Tag Archives: careers

Biomedical research as a career

I did some preliminary research on biomedical research as a career. The case for becoming a biomedical researcher looks to be weak for most candidates for the career. Are there important points in favor of pursuing a career in biomedical research that I’m missing?


  • Some people find biomedical research very rewarding, but the job involves a lot of grant writing, not only research.
  • Job security for biomedical researchers in academia is extremely poor before tenure. We still have to research exit options for those who leave academia.
  • Biomedical researchers make substantially less money over a life time than they could in other fields.
  • The job involves ~60 hours of work per week
  • While biomedical research has historically produced a great deal of value, the situation today is more ambiguous, and it appears that the average biomedical researcher does little to advance the field.


The nature of the work

According to How to succeed in science: a concise guide for young biomedical scientists. Part I: taking the plunge by Yewdell (2009)

for individuals with a hunger for knowledge and an insatiable curiosity about how things work, science offers a constant challenge and, best of all, the intense thrill of discovery.  What can match being the first person who has ever lived to know something new about nature? And not just the big, infrequent, paradigm-making (or breaking) discoveries, but the small, incremental discoveries that occur on a daily or weekly basis too. If this doesn’t give you goosebumps and if you are not in a rush to get to the laboratory in the morning to find the results of yesterday’s experiment, then you should seriously consider a non-laboratory career.

However, research is not the only part of the job: Yewdell writes

For your entire career as a PI, you will put inordinate efforts into writing grants

This is in consonance with GiveWell’s post Exploring Life Science Funding which says

The existing system focuses on time-consuming, paperwork-heavy grant applications for individual investigators.

GiveWell’s post also hints at researchers being constrained with respect to the research that they’re able to get funding for:

The existing system favors a particular brand of research – generally incremental testing of particular hypotheses – and is less suited to supporting research that doesn’t fit into this mold. Research that doesn’t fit into this mold may include: (i) Very high-risk research representing a small chance of a big breakthrough. (ii) Research that focuses on developing improved tools and techniques (for example, better microscopy or better genome sequencing), rather than on directly investigating particular hypotheses. (iii) “Translational research” aiming to improve the transition between basic scientific discoveries and clinical applications, and not focused on traditionally “academic” topics (for example, research focusing on predicting drug toxicity).

Job security

Our writeup on job security in academia gives some general considerations.

Concerning biomedical research specifically, The Scientific Workforce Policy Debate: Do We Produce too Many Biomedical Trainees? reports that

During the period from 1993-2003, the probability that a postdoc in the U.S. was in a tenure-track PI position 5-6 years after obtaining their PhD ranged from 15-23% (Garrison and McGuire, 2007).

This graphic says that after finishing graduate school / postdoc, of biomedical research PhDs, 18% go into non-research science jobs, 6% go into government research, 43% go into academia or teaching, 18% go into industrial research, 13% do work outside of science and 2% are unemployed. Roughly 50% of those who complete a postdoc and go into academia get tenure, and the career outcomes for those who don’t get tenure are unreported.

Some of the jobs that biomedical researchers get outside of academia are jobs that they could have gotten without doing a PhD or postdoc.

An important question is that of how correlated research ability is with job security. If luck plays a sufficiently large role then high ability doesn’t guarantee a job, whereas if skill can overcome luck, then those who are skilled can be confident that they’ll be able to get jobs. An interview with Prof. Andrew McMichael at the 80K blog seems to suggest that sufficiently high quality researchers can get jobs and funding. However, going into graduate school, one’s ability level may not be clear.

It’s unclear how job security is changing over time. In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of jobs was expected to grow 36% over 10 years (much faster than average). But in 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reportedthat the number of jobs is expected to grow 13% over 10 years, and in the intervening time the number of jobs had grown only 3%. So there appears to have been a substantial change in outlook in only two years. The job growth rate forecasts have to be viewed in juxtaposition with the expected change in number of new PhDs. According to one source, the National Institutes of Health found that the number of new PhDs increased by 50% between 2002 and 2009. If this rate were to be sustained, the ratio of jobs to job candidates would decrease even more.

I plan on researching exit options

Work-life balance

According to Yewdell (2009)

As a graduate student, you should be spending a minimum of 40 hours per week actually designing, performing or interpreting experiments. As there are many other necessary things to do during the day (for example, reading the literature, attending seminars and journal club, talking to colleagues both formally and informally, and common laboratory jobs), this means you will be spending 60 or more hours per week in science-associated activities.

