The reality of a career in biology


37% of students entering biology Ph.D. programs drop out? Only 8% achieve the goal of getting a tenure track faculty position? That last statistic, at least, isn’t as bad as it sounds, since there are lots of alternatives.

I’d also add, though, that this is another case where random drift, rather than selection, probably dominates. Those 8% aren’t likely to be the best (although some are!), but only the most persistent, or the luckiest.


  1. Marshall says

    I think you’d need to compare this to other areas as well, but it’s hard to come up with a good control. This chart isn’t the same as “what percentage of PhD biology entry students end up becoming successful full-time biologists?” That number is obviously larger.

    The point that it’s unlikely that an entering student will become a tenure-track professor should instead change the way that future careers are presented to students. I got my PhD in neuroscience, and we barely had any exposure to alternative career paths: department and school administrators act as if that is the only career path, and if you fail to become tenured, you fail as a person.

    Then you become a postdoc and realize that, despite being far more qualified and educated than your peers, you are making about 20% of their salaries. No vacations for you, no nice apartments, no fancy dinners, and generally many more hours at work, because that’s what you have to accept and do in order to be successful. The only thing you have to hold on to is that you’re doing something that you love. There is something special about performing research and increasing humanity’s knowledge, but doing basic science research comes at an incredibly high opportunity cost. I was very successful in my PhD years, and I think I could have made a successful academic career, but I do regret it.

  2. John Harshman says

    Tiny little quibble, but there’s no circle on that chart for museum curators; most of them are probably adjunct faculty someplace, but I don’t think “non-tenure track academic” describes them. And they are roughly equivalent to professors at research universities. Then again, there are only a few hundred such people at the most.

  3. ragdish says

    When I was in undergrad several moons ago, I recall pondering in 1st year Organic Chem a research career in Molecular Biology or Neuroscience. My professors said bravo. My dad also said bravo with the caveat “don’t do it without getting an MD”. What was true back in 1986 when I started undergrad is still true today. The dumbest MD can be the boss of the most brilliant PhD in Neuroscience, Molecular Genetics, etc. And I concur with everyone that this is grossly unfair. And I’ve seen too many brilliant PhDs in research compelled to jump ship and complete medical school to become GPs ie. the PhD was essentially a waste. And today, a vanishing few complete an MD/PhD given that the chances of getting an RO1 NIH grant (the most recognized award to achieve tenure) is like winning the PowerBall. Why is it like this? I know too many brilliant PhDs and postdocs who have paid their dues and are getting shafted by an unfair academic system.

    I got my MD by the way and never pursued a PhD. I mainly do clinical work and some clinical research. I keep thinking “thank un-God I never went for a PhD”. I wish it weren’t so.

  4. magistramarla says

    My daughter has a PhD in neuroscience. After spending several years as a research assistant for her post-doc, she realized that her chances of getting a tenure track position in research weren’t so great.
    Luckily, she’s an excellent networker and has always had an interest in science policy. She’s been working on projects that are important to the President’s Brain Initiative in DC and she’s done some work on a project that encourages women and minorities to enter STEM fields.
    She’s not using that PhD to do pure research, but she’s doing important work in her field and she’s very happy.

  5. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    Makes me a wee bit concerned for my daughter. She is about to graduate from the University of Washington with a BS in Biology, and attempting to get into medical school (or veterinary school, she really does like animals more than people). Due to some glitches when she transferred campuses she’s graduating a semester later and plans to take the MCAT after graduation, taking a year off. Realistically, though, as brilliant as she is, it’s amazingly difficult to get into an MD or DVM program. Sometimes it has to do with contacts, and while she doesn’t have bad grades in any sense of the word, O chem and anxiety dropped her GPA slightly.

    I’ve asked her what her plans are if those don’t pan out, and she doesn’t have clear answers yet. Hoping she can find something she loves in biology “just in case”.