Two recent posts from (parts I and II) review a graduate student forum where two university staff members presented their thoughts about career paths. I’d like to use these as an opportunity (well, excuse) to pull together in one post some of things I have previously written on this topic, about science-based careers outside academia.

It’s good to see career paths being discussed with Ph.D. students and the points offered are excellent. I wouldn’t have minded a similar presentation when I was younger.

It is also clear from Sarah Morgan’s account that discussion of careers outside academia took place. Great to hear. I hope this encourages institutions to offer presentations from people outside of the universities.

A point I would like to elaborate below is that these people are not exceptions, but are the rule. It is the academic research career that is the exception.

A similar event was held at a conference I attended some years ago where

The panel was exclusively academics, one Professor (and head of department), one Nobel laureate, and one research group leader.

No commercially-based scientists. No biotech company representatives. No science administrators. No science advisors. No consultants. No research contractors. No heads of diagnostic laboratories. No forensic scientists. No environmental testing specialists. No scientists-turned-biotech-lawyers. No patent officers. No-one who runs specialist instrumentation. No science communicators either for that matter!

These presentations are usually meant to be guidance for an academic career – fair enough – but I would prefer they be set within a wider context. I worry that a narrow focus on only an academic career will disappoint many, when a decent fraction, if not the majority, of Ph.D. students should be looking more widely.

A general perception (assumption or, perhaps, well-meant intention) is that while most science undergraduates will not go on to academic science, many Master’s students will and most Ph.D. students will.

Statistics suggest that the majority of science Ph.D. students do not go on to work in academic science, at least not immediately after their Ph.D. studies. In fact a good number of them, possibly a majority even, do not go on work in science at all. Below is graphic representing MoRST’s statistics* for careers for science Ph.D.s in New Zealand:

(Source: MoRST.)

(Source: MoRST. Click on image for original source.)

As the graphic above does not show ’all movements within the workforce, such as career breaks or people returning to research after pursuing another career’ a little care is needed not to over-interpret it. A career break (e.g. OE) may account for some of those that do not immediately go into a science-related career.

These confounding factors shouldn’t affect the message that most do not go on to academic research careers.

Personally, I would like to see academic career path presentations to post-graduate students open with, stated positively, ’Most of you will not go on to academic careers and many will not go on to careers in science.’

Before anyone starts throwing brickbats at me for being negative, please put those bricks down! (Thank you, thank you…)

I mean that positively. The negative thing – to my mind – would be encouraging students to persist, hammering away, when opportunities more suited to that person lay elsewhere. The catch being what suits who. (Sometimes in academia you get the impression that it is considered noble to persist in the face of it all, but that’s not a reason everyone should!)

Part of the issue, I suspect, is that most academics, Ph.D. students included, are by their nature are stubborn and dislike ‘letting go’! Staff might help here by encouraging their students not to ‘cling’ to an academic option, but to explore broadly. Most find this for themselves, but some may need encouragement.

As I mentioned, a related aspect is if working in academia is a ‘fit’ to the person. (The same applies in reverse for other career options.) This isn’t the case for everyone with a Ph.D. The ‘fit’ is more about your particular skills, inclinations and objectives than the qualification. I wrote on this to high school students, but this applies to us all at all levels.

Some may be happier working in a commercial setting as part of a large team, leaving management to a manager. And vice versa, some might aspire to be a science manager, leaving the day-to-day science to those with better practical skills.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that being a research group leader or a lecturer is very different to being a student or post-doc, and that it may help to spell out what these jobs actually entail.

A pattern I have seen from articles and discussions on-line is of those who left academic science is that somewhere along the way they realised would be better suited elsewhere, and that often these people wished they had recognised that sooner. Active encouragement for students to think widely about this might serve them well–?


This article is not directed ‘at’ the previous articles: I’m only using them as a launching pad (read: excuse) to round up my previous writing on this topic. In any event, their students are clearly already thinking about alternatives to academia.

* The MoRST graphic was drawn from these values:

  • Total science-related* PhDs: 11,505
  • Careers outside science or not in the labour force: 7,914 (68.8%)
  • Careers inside science: 3,591 (31.2%)
  • Non-university research staff: 1,665 (14.5%)
  • University research staff: 1,926 (16.7%)
  • University professors, estimate: 202 (1.8%)
  • * All data from 2006
  • ** Includes natural and physical sciences; information technology; engineering and related technologies; architecture and building; agriculture, environmental and related studies; health. Excludes: education; management and commerce; society and culture; creative arts; food, hospitality and personal services; unknown.

Other articles on careers from Code for Life:

Career pathways for NZ science Ph.D. students

Study of where academic careers lead

Universities and (lack of) showcasing use of science degrees

Advice for students heading to university

More inclusive re-entry to encourage departure to businesses?

Scientists’ other lives