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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 9, 2012

The Supply of PhDs

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Posted by Derek

Check out this graph from a recent ACS Webinar, as reprinted by Chemjobber. It shows PhDs awarded in the US over a forty-year period. And while chemistry degrees have been running a bit high for a few years, which surely hasn't helped the employment situation, they're still in the same rough 2000 to 2400 per year range that they've been in since I got my own PhD in 1988. The bigger employment problem for chemists is surely demand; that's slumped much harder than any supply increase.

But will you look at the "Biomedical PhD" line! It had a mighty climb in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then leveled off for a few years. But starting in 2004, it has been making another strong, powerful ascent, and into a vicious job market, too. . .what's driving this? Any thoughts?

Comments (37) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Graduate School


1. Anonymous on November 9, 2012 11:58 AM writes...

Medical schools limit their enrollment. Where do think all those biology majors who didn't get into med school went? And they still get to be called doctor.

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2. Anonymous on November 9, 2012 12:23 PM writes...

Many recent college graduates have limited job opportunities, so many of these recent grads are opting to continue their education in graduate school.

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3. Chemjobber on November 9, 2012 12:53 PM writes...

I assume that it's a combination of a crummy job market (as mentioned above) and the long expansion of funding (including the 2X funding) for NIH. If you pay for something, you'll get it, and it looks like we're getting lots of biomedical PhDs.

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4. Anonymous on November 9, 2012 1:16 PM writes...

Look at the increasing levels of NIH funding. The grantees need evermore human fodder to get the next grant and schools need that overhead money. It is a like Pentagon gearing up for the Vietnam war in the 60's and feeding the military-industrial complex. Aside form universities and pharma/ag (both contacting industries) who hires these biologists?

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5. DrDre on November 9, 2012 1:18 PM writes...

While the number of biomedical PhDs has gone up in recent years, also notice that the number awarded is still less than half the number of MDs. The increase in production of biomedical PhDs is absolutely necessary in my opinion. The medicines of today are terrible and need improvement, and that's what this class of workers will get us (sorry chemists and MDs, but you are generally not the one's that are driving breakthrough innovation in treatment). Small molecule drugs just suck generally speaking (only a few months improvement in survival in cancer for example, and a plethora of side effects because they are dirty drugs). Compare this with biologics and cellular engineering and you start seeing durable cures (e.g. Yervoy, adoptive T cell transfer).

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6. Neuropharm on November 9, 2012 1:22 PM writes...

It would be interesting to see whether the massive increase in biomedical PhDs awarded was largely due to an increase in foreign students or if US citizens were also dramatically increasing enrollment in PhD programs.

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7. Hap on November 9, 2012 1:49 PM writes...

1) Who's going to be developing biologics? If drug companies are contracting, they won't have more spots for biologists than they have had in the past for chemists, and based on the graph, they would need them to unless there's going to be a lot of unemployed biomedical people (even more than chemists). Startup funding is improving but not good, and probably not lucrative in most cases. In addition, if there is actually a process for biologic generics, some of the attraction of biologics won't exist.

If they aren't making drugs or working in biotech, what will they all be doing, exactly? Unless there's an unmet need for cheap post-doc labor and well-educated Wal-Mart employees, I'm not seeing one (certainly not one that justifies that level of graduation). Combine that with an even longer time-to-Ph.D. and you are likely to get a lot of very unhappy people. That's definitely not an unmet need.

2) Aren't most of the durable cancer cures small molecules and not biologics? That doesn't even count antibiotics, most psychological drugs, and antiinflammatories. Insulin, clotting factors, and interferon are all powerful biologics, but few people would actually prefer them to small molecules that do something anywhere close. (Things you have to inject or have infused aren't going to be desirable unless there's no other choice.) Small molecules may not work for everything, but they work for an awful lot of diseases.

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8. RKN on November 9, 2012 3:10 PM writes...

Talk about your hockey stick. And the coincidence in timing; might it be that aGW has also caused a sudden increase in biomed PhDs?

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9. neandrothal on November 9, 2012 3:23 PM writes...

The increase in 2004 was driven by Clinton's doubling of the NIH budget over 1998 - 2003. A lot of that money went into training, with the result that graduate schools were able to support many more entering students. 2004 is probably when that bolus of students starting graduating.

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10. Anonymous on November 9, 2012 5:24 PM writes...

I blame the increase in NIH funding for the increase in Biomedical PhD's which in turn drives expansion of graduate programs. This all started with the Clinton adminstration and the graph seems to track with that. Clearly this current model is unsustainable and is bound to implode...

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11. Anon on November 9, 2012 6:03 PM writes...

What, exactly, does a biomedical PhD do?

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12. RKN on November 9, 2012 6:14 PM writes...


