Monday, May 7, 2012

What PhD's Want To Be When They Grow Up

Almost everyone who goes to grad school in physics does so thinking that they will one become a tenured professor at a large university.  And anyone who has been around a physics graduate program for a while knows that for most of us that is simply not going to happen.  A recent book by Paula Stephan entitled "How Economics Shapes Science" shows that 23% of physics PhD's hold tenure-track appointments 6 years after their PhD, which means that less than one-quarter of those that survive grad school will get to be a professor in the way they imagined when they started.

That's a dismal way to look at grad school, but I've made a strong assumption in the preceding paragraph that some of you probably already noticed.  I assumed that every grad student wants to have a tenure-track position at a large research university.  It turns out that what grad students want is far more diverse than that, and that it changes over the course of the average student's grad school experience.  A recent study by a pair of management experts looked at exactly those questions and the results are fascinating.  I recommend reading the entire paper as it's very well-written and accessible, but here at the two points that I found most interesting.

First, they showed that even when asked to disregard the likelihood of actually getting a job in one of six areas, only 37% of beginning grad students in physics rated a tenure-track faculty position at a research university as "highly desirable" and that the percentage of students with that opinion didn't change over the course of grad school.  Note that the percentages can add up to more than 100% because respondents could indicate multiple areas as "highly desirable".

This indicates that new physics PhD's are not facing 1-in-4 odds of getting a tenure-track position, but rather that the odds are more like 1-in-2, assuming that there was little overlap between those that liked the "faculty-research" and "faculty-teaching" options.

 The second highlight is the way that students' opinions of the six career paths change over the course of grad school.  They tracked what percentage of students rated each career path at the end of their graduate careers versus their ratings when they entered grad school.
This shows that the faculty options were the two that took the biggest hits, meaning that a significant fraction of grad students realized that they didn't really want to be professors after getting effectively apprenticed to one for 5-7 years.  Presumably replacing that career goal are fields like R&D at start-up firms and government labs, which saw the biggest increases in attractiveness.

I find it very encouraging that most grad students realize that there are good things to do with a PhD in physics other than become your adviser, and that grad school actually does help open minds to other options.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for Sauermann, H., & Roach, M. (2012). Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036307


  1. Very interesting stuff Nick.  It looks like the Bio-people have a larger drop in interest in a faculty/research position and the biggest increases are in government.  That last one doesn't surprise me as, and I can only speak for physics, so many government jobs seem to pay better and be slightly less competitive then academics.

    I will also add that it is my experience that the "percentage get faculty postions" is only going to get worse since right now there is a backlog of postdocs as so many universities have been on hiring freezes for the last few years.  

  2.  I think the next couple hiring cycles will be a lot like this past one.  We had a single faculty opening here in my department that got 360+ applications.  My adviser estimated that at least 30 of the applicants would have been on the short-list for the last faculty search in 2003 had they applied then.  Certainly there is a huge back-log of post-docs right now because of the poor faculty job market and the relatively good post-doc market from stimulus funds that are just now starting to run out.

    In spit of all this, I think the job market will settle back down into an equilibrium close to what it was in prior to the recession, but again that may take a couple more hiring cycles.

  3. Yeah, and just to warn you (and I will eventually post all this) this bask-log of postdocs also means postdocs are crazy too.  I applied to a few that had over 300 applications with a few letters informing me this was a record year.  

  4. Particularly in the next few years the post-doc market will get squeezed too as stimulus funds run out.  Eventually, I think that a large number of post-docs will be forced out of academia, which is unfortunate, but I don't worry too much about those of us that do end up in other areas, as those people tend to do just fine in terms of employment and salary.

    The real worry for me is that universities will use this as an opportunity to replace tenure-track faculty with non-tenure-track positions because people are desperate enough to take them.

  5. Nick,

    NYT article on soaring cost of college:

    It reports that average debt is $23K, and top 3% owes over $100K. 

    I do not think we need to bail out those 3% who could have chosen to attend less costly colleges, like CU, may be?  They went there for "prestige" and "connections" and the price for that is what it is.

    $23K for a four year college is about $6K per year, which many of them could have earned that amount during summer job or a part time job. 

    So called student loan stuff is an another bail out of the rich.

  6. I'm a month late, so I doubt anyone will see this- but I notice that the smallest category in the PLoS survey (other, which I'm guessing means 'alternative career') is probably the largest employer of physicists (since it includes data mining, finance, management consulting, being a code monkey, etc).  It seems like most physics phds desire a job where they get to do physics- so my worry is that most physics phds don't get a job they desire.  Sure, they might make ok money, but what a staggering waste of training. 


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