Working on a Ph.D.?
There may not be an academic job for you at the end of the tunnel.
This blog post is part of a series called Is Academia Broken? This is the second in the series and it discusses the overabundance of PhDs compared to the number of available academic openings. The first blog post, on the perils of doing interdisciplinary research early in your career, can be found here.
When I first started my PhD, I had one dream: to become a professor. I asked around and a lot of my fellow graduate students had the same motivation. They were pursuing a PhD to be professors. My personal reason was simple: I was attracted by the idea of being a scholar - pushing a discipline beyond the boundaries of what is known. I was also attracted by teaching. Ok, I was also attracted by the long summer breaks (which are actually largely a myth).
Throughout my PhD, I did not even remotely consider a non-academic path. But I was lucky to have some computational skills, so there was always the possibility of a Plan B: a career in a large corporation, industry, or a startup (my research was in network analysis, natural language processing, text analytics, and bibliometrics). As some of you know, I ended up leaving academia after a very successful postdoc and creating the startup behind this blog post. But the question I would like to address today is: What were my chances of getting an academic job at the end of my postdoc?
A scary infographic has been circulating for a while. It shows that only 1 in 200 PhD students eventually ends up as tenured professors. This ratio (\(0.45\%\)) is incredibly low and endlessly debated. An NSF report (that uses 1999 data) states \(24\%\), so 1 in 4 graduates will get tenure: “since 1973, the percentage of recent PhD-holders hired into full-time faculty positions has been cut nearly in half, from 74 to 37 percent. The decline at research universities has been sharper, from 60 to 24 percent.” A paper published last year (Larson 2013) finds a lower overall ratio (\(12.8\%\)) based on a simple statistic, \(R_0\), defined as the mean number of new PhD’s a typical tenure-track faculty member graduates during his or her academic career.
We show that the reproduction rate in academia is very high. For example, in engineering, a professor in the US graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his/her whole career on average, and only one of these graduates can replace the professor’s position. This implies that in a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA.
What can we learn from these statistics? Whether the actual ratio of PhDs who become professors is 24%, 12.8% or 0.45%, the bottom line is: 100% is unattainable, even though the desires of most graduate students is indeed to stay in academia. Very simply, the world is producing too many PhDs (Cyranoski 2011) for too few academic positions, and this unbalance has created the postdoc pile-up that we are experiencing (Powell 2015).
My reflections on this matter are based on statistical evidence from recent surveys, but also on my experiences and those of people I know. There are success stories and horror stories, for sure. My intent is not to be overly pessimistic, but realistic.
Obviously, some PhD students are nearly forced to hope for an academic path as their only viable path. I am thinking of my good friends with PhDs in Comparative Literature, English Literature, Philosophy. These subjects are naturally harder to apply outside of the Academe. But not impossible. Consider, for example, what wonders the Digital Humanities are working. Projects like the N-gram viewer or Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees were only possible because humanists were able to employ quantitative techniques.
Final word. Dear PhD student, I hope that this blog post will not discourage you to carry on with your amazing doctoral research. Keep going! My PhD years were the most formative of my life. But do play with the idea that you may end up somewhere else. And in preparation for that possibility, think of ways to re-purpose your work and “remarket” yourself early on. You will not regret it.
Richard C. Larson, Navid Ghaffarzadegan, Yi Xue. Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R 0 in Academia. Syst. Res. 31, 745–750 Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Link
David Cyranoski, Natasha Gilbert, Heidi Ledford, Anjali Nayar, Mohammed Yahia. Education: The PhD factory. Nature 472, 276–279 Nature Publishing Group, 2011. Link
Kendall Powell. The future of the postdoc. Nature 520, 144–147 Nature Publishing Group, 2015. Link