Graduate jobs: A look at the numbers

 In News, PhD/Postdoc Blog

The price of academia

In the graduate job market competition is fierce and stakes are high. The data show that the number of tenured academic positions is far outpaced by the number of freshly minted Ph.D.s. This is especially troubling when coupled with the findings of a 2017 survey of 5,700 Ph.D. students conducted by Chris Woolston of Nature Jobs. More than half of those surveyed (52%) reported wanting to pursue a career in academia. The pressure to produce and uncertain career prospects are just some of the key contributing factors in the high rate of anxiety and depression reported within the academic community. Indeed, one study by Levecque et al. reported that 32% of the graduate student population were at risk of developing a common psychiatric disorder, such as depression. This is more than double the rate of the general population.

Given what’s at stake, it’s worth taking a look at the numbers so that those contemplating an advanced degree or work in the academic sector can make informed decisions about their future career paths. All too often I believe we feel compelled to simply follow the academic route because it “seemed like the next logical step.”    

The economics of graduate jobs

Just by looking at the numbers you might think that the uncertainty and career anxiety associated with pursuing a career in academia comes down to simple economics; oversupply of Ph.D.s and a low demand for tenured positions. This is true but only partly so. This view does not take into account the number of off-tenure positions in higher education has grown over time. The problem, of course, is that these off-tenure jobs often provide low wages and may not require an advanced degree to perform. For example, undergraduate teaching positions within universities can usually be performed by graduate students or postdocs, without the need for full-time teaching staff. This may help explain why the number of advanced degree graduates with job commitments lined up prior to graduating has declined over time.

It may also go a long way to explaining why after 8-10 years of education and training, postdocs, in the US at least, can expect to earn lower than average wages when compared to the general population. Although those of us with a doctorate can expect to earn higher lifetime earnings than those without a graduate degree, we should still expect to earn less than those with a professional degree. This is troubling given the long-term commitment of pursuing a Ph.D. However, these statistics should be interpreted with some caution as they do little to reflect the complexity and distribution of wages in the underlying data. For example, there are large wage disparities between those working in an academic postdoc vs. those working in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors, or even within other non-science/healthcare related specialties. But hey, money isn’t everything! We scientists are a passionate bunch that derives great satisfaction from the joy of discovery.

Can’t get no satisfaction

Image by Gerd Altmann at Pixabay

So what about career satisfaction? With long working hours and a relatively low salary, you’d think that we must really like what we’re doing as academic scientists. As you would expect, again the answer is also somewhat nuanced. Although most graduate students report a high degree of overall satisfaction with their Ph.D. programs, the same cannot be said for academic postdocs.  According to a survey by Nature conducted earlier this year (2018), postdocs working in academia showed the lowest percentage of those satisfied with their careers (68%). Assuming that the numbers have not drastically shifted since last year, this finding is also in stark contrast to job satisfaction reported in the US workforce as a whole. In a cross-sectional survey published by the Society for Human Resource Management, 89% of employees surveyed reported being at least “somewhat satisfied” with their jobs. Interestingly, and take note employers, postdoc career satisfaction seems to be largely influenced by the lab atmosphere. A survey by the TIAA Institute of tenured and tenure-track teaching staff indicated that supportive colleagues were one of the driving factors in career satisfaction. Unsupportive colleagues and workload were causes of job dissatisfaction. This probably varies considerably by institution. For example, the results of a postdoctoral job satisfaction survey published by the University of Colorado Boulder indicated that the vast majority of postdocs felt that their work was valued by colleagues and that they were supported in their career paths by their mentors and supervisors. This result does not reflect the relatively low overall job satisfaction reported in the previously-cited Nature survey.

According to a survey by Nature conducted earlier this year (2018), postdocs working in academia showed the lowest percentage of those satisfied with their careers (68%).

Pause for reflection

Taken as a whole, I think that we can learn a few key lessons from looking at the postdoctoral employment picture.

First, it pays to be realistic when deciding whether or not to undertake a Ph.D. Rather than thinking of it as the “next logical step” in your career path, take stock and reflect on whether or not it is the right decision for you.

Second, appreciate the little things. This is the most valuable piece of advice that I was ever given during my scientific training. If being the first person to observe an obscure phenomenon under the microscope or watching solutions change color when you mix them isn’t enough for you, then a job in research is going to be utter drudgery because that’s basically the day-to-day excitement of the job.

Third, given the difference that a supportive and friendly work environment is going to make to your overall job satisfaction, when it comes to picking your lab, whether it be for your Ph.D. or your postdoc, do your due diligence on the lab social environment.

Finally, there is no shame in leaving academia if you find that it isn’t enough. What’s the point in making yourself miserable for years on end? Drum up the courage and take the leap. Statistically speaking, the worst that can happen is that you’ll end up with a better salary, improved job satisfaction, and less working hours… Just the numbers.


Keen for more career ramblings? Follow me on twitter @SciMJHarris. To keep up with the rest of the BEST team, follow @NIHBEST.

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