Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Considering the pursuit of an academic career

A new school year is upon us. For some students, it means starting the last year of high school or college, with all of the decisions the last year entails—what will I do after high school, will I go on to college, or if finished with college, what will I do after that, will I go on to graduate school, medical school, law school, or will I try to find a job instead? None of these decisions is trivial; in fact, what you choose to do with your life in your late teens/twenties often determines the type of field you remain in for the rest of your work life. It’s not impossible to move out of that field in an attempt to change career path, and it’s entirely possible to shift to a new type of job within one field. I just want to point out that it’s worth considering what is available to you in terms of careers if you choose to, for example, pursue a doctorate in the natural or life sciences.

I have mentored a number of PhD students through the years, as both primary and secondary advisor; I can tell you that for each year that passes, it becomes harder for me to encourage college graduates to pursue doctoral studies. There are many reasons for this; none of them have to do with money. Stipends for PhD students are in fact quite good now, at least in Scandinavia, ditto for postdocs and scientists, in contrast to the meager salaries for all of these positions some fifteen to twenty years ago. The problems have more to do with why you might want to pursue a PhD, and where you see yourself with that PhD in ten years. It is a topic for serious consideration before you start a PhD program, not during or after you finish. You would think this would be the normal common-sense approach; I can tell you that the opposite is often true. Students start PhD studies without a real understanding of what they’re choosing or what it will lead to. They may have a friend who has started on his or her doctorate; they may see it as a way to ‘postpone’ having to think about what it is they want to do with their lives. The fact remains--it is much harder now to get a postdoctoral position after you finish your PhD than it was fifteen years ago; if you are lucky to get a postdoctoral position, it becomes that much harder to obtain grant funding to become a research scientist, and so on. With each step, the eye of the needle narrows. Academia is elitist; the higher up the ladder you come, the more elitist it gets. There is no guarantee that you will be able to have a research career in academia, if you define that as being an independent principal investigator with a small research group. You will find that the doors close once you finish the doctorate, doors that once were open to you. Where you were once encouraged, you are now discouraged. It can happen very directly, when you are told that you are not good enough to pursue a postdoc, or more commonly, you are simply denied the opportunity to go forward because you will not get funding to go forward. There is a long list of potential postdoc candidates each year that wait to hear if they have gotten funding or not. And then let’s say for argument’s sake that you get postdoctoral funding for some years; after you finish that work, you start the real work—of trying to become an independent principal investigator and scientist, one who has his or her own grant funding for specific projects, technical support, lab space, and other such necessities. You need these things, otherwise you get nowhere. So back to my own consideration at the beginning of this paragraph--how can I encourage college graduates to go down the PhD path when I know that doing so will most likely not lead to career opportunities for them within academia or even outside of academia? Many scientific and biotech companies consider job applicants with PhDs to be overqualified. They would prefer that their salespeople are well-educated, but not necessarily at the doctoral level.

So perhaps it makes sense to just focus on and encourage the very few top students at all academic levels. It would mean fewer PhD students overall, but perhaps that is best for all concerned. In this way, academia can remain elitist—for the very few who have made it through the eye of the needle. However, the focus nowadays in the academic circles I wander through is that ‘the more PhD students, the better’. This of course is from the standpoints of the mentors and group leaders, who eye potential students as means to their ends—more publications and thus more money, more hands for the inevitable and time-consuming lab work, and so on. Research groups with many PhD students are looked favorably upon. Those who manage to accumulate a number of such students are considered successful in academia, because a large group generates grant funding, whereas a small group does not. The trend nowadays is to merge small groups into larger ones; doing so increases the chances of getting funding and getting more students. This is all well and good for the large research group; I’m just not sure it’s in the best interests of the PhD students who are looking at a different sort of future when it comes to the job market. It may just be me, but it seems rather pointless to invest a large amount of time and energy in mentoring students who will not be staying in academia. Most of the PhD students I have had the privilege of knowing finished their degrees and left academia for jobs in industry; they are salespeople, application specialists, clinical research associates, and the like. These jobs are all very good jobs, but they do not necessarily require a PhD. Many of these men and women are glad they took their PhDs in terms of having fulfilled a personal goal; some are not. The latter are those who originally wanted (or thought they did) an academic career, and were tossed around in the system by mentors who did not really care about their professional advancement. Or they experienced the nightmare of being one of many doctoral students in a research group, all of whom required their own research projects, all of whom struggled with their group leader over how their projects were defined and who had the primary responsibility for these projects. These few students were exceptionally bright and talented, and in my estimation, were forced out by group leaders who made it impossible for them to stay, because their intelligence and directness challenged the group leader. Or because the group leader knew that there was nothing to offer them in the way of an actual career. So wouldn’t it have made more sense to have discouraged them at a much earlier time point?

Should you pursue a doctorate and an academic research career? No one can answer that question for you. Think long and hard about what you want out of life. If you choose the academic route, know that you have chosen a career where you will always have homework or the feeling of not having finished your homework, where you will work long hours in the lab or in the office analyzing data and writing articles. Unless you are extremely bright, talented and creative, you will not rise in the system. And even if you are all of these, there is no guarantee that you will rise in the system—due to other factors such as political jockeying, pissing contests, and the like. You’ve got to know and understand, really understand, what it is you are choosing. If you don’t, you can end up like many middle-aged and close-to-retirement academic researchers in the current system who find themselves with little funding and no students. The system changed and they were displaced. The small groups they ran are not interesting anymore. They hang on ‘in quiet desperation’. They are small-fish small-pond scientists who suddenly found themselves in larger ponds, at the mercy of the larger and more predatory fish. That is the current reality of many research academics. There are less stressful ways to make a living.  

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