I am currently a fifth year graduate student well on my way to earning a Ph.D. in biological and biomedical sciences (knock on wood). For the past five years, I’ve been bombarded with the same question from friends and family during the holidays: what exactly are you doing? In the past I’ve answered this question by attempting to explain my thesis research on biofuels production in bacteria.

These days I realize that instead of being asked about what I am working on now, I’m being asked what I hope to do in the future. This question is not difficult for me to answer since I’ve wanted to go into science writing and communication since I started grad school. However, many graduate students have no idea what they’re going to do with their science Ph.D.s. Many people enter graduate school hoping to work as professors at academic institutions. In reality, since the number of grad students is much greater than openings for professors, this is not feasible for the majority of graduate students.

New Routes Required

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The traditional academic route in the United States follows the linear path shown above. Graduate students work under the mentorship of a professor and upon completion of their Ph.D., apply for postdoctoral positions (commonly referred to as a “postdoc”). Postdocs work independently under a professor and build their resumes further through publishing papers and writing grants to get their work funded. If the postdoc is able to publish papers of a high caliber, he or she can begin applying for faculty positions.

But here’s the rub—in the United States, 70% of scientists who complete graduate training continue to postdocs, and only 23% of those scientists ever end up with a tenure-track academic position. In 2011, approximately 36,000 science and engineering Ph.D.s were awarded in the U.S, but only about 3,000 academic positions were available in the same year (Figure 2). It didn’t help that, between 1998-2003, the National Institute of Health (NIH) used its newly doubled budget to train more Ph.D.s instead of increasing the number of professor positions. It is, in other words, currently impossible for academic institutions to absorb all of the science and engineering Ph.D.s that they create. Most graduate students will not have a choice but to consider “alternative” careers.

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Figure 2 ~ The number of science and engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2011 (left) far outstrips the number of academic faculty positions created in the same year (right), this is also true for many years previous to 2011 and will continue for the foreseeable future unless there are drastic changes to current Ph.D. programs. Source: Youngeun (Kaitlyn) Choi.

The branching career path

Fortunately, the career path for Ph.D.s does not have to be an entirely gloomy one, and most Ph.D.s are branching out into different industries. In fact, from a simple employment perspective, those with Ph.D.s in science, engineering, and health are doing much better than the general population. In February 2013, the unemployment rate for the general U.S. population was at 6.3% while that of U.S. science, engineering, and health Ph.D.s was way down at 2.1%.

Yet, a variety of career options exist outside the realm of academia. These options utilize many of the analytical and independent thinking skills developed during graduate school. For example, academics who transition to become patent lawyers would be able to make cogent arguments about the novelty of products by placing these new products in a scientific context. Patent lawyers must also distill information from large data sets to write patent applications—a skill cultivated through academic training. Similarly, academics who decide to work in policy get to apply the skills they previously used in designing experiments to think of unique policies and their effects.

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Figure 3 ~ There are many options for Ph.D.s other than the linear progression to the academic life of a professor and many Ph.D.s begin thinking about these different options only after they enter graduate school. Source: Youngeun (Kaitlyn) Choi.

Academia remaining old school

Despite the job-market reality, many Ph.D. programs still train their students for an academic career, but the major biomedical research funding agency in the United States, the National Institutes of Health, is beginning to take note of Ph.D. programs’ lack of adequate training for professional positions. They have recommended that when reviewing the successfulness of a Ph.D. program, value be placed on programs that promote professional development beyond that of the academic route. The NIH has also suggested that universities could create shorter programs for scientists interested in non-academic careers to get the training they need without having to do an entire Ph.D. Such programs, though their funding structure remains unclear, would still be science-oriented but would better prepare students for lives outside of academia than do traditional Ph.D. programs.

Scientists don’t usually make Earth-shattering discoveries as individuals, but instead participate in a highly collaborative process that results in incremental steps forward. So scientists must enjoy the incredibly focused (and sometimes tedious) process of doing experiments while also being able to see the bigger picture. As a science writer, I hope to communicate science at both of these levels by telling the stories of the people doing the research and communicating what their research means for the world in a way the public can understand. Sure, I could have gone down this path without getting a Ph.D., but I also think I now understand more about how science works and what motivates those doing research. I’ll be able to zero in on the key point behind a science story without drowning people in context all in an effort to bring science and its applications into readers’ daily lives.

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Table 1 ~ A small sample of career options for Ph.D.s (here focused on Ph.D.s in the life sciences). Information compiled from references (10,11), indeed.com, and salary.com. Salaries are rough estimates.


Republished courtesy Tyler Ford. Originally published with Harvard: Science in the News.


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Image Credit: Leland Francisco from Flicker

About The Author

Tyler Ford
Graduate Student in the Biological and Biomedical Science Program at Harvard

Tyler Ford is a fifth year graduate student in the Biological and Biomedical Science program at Harvard University. His thesis work focuses engineering bacteria to produce biofuel precursors. When not in the lab, Tyler likes to spend his time running, hiking, biking, or pretending he can draw.

  • Claire

    Great summary.. I work with many PhDs in the pharma industry and I actually think they have great career treks with that science degree. And given the competition these days we almost exclusively work with writers with PhDs because that gives them more credibility. I suppose the same slow changes in curriculum or selections of applicants can be said about other doctorate degree programs. When I went to pharmacy school they were grooming everyone to work in retail or clinical settings, working in the industry was a super non traditional route and sometimes frowned upon. The system will only change when enough people stop being snobby and check department of labor statistics. 🙂