Biomedical research as a career

post by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-04-01T01:33:43.056Z · score: 5 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 12 comments

Contents

  Summary
  The nature of the work
  Job security
  Work-life balance
  Earnings
  Social Value
  See also
None
12 comments

I did some preliminary research on biomedical research as a career. The case for becoming a biomedical researcher looks to be weak for most candidates for the career. Are there important points in favor of pursuing a career in biomedical research that I'm missing?

Summary

 

The nature of the work

According to How to succeed in science: a concise guide for young biomedical scientists. Part I: taking the plunge by Yewdell (2009)

for individuals with a hunger for knowledge and an insatiable curiosity about how things work, science offers a constant challenge and, best of all, the intense thrill of discovery.  What can match being the first person who has ever lived to know something new about nature? And not just the big, infrequent, paradigm-making (or breaking) discoveries, but the small, incremental discoveries that occur on a daily or weekly basis too. If this doesn’t give you goosebumps and if you are not in a rush to get to the laboratory in the morning to find the results of yesterday’s experiment, then you should seriously consider a non-laboratory career.

However, research is not the only part of the job: Yewdell writes 

For your entire career as a PI, you will put inordinate efforts into writing grants

This is in consonance with GiveWell's post Exploring Life Science Funding which says

The existing system focuses on time-consuming, paperwork-heavy grant applications for individual investigators.

GiveWell's post also hints at researchers being constrained with respect to the research that they're able to get funding for:

The existing system favors a particular brand of research – generally incremental testing of particular hypotheses – and is less suited to supporting research that doesn’t fit into this mold. Research that doesn’t fit into this mold may include: (i) Very high-risk research representing a small chance of a big breakthrough. (ii) Research that focuses on developing improved tools and techniques (for example, better microscopy or better genome sequencing), rather than on directly investigating particular hypotheses. (iii) “Translational research” aiming to improve the transition between basic scientific discoveries and clinical applications, and not focused on traditionally “academic” topics (for example, research focusing on predicting drug toxicity).

Job security

Our writeup on job security in academia gives some general considerations.

Concerning biomedical research specifically, The Scientific Workforce Policy Debate: Do We Produce too Many Biomedical Trainees? reports that

During the period from 1993-2003, the probability that a postdoc in the U.S. was in a tenure-track PI position 5-6 years after obtaining their PhD ranged from 15-23% (Garrison and McGuire, 2007).

This graphic says that after finishing graduate school / postdoc, of biomedical research PhDs, 18% go into non-research science jobs, 6% go into government research, 43% go into academia or teaching, 18% go into industrial research, 13% do work outside of science and 2% are unemployed. Roughly 50% of those who complete a postdoc and go into academia get tenure, and the career outcomes for those who don't get tenure are unreported.

Some of the jobs that biomedical researchers get outside of academia are jobs that they could have gotten without doing a PhD or postdoc.

An important question is that of how correlated research ability is with job security. If luck plays a sufficiently large role then high ability doesn't guarantee a job, whereas if skill can overcome luck, then those who are skilled can be confident that they'll be able to get jobs. An interview with Prof. Andrew McMichael at the 80K blog seems to suggest that sufficiently high quality researchers can get jobs and funding. However, going into graduate school, one's ability level may not be clear.

It's unclear how job security is changing over time. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of jobs was expected to grow 36% over 10 years (much faster than average). But in 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of jobs is expected to grow 13% over 10 years, and in the intervening time the number of jobs had grown only 3%. So there appears to have been a substantial change in outlook in only two years. The job growth rate forecasts have to be viewed in juxtaposition with the expected change in number of new PhDs. According to one source, the National Institutes of Health found that the number of new PhDs increased by 50% between 2002 and 2009. If this rate were to be sustained, the ratio of jobs to job candidates would decrease even more.

I plan on researching exit options 

Work-life balance

According to Yewdell (2009) 

As a graduate student, you should be spending a minimum of 40 hours per week actually designing, performing or interpreting experiments. As there are many other necessary things to do during the day (for example, reading the literature, attending seminars and journal club, talking to colleagues both formally and informally, and common laboratory jobs), this means you will be spending 60 or more hours per week in science-associated activities.

