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:
- Shift academic culture to embrace the branching science career pipeline
- Integrate career development into the graduate curriculum
- 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.