Trends in initial employment of UK biochemistry graduates

Using the annual Graduate Employment Surveys covering the last 15 years the Society recently conducted a survey of trends in initial employment of first degree and PhD graduate biochemists.

The most remarkable conclusion is how little the pattern of employment has changed over this time period. What variations there are reflect to some extent changes in the general economic climate of the UK.

Employment of first degree graduates (Table 1)

The proportion of total first degree graduates known to have remained in biochemistry in the UK, either in further study or employment, stayed fairly constant at about 50% between 1981 and 1995. However, for practical purposes this figure is an under-estimate. A more useful statistic is obtained by excluding intercalated medical students, British students training or working abroad (who may, or may not, be pursuing biochemistry), overseas students returned home, those unplaced but not seeking work, and unknowns, from the total number of students. The resultant figure shows that the proportion of first degree graduates from the UK remaining in biochemistry has been constant at 67-69% in the 1990s. The profession has therefore absorbed well the increase in graduate numbers in recent years. It should be noted that total numbers are masked in the table by the fact that in the 1990s surveys have been based on returns from about 70% of institutions whereas in the 1980s typically greater than 90% of the smaller number of institutions responded. The lesser response recently has been due to the difficulty in defining a biochemistry graduate because of the tendency to recruit students to schools of biological sciences, and the introduction of modular degrees. The proportion undertaking further biochemical study increased slightly throughout the 1980s before plateauing at 33-34% in the early 1990s. It is too early to judge whether the decrease to 30.5% in 1995 will continue. Total biochemical employment increased throughout the 1980s, paralleling the general economic boom, then declined markedly in the early 1990s before recovering in 1994 and 1995. This pattern was seen clearly for teacher training and research careers in industry, whereas proportions entering research in academia, or work in hospital or other public authority laboratories, stayed fairly constant.

Employment outside biochemistry has varied slightly between 11-15% and followed the same economic trends, although it has tended to creep up over the years. In the 1970s typically 6-8% of new biochemistry graduates were still looking for a job after 6 months and this increased to 11-14% in the early 1980s. Unemployment decreased during the boom years of the later 1980s and now appears fairly stable in the 1990s at 5-7%.

Employment of PhD graduates (Table 2)

Not surprisingly, the proportion of total PhDs remaining in biochemistry in the UK has always been higher than that of first degree graduates, but it has also shown more variation (between 56-73%). However, a much larger proportion of PhDs than of first degree graduates move on to further training or work abroad, and it is reasonable to estimate that this is predominantly of a biochemical nature. If the latter figures for PhDs are added to the UK total there is much less year on year variation in overall proportion of PhD graduates remaining in biochemistry (70-80%). Furthermore, if numbers of overseas students returned home, unplaced and not seeking employment, and unknowns are excluded from totals, then the resultant figure shows that the proportion of UK PhD graduates remaining in biochemistry has remained steady at about 90% throughout the period being considered The attention of the reader is drawn to footnote 1, that points out that the categorisation of postdoctoral researchers without permanent contracts was changed from Further biochemical study to Research appointments-HE in 1994, and also to footnote 2 that affects 1981, 1983 and 1986 figures. The combined effects of these make it difficult to identify trends in the Further biochemical study category. Total biochemical employment in the UK (excluding non-permanent postdoctoral positions) peaked during the mid-1980s, appearing to follow the same economic trends as for first degree graduates. In this case the increases were in research appointments in industry and in academia, whereas posts in teacher training or in public authority laboratories stayed fairly constant, and those in hospital laboratories fluctuated between years with no clear pattern. The low biochemical employment in 1993 appears anomolous and was caused chiefly by low recruitment to industrial research, possibly reflecting the restructuring of many larger companies at that time, and into hospital laboratories.

Employment outside biochemistry has always been very low for PhDs over the years, but appears to be creeping up, from 2-2.4% in the 1980s to 4-6% between 1993 and 1995 (1994 figure 4.9%). The National Postgraduate Committee called in August 1996 for PhD courses to pay more attention to supplying students with communication and other skills required for a career outside HE and academic research, in anticipation that the UK will mirror the USA, where PhDs increasingly have to take up positions outside their specialty. There is little evidence that this is happening for British biochemistry PhD graduates up to the present time. The rate of unemployment of PhDs has always been lower than that of first degree graduates, except for 1995 where the figures were comparable. Unemployment decreased throughout the 1980s and plateaued for several years at about 3.5%, but increased slightly to reach 5.8% for 1995 graduates.

Thus, approximately two-thirds of first degree graduates from the UK have remained within biochemistry over the years, with 11-15% taking employment outside the discipline. About half of the first degree graduates remaining in biochemistry move on to a higher degree, and on completion of a PhD some 90% of UK students continue in the biochemistry profession. These proportions have stayed fairly constant despite the fact that the HE system has expanded considerably. The continuing relatively low rates of unemployment confirm what we regularly hear at Careers Conferences-that biochemists are very employable and are capable of working in a wide variety of occupations.


