Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tracking graduates: an idea whose time has come?

From the draft report on the NIH workforce (co-chaired by Professor Tilghman of Princeton and Dr. Rockey of NIH) comes this interesting recommendation after a page of text decrying the relative lack of data on the fates of graduate students and postdocs in the biomedical field (page 43):
Institutions that receive NIH funding should collect information on the career outcomes of both their graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and provide this information to prospective students/ postdoctoral researchers and the NIH.   Such information should include completion rates, time to degree, career outcomes for PhD trainees, as well as time in training and career outcomes from postdoctoral researchers over a 15-year period.  Outcome data should be displayed prominently on the institution’s web site.  This will require institutions to track the career paths of their students and postdoctoral researchers over the long-term. One way to do that would be to assign graduate students and incoming postdoctoral researchers an identifier that can be used to track them throughout their careers.  This could be part of a unique researcher ID system that would allow tracking of all researchers throughout their career.  The ID would need to relate to any NIH ID assigned to the individual.
In the live chat hosted by ScienceCareers a couple of weeks back, I got to ask Professor Tilghman about this issue. Her response (and a followup by Beryl Benderly) were interesting:
Comment From Chemjobber: I support the push for universities to devote resources to tracking the career outcomes of their graduates and publishing that information. How committed are the universities to make this happen? 
Shirley Tilghman: Chemjobber: Universities will be committed if the NIH requires such tracking as a condition of receiving federal funds.
Comment From Beryl Benderly: For how long a period would universities be required to track graduates' careers?
Shirley Tilghman: Beryl, the committee was proposing tracking for period of 10-20 years. We settled on 15 as a compromise. By that time individuals have usually settled into their career.
Gotta say, I like the cut of Professor Tilghman's jib. We'll see if any of the draft report's recommendations get implemented by NIH. Also, an revealing comment from Joseph LaManna, president of FASEB:
Comment From Chemjobber: Is there a sense from the political side (i.e. senior NIH or Congressional officials) of the sacrifices (monetary and otherwise) that people make to go into biomedical science? 
Joseph LaManna: We have found that there is a tremendous amount of bipartisan respect for the research community in Congress. We have also found that the leadership at NIH is very eager to discuss issues and potential solutions with working scientists. The problem is simply (?) too little available resources in a poor economic climate.
I think Professor LaManna's final comment is dead on. At the moment, many of the problems of academic science (and perhaps even #chemjobs) could be fixed with a better economic climate. Would that it were so easy.


  1. I doubt they will willingly cut their own throat. Tracking the fate of graduate students and postdocs would utterly destroy their public image.

  2. A better economy will not bring back all those large shuttered US/EU research and development sites nor will it lead to the deconstruction of all that investment in R&D/STEM sites in Asia. It will not stop investments by pharma/chemical industry outside the US in Russia, East Europe or elsewhere.

    Game over we lost.

  3. Do they provide suggestions on the best way to do this tracking (other than data mining?) How would a unique researcher ID system be put to use?

  4. I had a postdoctoral training grant from the NIH. Upon completion of my training they had me fill out various forms including asking where I was off too. Unfortunately, they didn't have an option for "unemployed". Here are your choices:

    Further Education/Training
    Clinical Practice
    Other Further Information

    Other Further Information

    *Type of Position
    Resident/Clinical Fellow
    Postdoctoral Researcher
    Research Scientist (non faculty)
    Faculty: Tenure-Track
    Faculty: Other
    Clinical Staff/Private Practice
    Other Further Information

    If known, enter position title, organization, and related information.

    Unknown, unknown, unknown. Check, check, and check!

  5. Tracking the "success" of its students and PDFs may seem like a good idea for universities, but would it really be worth the expense? One would hope that my tax dollars, which would pay for this, would be better spent making a drug to keep me alive after years of abusing my body through through the unhealthy living that is my constitutional right. Additionally, it seems that this would be a burden to companies wishing to hire these students, which wastes their time and decrease funding to research as well as taxes paid.

    Implementation, as pointed out, is another issue. Would students need to present their serial number prior to hiring? Maybe all graduate students/PDFs could be microchipped on starting or leaving a program? Seems to work for my dog.

    What benefit would this outcome data provide, beyond a retrospective snapshot of chemist employment? Students embarking on PhDs in the late 1990s would have seen encouraging data, which would prove to have been less useful once they graduated 5 years later.

    1. The Alumni Association seems to be able to track me just fine whenever donation season comes around.

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  7. Too bad the majority of the science community voted for the worse of two choices when it came to improving the 'poor economic climate'.