New analysis of EMBL alumni highlights an evolving career landscape with a wide range of opportunities for early-career life scientists.
A PhD in life sciences has traditionally led to a career in academia, but a new analysis of former EMBL students and postdocs indicates that while most EMBL graduates still follow that path, they are increasingly pursuing a wider range of careers with their life sciences doctoral degrees.
“There haven’t been much data about what people do after they receive their PhDs,” said Rachel Coulthard-Graf, an EMBL career advisor and an author of the study now posted on BioRXiv. This work is not yet peer-reviewed, but it is the first of its kind published with a time-resolved analysis, and one of only a few studies focussed on PhDs and postdocs trained at a European institute.
“EMBL PhDs and postdocs make an important contribution to research here at EMBL, and it’s clear that the skills PhDs and postdocs develop in their education and training make them highly employable,” she added.
EMBL researchers analysed the outcomes for 2,284 early-career researchers who completed PhDs or postdoctoral training at EMBL between 1997 and 2020. They found that 55% of the alumni (1,263 scientists) were now in academic careers involving research, service, and teaching.
Of those who took up academic careers, 50% were employed as principal investigators (PIs), 19% as postdoctoral fellows, and 30% were employed in other research, scientific service, or teaching roles.
However, the remainder represented a broad spectrum of other career paths, including industry research (15%) and other science-related professions (15%), such as project management roles at science advocacy organisations and funding agencies, patent law, and science communications.
This study uniquely included data not only on current roles of alumni, but also time-resolved data on positions they held in intervening years. The time-resolved data, analysed in collaboration with the Huber group at EMBL Heidelberg, offer an unprecedented view of how career paths have been changing over the past decades.
According to data from the National Science Foundation, in the US, the percentage of life science doctoral graduates holding a tenure-track position three to five years after graduation dropped by more than half between 1997 and 2015 – from 18.1% to 8.1%. EMBL’s analysis confirmed that there have also been some changes in the career landscape for alumni from EMBL’s PhD and postdoctoral training programmes. Today, a smaller percentage of graduates become PIs in academia than previously, yet this career path remains one of the most common career outcomes. Additionally, Coulthard-Graf noted that EMBL alumni are increasingly entering non-academic sectors.
“Our analysis indicates that although there is increased competition for PI roles, life scientists continue to enter and excel in both academic and non-academic careers,” Coulthard-Graf said. “We see that our EMBL alumni work in in a range of roles in academia, industry, and other sectors – many in managerial positions. I personally found it inspiring to see the range of career paths, from fundamental research in academia to developing clinical diagnostics, and from formulating science policy to providing specialized management consulting for life science companies. It was evident that most alumni were applying their scientific training to activities that drive research and innovation.”
EMBL has long been associated with supporting career development of its own fellows, as well as those outside the organisation. In 2019, it formally established the EMBL Fellows’ Career Service, which provides workshops and individual counselling within EMBL, and makes resources – such as upcoming webinars about becoming a PI, creative careers in scientific writing and science visualisation, careers in secondary teaching, and careers with international organisations – open to the entire scientific community.
EMBL’s new strategic programme ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’, which began this year, will expand on these efforts as part of its training plans. The Fellows’ Career Service will support a pilot internship programme within EMBL’s EIPOD4 programme that will allow interdisciplinary postdocs to explore non-academic areas of interest, such as industry, publishing, patent law, consulting, science policy, science administration, science communication, or science education. Additionally, Coulthard-Graf sees an opportunity to share best practices with EMBL’s member states with the hope that it can foster further discussion and other studies of this kind.
“Ultimately, our study reinforces the opportunities for life scientists to make an impact in a wide range of careers that contribute to a healthy research and innovation ecosystem,” Coulthard-Graf said. “Research organisations must consider how research training can support researchers preparing for this increasingly diversified career landscape.”