‘And then there was one…’

Bugdoc sent me an interesting article that she found in Science recently written by Jeffrey Mervis, tracking alumni from Yale’s Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry graduate program 10 years or so after graduation (they entered the program in 1991). Let’s just skip directly to table 1, shall we? Actually, it’s not entitled table 1, but there is only one table- I’ll summarize because you have to have access to Science to see the full text.  Out of 26 graduates of the year that the article was following- only 2 are on the tenure track or are tenured (that’s one on the tenure-track untenured, and one with tenure). WOW.  That’s a pretty freaking low number.

So here is the breakdown- of 26 in the entering class: 8 remain in academia (all but 2 are non-TT), 11 are in industry, 4 are in the ‘other’ category (law, IT) and 3 are status unknown. Nearly all of the entering class of that year wanted to stay in academia when they started graduate school, and according to the article the MBB website says their mission is to “to prepare students for careers as independent investigators in molecular and structural biology”… is this code for ‘traditional academic positions’… or something more broad.  Is the mission of the program serving the students that are being selected – and should the mission be adjusted to reflect the more broad range of career paths graduates are being prepared for…?  One faculty member quoted in the article wildly overestimated the percentage of students in that year that he thought would be in tenure track positions – he thought 20-25%… when the figure is actually 7%. What does that say about what faculty are training for, and what the reality is at the end of the training period??

One thing that came through to me in reading this article, and warms my heart actually, was that of those that left academia – they didn’t seem to have the bias that one only left academia when one was a ‘failed’ scientist. These kids started their own seminar series to gather information from graduates of the program that were working outside academia- which I think is a totally awesome idea.  Nothing like this was available in my graduate department when I was a student… but we could have made it happen.

What about my own graduate class? There were 6 of us in my year, including 3 dual degree students- of which I was one.  Of the two MD/Ph.D.s- one is in strictly clinical practice, and the other is in a clinical/clinical research type position- so no tenure track. Of the three Ph.D. candidates in my year- one left science for law school, one left science for venture captial work, and the last went to industry (and at last survey is doing quite well at it). Of these three, none of them did a traditional post-doc, they left academia directly after graduate school. And then there was one. Only I remained in academia… and if you knew the circumstances you would know that that happened sort of by chance… or by fate…

How about your own graduate school class- where did they go… how many ended up in tenure-track positions?


15 thoughts on “‘And then there was one…’

  1. Huh. Interesting question! Let’s see (this is the UVa Neuroscience PhD, class of entry 1994):

    * Me, tenure-track, US R1
    * One still in postdochood (wow, 8 years out?)
    * One other tenure-track, US R1 institution
    * One clinical and research faculty, looks like tenure-track, US R1
    * One venture capital/stay-home parent
    * One – no, two – research-associated charity foundation positions
    * One at NIH as program director

    Which frankly looks pretty good. 3 of 8 tenure-track, 3 more in directly-related grant positions, one still research but not (yet) as faculty, one doing non-research stuff. Other years look decent but not quite as good, so maybe we were good and/or lucky, but the program overall really comes out quite well. Kudos to UVa not only for their success but for having a good alum tracker online!

  2. One way to look at it is like professional sports, with graduate school/post-docs like minor league baseball. The goal of every kid who enters the minor leagues is to make it to the majors. The goal of every kid who enters graduate school/post-doc is a tenure-track position. The minor league and graduate school/post-doctoral systems are designed to both train players/scientists for the major leagues/tenure track and, more importantly, to identify and select out those with the talent and capacity to succeed in the major leagues/tenure track.

    Under this view, it is wholly appropriate that the nearly single-minded focus of the minor leagues/grad school-post-doc systems is preparation and selection for the major leagues/tenure track, even though only a very small fraction of those who enter these systems make it to the major leagues/tenure track.

  3. I think PP’s analysis is fine, as long as that framework is made perfectly clear to entrants. And, every university that receives NIH training funding should be required to keep an alumni tracker on line, so folks who are considering the program can no what alum’s trajectory was.

  4. Mine’s easy. There were two of us that started in my PhD program my year. One of us is faculty at a top-rated R1 university, the other at an aspiring to be R1 university. So that’s damn impressive.

