What do we know about Ph.D. scientists’ career paths?

Image result for What do we know about Ph.D. scientists’ career paths?For institutions ostensibly in the business of amassing knowledge, universities know remarkably little about what happens to their Ph.D. alumni once they leave graduate school. In an effort to fill that gap and help universities improve the career services they provide, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), through its PhD Career Pathways project, has been asking STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and humanities Ph.D.s who are 3, 8, and 15 years past their degrees about their work lives.

Since 2018, the project has released four briefs summarizing data, three of which show the STEM respondents’ answers to some important questions: What kind of career paths are the STEM Ph.D.s following? How well did their training prepare them for their jobs? And what kind of work are STEM Ph.D.s doing at the wide variety of institutions that compose U.S. academe?

These questions are certainly important. But before interpreting the results, we need to consider the project’s limitations. Participating universities used “surveys that have been developed by CGS in consultation with diverse stakeholders” to collect data from students and alumni, according to the project description. But the subject populations and the institutions they are drawn from appear to vary from brief to brief. The overall group of 70 participating institutions represents a range of public and private institutions, relatively few of them among those generally considered most prestigious. Institutional prestige plays a wellestablished role in faculty hiring, especially at higher-ranked schools, so it seems likely that relatively few of the survey respondents are on the coveted tenure track at leading research universities. Beyond that, CGS and the participating universities have a vested interest in encouraging students to pursue Ph.D. programs. We don’t know who are the alumni that they selected to survey or the means they used to contact them, so we can’t tell whether there is any bias toward favorable answers.

Nonetheless, given how little solid information is available to grad students and postdocs trying to look ahead, these surveys offer some useful insight. Here are a few topline takeaways; readers can check out the briefs for specifics about people in their own discipline, academic generation, or career path.

  • Changing jobs and moving between the academic and nonacademic sectors are common—especially in the early years of a career, but at later stages as well. Moves between sectors generally take people out of academe and into business, government, or nonprofit organizations. Once people leave academe, getting back looks challenging, but it isn’t impossible. Returnees often take administrative or nonfaculty research jobs rather than faculty positions. The first job search of a career is therefore very unlikely to be the last, and subsequent searches often take people into employment sectors that demand skills different from those needed in the academic world. Abilities well worth cultivating, even while still on campus, therefore include figuring out how your training can fit into nonacademic work settings and how to navigate nonacademic hiring practices.
  • Among the respondents working in academe—which includes regional master’s degree universities, university systems, 4-year undergraduate colleges, and 2-year community colleges as well as the research universities where Ph.D.s get their education—large majorities report teaching as their primary job responsibility. Only at research universities do scientists name research as their main activity, and many of those are likely postdocs rather than faculty members. So, despite receiving an education focused in many cases exclusively on research, scientists who pursue careers in academe generally spend their professional lives working mainly as teachers—whether tenured or not, permanent or contingent, we can’t tell. So, for those with their sights on a position in academe, getting as much training and mentoring as possible in effective teaching methods therefore seems a very useful idea.
  • Despite the variety of career paths they follow, large majorities of both the academics and the nonacademics report that their doctorates prepared them for their careers “extremely” or “very well.” Those in academe generally felt that more strongly than those outside it, though the nonacademics were still overwhelmingly positive. Those at 2-year colleges were a strong exception. They reported themselves much less well-prepared—not a surprise given that faculty at these institutions usually focus almost exclusively on teaching, which makes training focused on advanced research methods and often devoid of attention to pedagogy particularly unsuited to their students’ needs. In terms of disciplines, people with doctorates in engineering and physical and earth sciences felt especially well prepared. Possibly more of those people are still in research-focused careers, as opposed to the many life scientists facing more glutted job markets who have gone in other directions.
  • Large majorities of the STEM respondents also reported that, if they had it do over, they would “definitely” or “probably” again choose to get a Ph.D., though the majorities among those working outside academe were somewhat smaller than those inside. People 15 years past the doctorate were more enthusiastic than their younger colleagues, perhaps reflecting the deterioration in the academic job market over time or perhaps their satisfaction with the careers they have found. Fewer respondents said they would again pursue a Ph.D. in the same field, however. I suspect that these apparently contradictory answers reflect both the alumni’s love of the intellectual challenge that Ph.D. education provides and their disappointment at the career opportunities they found in overcrowded job markets. Least enthusiastic for their field were the newest crop of life scientists working outside academe, who face a particularly difficult job market.
  • Regardless of where they work, the Ph.D.s identified many of the same qualities as important to their work. The top selections included “persistence,” “initiative,” “self-control,” and “independence.” Academics thought “stress tolerance” more important than did nonacademics. They, after all, must deal with the intense pressure of making tenure if they are among the fortunate few who land on the tenure track—or the daunting uncertainties of temporary and contingent appointments if they do not.

None of these results is really surprising, and it is good to have answers that reflect lived experience. More data would be helpful, especially if it gave a finer-grained picture of exactly who the survey respondents were and where their career paths have taken them. These days, after all, people considering or pursuing Ph.D.s need all the information they can get as they make the decisions that will mold their professional futures.