An interesting editorial appeared in the most recent issue of Nature entitled: There is life after academia. In it, the author points out that so called “alternative” careers are in fact the norm for science PhDs. The info-graphic below shows that about one half of one percent of all STEM PhD graduates end up as tenured professors.
0.45% of STEM PhD students end up as tenured professors. Do I need to say that a third time? According to the Nature editorial, only 10% of biology PhD students end up as tenured profs. That is a very very small number. Ever wonder how many of us think that is our ultimate career goal? In my department I would say it is 75% or so. The editorial says at least 50%. Obviously the numbers don’t add up. This is why I heard “the market is saturated” and “I don’t think it is morally sound to take on more PhD students at this time due to poor job prospects” when I was applying to PhD programs two years ago. This huge gap is real and it is significant, but we are all forgetting something. 20% of science PhDs don’t work in science at all, and there are so many jobs outside of academia available to us all. Sure, you may be doing some ridiculously specific research about the carbon isotopes of the lipids of 2 species of coral from Hawaii (my Master’s thesis…), but the skills, work ethic, and knowledge you gain during your time in graduate school make you capable of a great many other things. So perhaps it is time we do what the article suggests and “rebrand the PhD.” A tenure track faculty position can still be your end goal if you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve that. Just know that it may be tough going. Then again, you are probably accustomed to that if you are a graduate student. All of that said, if you choose to leave academia, it does not mean that you can’t hack it. Maybe you just don’t want to, or you want to try something else for a while. There is no shame in that. The stigma attached to such a decision is ridiculous and the stats above demonstrate why.
I recently read a post on Reddit r/gradschool in which a user pointed out that grad school is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It is all about perseverance. I tell people all the time that you do not have to be a genius to succeed in graduate school. It helps, but all your really need to do is try hard. If you are stubborn and willing to put in the time (even after 45 rounds of manuscript revision and a few journal rejections), then you are going to be just fine. When you finally get that degree you will have some thinking to do. Would you like to continue in academia (and face years and years of revisions and rejections, but get to do research you like and have a flexible schedule), or would you like to pursue other areas of interest. What are “other areas of interest,” you ask?
Well… this for one. Science communication is becoming a big part of what we do as scientists. Our marine lab here at UNC has a full time staff member whose job is communication. These types of positions are opening up everywhere. For me this is one of the most promising fields to get involved in if the whole tenure track faculty thing doesn’t work out. Communicating cutting edge, new, important, and/or interesting science to the general public and policy makers is key to the future of our society. How can we make significant strides forward technologically without understanding new processes or devices? How can we best protect and preserve our natural resources if we don’t know how to prevent or mitigate problems? We need people to stand at the nexus between science and public perception (and policy) in order to advance as a society. There is also outreach/teaching. If you enjoy teaching, you can always pursue that. Private high schools love PhDs and community colleges are always searching for lecturers. These are two fields that interest me. They are why I started this blog and why I got involved with a state-wide outreach program called SciREN.
What else can you do? Rebrand those skills. You will have a PhD and that is one hell of a job qualification. Did you learn how to code in grad school? How about GIS? Running, troubleshooting, and fixing a mass spectrometer? Statistical analysis? If you have a marketable skill (or a lot of them), list them on your CV or resume. You have years of on the job training in all of this stuff, use it to your advantage. Industry and the private sector would love to have someone with experience in something that you have done. Keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to be unconventional. Check out this post in Nature for some specific examples of people making the jump out of academia.
There are a great many options, and the Nature editorial and I are in agreement. No need to cull PhD students, instead we just need to be aware of the situation and learn how to market our skills. We also have to accept tenure-track positions as only one option post graduation. There are many opportunities out there. You may have to be a bit unconventional about your job search, but you aren’t in grad school to think inside the box anyway, are you?