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Annual survey of UK biochemistry graduate employment 2000

Key findings

First degree graduates

  • The proportion continuing biochemical training (28.2%) decreased by 4%, and the overall proportion remaining in biochemistry (54.6%) by 6%. There were only small changes in proportions entering the various categories of biochemical employment, with hospital lab work (7.8%) and research in industry (6.5%) remaining most popular. Despite advertising campaigns and financial inducements there was a small decrease in proportion entering teacher training. The proportion starting training or employment outside biochemistry (19.8%, excluding intercalating medical students) was identical to the previous year.
  • A decrease in proportion of graduates with class 1 honours who elected to go on to research degrees was found for the second consecutive year (from 59.7 to 52.3.%). The fact that the proportion of class 2.2 graduates in the research pool almost doubled (to 12.4%) suggests a reduction in competition for research degree places.
  • The low unemployment rate (2.5%) compared well with national figures for biological sciences graduates (5.5%) and for graduates of all disciplines (5.5%).

Higher graduates

  • The proportion of Masters graduates remaining in biochemistry increased by almost 4% to 70.9%, and 10% more of this grouping continued biochemical training (35.2%). Research in industry and hospital lab work were the most popular career choices (12.6% each). The proportion entering non-biochemical training or employment (5.3%) decreased slightly.
  • A notable decrease was observed in the proportion of PhDs moving to research in academia (from 43.7 to 35.7%), and the proportion entering industrial research (8.5%) also decreased, for the third consecutive year. As a consequence the proportion remaining in biochemistry decreased by 14% to 55.8%. In contrast the proportion starting non-science-based training or employment increased from 2.6 to 9.8%.
  • The unemployment rate of PhD graduates (1.7%) was lower than national figures for biological sciences postgraduates (2.5%) and for postgraduates of all disciplines (2.6%).

The results overall suggest that more of the brightest graduates were shunning research careers. Detailed interpretation of the data is limited by the higher than usual proportion of graduates in the 'unknown destination' category, which appears to be due to the Higher Education Statistics Agency changing the way that it required universities to collect 'first destination' data.

General information

This survey of initial employment of biochemists that graduated in 2000 was compiled from data provided by 34 pre-1992 universities and 10 post-1992. It includes data on 2508 graduates, 352 more than in the previous year. Note that the figures in Table 1 cannot be used to deduce the relative numbers of first degree, Masters and PhD students being trained since a number of departments did not include destinations for Masters and PhD graduates. The Professional and Education Committee thanks those departments that contributed data (see Appendix 1). A separate report on graduates from Irish universities will be produced for institutions in the Republic of Ireland.

The format of the questionnaire was not changed from that used throughout most of the 1990s so as to allow ready analysis of trends. The definition of a 'biochemistry graduate' that was introduced last year, in order to help departments running complex modular courses, was retained; ie a student who spent at least 50% of the course studying molecular biosciences. A list of all first-degree titles that were considered by the responding departments to meet this criterion is given in Appendix 2. The Masters grouping includes both taught and research degrees, MPhil degrees, and some institutions may also have included MRes. The latter may require differentiation in future surveys. Appendix 3 lists the courses from which the Masters data were drawn.

The interpretation of employment surveys is inevitably limited by the proportion of graduates whose destination is not known. This was higher in the current survey for graduates of all 3 levels than it has been in previous years (14.8% for first degrees, 15.8% for Masters, and 17.4% for PhDs, compared with 7.8%, 11.6%, and 10.5%, respectively, for the 1999 survey). It is thought that this was largely due to the Higher Education Statistics Agency specifying for the first time that 'first destination' data collected by universities had to be obtained from the student directly and not from a third party. This meant that new systems had to be set up, resulting in an initial failure to contact as large a cohort of graduates as universities would have liked.

