Transparency in Ph.D. career outcomes: The growing snowball

Improving transparency in Ph.D. career outcomes has been a consistent recommendation for more than 20 years-worth of reports on reforming the biomedical research enterprise. While some institutions have launched robust career outcome data collection and publication projects, these efforts have long been isolated to individual universities. However, a series of recent community-wide efforts suggest broad implementation of this long-made recommendation may be gaining momentum.

In August, Rescuing Biomedical Research convened a meeting of several groups, including the BEST consortium, Association of American Universities, Association of American Medical Colleges and others, to develop a common set of methods for collecting career outcome information on biomedical Ph.D. alumni and a taxonomy for classifying the data. By building on the work done by other institutions and organizations, we achieved consensus on the taxonomy and methods and published the results following month.

In September, the provosts of Association of American Universities members committed to improving transparency in the career outcomes of their Ph.D. alumni. This is an important commitment because the 62 AAU institutions awarded nearly 50 percent of all U.S. research doctorates in 2016 and were 42 of the top 50 U.S. Ph.D. granting institutions. While the AAU is still working on fulfilling this commitment, providing transparency of the career outcomes of Ph.D.s from these universities would be an incredible step forward in implementing a 20+ year old recommendation.

In December, the Coalition for Next Generation Life Sciences—a set of 10 institutions committed to publishing broad sets of data on biomedical trainees—was unveiled. The coalition has established an aggressive timeline for publishing a variety of data. The coalition met its first publication milestone last month with the release of data on admission and enrollment, graduation rates, time-to-degree and demographics of their Ph.D. populations. Similar information about postdoctoral scholars will be released this summer and eventually career outcomes for Ph.D. and postdoc alumni will also be published.

In February, the University of Toronto announced the results of its 10,000 Ph.D.s Project—an effort to collect and publish the career outcomes of Ph.D. alumni that graduated between 2000 and 2015. In addition to the impressive amount of data, an important aspect of this study is how they collected their data. While the RBR methods discussed above indicate how to combine alumni surveys with publicly available information, the U of T states, “No individuals were contacted during the course of this project,” and all of their data are based on publicly available information.

The advent of the internet and social media has been a boon to data collection efforts and the development of common taxonomies provides a platform to compare outcomes across universities. Beyond Ph.D. outcomes, some institutions, like the NIEHS and University of California, San Francisco, have launched efforts to track postdoc alumni. While it is far too early to claim the recommendation fulfilled, important progress has been made over the past six months to improve transparency in Ph.D. career outcomes and more is sure to come.