Perspective: Real Data on Career Preferences

A recent study on the career preferences of science graduate students, published in PLoS ONE, has attracted a lot of attention for one of its conclusions: that student interest in academic research careers declines over the course of graduate school.

In the PLoS ONE study, Henry Sauermann, a behavioral economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and Michael Roach, a decision scientist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, surveyed 4109 Ph.D. students at 39 tier-one U.S. research universities. They asked them, among other questions, how attractive they found the prospect of working in academia (in both teaching and research careers), government, and at established and startup companies. The graduate students they surveyed were enrolled in programs in “bio/life” (59% of those surveyed), physics (23%), or chemistry (18%). The researchers divided respondents into early-stage and late-stage cohorts depending on how far along they were in graduate school.

Here’s the result that has gotten the most press: Academic research careers were less popular with the late cohorts than the early ones in all disciplines, suggesting, perhaps, that graduate students are disillusioned by exposure to the lives and careers of their faculty advisers.

The obvious conclusion of the study is that most graduate students are open to a range of possible employment outcomes, whether they’re just beginning or further along in their training. So, if you were worried that only a small proportion of Ph.D. graduates end up in tenure-track faculty posts, as I was, you can stop worrying about that now.

We should also worry about whether those students are receiving the training they need to compete for jobs in sectors beyond academia. Our graduate programs already do the most important thing extremely well: The best way to convey strong analytical skills is to teach students to be outstanding researchers. But there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to even the most basic professional skills.

For example, graduate departments need to do a better job of teaching laboratory safety skills, not only to keep academic researchers safe but also to give them a skill that is regarded as essential in most companies. Also, Science Careers’s informal polls indicate that some graduate students aren’t consistently keeping proper lab notebooks. Scientific record-keeping is a basic professional skill for any scientist—but it’s especially important in industry, where laboratory records must be robust enough to stand up to an intellectual property challenge.

Discussions from a spate of recent congressional hearings and professional society meetings also indicate that hiring managers believe that recent Ph.D. grads lack the skills needed to work effectively on industry teams. This is one of the reasons, they say, that they are reluctant to hire recent Ph.D. grads who lack industry experience. Of course, scientists who choose careers in academia would benefit just as much from enhanced teamwork skills.

Clearly, there’s a mismatch here. Careers in academia are scarce, and students are open to a wide range of other possibilities. Our science graduate programs do an excellent job of conveying scientific and analytical skills, but emphasizing skills needed to practice science in a wider range of careers would likely pay large dividends, scientifically and in the employability of graduates.

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