CAREER COLUMN

Make science PhDs more than just a training path for academia

Science PhD programmes cater almost exclusively to students bound for academia, but they don’t have to, says Sarah Anderson.
Sarah Anderson is a PhD candidate in the chemistry department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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My committee member looked up from the document in his hand, which detailed my ideas for my research proposal. He cleared his throat: “You know, when you apply for faculty positions…” he began. I gave a quick, impulsive nod in response, but thought to myself, “That’s never going to happen.”

I’m a PhD candidate in chemistry with no intention of pursuing a career in academia, and I’m certainly not alone: out of 81 students in my programme, only 40% plan to go into academia. A more comprehensive survey of 5,700 science doctoral students worldwide, conducted in 2017, found that 75% of respondents wanted to work in academia after graduation, although a significant portion of those reported equivalent interest in the industry sector, suggesting indecision1. Clearly, the desire to pursue academia is not universal among PhD students. Furthermore, tenure-track job openings are a rare find: a study of job availability carried out in 2014 concluded that only 13% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the United States2.

Despite the lack of exclusive interest in academic careers and the low demand for professors, PhD programmes are designed to accommodate students with their sights set on academia. This fact is evident in the requirements that PhD students must meet to earn their doctoral degree, as well as the events hosted and sponsored by science departments.

Research is of course at the heart of a PhD, and assessment of productivity through a qualifying exam and thesis defence is needed to bestow a doctorate. But the goal of an original research proposal, such as the one my committee member was holding, isn’t to evaluate progress, but rather to serve as practice for developing exploratory project ideas and securing funding for them — skills most relevant to future professors.

This agenda isn’t hidden: the reminder that a great proposal could be used later in faculty applications was dangled in front of my colleagues and me as a largely inapplicable and therefore ineffective incentive to put in the work.

Also, the majority of events hosted by science departments — seminars given by professors, lunches with professors, panels of professors — are of greatest value to students taking an academic route.

There are typically more opportunities for non-academic professional development outside of a candidate’s department of study, such as science-journalism and business-certification courses. But a lack of department promotion and sponsorship of these programmes means that students are often either unaware of their existence or feel discouraged from participating.

Research proposals are one example in which PhD programme requirements could be better tailored to the career goals of each individual student. Those interested in science communication shouldn’t waste their time producing a proposal for research they’re not interested in performing. They could instead write a piece on their research targeted at a non-expert audience, for example. Similarly, those planning to enter industry could pitch a new product, and those aiming to become lecturers could participate in and report on a teaching internship. Choosing a career track with corresponding requirements could become as standard as selecting an inorganic, organic, physical or biological chemistry track.

The events hosted and sponsored by science departments are an area in which graduate school could become more inclusive and beneficial to students pursuing careers beyond academia. There are many professionals in industry and non-conventional fields who could occupy some slots on the department calendar. Furthermore, by promoting external programmes aimed at non-academic-career preparation, science departments could ensure that students are aware of such opportunities and display public support for their participation.

To successfully implement these changes, we must first subvert the assumption on which PhD programmes seem to be built: that their participants plan to pursue academia. This mindset is in part a consequence of PhD programmes being crafted by professors who used their own career trajectory as a template.

But I suspect it’s also a product of the unfortunate reality that PhD advisers simply do not view non-academic careers with the same degree of admiration. The fact that multiple people have written articles on how to break the apparently devastating news to your adviser that you aren’t following in their footsteps speaks volumes. If academia can’t appreciate the inherent value of professions beyond ‘research professor’, then maybe it can at least recognize the benefits it gains from having PhD-trained scientists in roles outside academia.

For example, science communicators create crucial dialogue between scientists and the public, helping to establish a wider audience for researchers’ work and prevent misinterpretation of findings. Those in the field of science policy help to inform important regulations that affect national agencies funding academic research. High-school science teachers, lecturers and lab instructors are training the next generation of graduate students who will work in university labs. Hopefully, the PhD programmes that these students experience help them to feel validated in and prepared for whatever career path they choose.

Nature 573, 299-300 (2019)

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

References

  1. 1.

    Woolston, C. Nature 550, 549–552 (2017).

  2. 2.

    Larson, R. C., Ghaffarzadegan, N. & Xue, Y. Syst. Res. Behav. Sci. 31, 745–750 (2014).

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