This is corroborated by career coach Marty Nemko, who wrote

You spend most of your 60-to-70-hour workweek alone in a lab or at your desk, with little people contact.

Biomedical researchers who stay in academia are often constrained with respect to the geographic location where they can get jobs. See our writeup on job location options for academics.


Getting a PhD in a biomedical research field takes 6 to 7 years, during which one makes substantially less money than one could otherwise make. It’s been reported that the average biology PhD had $45k in debt as of 2004.

Salaries rise afterward, but not rapidly: as of 2009, the starting salary for a postdoc was ~$37k/year (pg. 141), and postdoctoral appointments last 4 years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools are next in employment, and pay a mean wage of $61,320 per year. Completing the five areas with the most employment are Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing ($92,130), General Medical and Surgical Hospitals ($80,090) and Drugs and Druggists’ Sundries Merchant Wholesalers ($93,090).

The “Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools” category includes postdocs: if one considers professors only, the figure will be more like $80k/year.

According to Yewdell (2009)

If you do achieve the ‘Holy Grail’ of full professorship then you will not be poor, but you will be far worse off financially than nearly all of your peers who have similar levels of talent, energy and dedication, but who chose other careers.

Career coach Marty Nemko wrote

“According to MIT faculty member Philip Greenspun, Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States….”

A small number of biomedical researchers command high salaries: for example, one source reports that there are 20 in the country with earnings at the $240k+ level.

Some sources report that biomedical researchers can become very wealthy if as early employees of successful biotech startups, but this is very rare.

Social Value

Historically, a large fraction of increase in lifespan and quality of life has been due to biomedical research (e.g. vaccines). Yewdell (2009) wrote

Society desperately needs your talents […] For rationally thinking people with an altruistic bent, life can be no more rewarding than when practising the scientific method for the benefit of all of the denizens of this fragile planet.

Some points to keep in mind in assessing the social value of biomedical research are

  • Diminishing returns  Much of the increase in lifespan between 1950 and now was due to cardiovascular disease research, with the gains mostly halting by 1990. There have been significant advances in recent years, such as AIDS treatment drugs, statins, psychiatric drugs. But one should expect the increase in quality of life and lifespan per researcher to go down over time, because of low hanging fruit being plucked, barring radical advances coming from anti-aging research and unexpected sources.
  • Low replication rates — The fact that large fraction of studies don’t replicate suggesting that much research doesn’t move science forward.
  • Power law distribution of research contributions A small fraction of researchers produce 100x+ as much value as the average researcher. To the extent that success is driven by skill rather than luck, prospects for impact depend heavily on your ability.

80,000 Hours plans to publish an overview of biomedical research that will address the social value of going into biomedical research in more detail.

See also

Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report (2012) by the National Institutes of Health.

How to succeed in science: a concise guide for young biomedical scientists. Part I: taking the plunge (2009) by Jonathan Yewdell.

Academia as a career option, its social value, and alternatives

By Vipul Naik

Cross-posted from Less Wrong. Related to the information wiki pages academia as a career optionsocial value of academia, and alternatives to academia.

Many of the high school and college students who contacted us at Cognito Mentoring were looking for advice were considering going into academia. The main draw to them was the desire to learn specific subjects and explore ideas in greater depth. As a result, we’ve been investigating academia as a career option and also considering what alternatives there may be to academia that fulfill the same needs but provide better pay and/or generate more social value. The love of ideas and epistemic exploration is shared by many of the people at Less Wrong, including those who are not in academia. So I’m hoping that people will share their own perspectives in the comments. That’ll help us as well as the many LessWrong lurkers interested in academia.

I’m eager to hear about what considerations you used when weighing academia against other career options, and how you came to your decision. Incidentally, there are a number of great answers to the Quora question Why did you leave academia?, but there’s probably many thoughts people have here that aren’t reflected in the Quora answers. I’ve also written up a detailed review of academia as a career option on the info wiki for Cognito Mentoring here (long read), and I’d also love feedback on the validity of the points I make there.

Many of our advisees as well as the LessWrong readership at large are interested in choosing careers based on the social value generated by these careers. (This is evidenced in the strong connection between the LessWrong and effective altruism communities). What are your thoughts on that front? Jonah and I have collaboratively written a page on the social value of academia. Our key point is that research academia is higher value than alternative careers only in cases where either the person has a chance of making big breakthroughs in the area, or if the area of research itself is high-value. Examples of the latter may include machine learning (we’re just starting on investigating this) and (arguably) biomedical research (we’ve collected some links on this, but haven’t investigated this in depth).