This is corroborated by career coach Marty Nemko, who wrote 

You spend most of your 60-to-70-hour workweek alone in a lab or at your desk, with little people contact.

Biomedical researchers who stay in academia are often constrained with respect to the geographic location where they can get jobs. See our writeup on job location options for academics.

Earnings

Getting a PhD in a biomedical research field takes 6 to 7 years, during which one makes substantially less money than one could otherwise make. It's been reported that the average biology PhD had $45k in debt as of 2004.

Salaries rise afterward, but not rapidly: as of 2009, the starting salary for a postdoc was ~$37k/year (pg. 141), and postdoctoral appointments last 4 years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools are next in employment, and pay a mean wage of $61,320 per year. Completing the five areas with the most employment are Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing ($92,130), General Medical and Surgical Hospitals ($80,090) and Drugs and Druggists' Sundries Merchant Wholesalers ($93,090).

The "Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools" category includes postdocs: if one considers professors only, the figure will be more like $80k/year.

According to Yewdell (2009)

If you do achieve the ‘Holy Grail’ of full professorship then you will not be poor, but you will be far worse off financially than nearly all of your peers who have similar levels of talent, energy and dedication, but who chose other careers.

Career coach Marty Nemko wrote

"According to MIT faculty member Philip Greenspun, Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States...."

A small number of biomedical researchers command high salaries: for example, one source reports that there are 20 in the country with earnings at the $240k+ level.

Some sources report that biomedical researchers can become very wealthy if as early employees of successful biotech startups, but this is very rare.

Social Value

Historically, a large fraction of increase in lifespan and quality of life has been due to biomedical research (e.g. vaccines). Yewdell (2009) wrote

Society desperately needs your talents [...] For rationally thinking people with an altruistic bent, life can be no more rewarding than when practising the scientific method for the benefit of all of the denizens of this fragile planet.

Some points to keep in mind in assessing the social value of biomedical research are

80,000 Hours plans to publish an overview of biomedical research that will address the social value of going into biomedical research in more detail.

See also

Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report (2012) by the National Institutes of Health.

How to succeed in science: a concise guide for young biomedical scientists. Part I: taking the plunge (2009) by Jonathan Yewdell.

 

Cross-posted from the Cognito Mentoring blog

12 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-04-01T11:30:53.034Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While biomedical research has historically produced a great deal of value, the situation today is more ambiguous, and it appears that the average biomedical researcher does little to advance the field.

Basically the field of biomedical research is in a crisis. Big Pharma companies rather rebuy shares and lay off workers than making strong investments into the future. In the pipeline is a blog that gives good news about what's going on in the field. Posts that are very interesting are: What Sanofi thinks of you with is about the Sanofi CEO who says: "The reality is the best people who have great ideas in science don’t want to work for a big company. They want to create their own company. So, in other words, if you want to work with the best people, you’re going to have go outside your own company and work with those people"

Given that he heads one of the biggest Pharma companies the idea that the best people just don't want to work in his company, might give you an idea of the state of the field.

The post on Eroom's law about how the price of developing new drugs rises exponentially is also worth reading.

On the plus side we did make progress on the front of gathering more knowledge in form of gene sequencing. It just seems like there no straightfoward way to reap huge returns from that knowledge. If we want to stay alive and not die in a 100 year timeframe due to aging there a lot of work to do in developing paradigms that can actually bring us to the place in towards which we want to go.

At the beginning the biological community was not found of the molecular biologists. To quote Sydney Brenner who did work in the field in the beginning: "To have seen the development of a subject, which was looked upon with disdain by the establishment from the very start, actually become the basis of our whole approach to biology today. That is something that was worth living for."

That's sort of what being at the edge of a new field should feel like. When going today into Biomedical research the goal shouldn't be to replicate what people are already doing but to find a new way of doing things.

As a society our choices are really: We die as individuals somewhere in the next hundred years or we get our act together and actually find a productive way to deal with biomecial research.

