If you were to survey all incoming biomedical science graduate students about their future career plans, you would likely find that the vast majority are at least considering a career in academia. You would also likely find that this majority shifts with exposure to the realities of what pursuing a career in academia entails. Some change their minds because they don’t enjoy research, because they don’t enjoy the academic environment, or because they don’t have the publication or funding history to successfully apply for academic jobs. However, a significant number also switch their focus as they learn what the numbers suggest about the future of tenure track faculty positions: they are becoming more and more competitive.
Here is what I’ve learned that I wish I had known early on in my graduate career. The information comes from this report by the NIH.
- 26% of US trained PhD recipients are currently employed in tenure track faculty positions. This number is down almost 10% over the past two decades.
- The median age to obtain your first faculty position is 37 for biomedical scientists. This is significantly higher than in other comparable fields. For example, the average for Chemistry PhDs is 33.
- The average starting salary for an assistant professor in a tenure track position is $68,000.
- The ratio of tenure track to non-tenure track positions has decreased steadily over past two decades. Only approximately 50% of all faculty positions are now tenure track. The total number of faculty positions has also been decreasing as of 2006. This trend is not present in Chemistry.
If you’re like me, you may be wondering what might account for this drop in opportunity for future biomedical faculty. The most simplistic answer is that while the number of PhDs awarded has increased, the number of faculty positions has not grown proportionally. If you’ll remember from one my first posts on the NIH report, the number of graduate students has doubled in recent years. 9,000 biomedical PhDs were awarded in 2009 and there are over 80,000 PhD students currently enrolled in graduate school. Pair this with the fact that there are only roughly 58,000 total faculty jobs (of which only half are tenure track positions), and the problem becomes clear.
Another interesting trend is that established faculty are working longer years and the retirement rate is not high enough to accomodate the enormous influx of new PhDs. Here are some interesting data points from the report:
- Over the past three decades the percentage of faculty under the age of 36 has decreased from 18% to 3%
- Over that same time period the percentage of faculty over 65 has increased from 1% to 7%
As the number of biomedical PhDs continues to increase, so too does the number of postdocotral researchers. The increase in the number of postdocs means greater competition for the limited tenure track faculty positions available. This results in longer postdocs, which in turn means that the median age of facuty increases. Faculty then have to work longer in order to save enough for retirement. This trend seems likely to continue as a result of the growth in graduate student numbers. It should be pointed out, however, that the NIH is actively working on ways to prevent this. Increased funding opportunities for new faculty and mechanisms to encourage faster postdocs are both changes the NIH is considering to help facilitate the hiring of younger faculty members. How this may affect established faculty remains to be seen.
Pursuing an academic career has a lot of appeal for many graduate students. The intellectual freedom, interactions with students, and overall quality of life are unmatched when compared to many alternative careers for biomedical PhDs. However, given the way the system is currently set up and assuming the recent trends continue, these academic jobs are going to be extremely difficult to obtain and to keep long term. A number of professors have told me that the ratio of qualified applicants to positions frequently exceeds 100:1.
If you are really interested in becoming faculty at either a large or small university, I hope these numbers don’t discourage you. Instead, I hope they motivate you to take the extra steps needed to make yourself a unique and attractive candidate for the positions you apply for. In my graduate program, I feel like I have been groomed fairly well to pursue an academic career at a large research institution. However, my knowledge regarding academic careers at smaller liberal arts universities is less comprehensive. I’ve been speaking recently with faculty at some smaller universities and am currently writing a summary of what I’ve learned. Check back soon!