Graduate survey: Uncertain futures

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Graduate students dream of academia but are keeping their career options open, according to a 2015 Nature survey.

Credit: Adapted from Erhui1979/Getty

Graduate students in the sciences generally keep a tight focus on their area of study, whether it is mice, molecules or lasers. But when it comes to plans for the future, they are willing to take a wide-angle view.

The 2015 Nature survey of graduate students, which drew more than 3,400 responses from early-career researchers across the world, uncovered a strong and far-reaching enthusiasm for jobs in academia. Some 78% of respondents said that they are likely or very likely to pursue a research career in academia, a bold stance given the global shortage of permanent positions at universities.

But the survey also revealed uncertainty and ambivalence. More than 60% of respondents said that they are “likely” or “very likely” to pursue a job in industry (see 'Industry appeal'). And 61% said that they are “likely” or “very likely” to pursue a research job with a government or foundation, which makes it clear that many graduate students are unclear about their futures.

Indeed, when it comes to job plans, even a firm conviction can quickly fade. Daria Bulanova, a PhD student in molecular biology at the University of Helsinki, noted in her survey response that she expected to pursue a career in industry. “I was influenced by friends and relatives who had careers in big pharma and big biotech,” she explains. “They all had a really good career track.”

Yet in the several months since she took the survey, Bulanova, who studies mutations in breast cancer, reveals that she has taken a 180-degree turn towards academia. Through company visits and consultations, she has been able to assess the reality of taking on an industry job. “I decided that I wasn't mature enough for that kind of shark tank,” Bulanova says. In retrospect, she also is uncertain that a job in a large company could satisfy her scientific curiosity. “Research in industry is very narrow and settled,” she says. “It doesn't lead to other questions.” Bulanova's determination to stay in academia solidified after she attended seminars at which research luminaries — such as Peter Jackson, a microbiologist and immunologist at Stanford University School of Medicine in California — discussed their own career paths. “That was inspirational,” she says. “You start dreaming.”

Global dreams

The survey tapped into an eclectic, global crowd. Respondents were roughly evenly distributed between Europe, Asia and North America, with some respondents living in South America, Africa and Australia. They are a well-travelled bunch: 40% of respondents live away from their home country, a group that includes Bulanova, who is from Russia. Interest in academia is widespread across the continents. More than 90% of respondents in Asia revealed that they see academia as a possible career option, with more than half declaring that they are “very likely” to go down that path. Enthusiasm for academia is only slightly cooler in North America and in Europe, where 32% and 41% of respondents, respectively, said that they are “very likely” to take the academic route.

Respondents in biology, chemistry and medicine — the most common areas of study for survey participants — reported similar career goals. In all three fields, about three-quarters of those polled ticked the “likely” or “very likely” boxes for following an academic career, compared with more than half indicating that they would opt for a career in industry.

Dreams of academia endure even in parts of the world in which prospects seem daunting. Parisa Naeli, a PhD student in molecular genetics at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran says that so far, her vision for the future exceeds her actual opportunities. “I don't want to just be a doctor or a professor,” she explains. “I want to be a great researcher. I want to have a fully equipped lab and work on my dream project, but I don't have that.”

Naeli is keenly aware of the obstacles ahead. “I think the academic market is better in other countries than in Iran,” she observes. “It's hard to find a teaching job, but it's even harder to get a research job. I could do a lot for people, like drug discovery. But I can't because I don't have the facilities.”

Enthusiasm for academia is not evident everywhere, however, and it certainly has not swept the Pennsylvania State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Harrisburg, says Robert Nwokonko, a PhD student in molecular biology there. “It doesn't seem like a lot of people here think that an academic career is the way to go,” he says. “I know a lot of students who decided to finish with a master's degree and get into industry as soon as possible.”

For his part, Nwokonko intends to buck the local trend and become an academic. “I'd like to have my principal investigator's job in the future,” he declares. “He gets to set the focus. I want to be able to run my own lab and put out some quality research.”

Nwokonko took time to develop that particular ambition. He started out as a medical student but came to realize that he preferred research. A year-long internship at a biotechnology company sealed the deal. “It was very hard work for not much money,” he rues. “I figured if I still liked research after that, I should apply to graduate school.”

Nwokonko acknowledges that the really hard part might not be over yet. “I believe I have a sense of the challenges,” he says. “There are a lot of postdocs in their thirties, even late thirties. It takes a long time to get a foot in the door.”

