NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Working Scientist podcast: Too many PhDs, too few research positions

Students need to be clear about their reasons for pursuing a PhD and the career options open to them, Julie Gould discovers.
Graduates, University of Michigan, USA.

Credit: Kevin Lau/Getty

Too many PhDs? Paula Stephan tells Julie Gould why graduate departments "should partake in birth control."

In 2015, labour economist Paula Stephan told an audience of early career researchers in the US that the supply of PhD students was outstripping demand. “Since 1977, we've been recommending that graduate departments partake in birth control, but no one has been listening.

"We are definitely producing many more PhDs than there is demand for them in research positions,” she said.

In this first episode of this five-part series about the future of the PhD and how it might change, Julie Gould asks Stephan, who is based at Georgia State University, if her view has altered.

Anne-Marie Coriat, head of UK and EU research landscape at the Wellcome Trust in London, says students need to be clear about why they want to pursue a PhD. "Look at what you're getting into, try and understand that, and then network," she says.

Forty per cent of respondents to Nature's 2019 PhD survey, published this week, said that their programme didn’t meet their original expectations, and only 10% said that it exceeded their expectations — a sharp drop from 2017, when 23% of respondents said that their PhD programme exceeded their expectations.

Despite a global shortage of jobs at universities and colleges, 56% of respondents said that academia is their first choice for a career. Just under 30% chose industry as their preferred destination. The rest named research positions in government, medicine or non-profit organizations. In 2017, 52% of respondents chose academia and 22% chose industry.

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Transcript

Too many PhDs? Paula Stephan tells Julie Gould why graduate departments "should partake in birth control."

Julie Gould:

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, the Nature Careers podcast. This is the first episode in the series about the PhD. In 2015, I wrote an article for Nature titled, ‘How to build a better PhD.’ The premise was that the PhD training system in the biomedical sciences in the US at the time was, as some put it, broken. There were too many people entering the system hoping to become academics, and yet there weren’t enough academic roles for them, and that they weren’t being trained for the positions that they were taking. Now, I wanted to reflect on this piece, on the concept of change in the PhD, and to find out what some of the interviewees I spoke to at the time think today. My opening quote in the article was from Paula Stephan, a labour economist from Georgia State University in Atlanta who said and I quote: “Since 1977, we've been recommending that graduate departments partake in birth control, but no one has been listening. We are definitely producing many more PhDs than there is demand for them in research positions.” So, I thought it would be interesting to find out what Paula thinks today and ask her if she does still think that graduate departments should be partaking in birth control.

Paula Stephan:

That’s been a belief of mine for years because I think that the urge to grow is fuelled primarily by the need to have people to work on research projects in labs, and that it’s not in response to market signals but it’s in response to current research. In other words, departments are not in this business to train the next generation of researchers – they’re doing it to staff their labs. That’s always been my perspective and it continues to be my perspective.

Julie Gould:

Now, one result of this increase in the number of PhD candidates is that the PhD training system has adapted its purpose from training purely future researchers, whether this is inside or outside of academia, to developing highly-skilled individuals who can contribute in a knowledge-based economy and meet the changing skills needs in the workforce – people who can take the skills during their PhD training and to apply them to any other career. But Paula thinks that this is the wrong attitude to take.

Paula Stephan:

I feel that the goalposts for the PhD got moved when programmes and data began to show that people weren’t getting tenure-track positions, and I think the PhD is training for research and I think it’s fine to change the goalposts so it’s not just a tenure-track position, but I do not think the goalposts should be so widely changed that just about everything fits in the mantle of what a PhD is good for, and I have great concerns that that’s both what NIH and what many, many institutions are doing. Now, what I really applaud is that at least there are a handful of institutions out there that in the first year in the programme are really educating students about what the career outcomes have been. So, students feel like it’s a mismatch for them, they get out, and we need to have more programmes that do that.