A biomedical PhD is someone who earned a degree from one of several departments, e.g. pharmacology, genetics, pathology, neuroscience, cell/molecular biology, biochemistry, and possibly nutrition. Some schools may have other departments that qualify.

As to what one of these PhDs does, that of course is highly variable. Some go to industry, others to academia, others become dispirited and go off on another path entirely.

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13. Clinical pharmacologist on November 9, 2012 9:29 PM writes...

For instance, I have a PhD in clinical pharmacology and after a 25 year career became so disillusioned with the pharma business that I flat quit with no job to go to. Other doors opened and it was the best decision I ever made (for one thing it stopped me having a heart attack at the sheer STUPIDITY of it all). There's a big wide world out there, if you decide to go explore it.

I shall henceforth post as diverdude :)

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14. Anonymous on November 10, 2012 7:10 AM writes...

Good for you, diverdude :-)

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15. SteveM on November 10, 2012 9:38 AM writes...

The interesting subtext is the artificial ceiling on MD's. Many of the science Ph.D.'s scrambling for jobs could transition easily to medicine if the med school and residency slots were available.

The boomer aging and MD output flat line statistics lead to negative downstream demand implications that are starkly obvious. The sclerotic inertia of the Crony-Medico-Politico Complex that permits the problem to fester is amazing.

BTW, why doesn't FedGov set up regional medical academies similar to the military academies using the same model of no-tuition with a post-grad obligation?

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16. dexYves on November 10, 2012 10:52 AM writes...

Higher demand for educated workforce in biomedical labs is the cause for the drastic increase in biological sci PhDs. However, few ever pondered what's left for the fresh PhDs to do after graduation. The linear progression line of PhD-PostDoc-PI no longer holds for most of the PhD students, while on the other hand, what else can they do if both the academia and biotech industry close the door to them? Most people just find a postDoc position and keep on doing the research. But that in my opinion is merely kicking the can down the road, unless that person wants to take PostDoc as a lifetime career.

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17. JBosch on November 10, 2012 1:07 PM writes...

Progress comes from understanding. By all respect for chemist I do think HTS is outdated, if one wants to successfully progress with drugs (and we do need chemists for that) then basic research in form of biomedical understanding is key. The future is a collaborative environment between disciplines and if people on either side don't understand, well then you'll be Darwinised.
Biomedical research seems a bit more complex then chemistry, hence the demand for brilliant brains to tackle future bottlenecks for the greater good.
True some enrolled students would have been better off doing something else, but that is true for every discipline and not only for biomedical research. There are also enough MD's who despite getting their degree should stay away from patients.

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18. Chemjobber on November 10, 2012 2:23 PM writes...

I think I'm going to start selling T-shirts that say "I was Darwinized."

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19. Peter Salmon on November 10, 2012 3:25 PM writes...

Perhaps it was the Whitaker Foundation, wich massively inflated the funding for academic Biomedical Engineering departments.

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20. McChemist on November 10, 2012 10:13 PM writes...

There is no way around this problem. If PhD programs did not inflate the number of graduates, there would be little incentive for Americans to enter the low paying high skill workforce that would allow this kind of research to occur. An intelligent, hardworking american simply has better options with more secure professional outcomes: Medical school, allied health careers, information technology, business owner, corporate brown nosing, public servant (retire in your 50's!), etc.

Being a scientist is one of the worst ways to make a living. Bring a drug to the clinic -> get laid off -> Find "non-traditional" career. There may be other scientific fields, but they are not much better than that. And they are often boring, repetitive and usually very easily outsourced.

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21. Eli Rabett on November 11, 2012 12:14 PM writes...

What you really want to look at is the numbers of US citizens and green card holders getting PhDs. In some field, esp physics, but increasingly chemistry, the R1s are importing shock troops to keep the faculty feeding.

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22. My 0.02 on November 11, 2012 2:16 PM writes...

To look at supply of PhDs in another way, does any of us want our kids to pursue a Ph.D. degree? My guess is NO (in my case, definitely No).

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23. madethecut on November 11, 2012 2:46 PM writes...

SteveM @ 15, my NIH training grant had a post-grad obligation, but the terms were quite lenient. Even Patent law and Medical Writing sufficed as payback career paths. Business school did not. IIRC, the requirement was retired in about 1991.

Perhaps it's time to reinstate it, but make the sponsoring department responsible for the payback when their students can't find jobs or are forced into a non-science career.

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24. BV on November 11, 2012 6:37 PM writes...


According to the Biomedical Workforce Report published this year, the most common occupation for biomedical PhDs in 2008 is post-secondary teacher at 23.4% of the workforce. The second most common occupation for biomedical PhDs is pre-college teacher at 15.7%. And no, "pre-college" is not a typo.

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25. TMNT on November 11, 2012 11:14 PM writes...


You forgot to add that according to that very same report, the third most occupation for Chemistry PhD's is also pre-college teacher at 14.2% (See appendix A of the report).