Some who see professorships in their future are already thinking about back-up plans. Sean Leonard, a 31-year-old PhD student in bioinformatics at the University of Texas in Austin, states that he wants to give academia a try but is willing to consider other options. Before entering science, he spent four years in the US Army, which included deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Compared to combat, he notes, there is nothing especially scary about academia. “A lot of my peers are stressed out and worried,” he says. “They think, 'If I don't get an academic job, my life is over.' But with my experience, I don't feel that pressure. I'll be able to find something that's fulfilling.”

Although he could probably make more money as an army officer, Leonard affirms that he is committed to scientific research. “The intellectual endeavour is a strong motivator for me,” he declares. And whereas many students at his university have given up on the idea of academia, he is sticking with it. “I like the collegiate atmosphere, and I like the idea of teaching.” As for his fallback position, he admits that companies might not be especially interested in his current research subject — microbial communities in the gut of the honeybee. But he hopes that the specialized research skills that he is developing will make him more attractive to industry.

Mixed messages

Where are early-career researchers getting their zeal for academic jobs? Judging from the survey responses, at least some encouragement comes from their mentors. A little more than one-third of respondents revealed that their advisers had helped to shape their career plans. And notably, only half of respondents stated that their supervisor is open to the possibility of their pursuing a career outside academia. The main source of inspiration — reported by more than half of respondents — was their own online research, which suggests that graduate students do not routinely go to great lengths to explore their career options. Both formal career training and helpful colleagues fell behind advisers and online research as sources of career guidance.

Chelsea Lowther, a PhD student in clinical genetics at the University of Toronto, Canada, has sought career advice from many sources. However, her decision to pursue academia is almost entirely her own. “My supervisor is great to talk to about career planning,” Lowther notes. “But she doesn't tell us exactly what she thinks we should do. She doesn't want to influence us.”

Lowther has good reason to believe that she is on the right path. Earlier this year, she won a three-year, Can$105,000 (US$80,600) grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study the genetics of schizophrenia and intellectual disabilities. “My adviser expects her graduate students to get their own funding,” she explains. “She thinks it will be good for our careers.”

Like Nwokonko, Lowther originally planned to go to medical school until the lure of research pulled her in another direction. Now in her third year of graduate school, she is approaching principal investigators at conferences to scope out potential postdoctoral opportunities. “I'm not concerned about finding a postdoc,” she insists. “That's not where the bottleneck is. I would just love to think that I'll only have to do one postdoc.”

Lowther maintains that she is not naive about the difficulties of moving from a postdoctoral role to an elusive tenure-track position. “I don't think I'll be blindsided,” she says. “I'm aware of how bleak the prospects are. I try to stay confident and work as hard as I can. It will fall into place.”

Avoid the crowd

Some respondents disclosed that they already knew that a PhD was not for them before embarking on lower-level graduate qualifications. Dan Upsher was finishing a master's degree in fisheries research at the University of Hull, UK, when he filled out the survey. At the time, he stated that he was interested in an industry career — and he has stayed on course. Instead of moving on to a PhD, Upsher has launched an aquatic-rehabilitation consultancy. “River rehabilitation is where my true passion lies.” he says. By his own estimate, the years of practical experience will be better for his career than a few more years of graduate school. Although he could always go back to university later on, for now, Upsher is glad to avoid the crowd. “Getting a PhD has become such a thing to do,” he remarks. “It's a fad.”

Students who do move on to PhD programmes often run into unexpected difficulties. Nearly half of survey respondents reported that they were surprised to discover how hard it is to get a grant, and a similar fraction revealed that finding a work–life balance is more challenging than expected. Forty per cent said that they were surprised to discover that many researchers with PhDs have already done multiple postdoctoral stints — an increasingly common scenario.

Still, those surprises were not enough to sour most students' opinions of graduate school. Seventy per cent of respondents said that they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their graduate-school experience, and only 3% reported being “very dissatisfied”.

Despite her own share of surprises, Bulanova still has her eyes on the academic path: one or two postdoctoral positions in Europe or the United States, followed by a tenure-track job. She accepts that it will not be easy. “In northern Europe, especially in Finland, there are cuts in funding and the positions are very limited,” she says. “Somehow I want to try.”

She has ideas that she wants to test, preferably in her own laboratory. Those ideas might not pan out exactly as she planned but, she admits, that is the beauty of science — and, for that matter, of careers in science. “If you already know all of the answers,” she says, “what's the fun?”

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Woolston, C. Graduate survey: Uncertain futures. Nature 526, 597–600 (2015) doi:10.1038/nj7574-597a

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