Science PhD career preferences surveyed

By Grant Jacobs 05/05/2012 3

One of the most oft cited quotes on twitter is drawn from this passage from the abstract of Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach’s paper:

’We also show that the attractiveness of academic careers decreases significantly over the course of the PhD program, despite the fact that advisors strongly encourage academic careers over non-academic careers.’

Here‘s their abstract in full:

’Even though academic research is often viewed as the preferred career path for PhD trained scientists, most U.S. graduates enter careers in industry, government, or ’alternative careers.’ There has been a growing concern that these career patterns reflect fundamental imbalances between the supply of scientists seeking academic positions and the availability of such positions. However, while government statistics provide insights into realized career transitions, there is little systematic data on scientists’ career preferences and thus on the degree to which there is a mismatch between observed career paths and scientists’ preferences. Moreover, we lack systematic evidence whether career preferences adjust over the course of the PhD training and to what extent advisors exacerbate imbalances by encouraging their students to pursue academic positions. Based on a national survey of PhD students at tier-one U.S. institutions, we provide insights into the career preferences of junior scientists across the life sciences, physics, and chemistry. We also show that the attractiveness of academic careers decreases significantly over the course of the PhD program, despite the fact that advisors strongly encourage academic careers over non-academic careers. Our data provide an empirical basis for common concerns regarding labor market imbalances. Our results also suggest the need for mechanisms that provide PhD applicants with information that allows them to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of pursuing a PhD, as well as for mechanisms that complement the job market advice advisors give to their current students.’

Their initial statement that ’most U.S. graduates enter careers in industry, government, or ’alternative careers.’’ is also seen from statistics taken on the situation here in New Zealand and in England, too. I think it might be fair to suggest this is a global trend, at least in ‘Western’ nations.

I’m a little too busy to explore this paper in depth, as I would like to, but I would encourage interested readers to read it – it’s open access and straight-forward. Below I’ve included a few quotes as encouragement and food for thought.

A key point about this work is that it surveys the preferences of the students, rather than ‘just’ where they ended up. A related issue is the advice given to students, also I topic I have raised in the past (suggesting that more attention to careers outside of academia might be needed):

’In this paper we draw on novel survey data to provide unique insights into PhD students’ career preferences, changes in preferences over the course of the PhD program, and faculty advisors’ encouragement of specific career paths.’

Their survey is dominated by the life sciences:

’Our sample includes 4,109 PhD students in the life sciences (59%), chemistry (18%), and physics (23%).’

Generally students favoured academic faculty as their preferred career option:

’Across all cohorts, students in the life sciences and physics most often rate a faculty career with an emphasis on research as extremely attractive (34% and 38% of students, respectively), followed by teaching careers and R&D positions in government.’

Some, thankfully, expressed a preference for careers outside academia:

Figure 1 also shows that some respondents find ’other’ career extremely attractive. We asked respondents to specify which particular career they were thinking of, and the most commonly mentioned careers include science communication/writer, science policy, non-university teaching, working for a non-profit/NGO, and consulting.’

The authors looked at the change of preferences during the course of the PhD studies:

’the share of life sciences students finding a faculty research career extremely attractive is significantly lower in the late stage versus the early stage of the PhD program (33% vs. 39%, p<0.01). Similarly, the share of life sciences students finding a faculty teaching career extremely attractive declines from 25% to 21% (p<0.05). In chemistry, we observe a significant decrease in the share of students finding teaching careers extremely attractive (21% vs. 16%, p<0.01) and a sharp increase in the attractiveness of careers in industry (37% vs. 23%, p<0.01). There is some evidence that the attractiveness of startup careers increases in all three fields, although these changes are not statistically significant at conventional levels of confidence.’

’[…] the share of students finding a faculty research career most attractive drops in all three fields, from 57% for the early cohort to 50% for the late cohort in the life sciences, from 45% to 32% in chemistry, and from 60% to 53% in physics.’

’we find that the share of students who find a faculty research career ’unattractive’ or ’extremely unattractive’ increases from 11% to 21% (p<0.01) in the life sciences, 22% to 38% (p<0.01) in chemistry, and 7% to 14% (p<0.05) in physics.’

