Number of U.S. Biological and Health Science Postdocs Continues to Decline

By | September 21, 2017

Last year, the number of biological and health sciences postdocs declined during 2010-2013 after nearly three decades of continuous growth.  Recently released data collected from U.S. degree granting institutions by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS) indicate a continuation of that decline through 2015. There were 581 fewer biological science postdocs in 2014 and 251 fewer in 2015 than in previous years[*]. The number of health sciences postdocs also decreased by 404 from 2014 to 2015. Most of the decrease was due to a decline in the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in postdoctoral positions.

During this same two-year period, the number of PhD degrees awarded in the biological and medical sciences by U.S. institutions increased by 445, while those in the health sciences decreased by 249, according to the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates. Almost all of the change occurred in 2014 (seven years after the onset of the Great Recession, when graduate school enrollments in all fields rose in response to the weak job market). The number of doctorate degrees awarded in the biological and health sciences remained stable from 2014 to 2015. This suggests that the decrease in academic postdoctoral positions does not reflect a diminution of interest in biological sciences nor a decline in the potential supply of postdocs.

The decrease in number of academic postdocs corresponds with an increase in total industry employment for biological and medical science doctorate holders. Tabulations from the 2015 NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients, a panel survey of U.S. PhD recipients interviewed at two-year intervals, indicate that the total number of employed U.S. biomedical doctorate holders rose from 140,100 in 2013 to 150,050 in 2015[†]. Almost all of the increase reflected the greater number of biomedical scientists employed in industry. There was a small, but statistically significant decrease in the number of biomedical doctorate holders employed in government. Academic employment for biomedical doctorate holders remained unchanged from 2013-2015, a period when the NIH budget did not grow and failed to keep pace with rising costs. It remains to be seen if the number of postdoctoral fellows and overall employment numbers in the academic sector will increase in response to the recent NIH budget increases in Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017.

[*] Changes in the GSS sampling frame used for 2014 yielded in a higher number of biomedical sciences postdocs than in 2013. But when the 2014 survey is restricted to the same institutions surveyed in 2013, the number of biological and health sciences postdocs declined.

[†] The SDR tabulations in these analyses are limited to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Individuals without U.S. citizenship in the SDR sample are excluded.