    But if you look at the two classes ahead of me, there were five that finished the PhD program. One is tt at a teaching U, one is non-tenure track at a teaching U, two are post-docs and one is a technician. All are still looking for t-t positions at either teaching or research unis. (They are now 3-4 years out from PhD).

  5. hmmm…. N=17

    1 washout first year
    4 soft-money research institution PI types (interestingly 3 in same city)
    1 R1 prof, traditional for training department
    2 CRO jobs overseeing clinical trials
    1 a researcher in a private biz focusing on NIH SBIR/STTR type funding
    1 washout after many years, restarted and defended at another institute, not currently in science I believe
    2 teaching-focused private university
    2 dunno (foreign nationals)

    3- brain FAIL. can’t remember who they were and if I know where they went.

  6. gotta love the internet, simple check of library for dissertations recorded and bada boom

    1 marketing research person
    2 more TT faculty although I have lost touch with whether these individuals are publishing much, they are from a distant side of my field

    Not bad although only one or two of the TT faculty look almost exactly like the profs in our training department.

    We are closing in on 20 yrs out from our first year of grad school, btw. Most of us have been in our current jobs at least 5 years, most more like 8+. fwiw

  7. and one of the foreign nationals located at teaching post in US

    hmmm, very interesting especially since a topically related graduate program of very much higher stature and schwingage at the same U (at the same time and presently) was just hammered on at one of their periodic external reviews for dismal placement of students. Isn’t that interesting?

  8. I’m in a social science research program in The Arse End of the World, and avoiding a career in retail is considered an excellent result.

  9. Of the 9 PhD students in my grad student office in the land far, far away:

    1 still a postdoc (and likely to remain so forever)
    4 in government research positions
    4 in TT positions (including me as I’m about to start on the TT)

    Our one and only masters student struggled for several years before dropping out and was never heard from again.

    My cohort consisted of 5 different nationalities and geographically, we are now spread far and wide:

    1 in US (me)
    2 in SE Asia (2 of the government researchers)
    6 in land far, far away

  10. My class entered in 2002, and all but one of us are now graduated/other (which is good in and of itself….always scary when lots of students are still around at the 6 year mark.)

    Dropout: 1
    Started postdoc: 8
    Struggling to find a postdoc: 2
    Now back to MD portion of dual deg: 1 (+1 not yet graduated, eventually)
    Industry research: 1
    Technical writing in industry: 2
    Unknown: 1

    I don’t think it’s remotely acceptable to make academic research positions the sole “approved” goal. Not only will most of us not end up in them, the attitude that non-TT-directed folks are equivalent to washed-up ballplayers is demeaning, to say the least.

    Plenty of people don’t exit because they’re insufficiently good at science; they exit because they change their minds about their goals when they see the options available. Or because their PIs treat them like such total shit that they can’t get a postdoc. Yes, it does happen.

    I think we should strive to prepare people for academia, but also to inform them regularly and thoroughly about outside options, so that they don’t end up feeling boxed in and stuck. Many people become drains on the system because they don’t want to stay in academia, but they don’t know what options they have. So they sit around in postdocs and are bitter and grumbly. We’d do better to have extensive career counseling early and often.

  11. Neurolover –

    – I emailed the program staff to thank them for the tracker (and update my own, out-of-date data); their reply noted that this was in fact explicitly done to assist with training grant preparation :).

  12. PP says:
    “One way to look at it is like professional sports, with graduate school/post-docs like minor league baseball. The goal of every kid who enters the minor leagues is to make it to the majors. The goal of every kid who enters graduate school/post-doc is a tenure-track position.”

    Out here in industryland, folks talk about making it (in business) vs. burning out and settling for a job in academia.

  13. I think from my grad school year I might be one of only 2 TT people? And there were… 12? 14? of us? I’m not even sure if the other guy I am thinking of is TT. The rest are in industry or IP. The other three aspiring TTers that I knew of had bad-to-horrible experiences in their postdocs and decided to do something else. Our batting average for traditional faculty was not good–but then, the ambitions of most of the students in our department were for industry jobs, not academia, and that was fine with everyone.

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