The Future For PhD Students

A while ago, Nature did a feature called ‘The Future Of The PhD‘, which presented the problem that most early-career scientists know and fear all too well – that there are far too many PhD studentships, and not enough pernament jobs later on down the line.

For those of you not aware of how an ‘academic career’ works, here’s a quick (very oversimplified) summary: You start as a PhD student, which can be seen as a three or four year training program. Then you take up several temporary post-doctoral jobs (often known as ‘post-docs’, which last about 2 or 3 years). Eventually, you get enough publications to impress a university to employ you (on a pernament basis) as a lecturer, where you’ll not only be lecturing, but at the head of a research lab, employing PhD students and post-docs.

The problem is there are very few pernament (lectureship) positions, and there are a lot of PhDs and post-docs, and so getting one of these jobs is highly competitive. Thus, many scientists don’t end up getting one of these jobs, and end up either doing temporary post-doc jobs for the rest of their working lives, or end up switching careers.

Now those of you outside of science may well be rolling their eyes. It is true, that in most industries, there are far fewer managerial/top-tier positions than there are people who might be able to fill them. The people who are going to get these top positions are the best people, and the rest will just have to keep looking. Hard cheese, right?

However, the disappointment in terms of a science career is two-fold – firstly, that the post-doc (where the bottleneck begins) is a temporary position, and so it is difficult to have a stable working life for you and your family when you’re having to move around to change jobs every three years. Secondly, as someone who has done a PhD and maybe some post-docs, you’re a highly skilled person – it might seem a shame to have to leave research science to be able to find a job elsewhere, where your talent in pipetting or moorland grass identification aren’t necessary.

It’s also a bit of political issue – since a large number of PhD studentships in the UK are paid for by publically-funded Research Councils, they are effectively government-paid trainees. And if you’re spending public money on training scientists, surely they should end up working as scientists, otherwise why spend the money in the first place?

Several solutions have been proposed. One of the more blunt instruments to fix the problem is to – duhtrain fewer PhDs, stoopid. The problem, as I see it, is that currently, the majority of hands-on science (I’m talking about the lab or field work that produces the figures) is done by PhD students and post-docs, not by their supervisors or professors. Expecting the same scientific output whilst cutting numbers of early-career researchers is as absurd as expecting the same level of care in hospitals by cutting the numbers of nurses.

Of course, some people see this in itself as a problem, that cheap PhDs and post-doc workers are being exploited to churn out papers that keep professors in a pernament job. Personally, I don’t think this is the whole story, and this post by DrugMonkey neatly summarises why – supervisors contribute a lot more than the average disgruntled PhD / post-doc would like to think; for example, it might take a PhD student three years to produce some really cool data, but it takes a head-of-lab to compile all the data from all their employees to make a cracking paper, whilst applying for more grants and planning out research programmes for the next five years, in addition to all the lecturing and admin they need to do. I think the pyramid can sometimes be a little bottom heavy, but it’s definitely a pyramid that’s needed, not a gherkin, or whatever.

Another solution that has be proposed is the creation of ‘pernament post-doc’ positions, but this seem too unlikely to ever take hold, as it always comes back to cold economics: Universities are unlikely to want to pay the salary of a scientist who will not ‘give back’ by contributing towards teaching or admin in the same way that lecturers and professors do. And why pay the salary of one highly experienced perma-doc when you could spend the same money elsewhere (like cheap PhDs)?

Policy changes in Universities / Research Councils / Government may well be needed to address the PhD and postdoc surplus, and maybe years down the line they will come. However, for the time being, I think a more immediate change in attitudes needs to take place in the minds of young scientists.

As I embark on my hunt for my first post-doc, obviously I want to find a post-doc that will best serve my potential future scientific career, because I love what I do and I want to keep on doing it. But I also reluctantly accept that later on down the line, there might not be another job available for me, and I might have to consider switching careers. This is not unique in science; gone are the days of ‘jobs-for-life’ in all sectors, and I think it will become more common for people to have more than one career in their lifetimes.

Academia, in my albeit limited experience, is far too inward looking.  The linear career progression I started this article by describing is, of course, what most scientists want (myself included) – you work hard and so why shouldn’t you succeed? – and our colleagues, supervisors, heads of departments, and visiting seminar speakers are all people who have followed that road or are still doing so.

This has lead to a culture where considering other career opportunities outside of academia feels like you’re giving up – one post-doc describes how she feel ’embarrased’ to consider other jobs, despite many people before her finding perfectly fulfilling careers outside of academia (shock horror!).

As students we have some amazing opportunities to develop our CVs early on and keep our options open, with things like demonstrating and organising meetings, along with all the usual student societies and sports clubs available to undergraduates. Hell, at least half of the contestants on University Challenge are postgraduates – if that’s not a ticket to Easy Street, then frankly I don’t know what is.

The skills we gain as PhD students are not just about standing by centrifuges or counting grass seeds – we have a lot to offer future employers, inside and outside of academia, and it is certainly not a failure to consider opportunities that don’t conform to this model.




Filed under advice, career, musings

5 responses to “The Future For PhD Students

  1. Great blogpost. You summarise the problems facing young scientists who want to stay in academia very nicely. I do not think at all that it is a failure to consider opportunities outside the postdoc-postdoc-postdoc- chain. I think the whole system over the next 20/30 years will have to become more flexible and the line between industry and academia will blur even more, which will allow people to dip between the two, rather than just being in academia or industry.

    • You’re right about more collaboration between industry and academia. CASE studentships (where part of the funding comes from an industrial partner) are more common nowadays. Industry – particularly Pharma- is ever more desperate to outsource their research as it faces job cuts. I think there’s still a blinkered view that academia is more ‘pure science’ and getting involved with industry is ‘dirty business’, and yet so many of the skills of supervisors involve management of money and people.

  2. Minutes after posting this article I saw this (“No Fixed Address”) from Times Higher Education, which sums up (more eloquently!) a lot of the same points I made, focussing on the frustration of post-docs who are coming to the ‘bottleneck’ in their careers when they should be getting pernament positions.
    Well worth a read!

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  4. Pingback: Career Opportunities – Science Is Vital report on UK Science Careers | Coffee & Cake, Pizza & Beer

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