For those who are or were attracted to academia, what other career options did you consider? If you decided not to join, or chose to quit, academia, what alternative career are you now pursuing? We’ve identified a few possibilities at ouralternatives to academia page, but we’re largely shooting in the dark here. Based on anecdotal evidence from people working in venture capital, it seems like venture capital is a great place for polymath-types who are interested in researching a wide range of subjects shallowly, so it’s ideal for people who like shallow intellectual exploration rather than sticking to a single subject for an inordinate amount of time. But there are very few jobs in venture capital. On paper, jobs at consulting firms should be similar to venture capital in requiring a lot of shallow research. But we don’t have an inside view of consulting jobs — are they a good venue for intellectually curious people? Are there other job categories we missed?

All thoughts are greatly appreciated!

Finance as a career option

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from Less Wrong.

As a part of our research for Cognito Mentoring, Vipul Naik and I compiled a draft of a page on finance as a career option. Because some Less Wrongers are planning on earning to give and finance is a commonly considered career option for those who are earning to give, I thought that it might be of interest to the Less Wrong community.  See also 80,000 Hours’ blog posts on finance as a career.

Finance is a popular career option amongst graduates from elite universities: with about 20% of Harvard, Princeton and Yale graduates getting jobs in the field. Economist and New York Times columnist Tyler Cowen hassuggested that people with high intelligence have a significant edge in the field.

Finance has a number of sectors. Careers in Finance breaks finance down into Commercial Banking, Corporate Finance, Financial Planning, Hedge Funds, Insurance, Investment Banking, Money Management, Private Equity and Real Estate. The nature of jobs in finance varies considerably from sector to sector.

Our remarks below concern jobs in higher paying jobs in finance, such as jobs in investment banking, private equity and at hedge funds.


Salaries in investment banking, private equity and hedge funds can be very high:

  • Careers in Finance reports that somebody with ~5 years of experience at an investment bank typically makes ~$450K/year.
  • In 2006, Richard Rusczyk (formerly an employee at hedge fund DE Shaw) wrote “While it’s not expected that you’ll make a million dollars in year 5, neither is it impossible. If you’re not making at least middle six-digits by year 6-8 as a quant in a hedge fund, then something has gone very wrong for you.”
  • Stock market trader Joe Mela wrote that “If you’re good at [being a trader], you can make millions 5 years down the line.”
  • Some of the most wealthy people in the world, such as George Soros (net worth $23 billion) and James Simons (net worth 11.7 billion) made their money in these fields.
James Miller points out that the high income is moderated by high marginal taxes as well as the high cost of living in New York city (where most finance firms are).

Work-life balance

The high pay in investment banking should be viewed in the context of the grueling hours on the job. According to IBankingFAQ,

Analysts can routinely expect to work 90-100 hours per week or even more. A typical work day during the week might be 10:00 am until 2:00 am. Analysts will also typically work both days on the weekend. During a particularly busy time […] it is not uncommon for Analysts to work all night…

According to a highly upvoted Quora response:

Your physical health will almost certainly suffer. The extent to which it suffers depends on how careful you are with your diet, whether you make time to exercise, how much sleep you get, and how well or poorly you deal with stress. Most people have at least partial burnouts.

The quotations are referring to the hours of work in entry level positions. We have not been able to find substantive information on number of hours that more senior employees work per week. Our impression is that the number is smaller, but not dramatically so.

The number of hours per week that employees at hedge funds and proprietary trading firms appear to be smaller. In 2006, Richard Rusczyk (formerly an employee at hedge fund DE Shaw) wrote:

I would say the average work week at places like Shaw or Jane Street is closer to 55 hours, maybe lower (unless things have changed dramatically).

This is in consonance with what we’ve heard from two other acquaintances who have worked at a hedge funds and proprietary trading firms.

Job security

Job security in the more lucrative sectors of finance may be poor. At the 80,000 Hours blog, Carl Shulman wrote:

While a physician will usually remain a physician throughout her career, lucrative jobs in investment banking and management consulting often come with “up or out” career paths. Either one is promoted “up,” with incomes growing exponentially, as one can see in these links for banks and consultancies, or one is fired “out” and must seek work at a lesser firm or leave the industry. Since most employees will not be around for very long, one must take into account one’s “exit options” in deciding whether to enter.


