By William Riley, Ph.D., OBSSR Director
Graduate training in the behavioral and social sciences remains largely unchanged from the training I received as a graduate student 35 years ago. While the current curricula reflect new knowledge gleaned from decades of research, the overall structure and goals of graduate training in the behavioral and social sciences are essentially the same.
More than 60% of new science Ph.D.s will not pursue an academic research career; however, the academia continues to train graduate students primarily for just such careers. According to the most recent National Science Board report on Science and Engineering Indicators, there are as many science and engineering doctoral graduates employed by the business as by the educational sector.
Graduate training in behavioral and social sciences largely unchanged from the training I received 35 years ago
While the business sector may lean toward technology and engineering fields, it is increasingly seeking behavioral and social sciences researchers for human factors research, user-centered design, and other essential tasks that hinge on an understanding of behavior, social systems, and how to study them.
In 2012, the NIH published a report of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director’s Biomedical Workforce Working Group whose key findings included:
- Although unemployment is low among biomedical and behavioral researchers, the proportion of Ph.D.s that moved into tenured or tenure-track positions declined from 34% in 1993 to 26% in 2012.
- About 30% of biomedical and behavioral Ph.D.s work in biotech and pharmaceutical industries, and transition to these positions would be improved by better alignment of required skill sets for these careers.
- While the number of basic biomedical and clinical sciences Ph.D.s have increased substantially over the past few decades, the number of behavioral and social science Ph.D.s has remained relatively constant.
- It takes longer to get a Ph.D. than in the past although the trend began to reverse in the mid 90s. Despite the recent downturn in the time to complete a degree, the mean age at degree for a behavioral or social scientist is 35 years. Coupled with increasingly longer post-doctoral training, the mean age at the first research program grant award from the NIH is 42 years.
30 percent of biomedical and behavioral PhDs work in biotech and pharma, need 2 align skill sets 4 these careers
These reports indicate that a majority of behavioral and social sciences doctors are entering research careers in areas outside of the traditional academic research track; and even those going into academia face challenges initiating and maintaining a grant-supported research program. If we add to this equation the emerging technologies and big data efforts that are transforming the approaches and methods in the field, rethinking the graduate education of behavioral and social scientists is clearly needed.
Tech changes in approaches and methods forces us to rethink graduate education of behavioral and social scientists
To address this need, the OBSSR and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE) Directorate have contracted with National Academies to hold a workshop in 2017 to address the current and future training needs in the behavioral and social sciences. This effort seeks to provide guidance on directions that the disciplines representing the behavioral and social sciences should consider in their graduate training programs.
The project has broad government support from the Social and Behavioral Sciences subcommittee of the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council. This subcommittee, with representatives from various agencies of the federal government, identified this pressing need to reexamine graduate training in the social and behavioral sciences, which is also a significant area of focus of the OBSSR’s Strategic Plan 2017-2020.
As this work progresses, the NIH OBSSR, NSF SBE, and the various agencies represented by the Social and Behavioral Sciences subcommittee of the Committee on Science will keep our various stakeholders informed. We all look forward to a workshop report from the National Academies that will provide a strong basis for transforming our graduate training efforts to make them closer in line with what our trainees eventually do.