By Tyler Wiechman
Wiechman currently works in the cardiovascular specialty of a privately owned pharmaceutical company working with specialists and hospitals in the Central Pennsylvania Region. He withdrew from a PhD in biomedical sciences from the Penn State University Hershey College of Medicine and received his BS in Psychology from the University of Delaware in 2011. He has worked for three different labs focusing on Neurological/Psychological health and behavior.
Aspiring medical scientists face increasing pressure as they aim to eradicate a disease state, find a new genetic marker for cancer or any number of neurological diseases, or create the next clinically sound pharmaceutical product. First, they have to excel in their bachelor’s level biological and laboratory sciences. This commitment alone costs tens of thousands of dollars of tuition and other bills and an overwhelming amount of time, but during these intense four years they are also expected to volunteer hundreds of hours to their local hospital and gain independent research experience. If that’s not enough, they spend the remainder of their precious time studying for the GRE and/or MCAT depending on the degree program they plan on pursuing. Finally (and with a huge sigh of relief), the acceptance letter is opened and you pack your bags, move to a new apartment and begin the long and arduous road that is graduate level research.
So after putting forth this much work and making so many sacrifices (and of course getting ready to multiply those sacrifices and efforts tenfold) why does a young scientist leave clinical research? This is especially troubling when many of these pupils have personal stakes in their research due to the loss of a family or friend or a problematic condition in their genetics. First, it’s important to look at the numbers. The troubling truth is that, on average, there is a fifty percent attrition rate from PhD programs around the country with an even higher rate (55-59%) in the life sciences. This number is unacceptable and alarming—and I’m a member of that group. I speak from personal experience when I say that withdrawing from my PhD was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make—thankfully my work in the pharmaceutical industry and a close relationship with my former mentors still allows me to be active in the healthcare community, but many are not as lucky and abandon their passion completely.
Why do those more than fifty percent of students leave their quest for research? The good news is that roughly ten percent (varies based on industry) remains active in research, and some leave with their Master’s degree. However, for the most that are left with the difficult decision I was faced with, it culminates in the analysis of the opportunity cost of the PhD. Unfortunately, in many cases the cost is too high. Students of this generation are seeing the numbers and are bombarded with news and other articles telling them why they should NOT complete their degree. Even a simple Google search of PhD success rates yields articles like this:
And these students are right to be afraid during these economic times. They are worried about the interest, despite educational deferment, of their massive undergraduate loans that continue to rise. They worry about their opportunities once they finish college (which for academia has hit one of the lowest points in history), and they worry, most of all, about getting funding to do their work once they land a job. Not only has unemployment and under-employment for those with advanced degrees hit historical highs, but federal funding for those with jobs after the eleven years of college and graduate school is on the decline especially with sequestration. In 2011 the Life Sciences, only had a 45% full employment rate with roughly 20% taking employment in post-doctoral fellowships. This leaves 35% of these students unemployed. If that isn’t terrifying to graduate students I don’t know what is. If funding was more available for these VITAL research programs, students of this generation would be much more optimistic about their personal future in clinical research and able to get into academia or the industry of their choice. More importantly, more students will be able to work on the disease state that brought them to science in the first place. And most importantly, with more funding, these students will face their burden of graduate school with fervor and optimism and follow through with determination and dedication to find the next missing piece in a disease state.