Some people have characterized finance as having a very abrasive culture. Others have disputed this characterization. The culture of finance firms probably varies substantially from sector to sector and firm to firm.

  • Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis gives “an unflattering portrayal of Wall Street traders and salesmen, their personalities, their beliefs, and their work practices.” The book reports on the situation in the 1980’s, and may be out of date.
  • Former DE Shaw employee Cathy O’Neil gives an unflattering characterization of the culture at DE Shaw at her blog. (However, see this comment by Ben Kuhn.
  • Trader Joe Mela wrote at the 80,000 Hours blog “As a rule, traders are highly switched-on, pleasant to talk to, and are great people to learn from. I do not think trading is the optimal career path if you’re trying to meet highly altruistic people, but the Gordon Gekko stereotype is pretty far from the truth.”

Social value

Actors in finance produce both social value and social disvalue, and it seems difficult to make a general statement about whether the typical worker at an investment bank (for example) does more good or harm. The situation probably varies from sector to sector of finance. We give some relevant considerations below.

The correlation between income and social value

In general, there’s a correlation between income and social value contributed. The fact that the earnings of people who work in finance are high raises the possibility that workers in finance contribute high social value.

People and organizations sometimes have a temporary need for money to accomplish their goals, and people and organizations are sometimes willing to lend money for a fee. Actors in finance who enable these transactions benefit both the borrower and the lender, and are paid accordingly. Similarly, actors in finance who lend money themselves benefit the borrowers and are paid accordingly. The proportion of activity in finance that fits this basic model is unclear. Many of the transactions in finance are many steps removed from the basic activity of enabling borrowers and lenders to connect. Some of these transactions indirectly enable borrowers and lenders to connect, and others don’t. It can be very difficult to tell which are which from the outside.

Unproductively increasing the efficiency of the market

If a company is looking for an investor and nobody is willing to invest, this is bad for the company. If the company is deserving of an investment, you spot this, and nobody is willing to invest, then you can benefit the company and make a profit by investing.

But suppose there are actors who are willing to invest in the company, and you invest in the company a tiny bit faster than the other actors. The company doesn’t benefit much from this, because it would have gotten an investment anyway. The other people who would have invested are harmed by this, because they can’t make a profit. So the social value that you contribute is much smaller than it would have been if nobody had been willing to invest within the same rough timeframe.

Some activity in finance takes this form. High frequency trading is a candidate for a sector of finance that makes money through buying and selling stocks a little bit faster than others, without contributing much social value. The transactions that high frequency trading firms make occur on a time scale of a fraction of a second, and it’s unclear that enabling people to buy or sell a stock a fraction of a second faster helps them to an appreciable degree, even after taking into account the number of people involved.

Pushing off tail risk onto the government

Some firms in finance are “too big to fail” in the sense that if they were to go bankrupt, the whole economy would suffer enormously, because of their interconnectedness. When they’re in danger of bankruptcy, the government will often lend or give them money to keep them afloat. Because the firms are aware that they’ll likely be supported by the government in the event that they make bad investments, they’ll sometimes make very risky investments, that have high upside to them if they pan out well, with the expectation that if they pan out poorly, the government will cover their losses. Such actors effectively make their money at the expense of the taxpayers, thereby contributing negative social value.

Not all actors in finance behave in this way.

Causing financial crises

As above, sometimes “too big to fail” firms will take risks that they’re not able to handle, with the expectation that the government will cover their losses. If they’re in danger of bankruptcy and the government ”doesn’t” cover their losses, this can precipitate a financial crisis. In particular, the collapse of Lehman Brothers is thought to have played a major role in the 2008 financial crisis. In this way, actors in finance may be able to cause damage far out of proportion with their earnings.

As above, not all actors in finance behave in this way.

Some people have raised the possibility that high-frequency trading could cause a financial crisis on account of increasing the stock market’s volatility, but others have disputed it, or even claimed that high-frequency trading reduces the stock market’s volatility.

Earning to give

Because the earnings are high in finance, finance has been highlighted as a promising career track for people who want to earn to give large amounts of money to charities. 80,000 Hours Executive Director Ben Todd has argued that the harm one might do in finance is small relative to the good that one can do by donating 50+% of one’s income to highly effective charities.