40% of grad students get PI jobs in Academia?

September 29, 2011

A new post up at RockTalk has an interesting figure.

Figure 1. UCSF graduate student career preferences. Courtesy of C.N. Furman (sic) et al., CBE Life Sciences Education, 2011.

One would not assume that 40% of graduate students are going on to PI level appointments in academia.


This is the fraction of ~3rd year graduate students that say they want an academic, PI type career.

That makes more sense. Unfortunately the paper is one long tilt at the straw man that everyone wants/expects doctoral students to all end up in Academia with PI level jobs. Nobody really believes that anymore…..do they? The paper exhorts local institutions and national funding bodies (Hi, NIH) to get on board with the notion of branching career outcomes as all being “successful”. Ok, good enough.

but guys. Really. The question here is whether those that end up wanting a PI job can secure one.


All else is just handwaving. These authors would have done a better service by tracking down UCSF grads from 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago and see what jobs they were actually able to obtain.
Fuhrmann et al, Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. CBE Life Sci Educ. 2011 Fall;10(3):239-49. [PDF, PubMed]

No Responses Yet to “40% of grad students get PI jobs in Academia?”

  1. becca Says:

    Is there really a viable route to “other research careers” that does not involve postdocing?
    I mean, aside from a handful of cases (I also know of a handful of cases of PhD -> PI with no postdoc, but there is no arrow in that figure to represent that).


  2. RespiSci Says:

    In the intro of Fuhrmann’s paper “Since 2001,
    fewer than 20% of PhDs in the biological sciences have been
    moving into tenure-track academic positions within 5–6 yr
    of receiving a PhD. In fact, the most recent data (2006) show
    only 14% of these PhDs in tenure-track positions. Forty-three
    percent were employed full-time in nonacademic settings (Stephan 2012)”

    I would suggest that as such a small percentage of grad students end up as PIs, their training should not be focused with that as a goal. The question to me is how does an academic lab train graduate students for careers other than academia?


  3. hn Says:

    My personal experience with UCSF postdocs is that more are interested in industry than academia.


  4. Confounding Says:

    It’s not a useless paper. Admittedly, its not as useful as treating some graduate students as a cohort and finding out what happens to them. But Data Now + Data Later > Data Later, if we chairitably assume that the authors are going to also do some followup.

    It *is* useful to know that a majority of graduate students aren’t planning on a PI job. It’s a decent preliminary estimate, because its pretty tough to “fall in” to a PI job if you weren’t planning on getting one. So an established likely upper limit is still a useful piece of information.

    And while I don’t think people’s training assumes they’ll end up in a PI-type career, I do think it gets a fair amount more weight than it probably warrants, with “alternative careers” being presented as a “I suppose, if you must…”, or being viewed as supplemental skills outside the core of what you should know.


  5. most grad students start out wanting to be professors.

    by the third year, as it really starts to sink in that there aren’t many faculty positions available and we are no longer in the top 5% of our cohort (as we likely were during undergrad), many grad students start to think, “well… maybe I don’t want a faculty position anyway…”

    I think it’s hard to ask “can those individuals who want faculty positions get them?” because there are interactions here… our goals are informed by our expectations.


  6. whimple Says:

    Both Rockey and UCSF grads are dangerously out of touch with reality. Love the way the NIH puts out a “request for information” instead of going and getting the actual data themselves. Pinheads.


  7. Neuro-conservative Says:

    A small, anecdotal version of the prospective study was published in Science three years ago. The article followed up on the career trajectories of the 30 students entering the inaugural year of Yale’s molecular biology program in 1991.

    How many of these 30 students — presumably pretty bright in order to get in to Yale — are tenured academics two decades later? The title says it all:

    And then there was one.

    The article is behind a paywall but is discussed here: http://scientopia.org/blogs/ethicsandscience/2008/10/14/from-the-other-end-of-the-pipeline-views-of-science-from-yales-mbb-entering-class-of-1991/


  8. qaz Says:

    Does the “PI” question separate liberal arts PI (primarily teaching, but still academia) from research PI (primarily can-you-get-NIH-grants)? Does the 40% include both?


  9. Rosemary Hoffman Says:

    and just how many postdocs do these PhDs do before becomming a PI?


  10. Joe Says:

    Of my grad class entering 1987, 3 of us out of 32 total, are profs.
    In our current grad program we have instituted a professional development program where students take classes or participate in other activities to give them more exposure to different career possibilities. It is surprizing the number of faculty who are resistant to this idea and instead insist that we should work harder at preparing our students for competing for academic jobs.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    I hypothesize that the highest professor-rank job hit rate comes from doctoral training programs in the ~7-15 rankings.


  12. bashir Says:

    I think it’s hard to ask “can those individuals who want faculty positions get them?” because there are interactions here… our goals are informed by our expectations.

    Yep. I think the last time the vast majority of my cohort was all about being an R1-PI was fall semester first year. Then the reality of what we had gotten into began to sink in. Many adjusted expectations. A few people left. Others thought more about teaching or industry. By 3rd year many had either left or were no longer expressing R1-PI as their #1 priority. I think of 15 that started maybe 2 or 3 got R1 jobs(?) Many of the others did end up in jobs that they wanted, SLACs, industry, etc. It’s just that what they wanted was very fluid (that’s good I think).


  13. DrugMonkey Says:

    It just isn’t right to argue that since grad students eventually catch on to the fact their original career aspiration is unlikely to be met due to the steep competition, that all is well Bashir. If they really decide they do not *want* any TT gig, that’s okay. But if they feel that the steep odds means that they are forced to change their mind, this is a professional problem. The degree to which we have this problem is important to identify and discuss. A few percent I wouldn’t worry about. Half? Definitely a problem.


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