The problem is too important to avoid directing some smart people into the field, even if the field doesn't perform well at the moment.

comment by CasioTheSane · 2014-04-02T07:30:43.043Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Value creation depends entirely on you. Like any field, to make major advances you will need to tackle big problems and come up with creative solutions.

In my opinion (as a biomedical engineer) the field is currently stalled in some areas (and advancing rapidly in others) but is ripe for a major paradigm shift which will accelerate progress. Some verifiably false ideas about basic biology remain commonly accepted in the field, and will need to be reinvestigated for progress to continue.

As for the grad student debt issue, most major research universities in the USA pay students in doctoral programs. It is very much possible to obtain a PhD in the life sciences or bioengineering with zero debt, if you have good spending habits while in school. I managed to actually accrue some investments during graduate school, rather than debt.

I would only recommend getting into the field if you have a strong passion for solving medical problems, and have some clear ideas about how you will attack these problems very differently than others already working on them. If you don't have such clear ideas, I would start by reading journal articles and books on your own. Personally, I think it's valuable to seek out little known unusual experimental results and iconoclastic theories, as these are the leads that are being missed by others already working on the same problems. The more distinct your education is, the more it will complement the almost cookie-cutter identical educations of your peers, and allow you to become a major catalyst in problem solving.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-04-02T19:38:02.918Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some verifiably false ideas about basic biology remain commonly accepted in the field, and will need to be reinvestigated for progress to continue.

I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

As for the grad student debt issue, most major research universities in the USA pay students in doctoral programs. It is very much possible to obtain a PhD in the life sciences or bioengineering with zero debt, if you have good spending habits while in school.

At a major research university in a cheap medium-sized town (at least compared to where I grew up) I am saving 25% of my income - though once one of my fellowships wears off that will probably drop to 10% or less unless I change my spending habits.

comment by CasioTheSane · 2014-04-03T03:41:20.867Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

I've been planning on writing some articles on here, but I don't feel comfortable throwing out outlandish statements without explaining all of my reasoning and evidence in detail... and I don't have time to do so yet. This is a project at least on the order of the Timeless Physics sequences.

This is just the tip of the iceberg but one thing I have been looking at recently is Gilbert Ling's Association-Induction hypothesis which is centered around the idea that gel-like phase shifts in the cytoplasm are central to regulating and fueling many biological reactions. Initially this came from his observation that poisoning energy production in cells doesn't destroy ion partitioning, they still retain potassium and exclude sodium. He also found that if you slice cells in half, or otherwise remove or destroy the membrane in many different ways, this ion partitioning persists. It seems to be supported by an incredible amount of empirical evidence, yet is virtually unknown. There was some mainstream debate in the 1970s but the idea seems to have faded away without any convincing evidence against it. I think this could be partly due to Ling's attitude of "everything you know is wrong, and the stuff you're studying doesn't even exist," which is hard for other scientists to stomach. Personally I think his discoveries are better viewed as additional phenomena within the cell, rather than in opposition to other discoveries. The book "Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life" by Gerald Pollack (Amazon Link) is a relatively recent, and easy to read introduction to this idea.

Are you familiar with this idea, and if so what is your opinion?

comment by Arkanj3l · 2014-04-02T15:41:37.851Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I voiced interest in making a career switch into BME. Would you still be doing biomedical engineering now if you knew what you now know about it? What would you change and why?

comment by CasioTheSane · 2014-04-02T16:44:06.658Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I would still be doing biomedical engineering given what I now know. However, I am driven mostly by curiosity and a desire to answer medical questions- if I worked in another field, I would likely be doing so to support myself while I work on these medical questions in my free time. I am a 'dry lab' bioengineer. If my primary goal was to make a high income, I would instead do software development.

