Emily Grason: What are you going to do with that Ph.D., anyway?

I'm getting frightfully close to finishing, launching chapter manuscripts off into the ether of The Journal Submission Process. Each morning for the week or so after, I cringe as I open my email, hoping to not hear anything from those journals. Then at least I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing my paper has likely been sent out for review. But in the mean time, I get this question more and more: What are you going to do when you finish? GAH! We've all gotten this question more times than we prefer to remember, and many people in our lives know better than to even ask [Don't worry, Grandma, I totally don't mind that you didn't get the memo about questions not to ask a graduate student, it's very sweet of you to worry about me!].

But seriously, what are we going to do when we finish?

It turns out we're uncertain - and I'm not just arm waving here - it's in Nature [paywall :-/]. According to the results of a 2015 survey of more than 3,400 graduate students worldwide:
  • 78% of grad students reported they are likely to pursue an academic research career,
  • 60% intend to pursue a career in industry, and
  • 61% say that they will pursue a research job in government or with a foundation.
Wait, that adds up to more than 100%! Whaaaa? This is interpreted as uncertainty:
.... which makes it clear that many graduate students are unclear about their futures.
Disagree. We're not unclear, uncertain, or uninformed; we're realistic. We are fully aware that different jobs offer different types of fulfillment or security, and we know math so we pay attention to reports of the overproduction of Ph.D.s relative to tenure track positions.

We are a generation that was raised with the mantra "live your dreams" that has smashed into the economic reality of the Great Recession. All I've heard about for the last decade is how uncertain the job market is. No "uncertainty" is the wrong word, the job market is certain: it is HARD to get a job. Of course I'm going to apply to all of those things and see what works out best.

I'm not at all trying to be a bummer (particularly to our new biograds, hey guys!). To me, this survey seems to bolster the suggestion that the role of academic training in this country is [hopefully] undergoing an identity shift. The notion that research institutions can churn out more and more academic researchers ad nauseam is, of course, a numerical impossibility given constrained growth of academic institutions. But to a certain extent, this has always been true. For basically ever, there have been trained Ph.D. scientists working in industry, government, NGO's, etc.

The shift I refer to isn't as much about how proportionally fewer Ph.D. grads get academic jobs (though I suppose that is true as well). I think the shift is really just that it is more permissible to pursue a Ph.D. with zero intention of being an academic. And that it is no disservice to yourself, to a graduate program, or to your discipline. We pay lip service to the value of highly trained scientists outside of academia, in government, in industry. But we really do need trained scientists everywhere! Now more than ever, plz!

It would be naive for me to suggest that, for grad students, there is no unspoken social pressure that being an academic is the "best" or most desirable career choice; that bias does still exist to varying extents and perhaps helps explain why so many grad student do still want academic jobs.

But it's certainly entirely entirely ordinary to talk about other career paths - and is that really such a surprise given the current supply and demand situation? Is it a bad thing? Does it mean we are clueless?

From Woolston 2015
Where do we get these crazy ideas about "alternate" career paths, anyway? Not from our advisors, evidently. In the survey, only half of grad students stated they thought their advisors would even be open to pursuit of non-academic careers.

I was lucky. I went into graduate school knowing that I was not likely to seek an academic career, and I connected with an advisor who could help me make the connections that will, hopefully, enable me to find a job in a conservation organization or in resource management. When I interviewed at several programs, I candidly shared my intentions with many faculty, in spite of anxiety that it would make me a less competitive applicant. Who knows, maybe I did miss out on opportunities because of this admission, but most faculty responded that they were happy to support this path. The challenge is that many faculty qualified their support with an acknowledgement that they felt most able to advise me on the path that they themselves took - academic research. This is entirely reasonable, and presents a non-trivial challenge to facilitating careers other than academic research, because your advisor, your lab, is your primary role-model and support network as a grad student.

Many departments supplement the career training provided by advisors. Students in the US report the greatest access to career counseling programs that explicitly address "alternate" career paths (OK, can we stop other-izing it by calling them "alternate"?! I'm switching to just "non-academic"). UW Bio, in particular, participates in a great Bioscience Careers lecture series.
However, the Nature piece states:
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.
I take a little bit of umbrage that doing online research is not considered a strong effort to explore my career options, and honestly, it feels a bit dated. Who doesn't look for jobs online?! Where are you likely to get an honest assessment of what life in academia is really like if not Twitter?

Call me Pollyanna, but I have a sincere belief that my fellow grad students are talented enough and hard working enough to do well in whatever positions they desire. And I truly wish for all of us that we do get to live our dreams, notwithstanding the caprices of the job market and the game theory tactics of job hunting. If, for you, that dream is not in academic research, own it! It gives you much more leeway to take advantage of your time as a student to prepare for that career, applying for internships, and attending different conferences than you otherwise would. There are extensive resources out there for how to blaze your own trail (here's a highly-recommended site from a UW alumna), and, in reality, it's increasingly likely the someone else has blazed the trail for you already!


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