Overall view of total biochemistry graduates entering employment

The overall pattern was similar to that seen in previous years (Table 1, Fig 1, Fig 1a, Fig 2 and Fig 3) but there were some subtle, and important, changes that will become more apparent in the examination of different degree levels. The proportion of total graduates continuing biochemical study (26.1%) was a little lower than in 1999 (28.6%), and outside the 27-30% range that it held for a number of years. The next largest group of graduates in recent years entered careers requiring graduate-level ability but no particular biochemical knowledge, such as accounting, financial services and retail management. This proportion for 2000 graduates (13.7%) represented a small increase compared to 1999 (11.9%), but was not dissimilar to the 1998 figure (13.2%). Proportions starting research appointments in industry (7.2%) or in academia (5.8%) were both a little lower than in 1999. Although the government improved the financial incentive to those enrolling for PGCEs in 2000 the proportion of graduates starting teacher training (2.8%) was actually slightly lower than in the previous year. The contribution to the graduate population of foreign students who trained in the UK and subsequently returned to the country of origin (2.0%) was lower than the 4-6% range that it held for several years before drifting down last year.

Graduates of different levels remaining in biochemistry

At first degree level, the proportion of graduates that moved on to further biochemical study, overwhelmingly in the UK (32.0%), was a little lower than in 1998 (33.4%) but similar to the values found in 1995-1997 (Table 2). For those departments that were able to supply the appropriate information (26 from pre-1992 universities, 10 from post-1992) an analysis was made of the breakdown of the different first-degree classes among students registering for a higher degree by research (Table 3). The most notable finding was a marked decrease in proportion of graduates gaining a class 1 degree who elected to start research training (from 70.2 to 59.7%). This was more marked among class 1 graduates from post-1992 universities (down from 67.9 to 40.0%, albeit based on only 30 graduates) than from pre-1992 (down from 70.6 to 63.6%). Proportions of class 2.1 graduates (37.9%), or class 2.2 (5.6%), entering research training were little changed from the previous year. Of the total number of new research students 26.1% (down 7.1%) had class 1 degrees, 66.7% (up 8.0%) class 2.1, and 7.2% (down 0.9%) class 2.2.

At first degree level, the proportion of graduates that moved on to further biochemical study, overwhelmingly in the UK (28.2%), was markedly lower than in 1999 (32.0%) and outside the 30-35% range that it consistently held in the second half of the 1990s (Table 2). For those departments that were able to supply the appropriate information (29 from pre-1992 universities, 5 from post-1992) an analysis was made of the breakdown of the different first-degree classes among students registering for a higher degree by research (Table 3). The proportion of graduates with a class 1 degree that elected to start research training decreased again (from 70.2% in 1998 and 59.7% in 1999 to 52.3% in 2000). This was found for graduates from both pre-1992 and post-1992 universities (decreases of 8.8 and 11.4%, respectively). This year the proportion of total class 2.1 graduates entering research training also decreased (from 37.9 to 29.1%), whereas the proportion of total class 2.2 graduates doubled (from 5.6 to 11.3%). Because of the different numbers of graduates in the various degree classes, the effects of these changes on the composition of the new cohort of research students was actually to increase slightly the proportion with class 1 degrees (from 26.1 to 27.8%), decrease the proportion with class 2.1 (from 66.7 to 59.8), and increase the proportion with class 2.2 (from 7.2 to 12.4%).

For graduates with classes 1 and 2 first degrees only small changes were found in the other destination categories compared with the previous year (Table 2). Slightly lower proportions entered academic or industrial research, or work in hospital/public authority laboratories, and a slightly higher proportion entered science-based non-laboratory work. Despite the improved incentive of a 6000 bursary at the start of PGCE training and the prospect of a 4000 payment for teaching a shortage subject at the end of the probationary year, the proportion of graduates starting school teaching decreased from 4.2% in 1999 to 3.3% in the current survey. The proportion of graduates with class 3/pass degrees who continued biochemical training declined from 14.6 to 6.0%, and was matched by small increases in those starting science-based non-laboratory work, or working outside science.

The proportion of Masters graduates continuing biochemical training (35.2%) was 10.2% higher than in the previous year, and similar to the figure seen in the mid-1990s. This was balanced chiefly by a decrease in those moving directly to academic research (from 12.2 to 3.7%). Otherwise the pattern of biochemical employment was largely unchanged from the previous year, with research in industry and work in hospital or public authority laboratories predominating (12.6% each).