While these changes might seem modest, it’s perhaps worth remembering this is over the space of just a few years. They note that while the preference (on the whole) remains for academic careers, those that favour this still out-number the opportunities (at least within the USA):

’Despite the decline in the attractiveness of faculty careers over time, our data show that the faculty research career remains extremely attractive to a large share of graduating students in the life sciences and in physics (see Figure 1). As detailed in the introduction, however, NSF data show that the share of graduates who are actually able to obtain tenure track faculty positions is significantly smaller [5].’

The authors also surveyed what the students thought their advisors encouraged, concluding that their data

’shows that the faculty research career is indeed by far the most often ’strongly encouraged’ career. A small number of students feel that certain other careers are explicitly discouraged, mostly teaching careers and careers in industry. It is notable that encouragement for faculty careers and discouragement for industry careers are especially pronounced in the life sciences, where the share of graduates obtaining tenure track faculty positions is smallest and where much of the discussion around labor market imbalances takes place [5]. Even in chemistry, where industry careers are very common and where students express a strong interest in industry careers, students feel that research careers in academia are much more strongly encouraged.’

’[…] a considerable share of students feels that non-academic careers are neither encouraged nor discouraged. One possible interpretation is that these careers are discussed between students and their advisors and that the latter explicitly take a ’neutral’ stance with respect to these careers. Alternatively, these career options may not be very salient in student-advisor discussions, and the neutral ratings in Figure 4 may reflect a lack of guidance and information regarding these careers rather than an explicit neutral position.’

In a somewhat similar theme to a recent post on my blog (What kind of scientist are you?), the authors also

’asked respondents how interesting they would find each of 5 different types of work in the future’

finding it notable that

’notable that many students in the life sciences and in chemistry have a strong interest in research that solves concrete problems’

I will leave readers to read the author’s discussion for themselves.

There has been a lot of commentary on science careers, Ph.D. studies, job prospects and related aspects, online including here at sciblogs. Let’s hope that this and other quantitative studies can inform this discussion and give it more clarity.

There are currently two comments on the article on the PLoS One website, the first pointing to media coverage of the article, the second wondering if it is ’necessarily a decline in interest, but rather, an increase in responsibilities.’ Share your thoughts at PLoS One or below.

Other articles on Code for life:

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

On alternatives to academic careers and ’letting go’ (with links to other articles on this topic)

’Other’ career paths — #IamScience

Changing the Ph.D.

Teaching students to write scientific papers

More inclusive re-entry to encourage departure to businesses?

3 Responses to “Science PhD career preferences surveyed”

  • It would be interesting to see the attractiveness of academia following a few years within the corporate. I suspect they would be thinking the grass was greener back where they were.

  • JC,

    I think you’d want to distinguish between a widening perspective and the stereotype of ‘thinking the grass was greener’ elsewhere – i.e. are the students becoming increasingly aware of opportunities elsewhere as opposed to already being aware of the opportunities elsewhere at the onset but shifting their views on them.

    As a practical matter, I don’t think you can go past that most Ph.D. graduates go on to work outside academia – statistics I linked to in the article show that is a matter of record. Better awareness of that most go on to work outside academia may be one driving factor (i.e. they become more aware that not everyone goes on to become a professor, etc, and adjust their views with that). Income prospects might be another factor, although anecdotally my experience is that this isn’t a major driving force for those studying science. Some of the comments after Michael’s article share similar thoughts/experiences. (I can’t imagine anyone thinking academia offers better income prospects, esp. when the hours involved are factored in.)

  • Science now has a Perspective commentary on this paper by Science Careers editor Jim Austin; a few teasers:

    “[…] the study’s most notable result isn’t how career preferences change over time; it’s how wide those preferences are.”

    “Instead, we should all be worrying about the difficulty Ph.D. graduates often have locating jobs in, and making transitions into, some of those other work sectors that they appear to view favorably.”

    “We should also worry about whether those students are receiving the training they need to compete for jobs in sectors beyond academia. Our graduate programs already do the most important thing extremely well: The best way to convey strong analytical skills is to teach students to be outstanding researchers. But there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to even the most basic professional skills.”

    (The passing comment on [example of] lab notebooks is interesting.)


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