It’s time to get real about non-academic job training for biomedical PhDs and postdocs

Last week, Dr. Sally Rockey put up a post on the NIH’s Rock Talk blog clarifying allowable training activities for the different types of NIH postdocs.

Two things stood out to me about this post:

1. It appears that teaching is a supported training exercise for postdocs on NIH fellowships but not for those supported off of research grants.

Someone else in the comment section was surprised by this too so maybe Rockey will clarify this distinction in a later post. Personally, I think teaching should be an NIH-sanctioned activity for all postdocs. A few years ago I went to a career seminar by a new prof at an elite liberal arts college. He said that he thinks he had an advantage in the job search because he had taught a course at a nearby university, but he did this by moonlighting (teaching at night). For postdocs already working long hours on evenings and weekends, or those with families, this kind of moonlighting might be unrealistic. I’d also hazard to say that many grad student and postdoc advisors are already against having their trainees spend signification time on teaching (a job they will eventually do if they become professors of any sort) since it takes time away from research. If the NIH says that significant teaching is not sanctioned for postdocs on research grants (as most postdocs are), this adds credence to those advisors’ views.

2. There is absolutely no mention of career development for non-academic positions.

Can we get real for a minute? We know that we’re training way too many PhDs for them all to be eventually employed as professors (see the NIH’s own report).  What does that mean? It means that a significant number of PhDs and postdocs are going to have to find non-academic jobs. And what does getting a non-academic job require? Time and skills.

The working group report recommends that the NIH create grants for “training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options,” but as far as I know those are just pipe dreams at this point (these recommendations were also made in 1998). What about current grad students and postdocs? What do they do when they decide academia isn’t for them, or that they’re not competitive, or that they just can’t land a TT job after three cycles? They. Need. To. Find. Jobs.

Non-academic jobs (just like academic jobs), do not simply fall from the sky. They require skill building, networking, informational interviews, resume writing and rewriting, job applications, and actual experience (sometimes in the form of an internship). Inherently, all of these things take time away from the research enterprise, but they are necessary. Really. You could argue that grad students and postdocs should be doing these things on their own time, but graduate and postdoctoral training is called TRAINING for a reason. Postdocs are by definition temporary jobs, so career development (not just for academic jobs) should be part of the training. It would be great if the NIH realized this–unless this “alternative career” language they used in the recent report is just a scam.

Is the solution a culture shift?

I think there’s a larger cultural problem with the idea of non-academic careers. Throughout grad school, we’re officially or unofficially trained to become singularly focused on our research. Unfortunately, that means we lose out on the ability to diversify our skills or network with people outside our immediate fields. This is an enormous opportunity cost that really makes it a struggle to find a job once the PhD is in hand. I’ve seen several colleagues struggle with the leap to a non-academic career (as have I).

Yes, grad students and postdocs are wholly responsible for navigating our own careers. We need to be the ones finding opportunities to expand our skill sets and to make connections with people outside academia. But grad program directors and grad student/postdoc advisors can help make their trainees more competitive by encouraging them (many of whom are introverts) to do these things or at the very least not discouraging them when they want to teach a class, participate in outreach activities, or start an internship. I understand there is an inherent conflict of interest here–research papers are the currency of academic science and research output is what creates this currency. But trainees are people–not data-producing robots. They have bills to pay and hopefully futures to plan for.

What can trainees in the pipeline do now? Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule

If you are a grad student or postdoc, the time to start thinking about your future is now. And if you’re in the biomedical sciences, it’s probably prudent to prepare plans A, B, and C given the numbers and the state of the economy. It’s hard to pull yourself away from the bench when you think you need a glamour journal publication to even have a shot at an academic career, but it’s also important. I highly recommend Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule. You spend 80% of your work week working your ass off on your research. 10% goes to personal development and 10% goes to bragging about yourself/networking.  Seriously, read his advice here.

I wish I had put more effort into planning my career as a graduate student. I went to just about every seminar offered by our career center. I participated in three teaching seminar programs. But I didn’t spend nearly enough time doing active career development–like talking to people outside the university, writing articles, or doing an internship. Part of this was out of guilt and the feeling that I should only be focusing on my research. Part of it was fear. And part of it was time simply slipping out of my hands.

