Advice for prospective PhD candidates focuses on career prospects in R&D, but more thought should be given to personal aspirations in life and work.
Research is fuelled by the energy of post-graduate students. PhD students contribute 57% of total university research output, according to a 2013 discussion paper from The Group of Eight Universities in Australia. In 2011 Nature published “The PhD factory,” which described the ongoing crisis caused by the oversupply of trained researchers and the inability of academia and industry to soak up the overflow.
Fast forward to 2016, and the PhD factories are just as productive, if not even more so. In the 2011 article, Dr Anne Carpenter at Harvard/MIT’s Broad Institute fought the system by hiring permanent staff scientists instead of the usual mix of postdocs and graduate students. She struggled to justify her high staff cost to grant-review panels.
I caught up with her this year. “A lab just can’t make it work paying mostly staff salaries and compete on the same playing field as labs paying only trainee-level salaries,” she says. The training pipeline remains clogged with PhD leavers who exit the system to do jobs that do not make full use of taxpayers’ investment in their education.
Many PhD graduates are keen to take on roles outside academia. But Australian industry absorbs comparatively low numbers of researchers in the business sector compared to other OECD countries, according to a 2014 report by Australia’s Department of Education and Training. It found that in 2010, countries such as Korea, Sweden, Denmark and Finland had between 10 and 13 researchers in business for every 1000 workers; in Australia, there were three researchers for every 1000. One in four PhD holders were employed full-time by the private sector, according to the 2014 edition of the annual Graduate Destinations report from Graduate Careers Australia.
With public R&D budgets in OECD countries continuing their downward trend since 2010, even successful scientists and PhD graduates are increasingly pessimistic about their futures. Far from finding attractive career opportunities in the context of remarkable scientific progress from Australian laboratories (from the world’s first titanium-printed heel bone implant to the SMARTS surveillance system to detect fraud), STEM postgraduates in Australia are more likely to be heading for temporary contracts with stagnant or even declining wages.
Data provided by agencies fail to explore the people behind the statistics — people with dreams, fears and families.
As with many professional couples, PhD graduates in long-term relationships struggle to find a good job in close proximity to their partner’s place of work, making it difficult to live together. Women are more likely than men to consider their partner’s employment prospects, says a report by Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. According to the report, “Not only do women more often than men perceive a loss in professional mobility as a result of their academic partnerships (54% for women versus 41% for men), but they actively refuse job offers if their partner cannot find a satisfactory position.”
Amanda Mannfolk says she “never intended to stay in academia. I thought I could possible get a role in policy development or consultancy after my PhD. But once I started looking for work, I found that it wasn’t that easy.” She applied to graduate programmes that accepted science graduates, and eventually joined a bank.
In the meantime, through the process of transitioning out of research, Amanda says she’s learnt a lot. “I shouldn’t close myself off to opportunities because they aren’t perfect. And in the end, I’m glad I stayed at the bank — I ended up finding a really good role in the environmental team. I’m working in Melbourne, in a big stable company, in a role I’m passionate about.”
Ee-Ling Ng is an independent scientist who allows the voices in her head to take their own form on her blog and other media outlets that care to listen.