Most Ph.D. students in the sciences begin their studies by dreaming of a tenure-track position at a college or university. But in the end only a handful—less than one in four—are destined to continue on that career path. For this reason, some believe that universities need to reexamine how academic advisors discuss career possibilities and choices with their advisees and, in some cases, alter coursework to better reflect a student’s life goals.
According to Sauermann, because there’s a limited number of available academic jobs and a high number of students interested in those jobs, most change career paths to find more attainable employment. However, students feel less informed about careers outside academic research, his research found. This can be addressed through better education before starting (and during) Ph.D. programs, he said.
“There’s a big investment being made by the people themselves who have spent several years of grad school by society because it’s typically financed through grants and to think how does it play out in the end,” said Sauermann.
Specifically, the biology Ph.D.s have the most competition. According to the National Science Foundation, just 14% of Ph.D.s in the biological sciences hold tenure-track positions five or six years after graduation. The low number, compared to 21% of physicists and 23% of chemists, is a reflection of a small pool of jobs.
“There’s a big number of positions, but given the number of people looking for them, the chances of getting one is pretty rare,” said Sauermann.
To improve the system and better prepare students to obtain jobs that use their skills, Sauermann believes more research is needed to investigate why students change career interest and the potential impact for science education, research, and the workforce.
Meanwhile, academic advisors continue to push academic careers, which Sauermann called “dysfunctional” because it exacerbates labor imbalances. These advisors are responsible for more than just a student’s research project. “There’s also a role in them shaping career decisions and perceptions of what careers look like,” said Sauermann.
- Sauermann, H., and M. Roach. 2012. Science Ph.D. career preferences: Levels, changes, and advisor encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5):e36307+.