By Virginia Gewin
US science and engineering PhD students are losing interest in academic careers because their career preferences change throughout their training, finds a study – not because of limited faculty-job availability.
“Our results question the belief that all PhDs want faculty positions and get disillusioned when they realize they can’t get them,” says study co-author Michael Roach, a labor economist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “While this certainly happens for some, it’s not the case for many.”
To track students’ career preferences over time, Roach and colleague Henry Sauermann, an economist at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, Germany, followed a cohort of 854 life-sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering and computer-science PhD students from 39 US universities. The team surveyed student academic-career interests at the beginning of their PhD and three years later.
While 80% of all respondents across all fields launch doctoral programmes intent on pursuing an academic career, the study authors found that students diverge into two groups—those who remain interested in an academic career (55%) and those who lose interest altogether (25%). Furthermore, just over half of the 55% who remain interested in an academic career say that a research faculty post is their most preferred career choice. Some 15% of all respondents were never interested in an academic career in the first place. “The reality,” says Roach, “is that only 10-15% of PhDs will get a tenure-track academic position. “If you feel that ‘This is not for me’, you are not in the minority.”
The study also found that respondents who said that they had lost interest in basic research also lost interest in an academic career. In addition, says Roach, many who fade on an academic career gain an interest in pursuing practical, commercial outcomes of their research. But, echoing many, he notes that a number of US universities and graduate schools do little to help trainees explore a wide range of potential career paths.
Roach advises PhD students to learn about different career opportunities, including in industry. “Talk to other PhD students who graduated from your programme, particularly those who found work outside of academia,” he says. “Explore your options early, before doing a postdoc.”
It’s sound advice.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.