If I could change anything, it would be seeking out problem-oriented instead of method-oriented mentors. Scientists and engineers can often be divided into two categories: those who are experts at a given method and look for problems to apply it to, and those who are experts at a given problem and look for tools to attack it with. Both can be productive strategies. I have a problem-oriented perspective, but most of my mentors have been method-oriented and don't understand my unwavering focus on specific seemingly intractable problems.

comment by Arkanj3l · 2014-04-03T05:48:39.241Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I could change anything, it would be seeking out problem-oriented instead of method-oriented mentors. Scientists and engineers can often be divided into two categories: those who are experts at a given method and look for problems to apply it to, and those who are experts at a given problem and look for tools to attack it with. Both can be productive strategies. I have a problem-oriented perspective, but most of my mentors have been method-oriented and don't understand my unwavering focus on specific seemingly intractable problems.

I definitely get what you mean and I've been blessed with a problem-oriented mentor. However, I don't really have a strategy to seek out some similar mentors and worry that in engineering it's a lot more likely to find method-oriented persons. I'm wondering if you have any advice on this.

(My supposition: Non-applied mathematicians are dominantly problem oriented, but for problems that usually don't matter. Programmers and applied mathematicians (like Operational Research guys) will probably experience a more even distribution between the two modes, however I would guess that it would lean towards problem-oriented as the underlying ontology of phenomena are necessarily modeled from scratch (in physics and chem most of our ontology is mapped, but not so in social problems except maybe with economics).)

Lately I've been less motivated to engage because of the intractability of the problems that grabbed my attention in the first place (intelligence amplification/cognition), even though it would be the more satisfying field from a curiosity standpoint (I like science and BME is highly integrated between all scientific disciplines).

What kind of paradigm shifts do you think will occur for biology in the future? Where are the current controversies for biology right now?

comment by CasioTheSane · 2014-04-03T06:27:51.146Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

However, I don't really have a strategy to seek out some similar mentors and worry that in engineering it's a lot more likely to find method-oriented persons. I'm wondering if you have any advice on this.

No, I'm not even sure how to easily tell if someone is method or problem oriented without at least meeting them and talking to them. If you find any ideas on this please share them with me.

intractability of the problems that grabbed my attention in the first place (intelligence amplification/cognition)

That is a very hard problem. This is wild speculation but have you looked at the concept of hormesis? Maybe it's possible to engineer the right conditions under which the brain improves it's abilities on it's own. I think in some cases living organisms can be considered 'functional systems' which adapt as much as possible to maintain function in the face of a stress or challenge. This adaptation is limited in part by overall stress levels, and metabolic rate/energy availability. Focused strategies to overcome these limitations may increase adaptive ability. This may require developing a deeper understanding of both stress and metabolism.

Consider a weight lifter that can lift over 1,000lbs, something with probably no evolutionary precedent. They get this way with a combination of very low overall stress, a high nutrient diet that raises the metabolic rate and overall energy availability, a progressively increasing and highly specific stressor, and long rest periods. Perhaps a similar approach could be applied to 'train' improved cognitive abilities? One obvious difference is that our brain is limited in size, so there may be tradeoffs involved when we improve one specific skill or ability. I imagine this idea would sound very naive to neuroscientists.

What kind of paradigm shifts do you think will occur for biology in the future?

I can't predict the future, but this is a fun question good for more wild speculation. I think genetics will be seen as increasingly less significant, and heritable traits and information will be found encoded in many different molecules and structures in living cells.

I also think progressively impaired energy availability (impaired oxidative metabolism) will be viewed as a central phenomena occurring in most degenerative diseases, aging, and failure to adapt to stressors. This simple paradigm will help focus research to understand, fix, and prevent the underlying problems, enabling a shift away from medicine focused on managing symptoms. This is a popular concept in many old medicine systems (such as chinese medicine) but it has limited effectiveness without a deep understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms, and how to manipulate them.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-04-02T22:54:18.593Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

my unwavering focus on specific seemingly intractable problems.

Which specific problems are you talking about?

comment by CasioTheSane · 2014-04-03T03:27:28.599Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am interested in understanding the molecular basis of chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome. I am also interested in understanding the relationship between various homeostasis mechanisms and small molecule drug activity.

comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-04-02T21:23:31.036Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'd love to hear more. I need some time to formulate good questions though. If you're willing to share your email address with me, you can email me at jsinick@gmail.com

comment by CasioTheSane · 2014-04-03T03:43:11.890Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

e-mail sent