Closings & delays

Maryland colleges join effort to collect data on biomedical students' career outcomes

With so few biomedical graduate students going on to find jobs in academia after earning their degrees, two Maryland universities are joining a coalition of research institutions to track their career outcomes and inform prospective students.

“Our students who are in graduate programs want to know what their future might hold,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “We have a responsibility as universities to give them more information about the market trends and where the jobs are.”

UMBC and the Johns Hopkins University are among nine colleges that have committed to publishing data about how long it takes students studying life sciences to graduate and what these students go on to do after graduation, among other metrics. The Coalition for Next Generation Life Science will release the first round of data in February.

The move is partly a reaction to the “mismatch between the supply of biomedical doctoral students seeking academic appointments and the available tenure-track positions in the United States,” wrote the university presidents and chancellors involved in the coalition in a joint article published Thursday in Science.

“We’re trying to lead an effort to get all research universities to post data publicly so students interested in this training will have a transparent sense of what they’re getting into,” said Peter Espenshade, Johns Hopkins’ associate dean for graduate biomedical education and one of the coalition leaders.

Only about 10 percent of U.S. biomedical trainees will find tenure-track positions at American institutions within five years of completing their Ph.D.s, though far more enter the job market looking for one of these positions, according to the coalition. Many end up spending years in postdoctoral fellowships, with little room for advancement into academia.

Those students likely will end up pursuing employment in other industries, including pharmaceutical, government and science communication jobs, “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 Science article states.

Collecting data on alternative career outcomes will help research institutions better tailor their curricula to the workforce’s needs, Espenshade said.

“Understanding where students go will feed back and inform how we train them,” he said. “If it’s true that a small fraction end up in academia, we should be spending a proportionate amount of time training them for that career.”

There are about 1,400 Johns Hopkins doctoral students involved in life science programs, while UMBC enrolls nearly 300.

The universities also committed to collecting and publishing data on the admissions and matriculation of Ph.D. students, the median time it takes to complete a degree and the demographics of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars, such as gender, minority status and citizenship.

The data collection effort will allow universities to compare their relative strengths and weaknesses. The leaders involved acknowledged that the fear that publishing poor completion rates or placement results may have detrimental effects should students judge them against schools that don’t disclose any such data. The transparency was nonetheless vital, they wrote in Science.

Several premier universities are involved in the coalition, including Cornell University, Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California-San Francisco, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

“Until you’re faced with comparing your data to your peers’, it’s hard to know whether you’re doing something well or not as well as you should be,” Espenshade said. “If we detect deficiencies, we will address them.”

He said the coalition hopes to enlist more research institutions from across the country.

The move comes at a time when federal research funding is declining, dropping by 22 percent from 2003 to 2015, and more cuts may be on the horizon. The age at which a researcher gets their first National Institutes of Health grant has also been rising steadily.

Senior faculty are staying at schools longer, and the decline in federal funding means universities aren’t able to offer more jobs, Hrabowski said. “It’s good for all of us who are older,” he said with a laugh, “but for young people, they’re asking, ‘Where am I to go?’ ”

Still, Hrabowski said that now more than ever, it’s important to encourage people to pursue a career in the sciences.

“It is critical that we continue to encourage our youth to consider careers in science,” he said. “Having this data will tell them what the possibilities are.”

Victoria D'Souza received her Ph.D. from UMBC in 2002, after studying biochemistry and structural biology there.

While she was successful in pursuing an academic career — she is a Harvard University professor — she thinks the coalition is wise to promote other career paths.

“All we hear is that there’s no jobs in academia,” D'Souza said. “We have let the world think that the only reason you would go to grad school is to be in academia. That’s certainly not true. If we publish this data, we may see more people apply to come do their Ph.D.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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