The most notable feature of PhD employment was the decrease in proportion continuing academic research (from 43.7 to 35.7%), since this figure has consistently been in the range of 40-45% for a number of years. The proportion entering industrial research (8.5%) was also lower (13.2% the previous year), and this represented the third consecutive decrease. These decreases were not matched by increases in other categories of biochemical employment, although the proportion of PhDs working abroad increased a little (from 7.4 to 10.2%). These graduates may well have been doing post-docs in academic research labs.

The proportion of first degree graduates remaining in biochemical training or employment (54.6%) was lower than in 1999 (60.6%), but within the range (53-57%) found for the previous 5 years. That of Masters graduates (70.9%) was a little higher than the 1999 figure (67.1%), whilst that of PhDs decreased quite markedly (from 70.0 to 55.8%). This represents a distinct change from the normal plateau between 70 and 75% for PhD graduates. Although the figure for PhDs does not include those working abroad this does not detract from the argument that there has been a marked change in the proportion staying in science since the same applied in earlier years.

Graduates pursuing careers not involving biochemistry

This grouping includes those graduates who entered training for, or commenced, employment requiring degree-level ability but no specific biochemical knowledge, as well as intercalating students returned to their medical studies. As a proportion of total graduates the size of the grouping (19.3%) was similar to that in 1999 and 1998 (18.5 and 20.5%, respectively), and appears to have plateaued after steadily increasing in the 5 years leading up to 1998 (from 15.8 to 20.5%). At the level of individual degrees the proportions of those with a first degree (21.7%), or Masters degree (5.3%) in this grouping were similar to the 1999 figures, whereas the proportion of those with PhD increased markedly (from 2.6% to 9.8%). The bulk of the increase was in those starting employment directly outside science.

The interpretation of the survey is restricted by the lack of knowledge concerning the employment of British graduates working abroad (applicable mainly to PhDs) and of overseas students returned home. The proportions of overseas students graduating with Masters and PhD degrees decreased again. The figure for Masters graduates has declined from 17.9 to 4.7% in 3 years.

Comparison of destinations of first degree graduates from pre- and post-1992 universities

The proportion of graduates gaining either a class 1 or class 2 degree in pre-1992 universities (94.1%) was almost identical to the 1999 figure. The corresponding proportion for post-1992 universities (85.0%) was midway between 1999 and 1998 figures (83.3 and 88.1%, respectively). In the Departments providing data for Table 3 there was an apparent upward shift in degree classes at pre-1992 universities (15.2% with class1, 58.3% with class 2.1, and 26.5% with class 2.2, compared to 13.0, 52.3 and 34.7%, respectively, in 1999). The distribution of degree classes in (a small number of) post-1992 universities was more similar to the previous year, but if anything had shifted downwards again (9.8% with class 1, 41.1% with class 2.1, and 49.1% with class 2.2, compared to 10.7, 43.4, and 45.9%, respectively).

Just as high a proportion of class1/class2 graduates from post-1992 institutions as from pre-1992 remained in biochemistry (60.5 and 56.1%) (Table 4) but the figures decreased by 4 and 6%, respectively, compared to 1999. More students at pre-1992 universities were likely to continue biochemical training (31.9 compared to 20.2%), whereas a much smaller proportion entered work in hospital/public authority laboratories (6.1 compared to 19.0%). The latter figure reflects the fact that biomedical sciences courses were provided primarily by post-1992 universities. A slightly smaller proportion of graduates from pre-1992 universities trained for teaching, whereas a larger proportion either trained for, or started, work outside biochemistry (19.9 compared to 14.0%, excluding inter-calated medical students). As in previous years, the largest grouping of graduates with class 3/pass degrees from both types of universities started non-science-based

