Careers in science

By Guest Work 23/11/2010 2


Lesley Middleton, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology

At the recent and very successful Running Hot conference at Te Papa, I gave a presentation at a symposium for new and emerging scientists, in which I talked about career paths.

One diagram in particular sparked a lot of discussion.

middleton picture

This diagram is a ‘snapshot’ of where people in New Zealand with science-related PhDs were working in 2006.  Here are the figures it was created from:

  • 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%)

This data strongly suggests that most people who do science PhDs in New Zealand do not end up doing scientific research.  Understandably, this was of some concern to the new and emerging researchers at Running Hot.

I should clarify what the diagram shows.  Firstly, in describing people as working ‘outside science’, we used too broad a term.  What we mean is outside scientific research, as defined by the OECD1.  This is a very specific definition of those creating new knowledge.  The ‘outside science category’ does include people closely involved in science in other ways — such as by teaching it, working in science policy, or in management of science-related organisations.

This is a key point — doing a PhD in science does not limit you to research.  There are many other rewarding careers where the skills and knowledge gained from doing a PhD can be put to good use.  We think this is a very healthy thing, as it means PhD students are not limited to a small range of careers, and knowledge and appreciation of science is spread throughout the community.

This flow of people from research to other areas, such as government or business, helps spread important skills and knowledge taken from different professions.   It also improves feedback between various sectors, so that business is better acquainted and has stronger links with science, which is better acquainted and has stronger links with education, and so on.

Secondly, ‘science-related PhDs’ does not include the social sciences.  It includes natural and physical sciences; information technology; engineering and related technologies; architecture and building; agriculture, environmental and related studies; and health.

The portrait of most science doctorates moving into roles broader than research is not unique to New Zealand.  Indeed, the diagram above was based on one produced in the UK for the Royal Society’s The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity report (p14).

middleton picture 2

What we do not know from just looking at the figures is how many science PhDs actively choose not to pursue a scientific research career and how many felt thwarted in not finding one.

The Government has placed a high priority on science and innovation and is increasing support for it.  This includes a number of initiatives to support business research and development, which will in turn increase the number and variety of research positions in business and research organisations working with business.

The Government has also introduced the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships to support excellent early to mid-career researchers establish their careers, providing them with a five-year fellowship of up to $200,000 a year.

1The OECD’s Frascati definition: ’Research and experimental development (R&D) comprise creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.’


2 Responses to “Careers in science”

  • Where is the data for this diagram derived from?

    I wonder where polytechnic staff sit, some of whom do research? Are they non-university research staff or because many view them as “only” teachers are they overlooked altogether?

  • Lesley,

    Thank you for your article. In particular — speaking for myself! — it’s nice to see the comparable graph for the UK.

    I wrote about this graph in May and in an attempt to several earlier articles on this theme together in September.

    My thoughts are that the focus should be on actively encouraging students to have wider aspirations on entering a Ph.D. program. I suggested that careers advice could be that students should enter Ph.D. studies with the expectation that they would most likely not be doing academic research — as the statistics indicate — and that that is not a negative in itself, non-academic careers are just fine. I offered what might be a larger negative would be an unrealistic view or expectations of what they would achieve with their Ph.D., or not considering what best suits their particular skills, inclinations & objectives.

    (Another concern I have is the lack of flow from non-academic work “back” to academia, my original focus in May – my readers and their comments took a wider view! While it may be simply that few people want to (!), my own impression is it also in part because the strong focus on PBRF scores blocks people from trying to. A suggestion I have made in the past in this regard is for a “re-entry” fellowship, that might also serve those coming back from family leave and other circumstances.)