For decades, institutions have been asked in various reports to track and report out on their PhD and postdoc alumnae career outcomes. A number of recent efforts by a variety of stakeholders in the last year suggest that 2018 may be the year when this comes to pass, and we are keeping track of all the efforts and which institutions have released data in our new Tracking Career Outcomes at Institutions resource.


As stated in a Policy Forum by ten University Presidents in Science, “A new data effort to inform career choices in biomedicine,”:


The biomedical research enterprise finds itself in a moment of intense self-reflection, with science leaders, professional organizations, and funders all working to enhance their support for the next generation of biomedical scientists. One focus of their attention has been the lack of robust and publicly available information on education and training outcomes. In the absence of such information, students are prevented from making informed choices about their pre- and postdoctoral training activities, and universities from preparing trainees for a full range of careers.


The piece points out that reports that have asked for this data have included: Sustaining Discovery in Biological and Medical Sciences: A Framework for Discussion (FASEB, 2015); The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2014); Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2005); and Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 1995).


Greater transparency could allow junior researchers to act more rationally, or prepare in a more informed manner, their careers as scientists. It should be useful for universities, who are in the business of training scientists, to match these programs to reality. However, as the piece in Science goes on to note:


only a handful of research institutions have responded to these calls…the publication of data is still the exception rather than the rule. Further, those universities that are posting data online publish different categories of information using a variety of reporting formats, which impedes the scaling of this information nationally. Many present only a snapshot of information rather than regular or continuous reporting that would permit trend analysis. And there are few, if any, efforts under way to collect data for postdoctoral fellows, despite the substantial length of time that many trainees spend in this setting. We are still falling far short of a norm of transparency that has been the call of countless reports.


The piece cites cost as one reason for inaction. As the NIH budget was doubled, in part, due to a claim that there were not enough scientists in the U.S.*, there is only so far that argument can stick, given that institutions are in the business of higher education of scientists, and are now still unable to report where that investment in scientists and their higher education has gone (or even how many scientists (particularly postdocs) they currently have). Other more political reasons are given:


There is also a natural fear on the part of institutions that they will suffer a competitive disadvantage in recruitment if they move to adopt unvarnished transparency measures and their peers do not. Institutions may worry that a frank depiction of poor completion rates or placement outcomes by some programs will penalize some of their programs unfairly against other institutions that do not disclose their data at all. And surely there are political considerations as well; as is often the case in such a complex system, the status quo serves some quite well.

This piece goes on to announce the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science (CNGLS) initiative by these ten institutions, committing to releasing data about graduate students beginning on February 1st 2018. However many other groups have been working on this issue, including the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC), the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) Consortium, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and Rescuing Biomedical Research (RBR), which has been convening and working with a number of these efforts, particularly in guiding all towards a particular taxonomy for classifying the careers that graduate students and postdocs move into.


It is our hope, then, that this year will mark a turning point in the transparency of career outcomes data for all graduate students and postdocs, and not just the current focus of biomedical researchers. Follow along on our resource, which we will continue to update and discuss, and pass the information along to undergraduates considering graduate school, so that they may ask the following questions when visiting programs:


  • What is the doctoral completion rate?
  • What is the time to degree?
  • (For Life Sciences programs) Is this institution planning on joining the Next Generation Life Science coalition, pledging to make PhD student career outcome data publicly available?


The poster featured at the top of this post can be found here.


* a claim that had been proven to be false, although the message stuck – see Michael Teitelbaum’s book, “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent”