Overall, however, it is clear to me that too many students start PhDs and that, on average, most PhD training programmes are strikingly inefficient at producing PhDs.

Table 3
Different PhD programmes
UCSF Tetrad 1999–2001CSHL Watson school 1999–2006Average (2009)
Number of students who started PhDs666016,000
Number (%) who obtained PhDs63 (94%)50 (83%)9,000 (56%)
Average time taken (years)6.5 (approximately)4.66–7
Post-PhD career path
 Research (postdocs included)56 (89%)42 (81%)66%
 Related to science (not research)7 (11%)7 (13%)18%
 Unrelated to science03 (6%)13%
  1. A comparison between the Tetrad PhD programme at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the Watson School at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) and an average for all PhD programmes shows differences in the proportion of students who obtain PhDs, the average time taken to obtain a PhD, and the proportion of PhDs who remain in research. Some of these differences might be explained by differences in sample sizes and the length of time that has passed since the PhD was obtained. The differences in the proportion of students remaining in research might also be partially explained by UCSF and CSHL recruiting better applicants and/or their reputations helping new PhDs to obtain research positions (rather than being solely due to better training at UCSF and CSHL). Data: UCSF Tetrad: 7 MD–PhD students who started PhDs in this period are not included due to a lack on information on their post-PhD career path. Watson School: Data available at http://www.cshl.edu/images/stories/wsbs/docs/WSBSstats.pdf. Of the ten students who did not obtain PhDs, seven obtained an MS degree. Data for ‘Post-PhD career path’ is for the 52 individuals who obtained PhDs 2002–2008. Average: data from Workforce report, p32.

Table 4
A changing world for postdocs
19802009Change (%)
Postdoc support
 Federal research grants3,00011,500280
 Federal training grants and fellowships2,0002,0000
 Non-federal grants1,5007,500400
  1. The number of postdocs supported by federal (NIH) research grants increased significantly between 1980 and 2009, while the number supported by federal training grants and fellowships remained constant (data from Workforce report, pp19–23). The number supported by non-federal grants (such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society) also increased significantly. The number of non-US postdocs also increased dramatically during this period. Note that these numbers differ (in some cases substantially) from other data on postdocs in the Workforce report: while these differences reflect inadequate tracking and enumeration of postdocs, the relative trends are almost certainly correct.

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  1. Henry R Bourne
Point of View: A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs
eLife 2:e01139.