Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception

By Grant Jacobs 22/09/2010 23

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

23 Responses to “Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception”

  • Good points Grant. Too often people leaving academia are viewed as failing somehow, when they very clearly are not, and perhaps are taking a braver option. As academics we need to find some way to support those career paths better.


    Peter K Dearden

  • Thanks Peter, although I wouldn’t have written “braver option” for what I was thinking of.

    Moving to working in commercial science setting should be pretty straight-forward if you move to a (large) well-established company (start-ups are another matter), as long as you bear in mind that a lack of publications is unfortunately generally looked down on by research grant committees so it’s not easy to reverse. (I sometimes feel there is a need for grant and job application committees to consider better ability to generate output, rather than past output itself, as the latter sets up a catch-22 blocking otherwise worthy candidates but that’s a whinge for another day!)

    It’d be good to see better support for non-academic career paths, but perhaps the more important — and easier — thing is simply to encourage students to think widely and to explore all options? Keen students with an eye to them will always find a way to take up that marketing paper, that legals course, etc., provided that’s possible at all.

    I agree with the “failing somehow” thing. It’s silly really. Different jobs are just different ways of using the skills you have in the end, and have different strengths and weaknesses. Some commercially-based people look at academics as “failures” for not getting more (financial) value from their skills! (That’s not my point of view — I’d love a means to better explore my interests in computational biology and epigenetics — but it is a viewpoint some people hold.)

  • Hi Grant

    Great post.
    As the universities tend to dominate the scientific environment, it’s not surprising that academic positions are considered to be the premiere job. However, basic maths supports the idea that only a minority of PhD’s will ever obtain an academic positions, even if such maths have been conveniently ignored.

    A few thoughts:
    1) No matter how carefully you think you have your career planned, opportunities or challenges can arise at any moment. I think teaching students to view their career preparations with flexibility and adaptability in mind is key.
    2) Networking is absolutely important. Shy students put themselves at a disadvantage when they don’t network at conferences etc
    3) A good mentor can help a lot. Sometimes PhD supervisors don’t do this well at all and students may need to seek an informal mentor. Good contacts can help find good postdoc and academic positions.
    4) Getting an academic position can be as much about luck as good management.
    5) Publish or perish. A PhD or post doc with limited publications will find it difficult getting an academic position and some projects no matter how hard you work don’t result in publications.
    6) We need more scientists in education and government supporting science. If scientists enter such fields it shouldn’t be considered a failure, rather they are doing vital work that will potentially ensure more funding and students for university academics in the future.

  • Sort of an aside on Michael’s #6: when I announced to my uni lecturers, following on completing my PhD (& having had no immediate success in finding a science research job) that I was taking up a secondary school teaching position, I was told not to do this as it would be such a waste… That’s one bit of advice that I ignored & the circuitous path I followed back to the tertiary system has made me a much better teacher than I might otherwise have been. (Not least because it gave me a much enhanced understanding of the educational backgrounds of the bright-eyed first-year students sitting in my classes at the beginning of each academic year.)

  • Alison, perhaps you should write something more about your experience in school teaching and the move back into academia, as most people probably assume that once you are “out” of the tertiary system you can’t get back in?

  • Michael,

    As the universities tend to dominate the scientific environment, it’s not surprising that academic positions are considered to be the premiere job.

    In what sense do you mean “universities tend to dominate the scientific environment”? (Not trying to oppose you, just I find myself thinking of this in too many different ways and in the end I don’t know what way you mean it!)

    I hope no-one thinks I am accusing anyone of ‘conveniently ignoring’ these statistics!

    About point 5, I suspect the type of publications matter to an extent too. Some have more ‘merit’ than others. For example, I suspect “database” papers in bioinformatics aren’t perceived as having as much merit as “experimental” papers in the eyes of grant committees. Apply the same skills/methods to an analytical paper, and essentially the same type of work may be considered more meritorious – ?

  • Just looking at many of the professional scientific societies in NZ – Royal Society etc – many seem to be dominated by university academics. It also seems to me (happy to be proven incorrect) that when the govt wants an inquiry on something scientific they immediately look to university academics. Also look at the make up of Marsden fund selection committees.
    I’m not saying that this is wrong, just that University academics appear to hold sway over many professional organisations and this has the potential to create myopic decision making.

    Actually “conveniently ignored” was a bad phrase to use in my previous post. When a system is working in ones favour then one is less likely to notice potential problems. So I shouldnt have implied conscious ignoring of statistics. Rather, if the statistics are not affecting someone then why would they bother looking at them?

  • On a related topic, and and as some consolation or ‘food for thought’ for those that find themselves shifting careers, in the local (New Zealand) on-line media, Kiwis no longer pursuing a ‘career for life’ quotes Kelly Services marketing manager Victoria Robertson as saying that just as the academic career is the exception rather than the rule for Ph.D. graduates, “the single life-long career pathway was now the exception rather than the rule.”

  • […] this post, you may also like to read Ben Goldacre’s response and related earlier posts by Grant Jacobs, Athene Donald, Anthony Finkelstein. Please feel free to comment below (whether you agree or […]

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