Where do the brightest PhDs go?

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Hundreds of articles have been written on the challenges faced by PhDs and postdocs. The 2014 National Academies report states that about 65% of US PhD-holders continue into a postdoc, and only 15–20% of those move into tenure-track academic posts. The European situation is even more competitive — in the United Kingdom, for example, only about 3.5% of science doctorates become permanent research staff at universities.

PhDs also graduate with a significant debt to pay, as shown in this chart below:

The Atlantic also reports that, “Nearly 40 percent of the Ph.D.s surveyed in 2014 hadn’t lined up a job—whether in the private industry or academia—at the time of graduation.”

Permanent employment options are scarce, and talented researchers continue to face a bleak future despite being subject matter experts in their own right. This results in scientists dropping out of the lab to pursue other interests.

Some people perceive this as a systemic filter to help only the brightest graduates get into the few permanent faculty positions on offer. It’s akin to separating the wheat from the chaff. However, the reality on the ground is much different.

Hundreds of scientists with very promising credentials too are walking away from academia. But as most mentors know — this is not the full picture: sometimes the scientists who move on are the ones with the most promise. Their motivations are diverse – some want more money or more time with family and the others are lured by opportunities elsewhere.

The painful part is that most of these scientists would’ve liked to stay on in research if it was viable enough. At the end of the day, it’s a huge loss for both science as well as scientists. It’s quite ironical that the academic system struggles to sustain even the brightest PhDs and postdocs who can make significant contributions to science.

I’d like to invite comments from principal investigators, professors, and postdocs citing examples of some very promising scientists who’ve left science to pursue other interests out of sheer frustration or the lack of options to continue in research.

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Minhaj manages operations at Kolabtree

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