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February 2018

New tool visualizes employment trends in biomedical science

To help scientists evaluate various career paths, NIEHS developed a tool that analyzes biomedical employment trends and displays results with a novel visualization method.

Scientists looking for jobs after completing their research training may soon have a new tool to help them evaluate career paths. The tool uses a novel method developed by NIEHS that separates biomedical employment trends by sector, type, and job specifics (see image below). The creators hope this approach will be useful throughout the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as in academic and research institutions around the world.

Led by Tammy Collins, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Fellows’ Career Development, team members collected details of career outcomes for more than 900 NIEHS postdoctoral fellows over the past 15 years. Postdoctoral fellows, or postdocs, are scientists who have received their doctoral degrees and are participating in a program that offers additional training.

Bottom-up approach succeeds

Lead author and NIEHS computer scientist Hong Xu analyzed the data using the R Project for Statistical Computing, a free online program that displays data using graphs and charts. Shyamal Peddada, Ph.D., former head of the NIEHS Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch, served as key advisor.

The study, which appeared Jan. 15 in the journal Nature Biotechnology, is the first standardized method for categorizing career outcomes of NIEHS postdocs.

"As we sought to determine how to make sense of detailed career outcomes in a standardized way, we used a bottom-up approach, rather than forcing the data into any particular naming system already being employed," Collins said. "We looked at what our postdocs were specifically doing, and asked what is the most logical way to categorize and visualize the information."

Job variety in biomedical science

The researchers found distinct differences between United States and international postdocs in the kinds of jobs they landed. Postdocs from the U.S. were more likely than international postdocs to enter for-profit companies to do applied research.

In contrast, international postdocs were almost twice as likely as their U.S. peers to enter academic tenure-track positions, doing basic research. Notably, 70 percent of those positions were outside the U.S.

Overall, nearly half of all NIEHS postdocs went into the academic sector, which was surprising to some, because many young scientists thought that doing a government postdoc might hinder their chances of getting a tenure-track position in academia.

Job Sector, Type, and Specifics

Connecting the data reveals the diversity of job types held within each job sector and illustrates specific types of work (PMT, project management) within each job type. (Photo courtesy of Nature Biotechnology)

"The new method developed by Dr. Collins and her team will help science administrators better understand the numerous factors that contribute to career decisions of their trainees," said NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D.

As president of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly, an organization that fosters the professional development of NIEHS postdocs, Kathleen McCann, Ph.D., said the study will be incredibly useful for current and future trainees.

"It also demonstrates that NIEHS is an excellent place to train, no matter your career goals, because NIEHS alumni have successfully moved into jobs ranging from basic or applied research, to science writing and communications, to teaching," she said.

Others follow career outcomes

The careers project began in 2013 in an effort to establish a snapshot of career trajectories for NIEHS postdocs and to report the findings to NIH. Collins said she was pleased to see other institutions commit to similar efforts. In 2016, the University of California, San Francisco released the first paper on institutional postdoctoral career outcomes, setting a standard for others to follow.

Also, a group called Rescuing Biomedical Research (RBR) independently came up with a careers naming system similar to the NIEHS approach. A few months after NIEHS submitted its findings for publication, RBR published an in-depth report on how they plan to classify career outcomes at their institutions.

Collins and Xu are refining a way to visualize data using the R software and plan to use it to release additional information on NIEHS career outcomes. In addition, they plan to share the code so individuals and institutions can upload data from a spreadsheet into the tool and readily see and compare their own employment trends.

Interest is high, judging by the response to the Nature Biotechnology article. As of late January, the paper’s Altmetrics score placed it in the 98th percentile of the more than 168,000 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals.

Citation: Xu H, Gilliam RST, Peddada SD, Buchold GM, Collins TRL. 2018. Visualizing detailed postdoctoral employment trends using a new career outcome taxonomy. Nat Biotechnol; doi: 10.1038/nbt.4059 [Online 15 January 2018].


NIEHS Career Trends

The authors envision that categorizing career outcomes by sector, type, and job specifics will help young scientists make career decisions based on data and not anecdotal evidence. (Photo courtesy of Nature Biotechnology)

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