Coalition of US universities to provide data for improving Life Science Career Prospects

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A new multi-institute initiative is taking shape in the US called the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science comprising of nine U.S. research universities and a major cancer institute that will strive to make public – data pertaining to career options for life science doctoral and postdoctoral researchers.

Without good data, students cannot make informed choices about graduate study and postdoctoral training, and universities don’t have all the information they need to prepare trainees for a full range of possible careers, the 10 coalition institutions say. This Coalition was formed in response to the focus of many new Ph.D.s. solely on pursuing a limited number of traditional faculty positions and to the lack of good marketplace information on training and career options.

With federal research funding declining by 20 percent from 2003 to 2016, and only 10 percent of Ph.D.s in the United States landing tenure-track positions at U.S. institutions five years after graduating, the time is ripe for graduates and post-doctoral candidates to make “informed choices” and look for careers outside the traditional faculty positions. The decline in funding also limits hiring by the universities and other nonprofit research institutions that receive federal research support.

Lack of data has led to a deluge of doctoral candidates who have trained for just a few academic positions, without considering the range of opportunities outside of academia, including industry, entrepreneurship, government and science communication. Scant information has also created a jam for postdoctoral researchers who face low chances for advancement in tenure-track positions.

In a policy article published in the Dec. 15 issue of Science, authored by each university’s president or chancellor, the coalition committed to increased transparency in life science career prospects. Data collection will focus on the biomedical/life sciences research arena.

President Martha E. Pollack, President of Cornell University and Professor of computer science, information science, and linguistics and part of the Coalition says, “This vital information will allow doctoral students to make informed choices about their careers. It will save them valuable time and give them the facts they need to consider when choosing their graduate program and career field, and it will help prepare them to compete for positions within and outside academia.”

The coalition members will issue statistical reports with information on:

  • Admission to and enrollment in doctoral programs in the life sciences,
  • The median time spent in graduate school before earning a doctorate,
  • The demographics of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows by gender, underrepresented minority status, and citizenship status,
  • The median time spent in postdoctoral fellowships (the apprenticeships many scientists serve immediately after graduate school but before landing a permanent position), and
    The jobs held by an institution’s former graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

The dearth of faculty positions in the life sciences is no secret and many postdoctoral trainees are aware of the odds against them when they search for a traditional university job, the Science article said. The co-authors wrote, however, that students and trainees would benefit from appreciating the odds much sooner. They also would be helped by knowing more about the range of options for trained life scientists, such as careers in industry, entrepreneurship, government and science communication.

“The majority of trainees will eventually choose to pursue those careers, but only after having made irreversible investments in what is often more than a decade in training for academic jobs that do not exist,” the presidents and chancellors wrote. “And at least some of this training activity may be unnecessary for their eventual career choices.”

Some relevant data are available now, but for a small number of institutions and in formats that do not allow for easy comparison. Comprehensive data in a form standardized across institutions should be a major help, the presidents and chancellors wrote.

“Open data will allow students and postdoctoral fellows to understand fully the range of likely outcomes of their eventual training and career choices,” they wrote. “It will help universities to better target their programs to actual career outcomes. … And it can help to hold universities and other research institutions to account for their success in training and placing graduate students.

“Each of these measures,” the co-authors wrote, “is directed at the cardinal goal of making advanced training in the life sciences more efficient and humane.”

Each coalition member, the writers said, has also agreed to help graduate students and fellows better explore alternative career paths, improve mentoring, and work to improve diversity in the life sciences workforce. They said they hope other institutions will join the original 10 in the movement for transparency in biomedical career data.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and an anonymous donor are helping to fund the coalition. Leading the group’s work are two faculty members, Elizabeth Watkins, dean of the Graduate Division and vice chancellor for student academic affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, and Peter Espenshade, associate dean for graduate biomedical education at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The presidents and chancellors said they chose to begin their transparency initiative with the life sciences because of considerable national concern over strains in the field. They added, however, that “the logic of our initiative extends to other scholarly disciplines.”  The coalition’s work could extend in the future to graduate education and training in the natural and physical sciences, engineering, the social sciences and the humanities.

The authors of the Science piece, in addition to Daniels, are Martha E. Pollack, president, Cornell University; Vincent Price, president, Duke University; Gary Gilliland, president, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; L. Rafael Reif, president, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Samuel Hawgood, chancellor, the University of California, San Francisco; Freeman A. Hrabowski, president, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Mark S. Schlissel, president, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Amy Gutmann, president, the University of Pennsylvania; and Rebecca Blank, chancellor, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Source: Cornell, Michigan.