Monthly Archives: May 2012

Career Preferences of PhD Students

Doctoral students and researchers may find this an interesting paper: Published in PLoS ONE, it describes the results of a survey conducted on science PhD students based in 39 research-intensive US universities. The key finding reports that the desire of PhD students to pursue an academic research career is the most attractive amongst other choices* at the start of their PhD, but that this declines over time. For life science students this desire falls from 57% down to 50%, whilst the attractiveness of other careers increases. In addition, the survey incorporates the influence of PhD students’ supervisors who tend to encourage their students towards a career in academia, which may skew career preferences disproportionately in this direction.

Whilst the authors of the paper speculate on the reasons for this alteration in career preference such as later-stage students becoming aware of the difficulty of securing a permanent academic position (approx. 10%), I still consider 50% to be a relatively high proportion of students attracted to an academic career. In fact, generally speaking, over half those PhD students I meet during the career workshops I organise say they would like to continue on to a postdoctoral research position. So perhaps, as with most people at this stage of their career, PhD students are not necessarily thinking long-term at this point. Also, of course, many enjoy the intellectual challenge of research and want to continue to use the specific research skills and knowledge they have acquired during their PhD.

For my own part, I tend to believe that the prospect of change is naturally difficult for most of us to contemplate so that continuing within the same job or work environment can be more attractive, at least in the short-term. Fear of the unknown, a lack of knowledge of other job markets and the additional influence of supervisors, as reported in the PLoS paper, can all work together to lead PhD students and researchers to remain in situ. Even for those not wholly satisfied with their work or long-term career prospects, remaining in academic research can seem more attractive than having to make big decisions and life changes. For more on this click here.

If you’re a researcher maybe you have an opinion on this subject or personal experience you would like to share with others in the comments section below.

*Career choices presented to PhD students were as follows: (a) a faculty career with an emphasis on teaching; (b) a faculty career with an emphasis on research or development; (c) a government job with an emphasis on research or development; (d) a job in an established firm with an emphasis on research or development; (e) a job in a startup with an emphasis on research or development; and (f) other career.