Blog Post August 11, 2016

So many research scientists, so many jobs

so many research scientists, so many jobs

Did you happen to catch the New York Times article a few weeks back on the dearth of faculty jobs for PhD scientists? It prompted an active discussion on social media, with comments from disheartened PhDs and postdocs: “IMO, articles like this that equate a career in science or ‘success’ with being a professor ARE the problem.”

I think that this article, at least in part, perpetuates the myth that there is one true and acceptable employment outcome for a PhD in science: an appointment as a tenure-track professor.

To test this myth, I launched a research study in the spring of 2015 on PhD careers in science — conducted also in part to support my recent book,"Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science." Based on my research and survey responses from over 8,000 PhD’s, I felt compelled to respond to some of the points made in the Times article.

Point

“Some of the most desirable science jobs – tenure-track professorships at universities…fewer than one in six has a chance of joining the club…”

Counterpoint

I take issue with the language used here, specifically, “most desirable” and “club.” According to my survey data of just over 8,000 PhD scientists who graduated between 2004 and 2014, just 31% of current postdocs desire a tenure-track faculty position at a research university, so it is, in fact, not the most desirable occupation for PhDs currently engaged in postdoctoral training.

And the use of the word “club” suggests an “other” phenomenon, that there exist PhD scientists who are “inside” and those who are “outside” of the club. The use of this word upholds the stigma attached to any occupation outside of the tenure-track as being somehow “less than,” when that is in fact where most of our science PhDs are currently employed.

Point

“[PhDs and postdocs spend] their youth in temporary low-paying positions getting highly specialized training they do not need.”

Counterpoint

85% of the PhDs employed in my survey maintain that their doctoral degrees were required or preferred for their current employment. Additionally, the sample of PhDs engaged in a variety of occupations assert that skills developed during their doctoral training are important for their current success on the job.

Point

“Job opportunities are limited.”

Counterpoint

My survey research shows great diversity in where PhDs in science are currently employed. There are over 590 distinct occupations among the thousands of PhDs employed in the sample.

Point

“The toughest road is the one stretching out in front of people with newly minted doctorates.”

Counterpoint

The percentage of unemployed PhDs still falls well below the national average, reflected in my survey at 2% of the total number of PhDs in the sample. Job searching takes time and effort by all candidates, but no more so for PhDs in science than for others on the job market.

Point

“[Of 6.3 PhDs in the biological and medical sciences], 5.3 will be shut out [from a tenure-track job.]”

Counterpoint

Again, the language used by the author here is troublesome, as it suggests being “shut out” or excluded from some desired activity. The truth is, of the 3,543 PhDs in the sample employed outside of a postdoc, 80% are happy in their jobs—yet only 22% of this group are engaged in tenure-track positions.

The above are just a few points I felt needed to be challenged in the article. Based on my research and experience with PhD’s at The Jackson Laboratory, I know there is a much greater diversity of career paths available than what was conveyed by the author. At The Jackson Laboratory, learning about the breadth of opportunities available is even encouraged through a program called The Whole Scientist™. This program is a PhD-focused, integrative training program to facilitate career development opportunities inside and outside the lab. Through this interactive program, graduate students and postdocs develop expertise in leadership, management, teaching and science communication, designed to complement their research skills.

I share this post and my recent survey data to assert that there IS indeed life beyond a PhD and/or postdoc in science outside of the tenure-track — and that most science PhDs, across a huge range of occupations, are satisfied in their work. To learn more about my research and the types of jobs available for PhDs in science, as well as tips and strategies for finding those jobs, check out "Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science," published by Harvard University Press, and currently available on Amazon.com.


Melanie Sinche is an educator, writer, and career counselor with more than 15 years experience working with and advising graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in university, non-profit, and government agency settings. Her work at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine focuses on the career and professional development of all trainees through the development of novel educational programming. Follow Melanie on Twitter at @melaniesinche.