Young researchers should take the time to educate themselves on STEM career-related statistics.
Contributor Robert Aboukhalil
Like many PhD students in their fourth year, there are two things constantly on my mind: one is my research, and the other is my post-graduation plan. I am currently a graduate student in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) PhD programme, which is designed to be 4-5 years long. The course puts a strong emphasis on developing post-graduation plans early on, so I started researching career options in my 2nd year.
I came across some statistics from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that painted a dire picture of career prospects in academia. Coincidentally, I joined CSHL’s Bioscience Enterprise Club around the same time to learn about alternative careers, and was taken aback by the abundance of career options available for PhDs: research in industry, publishing, science writing, teaching, public policy, finance, consulting, patent law, biotech startups, and more.
Researching career options early on has given me ample time to identify rewarding career paths, and to get involved in extra-curricular activities. Having done the research, I plan on applying the data science skills that I have developed over the course of my PhD to a career in industry.
As I get closer to graduation, I find myself much more prepared for what’s to come and strongly believe that considering career options early on is crucial for any PhD student. Therefore, I would urge all graduate schools to insist that their students do the same, especially in the current academic climate. For those who haven’t been introduced to the stats, I’ve put together a short summary for you.
Unfortunately, with a mindset from the 70’s, many graduate schools are still preparing their students for a market that no longer exists. According to surveys done by the NSF in 1973, over 55% of PhD holders in the biological sciences held tenure-track positions 5 to 6 years after graduation. In the early 1980s, that number decreased to 32%, and by 2006, had plummeted to 15%. More recently, the NSF estimated that, in 2010, only 10.6% of PhDs in the biological sciences held tenure-track positions 3 to 5 years after graduation. Given that 26% of life sciences PhDs drop out, overall less than 8% of entering life sciences PhDs eventually land tenure-track positions. And we should count ourselves lucky in the US. Recent surveys by the Royal Society of London suggest that a meager 0.45% of STEM PhD holders in the UK become tenured professors — that’s less than half of 1 percent!
What’s worse, not only are the odds stacked against aspiring professors, their expectations are vastly misaligned with reality. According to a recent survey, 53% of entering life science PhD students aim for tenure-track positions. Unfortunately, even the expectations of their supervisors are skewed. Surveys indicate that professors often encourage their students to follow in their footsteps, and in some cases, actively discourage careers outside academia.
Although tempting, we should resist the urge to blame PhDs for not seeing the writing on the wall. For one, many PhD programs attract students primarily by boasting about alumni who started their own labs. Second, let’s not forget that society encourages students to pursue science majors in the first place. Every few months, we are told that the US is experiencing a shortage of qualified STEM graduates and that the job opportunities are immense (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). That may be true for some STEM sectors, such as software engineering, but not so much in academic science.
But despite the gloomy outlook, all is not lost.
To address this problem, high school career counselors should encourage their students to research the career opportunities that will be available to them upon graduating from university—whether they are considering a STEM major or not. Next, universities must be held accountable to their mandate of preparing students for the outside world. They must convey the reality that a PhD and a few postdoctoral years do not guarantee a faculty position; that the typical PhD in the life sciences takes 7 years to complete; that on average, scientists receive their first RO1 grant from the NIH at age 42; and that there are many career options that a PhD offers outside academia (see here and here). Furthermore, PhD programs must aim for shorter timeframes, limit the number of PhD students in favor of higher stipends, encourage students to explore careers outside academia, and guide them in spelling out their postdoctoral plans.
Although many challenges lie ahead, it is only by openly discussing the realities of academia that can we start bridging the gap between career hopes and reality.