There’s been a flurry articles about career paths for Ph.D. graduates over past week or so, prompting me to gather together (some of) them and pick up on a few points raised.

This post is inspired, as it were, by a personal account by Kathy Weston in the Career Magazine section of Science that seems to have struck a chord with many. If you haven’t already I encourage readers to read her article first.

  • Jane Alfred: A career in publishing – a developing story
  • Karen Kaplan: The other path, looking at the professional science master’s degree
  • Career paths: Where are they now?” – a look at how graduate students who wrote graduate journals for Nature have fared. In includes a bullet list of advice, the last of which is: ’Never underestimate how competitive and political people can be.’
  • Too Many Ph.D.s? from the Editor’s blog, C&EN (Rudy Baum; mentioned below)
  • Nik Papageorgiou takes LabLit on a detour from faithful-to-laboratory-scene literature to ask Is there life after science? Only a science writer would close with this line: what can they do when they have shuffled off the mortal coat?
  • Elizabeth Brown shared some data and thoughts on tenure track in the USA, with enough figures to make your head spin, but basically, it would seem things aren’t much better over that way.
  • In which we fail to meet expectations (Jennier Rohn at Mind the Gap is really writing about re-entry fellowships, but her discussion impinges on the topic.)
  • Closing out my list is Wavefunction’s The road not taken: Do you have the courage to let go?, which takes as it’s starting point Kathy Weston’s article that brought this topic up.

All of these have intelligent comments that add to the article, don’t forget to read them too.

Wavefunction raises the point of ‘letting go’. When I last wrote on this topic, I mentioned something similar in a different context, trying to encourage students to see a wider range of possibilities to investigate: ‘Staff might help here by encouraging their students not to ‘cling’ to an academic option, but to explore broadly.’

This way there might be not so much of a ‘letting go’ as seeing a spectrum of choices to take. I still suspect that a decent fraction of those clinging to an academic career has it’s roots in students falling for the echo chamber that universities present; that for a decent number of years almost the only thing that students see as ‘success’ is senior academics. Hardly surprising, then, many aspire to that form of success.

While for those already some way down the path it may be a matter of ‘seeing the light sooner rather than later’ and ‘letting go’, it seems to me this is a kind of ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ way of thinking about it. Not to mention a negative way of looking at it: I’d prefer a more positive ‘finding a better fit’ – look to the door you’re opening, not the one you’re leaving behind.*

I feel universities bear some responsibility to show the full range of possibilities, so that students might choose from the onset or at least be more alert to paths that might ensue. To tell Ph.D. students that less than half of them will remain in academic work. To encourage them to note what their inclinations, skills and aims are.

A slight catch here is that it does serve the universities own end to encourage students to their institution and historically that was a more reliable route for students than it is now.

Rudy Baum puts it well:

‘While I agree with Whitesides and Deutch at a practical level, I think the apprentice model for graduate study is more insidious than they suggest. Apprentices train to become their masters. That means that too many chemistry graduate students are training to become chemistry professors, which is probably not what we need more of, at least not in the traditional sense.’ [My emphasis added.]

Given less than half of Ph.D. graduates go on to become academic researchers, you could argue that a pure apprenticeship model is a poor fit to career path Ph.D. students find themselves taking today. (Some might see degrees focused on ‘professional’ or ‘commercial’ science as having a role here, such as the subject of Karen Kaplan’s article.)

I dropped Jennifer Rohn’s article in the list deliberately, I have to confess, even thought it’s not quite on the same topic. I wanted an excuse to mention moving to- and from- academia in a broader way. I’d like to see better movement both ways, at most career stages, a point I’ve touched on before.

Sometimes I feel policies too often don’t dig back to the fundamental issues. Just as an example, the most oft-spoken reason for ’re-entry’ to academia seems to be maternity leave, but it really just one of many reasons someone might be outside academia for some time, but later seek to return.** Ill health or commercial employment are two obvious examples. A more fundamental issue is how how scientists are assessed–something I wrote about in my earlier article–and how this might take into account periods not working in an academic environment, for whatever reason. (In New Zealand the heavy emphasis on PBRF scores can be very limiting.) A deeper issue still is the overall structure and higher-level management of science, which I sometimes feel is frightened of directly managing people in a positive, pro-active way.***

A few weeks ago I sat down in the back of the room of a career talk by a senior professor to students. It was good to see the department put it on, but to my disappointment only the academic path was presented. You can’t expect people to speak beyond their experience, so a professor will talk about an academic career, but I feel those presenting academic career path talks should do their student audience a huge favour and at least mention that the academic path is the exception, not the rule, and that students need to examine more than just academic options.

Perhaps we can hope that stories like Kathy Weston’s will encourage students to think more widely, even if their university departments don’t step up to the plate on their behalf.

Update (24th Feb. 2011)

On a longer-term note, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the ‘fit’ of a particular job to your objectives may change over time. David Kroll has an excellent article touching on this aspect.


* Here I’m in part alluding to Alexander Bell’s words ‘When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.’

** Or to seek a scaled-back workload. Kathy Weston mentions job sharing, another aspect and one I haven’t seen raised very often.

*** This is something I have been meaning to write on for too long but it needs a new post and a decent chunk of time to think it through.

Other articles on Code for life:

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

More inclusive re-entry to encourage departure to businesses?

Professor Richard Quinn responds to exam cheats

Reproducible research and computational biology

Lecturers sitting in on colleague’s lectures, and laptops

Choosing an algorithm — benchmarking bioinformatics