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The Black Hole

A deeper look into the "80 percent of PhDs who do not become professors"


In a recent comment left on the site by SubC, a request was made to “look deeper” into the 20% number of PhDs becoming professors.  Specifically, the question was raised as to “how many that wanted an academic career in the first place actually ended up in one” and that a look into postdoctoral fellow expectations might be a good place to start.

My response came in two parts, the first part was that Canada has thus far not done a good job of collecting information on its recent hires in academia or keeping track of its postdocs, which is stimulating the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars to try and address this information gap in order to establish these numbers in Canada.  In the interim, we gain a lot from how things are in the United States as our PhD programs are similarly structured (though admittedly Canada’s “time to obtain a PhD” is not as high as their 7.9 year median).
The second part of the response was to allude to the results of a survey that was completed at the University of California San Francisco to better understand the career aspirations of PhDs and postdoctoral fellows.  While this is one survey at one university, it is an excellent glimpse into the expectations of young scientists at a research intensive university.

Regarding the 20% number – our statements around rates of PhDs who become professors are NOT from Canada.  The NSF in America does collect this data and it can be seen in the following table: Doctorate recipients holding tenure and tenure-track appointments at academic institutions.  These data include social sciences PhD holders which do bring up the overall average (25%), but in the biological sciences and physical sciences these numbers are stubbornly hovering around 20% since 2003.  There were actually increases in several fields (e.g.: notable jumps in chemistry and physics/astronomy) between 2003 and 2006.  Overall though, I think it’s not particularly unfair to use the 20% number for the US and to work to find out what the numbers are in Canada through our national organizations and universities.

As for the expectations of PhD students and PhD holders, I point readers in the direction of this recently published survey from UCSF.  I will encourage a read through the whole article which describes the varied opinions of students and recommends helping students arrive at non-traditional career choices through three recommendations:

  1. Shift academic culture to embrace the branching science career pipeline
  2. Integrate career development into the graduate curriculum
  3. Transform graduate education policy at the national level

Graduate education is a little more structured though and for the purposes of answering what goes on in the mind of a postdoctoral fellow, one needs to dig to supplemental material #3.  Here, we very clearly see that the vast majority of UCSF postdocs want research careers (89%) and the majority’s top choice is a principal investigator in an academic setting (54%) (i.e.: a university professor that does research). In combination with this article’s report that 80% of all PhDs in biological sciences move onto postdoctoral work (from 2011 NRC data), a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation means that just over 40% of those who get a PhD would list an academic professorship as their primary career aspiration .   With this in mind, there is definitely a disconnect:  ~20% of highly trained biomedical scientists in America) ((if 20% of the 40% who want them get academic posts, there will also be 20% who want them but will not get them)) will inevitably have to face the “you cannot become a professor” music.

The major point of our recent session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference was to get people to recognize that there are many highly trained clever people who (certainly through some fault of their own) are destined to be disappointed and that many of them are languishing in positions that are unproductive for everyone involved.  Ideally people ask themselves sooner rather than later a) Do I want to stay in academia? and b) Do I stand a reasonable chance of being successful in academia?  Maybe a re-read of our Say NO to the Second Postdoc article will help people along in decision-making.Until then – keep the discussion going, keep the numbers and links rolling in and please do feel free to call us on anything you think we’re under- or over-stating.  The only way we’ll figure out solutions is to fully understand the problem and more input from readers is only going to help.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SubC / December 14, 2011 at 22:04

    Thanks for great response Dave. It definitely answers many of my concerns, at least in the American context. 50% of aspiring professors getting into tenute track positions doesn’t sound too harsh to me, I am sure quite a few will also be moving into predominantly teaching positions or becoming “research assistant professors’.
    In our own Canadian context, I doubt that 80% of biomedical PhDs would go into a postdoc. Outside the major research intensive universities in Toronto/Vancouver/Montreal, professors often have a hard time finding a Canadian trained postdoc (or at least one with a few published papers). This suggests a greater percentage move on to other pursuits, be it industry, Govt or medical/dental/vet school (seen it happen quite a bit at my alma mater- a major prairie university).
    Finally, there are many who work within academia in a non-PI position, namely as research associates/ research assistants/ lab managers/ staff scientists/ research scientists. Given that our research enterprise is so dependent on these highly skilled professionals, I personally feel that more emphasis needs to be given on these positions as viable career choices. I know of people who always wanted to be in research, but did not relish the cuthroat competition for grants or dealing with management issues and became one of these scientists. Hopefully, there will be a greater recognition of these ‘unsung’ researchers, more standradization of their work conditions and recognition of these career paths in future.
    Thanks again for bringing up these issues in your website.

    • Dave / December 15, 2011 at 23:20

      Hi SubC – no problem at all – thanks for suggesting a little more homework on our end. For accurate Canadian numbers on career expectations, I suspect we’ll be waiting a while – the American numbers are from a single university as well, which comes with its own set of troubles.
      As for professors finding it difficult to attract Canadian-trained talent, I think the reasons are many-fold. Certainly some percentage are doing exactly as you suggest and moving into non-traditional career paths but I suspect that at least some of this unmet need is due to the relatively poor salary/benefit/career structure in place for postdocs in Canada. These are exactly the types of things CAPS is trying to get a hold on, but as with all volunteer groups, the ol’ day job comes first….
      This will surely not be the last time such issues and numbers come up though – stay tuned!

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