Today we host a post from Tatyana Dubich, head of the Communication Team.
When I started my PhD project, I saw just one way to go: get a PhD, go ahead as a postdoc with a goal to become professor one day. There was no other life after PhD I could imagine.
At that time a good friend of mine, a postdoc, confronted me with a statement, that based on the number of people who stay in academia 10 years after graduation, professorship is, in fact, an “alternative” career. I thought that he must be wrong. However, while I progressed with my studies I realized that my naive thinking indeed doesn’t pass the reality check.
It became clear that there are too many people with a doctorate degree and too few academic openings. In their study, Larson and colleagues applied populational approach and calculated a “birth rate” for PhD, which turned to be far too high. They concluded that only 12,8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in USA. More optimistic prognosis was published by Jordan Weissmann based on National Science Foundation’s data in 2013. Although amount of PhDs who found a job in academia vary as much as 5-45% depending on the field of study they averaged at 19,4%.Indeed, my postdoc friend was right. The studies show that the chances to get a tenured-tracked position are pretty grim.
According to the recent study, conducted by Kahn and Ginther, about 80% of PhDs continue their studies as a postdoc, but only 21% of postdocs actually get a tenured-track positions ten years after PhD. Postdoc training is important for those who would like to pursue tenured-track position despite of all the odds. However, it might not be beneficial for those who chose a career outside academia. The study show that the postdocs who moved to industry, government or non-profit organization earn 17-21% less in 15 years, than their colleagues, who skipped postdoc stage and moved to working force directly after PhD. The data suggest that working experience is more valuable than post-doc training.
It means that you have to make your career choice early enough and plan your steps accordingly, rather then just go with the flow. Is professorship the only option? Clearly, not.
How do I make a choice?
During the midterm meeting of the Helmholtz Juniors, Otmar Wiestler, the president of the helmholtz association, mentioned that, in order to find the best fit, one should take into account three major components – personal goal, passion and qualification. I was moved by the advice. Indeed, the formula seems to be rather straightforward: follow your dreams and do what you’re good at. But how do I know, if I my qualification is good enough to a specific job, if it will help me to achieve my personal goal or fulfill my passions? Those points aren’t usually a part of a job description.
Science Careers developed a tool to help you measure your goals, passions and qualification and compare it with characteristics needed for specific careers, which I found extremely helpful. myIDP is designed specifically for users with doctoral degree in science and gives a set of non-academic careers one could pursue. It provides an extensive literature overview on every selected career path and gives you an idea, that are the possibilities, challenges and how to get started with one or another profession. It is a good way to get an idea for career development, if you can’t get a personal consultation.
Stepping out of the PhD-Postdoc dogma might be scary. It feels like the years in high school, university, graduate school prepared us for one ultimate goal – to become a professor. However, it is not true. PhD can be a starting step to variety of careers. Did you know, that there is a job called molecular animator? Yes, you need a PhD for that.
I was inspired by TED-talk of Emilie Wapnick, which introduced me to the whole new concept – multipotentialites, as people with many interests and creative pursuits. Instead of fixing on one “true calling” for the whole life they keep exploring new areas and combine their various, sometimes opposite interests. It is all about goal-passion-qualification triangle again and making the best out of it. Are you sure science is your only passion? If not, why not to combine your interests into something bigger? One of the examples is Mayim Chaya Bialik, who is famous for her role as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler in Big Bang Theory. Mayim has a PhD in neuroscience (for real!) and successfully combines her career as scientist, writer and actress. Another inspiring case is Dr. Randy Olson, who was a professor in marine biology before moving to Hollywood and becoming a filmmaker. His movies go further than just “educational films”: he introduces public to evolution, global warming, ocean pollution. He combines deep scientific knowledge with passion for moviemaking to arouse interest to such complex problems.
So, the options are limitless and go far beyond classical academia-industry dilemma. Every year more and more PhDs are moving for a job outside academia, even if PhD training prepares us for one career only – professorship. How do you become a successful science communicator, entrepreneur, patent agent or policy maker after such a training? You don’t. All of these careers require a PhD, but PhD only is not sufficient to be successful. Often additional training is required to become fit for one or another job. This realisation comes slowly and initiates a lot of discussion, so we might see some changes in the PhD training soon.
Helmholtz Association works towards an implementation of career advice service as a part of PhD and PostDoc training. Career advice and alumni networks are already well established in some graduate schools and for some centers it is still a work in progress. Of course, a personal consultation would be the best solution, but finding a suitable candidate for the job might be a challenge.
It all sounds very promising, but I feel it is impossible to make one training program which includes all the needs of every career path possible. Therefore individual development plans are important and it is a good idea to make one as early as you can. This can be done either with a help of career advisor or maybe using something such as myIDP software. Learn as much as you can about different jobs requirements and plan courses you take accordingly. It might be difficult to squeeze them into packed experimental plan for your thesis, but it is totally worth it in a long run.
So yes, there is a life after PhD and it is far more diverse than I ever imagined. There are many options besides academia worth exploring and the road can take you anywhere! You just have to be prepared.
Larson RC, Ghaffarzadegan N., Xue Y., Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia. Syst Res Behav Sci. 2014 ; 31(6): 745–750. doi:10.1002/sres.2210 Kahn S., Ginther D.K. The impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine Nature Biotechnology 2017 35, 90–94. doi:10.1038/nbt.3766 Weissman J., How Many Ph.D.'s Actually Get to Become College Professors?, blog post https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/how-many-phds-actually-get-to-become-college-professors/273434/ Individual development plan from Science Careers http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/ More about multipotentialites and Emilie Wapnick - http://puttylike.com/