I’m making up for lost time now by doing an internship and trying to network on top of a full-time postdoc. But, honestly, this is difficult and exhausting (way more so than writing and defending my dissertation with a 6 month old). I’m thankful to have an incredibly, incredibly understanding and supportive advisor and a husband that picks up my slack with childcare and chores. I know others aren’t so lucky and some are struggling to do these things while unemployed, which is even more difficult in some ways.

My hopes are that people at the NIH, graduate program directors, and grad student/postdoc trainers start to realize the precarious position many biomedical PhDs are in right now. Let’s start encouraging grad students and postdocs to pull their heads out of the sand and to stick them outside the windows of the ivory tower.


Unintended consequences: could cuts to Medicaid dental coverage lead to more preterm births?

Pregnant woman at a WIC clinic in Virginia. Photo by Ken Hammond (USDA).

States are slashing Medicaid benefits as an attempt to get ballooning health care costs under control. As the New York Times reports, dental coverage for adults is often one of the first items on the chopping block. Now, in about half of the states, dental coverage from Medicaid will only cover pain relief and emergency services. Time will tell if shifting dental care to already overburdened ERs will actually save states money. A study looking at pediatric patients with dental problems found reimbursement rates from emergency rooms were ten times the predicted cost of preventative care. There is already a shift toward more patients using the ER for dental emergencies. From 2006 to 2009 the number rose by 16%. This is a prime example of an unintended consequence.

But when I read the NYTimes piece, I thought of another unintended consequence–one that could impact future generations. This is because I knew there was an association between gum disease and preterm birth (probably something that stuck in my brain from all the reading I did while pregnant). In fact, a pregnant woman with periodontal gum disease is 4.3 times more likely to have a preterm baby than is a healthy pregnant woman. [In one sad case, the death of a stillborn baby was linked to bacteria from the mother’s gum disease]. One study found that treatment of pregnant women with gum disease prevented this adverse result–but only if the treatment was successful at getting rid of the disease. Some states offer dental coverage for pregnant women. But many others do not, and as the study cited above indicates, this coverage may be too late for preventing early births. Preterm birth is a risk factor for a host of issues–from increased infant mortality to cerebral palsy to developmental delays.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to cover dental care for kids and also includes funds for opening more dental clinics and for public awareness campaigns about preventing oral illnesses. The ACA does not, however, force insurers to offer dental coverage to adults. According to a Senate report from earlier this year, 42% of Americans —130 million people–don’t have any form of dental insurance.  Given these numbers, it may be unsurprising that a recent study found that over 47% of adult Americans have some form of periodontal disease. If we want to prevent all of the complications associated with gum disease (and the health care dollars associated with these problems), we should be expanding dental insurance for preventative care. And such coverage shouldn’t be limited to children and women of childbearing age. This is blatantly obvious when we consider evidence from even more studies, which show that gum disease puts adults with poor dental health care at risk for other conditions, including heart attacks and pancreatic cancer. Now I really need to schedule that cleaning…

Does the science support a ban on female athletes with high testosterone levels?- AAAS MemberCentral post

Caster Semenya, left, during the 2011 World championships Athletics in Daegu, South Korea. (Photo: Erik van Leeuwen (bron: Wikipedia))

In time for the London 2012 Olympic games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released new guidelines for determining whether female athletes with high testosterone levels are allowed to compete in the games. A female athlete may be ineligible due to a testosterone level within the normal male range because this “confers a competitive advantage” to her.  A recent paper in the American Journal of Bioethics lambasts these new guidelines (as well as those by the International Association of Athletic Federations, IAAF) and highlights how they are not based on scientific evidence.

Read more of my AAAS MemberCentral here.

Changing biomedical training- AAAS MemberCentral post

One of the graphs included in the report, showing the growth in the number of biomedical Ph.D.s (Image: NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates)

The NIH’s Biomedical Research Task Force recently released a report that includes recommendations for how to change graduate and postdoctoral training in order to “support a future sustainable biomedical infrastructure.” As a current postdoc living in the biomedical career trenches, I found this report fascinating and a lot of food for thought.

Read more of my AAAS MemberCentral post here.