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26. Rick Wobbe on November 12, 2012 8:49 AM writes...

Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.

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27. Anon on November 12, 2012 11:38 AM writes...

This is driven by a perpetuating employment and justification cycle.

A PhD student is cheaper than a technician (someone with a Masters or BS degree). So when someone graduates with a BS they can not find a job because labs hire only grad students since they are cheaper. Because of the cheap labor this leads to more grad students which leads to more PhDs. You then have large amounts of PhDs becoming postdocs. Postdocs are more expensive than gradstudents but still cheaper than technicians. So now you have lots of grad students and lots of postdocs, but not anywhere for them to go.
On top of this you have this issue compounded by some universities and some lab policies that do not allow postdocs to get their own grants. Which results in one of many reasons the are kept in postdoc purgatory(...which is competitive to put it lightly).

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28. J-Freak on November 12, 2012 3:56 PM writes...

Why worry about PhDs? All we need to know about the world is in the holy scriptures.

Science is the gateway into godless commie critical thinking and must be punished according to Old Testament edicts.

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29. eugene on November 13, 2012 8:13 AM writes...

Since the Old Testament was written before the scientific method was even thought of, I highly doubt it has any edicts on Science... or Communism for that matter.

Since you have obviously not read it (along with much English literature that is based on its stories I bet), or checked dates in world history, but have decided to comment upon the whole thing, you cannot be accused of using critical evidence-based thinking either.

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30. Neuropharm on November 13, 2012 1:57 PM writes...

Eugene, since you obviously don't have much experience with the English literary devices known as "sarcasm" and "satire", you probably should read over other people's comments a few times before trying to (pompously) tear them down.

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31. The Dude on November 13, 2012 5:35 PM writes...

"But starting in 2004, it has been making another strong, powerful ascent, and into a vicious job market, too. . .what's driving this? Any thoughts?"

You guys never seem to learn or understand that you're dealing with outright fraudulent organizations. Any statistic from the ACS is suspect. It's why CJ wins the "Butter's Stotch" award for consistent gullability every year. Derek is running a close second, but as we all know, he's a card carrying ACS inner party member.It seems he's given little thought as to who's benefiting from an infinite supply of PhDs. If you believe their 5% chemist unemployment stat, then there's no reason not to reccomend a career in chemistry (so why oh why does Derek keep posting on the matter?). I assume both CJ and Derek take daily supplements of lotus leaves, rendering them incapable of seeing the big picture. The willful ignorance here is so vile and potent I can smell it through my computer screen. Either stick with the party line or fight against it, there is no middle ground.

PhD production is dictated primarily by the supply of foreigners who wish to obtain US citizenship or a US Job. No American need ever obtain a PhD again, as your local University will fill the empty slots with barely legal foreigners. Expect the ranks of PhDs to further surge as Obama's plan to grant green cards to EVERY SINGLE SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING GRADUATE will permanently destroy the ranks of US born chemists for good.

It's only going to get worse. A tidle wave of foreigners is coming and the ACS is welcoming them in. It's only appropriate being that the ACS membership is predominantly non-American.

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32. eugene on November 13, 2012 7:38 PM writes...

"Eugene, since you obviously don't have much experience with the English literary devices known as "sarcasm" and "satire", you probably should read over other people's comments a few times before trying to (pompously) tear them down."

Neuropharm, you're misinterpreting my intentions. Also, you don't understand the basis for my feelings. This whole thing is deeper than you think. Like, waaaaaaaay deeper. It's really scary. You should read my comment a few times and the whole thread too. Then you'll see...

There is no sarcasm or satire anywhere. It was all planned. It's all part of the game.

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33. Derek Lowe on November 13, 2012 8:34 PM writes...

#31, The Dude: problem is, I haven't actually been an ACS member for years now.

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34. Chemjobber on November 14, 2012 10:13 AM writes...

"It's why CJ wins the "Butter's Stotch" award for consistent gullability every year."

Good one!

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35. dvizard on November 14, 2012 9:58 PM writes...

Sorry since my English is not perfect, but: what do "vicious" and "crummy" job markets mean? is that "good" or "bad"?

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36. Hap on November 15, 2012 2:14 PM writes...

vicious and crummy = really bad (job market commentary is generally written from the point of view of the potential job holders and not employers).

Lots of people applying for few jobs and not much VC funding after seven years of schools certainly is a good definition of "crummy". I'd rather be covered in Tabasco sauce and rolled in broken glass and rock salt than be looking for a job in that pool.

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37. BV on November 27, 2012 7:21 PM writes...

Here's the link to the Biomedical Workforce Report 2012. You can click my handle or use the URL below.

Tilghman, P, Rockey, S, et. al. 2012. Biomedical research workforce working group report. NIH.

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