Career paths and transparency in academia

Nature News released a story this week, “How to Build a Better PhD”.  Labor economists, as explained in the piece, have long advised academics that we are over-producing doctoral students.  Too many newly-minted PhDs for too few faculty positions.  Anyone in academia knows this, we often have long discussions of it, and yet the system doesn’t change – or, if it does, the change is incremental.

Most of the Nature News story focuses on the statistics and fates of PhD students, plus some suggestions on how to fix the systems.  I wasn’t surprised that only 26% of PhD students end up in full-time academic positions, but I never would have guessed 37% of PhD biology students leave their program before finishing.  But, the career paths of many students remain unknown – or at least untracked.  Stanford made an effort to track doctoral graduates and found only 31% of recent cohorts were employed as postdocs.  Statistics following students after graduation are rarely collected by universities, however.  Advice ranges from, “stop producing PhD students” to providing training in management and budgeting applicable to jobs both inside and outside academic science.  Those management skills are sorely lacking in academia, actually – we all know faculty who could improve their time management, and even as a sixth-year PhD student I have little experience in creating a budget for an NSF proposal.  Basic job skills are learned on the fly and some more formal instruction would probably give us all a leg up.

Overall, the article lays out the problems with our current systems nicely, and offers some possible solutions.  However, one sentiment (not long dwelled upon in the article) sparked a bit of a rant on Twitter, and I’d like to expand on that here.

“Meanwhile, some experts say that the onus falls partly on prospective and current PhD students to make sure their eyes are open. They should arm themselves with as much information as possible, says Labosky, so that ‘they are aware of their alternative options and can make plans’.”

While I do think students should attempt to make an informed decision about entering graduate programs, the onus is not on them.  If universities can’t even be bothered to formally track the fate of their graduates, how can we expect new students to know how competitive academia really is?

Starry-eyed early-twentysomethings are often exhorted to “do what you love and love what you do”.  That ideal leads many to graduate school.  Certainly, that’s how I landed where I am now.  And I do love what I do.  I love debating and discussing science, and learning new things.  I love how much I travel – for conferences and field work.  What other job sends you on a month-long, all expenses paid trip to northeastern Siberia?  I’ve met amazing people and made great friends.  I’ve discovered things that no one else knew before.  Just yesterday, I annoyed my officemates as I cooed over a new figure for my dissertation, elegantly summarizing months of work in one scatterplot.  I identify as a graduate student, a scientist, and an academic.  I’m open to alternative career paths, but I think I would make a good professor.

And, yet.  Miya Tokumitsu’s article last year, “In the Name of Love” rings true.  It is a privilege that I can afford graduate school.  I do value the intellectual products of my work more so than the money. Which can be a problem, to pull a few quotes from the article:

“[O]ur faith that our work offers non-material rewards, and is more integral to our identity than a ‘regular’ job would be, makes us ideal employees when the goal of management is to extract our labor’s maximum value at minimum cost.”   


"Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring “I love what I do” in response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks? How can we get our workers to be like faculty and deny that they work at all? How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?"

This attitude has become pervasive across other industries as well (unpaid internships are rampant in the arts and entertainment, for instance, although science also claims infamy on that front).  Academia embodies this attitude across entire careers, not just at the beginning.  No one, even the most idealistic undergraduate, expects to be making bank as a professor.  But many do expect a secure, steady income doing what they love in a university setting.  And, these days, those jobs are pretty thin on the ground.

Academia can be a bit of a closed community, for all our talk of outreach and “broader impacts”.  We discuss academic politics and problems with each other ad nauseam, but often remain tight-lipped to outsiders.  Do new students know that faculty searches often weed through one hundred applications?  Or 450 applicants, as one position (again, from Twitter) apparently had?  Do departments routinely tell undergraduates attrition rates, or placement 3 years after graduation?  5 years?  10 years?  Probably not.  Probably, most departments only know career paths of some alumni, not all.  Our department is currently constructing a complete alumni list spanning 30 – 40 years.  That’s essential information to assess our success as a department, yet only in the past two or three years has that database been created.

So, what to do about it?  I think a key problem is transparency.  Departments need to track their students after graduation, and be upfront with those statistics.  Current faculty and students, particularly senior students, need to be honest with prospective students about career prospects after graduation.  Faculty who advise undergraduates should let them know the consequences of pursuing an academic career – both the good and the bad.  And, yes, prospective students should seek out that information.  But that knowledge and data has to first be freely available.