The real reasons PhDs are leaving academia

Written by Kanaga Arul Nambi Rajan

Common lore says that STEM PhD trainees abandon academia due to limited faculty job opportunities, but a recent nationwide survey of graduate students suggests that this is not entirely true.

Not long ago, careers outside of academia were considered “alternative” tracks for STEM PhD students; now they are simply the norm. Many in the field believe that trainees leave academia when they become discouraged by the limited prospects for academic faculty positions and a lack of startup funding. However, a recent paper published in PLOS One reports that the job market is not the main reason students lose interest in academia; instead, student career preferences and priorities change over time.

“A lot of research that looked at the scientific work force really just documents where people are going and where they are ending up once they graduate,” explained Michael Roach, a Cornell University economist (NY, USA). “[We are] trying to understand how their career preferences are shaped and changing during graduate school.”

Roach and his long-time colleague, Henry Sauermann from the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, Germany, began working on this line of research 10 years ago when they were graduate students themselves.

For this study, Roach and Sauermann collected data from 854 STEM PhD students at 39 research universities across the USA. To gauge how student opinions changed over time, they polled students at the beginning (2010) and near the end (2013) of their graduate degrees.

First, the survey asked students how appealing they found an academic research career, irrespective of the job market. In 2010, 80% of STEM students entered graduate school with hopes for an academic career. Three years later, only 55% of these same students remained interested, while 5% who previously did not plan on academic careers gained interest.

In this survey, Roach used a 5-point scale to gauge students’ attitudes regarding different careers in basic research, applied research, and commercialization work, and their preferences for job factors such as research freedom. Of those who lost interest in academia, the percentage of students interested in basic research and research freedom dropped 33% and 25%, respectively. However, these numbers remained high and steady for senior students still interested in academia. For those who lost interest, interest in commercialization increased. Interestingly, regardless of their career goals, the majority of polled students believed that achieving a faculty position would be difficult.

Realizing that students’ assessment of their own research abilities may also change over 3 years, the researchers wanted to understand how this perception affected students’ career outlook. They therefore asked them to rate their self-perceived ability to conduct research. Students interested in academia reported a slight increase in their abilities while all other students did not report any change in their self-perceived research abilities.

These findings did not surprise Cora MacBeth, a professor at the Emory College of Arts and Sciences (GA, USA), who supports this change in graduate students’ career interests. Earlier this year, she co-authored a paper exploring the career development needs of STEM students. “I think that the value of a PhD is really in the training of the students to think deeply in a particular discipline, but I think they can go out and apply that in a plethora of different areas,” she commented. “Whether that is non-profit work, government research, industry – I think there is real value in the degree. Maybe we as PIs just need to stop thinking that there is one acceptable outcome.”

MacBeth is among the many faculty Roach hoped would read the paper. As Roach explained, “[The paper] is really targeted towards the science community, broadly. That is why we picked PLOS One as an outlet.” He hopes that graduate students, faculty, and funding agencies will all take these findings into consideration when making plans to help improve career development resources for trainees.

“I think, as PIs and as people in academia, it is just as important that we remember that these [PhD programs] aren’t vocational degrees,” MacBeth affirmed.

Meanwhile, Roach is excited to keep pushing his and Sauermann’s research forward. “I think the next big paper is to really get a better understanding of which science and engineering PhDs are staying in academia and which are leaving and what are the different factors that explain that,” he said.