Even though academic research is often viewed as the preferred career path for PhD-trained scientists, most US graduates take up jobs in industry, government or ‘alternative careers’, according to Henry Sauermann of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Michael Roach from the University of North Carolina.
In a paper published in PloS ONE [Read it below], the researchers note the growing concern that these career patterns reflect fundamental imbalances between the supply of scientists seeking academic positions and the availability of such posts.
“However, while government statistics provide insights into realised career transitions, there is little systematic data on scientists’ career preferences and thus on the degree to which there is a mismatch between observed career paths and scientists’ preferences,” they write.
“Moreover, we lack systematic evidence whether career preferences adjust over the course of the PhD training and to what extent advisors exacerbate imbalances by encouraging their students to pursue academic positions.”
Using a national survey of PhD students at tier-one US institutions, the researchers studied the career preferences of junior scientists across the life sciences, physics and chemistry.
They found that a faculty research career was most often considered “extremely attractive” and ranked among the most desirable careers for more than 50% of life scientists and physicists.
“Given that the number of faculty positions is much smaller, these findings support the concern that the supply of science PhDs interested in faculty research positions significantly exceeds the number of available positions in these fields.
“At the same time, the majority of chemistry students as well as significant shares of students in the life sciences and in physics prefer careers outside of academia, regardless of job availability.”
The researchers say academic administrators and advisors should consider such heterogeneity in career preferences when designing graduate curricula, ensuring that students have opportunities to acquire the skills and knowledge required to perform in non-academic careers that may not only be more readily available but are also quite attractive to students themselves.
“Similarly, public discussion may benefit from recognising that labour market experiences may be quite different depending on which particular career a junior scientist seeks to pursue.
“The results suggest the need for mechanisms that provide PhD applicants with information that allows them to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of pursuing a PhD, as well as for mechanisms that complement the job market advice advisors give to their current students.”
Science PhD Career Preferences : Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement
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