Graduates who were unemployed at the time of the survey

The survey distinguished two different groupings:- those who were genuinely unemployed and actively looking for a job, and those taking time out to travel, or start a family, or in temporary jobs whilst evaluating longer-term careers. The proportion of genuinely unemployed total biochemistry graduates (2.3%) (Table 1) was apparently a little lower than in the 5 previous years (3.7-5.4%). At the different degree levels the rates of unemployment for first degree class 1/class 2 graduates (2.6%) and for class3/pass graduates (1.3%) were both lower. The Masters figure (0.5%) was within the range seen in the last few years (0-5%), and that for PhDs (1.7%) continued to be low. However, it should be noted that some unemployment may be hidden within the 'unknown destination' category; which was higher than normal for all levels of graduates (see Table 2 and Section1).

The unemployment rate for biochemistry first degree graduates (2.5% overall) compared favourably with those for other disciplines. According to First Destinations of Students leaving Higher Education Institutions, 1999/2000 (Higher Education Statistics Agency), 5.5% of first degree graduates of all disciplines were estimated to be unemployed at six months after graduating, and 5.5% of biological sciences graduates. The latter grouping containing biologists, molecular biologists, biophysicists, botanists, zoologists, geneticists, microbiologists and psychologists as well as biochemists. The unemployment rate of biochemistry PhDs (1.7%) was likewise a little lower than national figures for postgraduates of all disciplines (2.6%) and for biological sciences postgraduates (2.5%).


The Review of the supply of scientists and engineers conducted over summer 2001 by Sir Gareth Roberts was driven largely by government concern that universities, businesses and the public sector are finding it difficult to recruit the skilled researchers that they need. The present survey of initial graduate employment found clear indications, for the first time, that research careers are becoming less attractive to some of our best young biochemists.

Proportion of total biochemistry class 1 graduates electing to start a research degreeProportion of class 1 graduates in research degree pool
YearOverallPre-1992 universityPost-1992 university 

The proportion of first degree graduates continuing biochemical training fell below the usual 30-35%. But more importantly, the decline noted in 1999 in the proportion of graduates with Firsts electing to start research degrees was extended in 2000, representing an 18% fall off in two years. Whilst this did not translate into a further decrease in the overall proportion of graduates with Firsts in the new research pool, the proportion was still several percentage points below the levels seen in 1996-1998. Further evidence of decreased competition among graduates for research degree places is provided by the observation that the proportion of 2.2 graduates in the research pool almost doubled.

At PhD level too, the decrease in proportion continuing research in universities or research institutes is significant because the figure has been so consistently between 40 and 45% in recent years. Indeed, attention was drawn in the last two survey reports to the fact that the proportion of PhD graduates moving to post-docs was holding up despite the well-known difficulty in securing a tenured post. The accompanying decrease in 2000 in proportion researching in industry was the third in consecutive years. In contrast to the decrease in numbers choosing research there was a marked increase in those choosing careers outside science, which is one of the issues that the Roberts Review set out to address.

A shift to lower degree classes among graduates from post-1992 universities was observed and discussed in the 1999 survey report. If anything, there was a further slight downward shift in the present survey, in contrast to an improvement in degree classes in pre-1992 institutions. It remains unclear to what extent any worsening in outcome may be a reflection of increased-access policies pursued by many post-1992 universities, or be due to students taking part-time work during term time because of financial pressures.

The decrease in popularity of science subjects at university already experienced in physics and chemistry is beginning to show in the biosciences. This is likely to be influenced strongly by the quality of school biology teaching. School teaching remained an unpopular career choice for biochemistry graduates despite the improved starting financial incentives noted in Section 3. It would appear that the government needs to pay more attention to improving salaries and conditions of employment rather than focusing on getting graduates initially into the profession.

Although research appeared to have lost some of its attraction for first degree graduates, other categories of science-based employment held up well. Only about one-fifth continued to use the graduate-level skills acquired from their biochemistry courses in non-science-based work. The low unemployment for biochemistry graduates of all levels demonstrates that these skills and attributes remain highly desired both within and outside biochemistry.

Report compiled by Mike Withnall, Policy, Education, and Professional Affairs, December 2001

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