Introducing Annalise Smith, one of the winners of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition
Annalise Smith is a PhD candidate in microbiology and immunology at the University of Miami. She is funded by a predoctoral fellowship from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and works on understanding the anti-cancer mechanisms of the natural plant derived compound Withaferin A in HER-2/neu breast cancer. Outside the lab, she enjoys the theatre, spending time with family and friends, reading and travelling. She is passionate about inspiring underprivileged students to dream bigger and aspire higher.
Like most incoming PhD students, I entered my studies in 2009 with a blind optimism for a successful career as an academic research scientist. I fanaticised about running my own lab and pursuing my own ideas with the noble goal of improving human health and ridding the world of disease. Convinced that there were only two career options post-graduation: academia or pharmaceutical industry research, the majority of my peers and I chose academia and pursued our lab rotations and graduate training opportunities with vigour. However, our hopes for success in our chosen career gradually diminished and our post graduation options seemed not as clear-cut as we first thought.
During my time as a PhD student, my peers and I looked on as assistant and senior professors were forced to cut staff due to decreased funding. We watched our PhD mentors submit grant application after grant application, only to be a few points shy of the funding cut-off every single time. We could feel their panic as they worried about sustaining their careers in science. The rumour mill was roaring with stories of which PhD mentors were considering a move to industry and very soon we graduate students were worried too. The simple solution was that we would all just go to industry, but we soon realised that getting a position in the pharmaceutical industry immediately after completing the PhD degree was not quite as easy.
A Nature article published in 2011 contends that the academic positions for science PhD holders are decreasing and sectors outside of academia are unable to compensate. Yet the unemployment rate for PhD graduates in the life sciences remains at a low of 1.5%, much lower than the national unemployment rate in the United States. So are there too many PhDs?
There are only too many PhDs if every PhD candidate envisions a career in academia. It is clear that the current academic system cannot support the supply of PhDs. Competition for tenure-track positions is stiff, the requirements are increasingly stringent and only the brightest and the well-connected seem to survive. The good news is that careers in academia and industry research aren’t the only options for life sciences PhD graduates. If you consider the process of acquiring a PhD as a training of the mind, then it becomes obvious that skills like critical thinking, communication and writing are useful and needed in many other areas of society.
The problem lies with the stigma associated with these so-called “alternative” careers and the lack of exposure to them offered to PhD trainees. I remember overhearing one faculty member criticising a colleague for leaving the university to take a job in government. Many PhD students are discouraged from admitting outright to their mentors that they do not wish to pursue a career in academia, let alone find support in exploring interests in non-academic careers. Careers in science policy, law, technology transfer and sales all need scientists working for the greater good of the advancement of knowledge. Who better to advocate science policies than a scientist?
Determining whether there are currently too many PhDs is a matter of perspective. The answer really lies in the number of PhDs in, and pursuing, academic careers who were never exposed to or encouraged to use their skills in other areas where PhD training is advantageous. The mindset that these “alternative” careers are only pursued after one has failed at academia has to change. The sooner we appreciate the vast opportunities for scientists the less worried we’ll be about whether there are too many PhDs.
As I near the end of my time as a graduate student in the field of tumour immunology and enter the job market, I reflect on my initial feelings from when I began graduate school. The narrow ideologies I had of my post graduation career prospects have been replaced with an open mind to the possibilities that advanced training in science can bring. Luckily for me, I have a supportive mentor who allowed me to explore non-academic career options while I was a graduate student, which has informed my decision that a long term career in academia is not the best route for me.