Julie Gould:

Do you think that graduate schools and universities and institutions should be cutting back the number of people they take on in their institutions, in their graduate schools, so that they’re only taking in the number of people that will fill the number of roles available within academia, whether tenure-track or not tenure-track?

Paula Stephan:

Absolutely not because a lot of research positions in firms and, we want to train researchers who can go to firms and there’s some research positions in government, so it’s not just in academia that we need to be cutting back so we’re training researchers and not people who are going into non-research positions.

Julie Gould:

But how do you make that judgement? There are people going into a PhD role wanting to take on an academic position or a research position, whether inside academia or not, but towards the end of their PhD, they’re then in a completely different mindset, in a completely different lifestyle. How do you accommodate that?

Paula Stephan:

Well, there’s always going to be some kind of mismatch, okay. It’s not going to be perfect. But I think in all good conscience, PhD programmes now know that they’re taking on more people than have a high probability of getting research positions, and I’m not talking about cutting PhD programmes by 30% or something. I’m talking about not having them grow, I’m talking about possibly – I’d have to look at the numbers – but scaling back by 5 or 10% or so, but we just can’t keep on growing these PhD programmes without good outlets, and I think it’s important to know that industry is doing less and less basic research. So, research positions in industry, at least in the US and I believe this is true in Europe, have not been growing.

Julie Gould:

Even if the focus of the PhD was to go back to training people for research positions, do you still think that the metric of publications is a good thing?

Paula Stephan:

No, okay, because I think the big problem is that when we get a metric to publications, it tends to be the only metric, and that begins to be what everybody focuses on and I think that’s very detrimental to the process of science. I mean it makes people think short-term, it makes people try to get things out the door very quickly, it just has very strange incentives built into it.

Julie Gould:

What do you think would be a more appropriate metric, output, whatever you want to call it, by which we could measure and assess researchers?

Paula Stephan:

Well, I really believe job placement is a very important metric for assessing progress.

Julie Gould:

If you’re assessing on placements as an outcome, how do you assess what is good and what is bad? Is it good if an institution trains a lot of PhDs to go into research positions, whether in academia or outside academia, and is it bad if institutions are putting a lot of researchers through their training schemes that are not ending up in research positions?

Paula Stephan:

I think if you train a lot of people who don’t end up in research positions, the PhD, as I’ve understood it and as we’ve always discussed it, is to train people in research, so that’s how I think it should be assessed.

Julie Gould:

Now, whatever your view of the current PhD system is, it is clear that there are changes to be made, and that there are many conversations being had about what those changes should look like. So, over the next few episodes, the Nature Careers podcast team will be exploring what the future of the PhD might look like and how PhD researchers can navigate this change. Anne-Marie Coriat, the head of UK and EU research landscape at the Wellcome Trust, believes that PhD researchers should learn to navigate these changes before they even begin their PhD journey.

Anne-Marie Coriat:

I think people need to be really clear about why they want to go into a PhD and do a bit of research in relation to what they personally want out of it. I think that’s very important. In terms of navigating, I think again, there are some super resources that are available, whether they’re on things like findaPhD.com or various institutions including our own, journals like yourselves, provide all sorts of summaries about how to navigate the PhD. I think the thing to me that is uppermost is look at what you’re getting into, try and understand that, and then network. Understand people who are or places that you can go that might enable you to get a little more information, and then when you’re in there, don’t stop asking questions. Increasingly, institutions have put together doctoral training colleges which are massively supportive. They didn’t exist when I was going through, and I think this sort of concept of building network and building network amongst peers, helping network amongst people who have got similar interests across the sector, nationally and internationally, is hugely important and I think the issue also is keeping eyes and mind open to where possibilities might exist. Academia is hard, of course it is, and making progress in that is never going to be entirely straightforward, but neither is any career in many ways, and I think the issue is to speak up when you find that problems are or issues are challenging and find ways in which your voice can be heard much more widely.

Julie Gould:

Thank you to Paula Stephan from Georgia State University and to Anne-Marie Coriat from the Wellcome Trust for contributing to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

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