So I’m a doctor – now what? Post-PhD career choices

The road to a PhD is long and hard, and it’s natural that students’ goals for the future would change over the course of their education. Anecdotal evidence abounds – just ask anyone who’s been through it – and now a study published last week in PLoS ONE shows that students close to graduation are less interested in pursuing faculty careers than are their younger counterparts.

The authors, Henry Sauermann from Georgia Institute of Technology and Michael Roach from University of North Carolina, investigated the attractiveness of different careers to over 4,000 PhD students at different stages in their training in the life sciences, chemistry, and physics at 39 different US tier-one research universities. Across the board, late stage students, defined as those who were looking for jobs or were planning to do so within a year, found faculty jobs less attractive than did early stage students, who had not yet completed their qualifying exam or similar milestones.

There were some interesting distinctions between the responses from chemistry students and the biologists and physicists that caught my attention. My PhD is in chemistry, but I conducted my research in a biology lab, and I felt like the cultures were very different – a distinction that appears to be borne out in the numbers.

From the beginning, the chemistry students in the study were much less interested in faculty positions than were either the biologists or the physicists: only 23% of early stage chemistry students declared a research-focused faculty position to be extremely attractive, as compared to 39% for biologists and 37% for physicists. Furthermore, chemists’ interest in working for either an established firm or a start-up showed huge increases from early to late stage, even though their initial interest in these types of positions was already high relative to their counterparts in biology or physics.

The authors don’t discuss potential reasons for these differences, but my impression is that industry jobs in chemistry are simply more common and more accessible than those in biology. This may not always be the case, but it will be interesting to see how both the academic and industrial cultures evolve as research – and the accompanying funding – goes in new directions.

Citation: Sauermann H, Roach M (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036307

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6 Responses to So I’m a doctor – now what? Post-PhD career choices

  1. Tabitha says:

    It would be interesting if one of these studies also looked at what early- and late-stage Ph.D. students are looking for in a career. Do students change career aspirations because their values change or because their perceptions of various career paths change?

  2. Rachel Bernstein says:

    Great question Tabitha. Of course I expect it’s probably a bit of both, but I’d be inclined to guess that it’s more the latter (changing perception of the careers available). I’d be interested in the differences between disciplines for this too.

  3. Calden Wloka says:

    I am curious what a similar survey would show for computer science. Much like chemistry, I imagine that there would be a fairly high draw for non-academic positions, but at the same time it seems like many well-paying computer science jobs are still available with just an undergraduate degree (more so, I believe, than in chemistry, though I could be wrong about this), and thus those who go into graduate studies may be more interested in the path of academic research. Without any actual empirical data on this, though, I am just rambling…

  4. Rachel Bernstein says:

    I agree that in my experience, most computer scientists pursuing PhDs were pretty committed to the academic research route, exactly for the reason you describe, but this is also totally anecdotal! I would guess that the interest in an academic career would still decrease somewhat for them, but it would be interesting to know the starting interest level relative to that in other fields.

  5. David Jenkins says:

    Speaking from the perspective of a graduate from a PhD program in the UK (biological sciences from University of Warwick) I would say that my experience is consistent with those data. After working with postdocs who were much better scientists than me and were looking for a faculty position, and couldn’t get one, I became quite disillusioned with the process. As far as I could tell, competition for research grants and lectureship positions was so fierce that it would be more rewarding to choose an alternative career route now than be forced out further down the path.

    After graduating (about 5 years ago) I moved out of bench science completely and now work as a medical writer. The money’s better, there’s a better chance of progression, and I’m roughly allied with the pharmaceutical industry so I still keep track of current science.

  6. This is interesting stuff. Here in Denmark the PhD may be devalued simply because “too many” are educated compared to the academic science jobs and funding available. Bottom line is that many simply cannot get a Univ position and have to seek jobs in related/other areas/disciplines such as e.g. (pharmacy) industri, highschools etc. The idea behind seem to be a political goal towards having the Danish work team moving from some-educated to all-educated in order to improve the future Danish competitiveness in a modern world where the importance of knowledge, industrial research and development seem to increase on a daily basis. All in all this seem reasonable but of cause frustrating and demotivating for PhD students and newly graduated Doctors.