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Monday, February 24, 2014
NIH Program Trains Scientists for Nontraditional Careers

Science Careers: The Job Market by Luda Shtessel

A love of science can inspire a career in research, but it is not enough to deliver the goods: Only about 15% of biomedical Ph.D. researchers ever secure a tenure-track position. The rest end up—often after a long, uncertain transition—in a very wide range of careers. In 2012, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) committed to doing more to help this other 85% by (among other initiatives) providing some training for Ph.D. students and postdocs in the skills needed for careers outside academia.

In principle, it's an ambitious expansion of NIH's core agenda. The agency has traditionally existed to facilitate biomedical research and research training. But that objective has long depended, in turn, on an academic workforce made up of largely of trainees. Those trainees are becoming increasingly unhappy with training that is too long and geared to academic positions that most don't achieve. NIH is aiming to help universities provide broader training, and to help demonstrate that the otherwise highly specialized biomedical research training it supports can translate well to other kinds of work.

In a small first step, NIH committed to two rounds of funding for the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) award program, supported by the NIH director's Common Fund. It isn't clear whether more ambitious steps will follow.

The BEST training

BEST awards aim to supply academic biomedical training programs with the resources needed to help their graduate students and postdocs enter a workforce outside of academia but still in research-related positions. BEST programs expose trainees to a variety of careers, such as policy, biotechnology, or science writing. NIH views BEST awards as catalysts, and expects institutions to foot the bill eventually. "The funding is set up to provide faculty time to build a program, so after the 5 years of NIH support, hopefully the university will be committed to running this," says Patricia Labosky, program leader at NIH's Office of Strategic Coordination in Bethesda, Maryland.

Cornell University is one of 10 first-round BEST award recipients; Cornell's strategy is to build on preexisting programs, including the university's Center for Advanced Technology, which for years has offered biotech externships to undergraduates and MBA students. With BEST award support, the program will expand to offer externships to biomedical graduate students and postdocs. "We can actually say that these hands-on experiences will allow the transition to the career in the field because we're already doing this [in] other guises," says Susi Varvayanis, senior director of Cornell University's BEST program.

Cornell will also use BEST funds to expand on or establish new mentored experiences in science communication, entrepreneurship, risk and compliance, and science policy. Chris Schaffer, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at Cornell and a former AAAS (publisher of Science Careers) Science & Technology (S&T) Policy fellow, is leading the science policy charge. So far, one postdoc and one graduate student have secured science policy fellowships. "Our 5 year goal for this BEST award is for students to become very successful in applying for these AAAS S&T Policy fellowship slots and to gain enough credible experience to increase the likelihood of being successful and getting a position in [their chosen] career," Schaffer says.

Another BEST award recipient is the University of California (UC), Davis, which will partner with Science Translational Medicine (Sci TM) to provide editorial experiences for students. Since 2009, the journal has recruited experienced postdocs and early-career principal investigators as editorial advisers, says Kelly LaMarco, senior editor at Sci TM. The affiliation with the journal has helped scientists find academic jobs, she says. Now the journal is setting up an internship program designed to help UC Davis graduate students transition into jobs as journal editors. "The interns would get experience in a lot of different areas of publishing: communication, peer review, soliciting articles, identifying what to cover and from what angle, editing, writing. We want them to have a mature view of the field," LaMarco says.

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Not enough

Schaffer admits that his policy program isn't by itself sufficient to facilitate a career transition. He doesn't expect students and postdocs who focus on policy to go directly to policy careers; the program, he hopes, will position them to obtain additional training. "[W]e would like students to be able to gain serious and credible experience to compete in the job market, but they are unlikely to go directly into NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] or campaign firms."

When you consider the funding level of the BEST program—$11 million over 2 years, against an NIH research budget of more than $30 billion—and the small number of researchers it reaches, it's hard to argue that the BEST award program is more than a small first step. Industry-sponsored programs have been around for more than a decade, at UW and elsewhere, but the investment from industry doesn't come close to supporting career transitions for the number of researchers looking to move to industry.

But NIH itself apparently doesn't plan to do much more. "We won't pay for student or postdoc salaries as they go off and do something outside of the bench," Labosky says. "The goal of the BEST program is to support faculty and staff and give them time to set up their own programs." The scope of the program is also limited. In an interview, Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, adds, "We'd like them to go into research or research-related positions."

What, then, is to be done to help the 85% find jobs? One solution would be to reinvigorate academic research careers—but, as Rockey says, "the research system is highly dependent on NIH funding, so if funding remains flat, how are we to keep this system vigorous?" Another solution would be to reduce the number of graduate students—but that's not NIH's decision, Rockey says, or not exclusively. "It's not just training grants; universities use their own funds. Most institutions have not reduced the number of students they bring in, even in this funding climate," she says.

CREDIT: rwcox123, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Luda Shtessel is a science writer based in Boston.


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