Table 1 Percentages of first degree biochemistry graduates entering particular types of employment

Year
Type of employment 1981 1983 1986 1990
(-)
1990
(+)
1993 1995

Further biochemical study 25.8 27.9 30.1 34.6 34.3 33.1 30.5
Teacher training/teaching 6.2 6.0 6.5 3.1 3.0 4.4 5.7
Research appointments-industry 5.3 5.6 8.2 4.5 5.4 4.4 7.5
Research appointments-HE 4.7 5.8 4.6 4.4 5.2 3.4 3.4
Hospital laboratories 4.6 4.0 4.4 3.3 4.3 2.8 4.1
Civil service/public authority 1.3 0.9 1.8 1.3 1.6 1.3 0.9

Total biochemical employment 22.1 22.3 25.5 16.6 19.5 16.3 21.6

Total remaining in biochemistry 47.9 50.2 55.6 51.2 53.8 49.4 52.1

Employment outside biochemistry 11.0 11.4 14.5 14.7 13.1 10.5 14.4
Non-biochemical study/training *13.6 *12.0 *12.2 5.7 5.1 6.1 4.1
Intercalated medical students - - - 4.9 3.8 5.6 4.0
British students training abroad - - - 0.8 0.7 0.5 0.3
British students working abroad - - - 1.0 0.8 0.9 0.9
Overseas students returned home 4.0 2.5 1.4 1.4 1.1 2.9 3.5
Unplaced, not seeking employment - - - 5.0 4.9 6.7 3.4
Unplaced, seeking employment 11.2 14.6 7.1 4.9 5.3 7.1 5.4
Unknown 12.3 9.3 9.2 10.4 11.4 10.3 11.9

Total number of students in survey 1339 1213 1389 1394 1795 1477 1758

Notes

Surveys in 1981,1983, 1986 and 1990(-) excluded the polytechnics; those in 1990(+), 1993 and 1995 included the polytechnics and new universities
* Includes intercalated medical students

  1. Before 1994 there was no category equivalent to Science based non-laboratory work. For 1995 this group has therefore been included in Employment outside biochemistry
  2. Before 1990 Industrial management was categorised as Industry (which also included research) which was considered as Biochemical employment, and so is included under Research appointments-industry in the table. Then the Industry category was split into Industry-research and Industry-management. The former was retained as a category of Biochemical employment and the latter as Employment outside biochemistry (It would probably now be categorised as Science-based non-laboratory work within Biochemical employment)
  3. In 1990 and 1993 there was a category Temporary-seeking employment, and this has been categorised as Unplaced, not seeking employment to be consistent with current interpretation
  4. Until 1994 there was a classification HE and Research Institute technician. This has been included under Research appointments-HE in the table
  5. Data not available for British students training abroad and working abroad for 1981, 1983, 1986.
  6. Only total unplaced available for these years

Table 2 Percentages of PhD biochemistry graduates entering particular types of employment

Year
Type of employment 1981 1983 1986 1990
(-)
1990
(+)
1993 1995

Further biochemical study 34.4 38.8 28.6 24.9 25.6 32.4 11.1
Teacher training/teaching 2.4 0.9 1.1 1.5 1.9 2.1 2.6
Research appointments-industry 9.8 10.6 20.1 12.3 12.9 6.6 12.6
Research appointments-HE 11.4 15.5 17.7 13.8 13.7 12.8 41.8
Hospital laboratories 4.5 3.8 2.3 6.3 6.6 0.8 3.6
Civil service/public authority 2.4 1.2 2.7 2.1 1.9 1.2 0.3

Total biochemical employment 30.5 32.0 43.9 36.0 37.0 23.5 60.9

Total remaining in biochemistry 64.9 70.8 72.5 60.9 62.6 55.9 72.0

Employment outside biochemistry 2.3 2.4 2.0 3.3 3.3 6.2 4.2
Non-biochemical study/training *1.5 *1.2 *1.0 0.6 1.1 1.7 0.6
Intercalated medical students - - - 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.3
British students training abroad - - - 7.8 7.7 11.6 0.3
British students working abroad 3.9 6.5 6.2 3.3 3.0 1.2 5.2
Overseas students returned home 20.6 12.2 13.6 15.0 13.8 15.4 7.1
Unplaced, not seeking employment - - - 1.8 1.9 4.6 2.6
Unplaced, seeking employment 5.7 5.7 3.7 3.6 3.3 0.8 5.8
Unknown 1.1 1.2 1.0 3.7 3.3 2.5 1.9

Total number of students in survey 262 245 300 333 364 241 309

Additional notes

  1. Before 1994 postdoctoral researchers not in permanent positions were included under Further biochemical study
  2. For 1981, 1983, and 1986 the Further biochemical study category only appeared to include postdoctoral researchers, including those doing postdoctoral research abroad. There is thus no entry in the British students training abroad category. Figures in the latter category for 1990 and 1993, but not 1995, probably reflect mainly postdoctoral placements abroad

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