The road to a doctorate degree is long and arduous, but Nature’s 2017 PhD survey reveals that students are as committed as ever to pursuing higher education. The survey is the latest insight into the lives and career aspirations of more than 5,700 graduate students worldwide.
While many indicated overall satisfaction with their studies, most feel anxious and uncertain about post-graduation options. Given today’s unforgiving job market and the fact that the economic benefits of a graduate degree are dwindling, why are students still pursuing PhDs?
Career paths are less linear than ever
To gain some first-hand feedback, we conducted our own mini-survey and obtained responses from graduate students in diverse STEM fields across Canada. Our collected responses are in agreement with Nature’s findings: the majority still feel passionate about their own research, but many are realizing that a traditional career path with a PhD leading to an academic professorship or senior position in industry may not be realistic anymore.
“Many people believe studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics means you will have a stable career after graduation,” says Anika Tarasewicz, a chemistry student at the University of Toronto.
“Unfortunately, this is a big misconception. The saturation of graduate students with a PhD creates an extremely competitive environment which causes job prospects to be very grim. Finding out this information has definitely changed my career expectations and trajectory.”
“As an undergrad, most career talks did not include non-academic options, making academic options seem easy and attainable when that is not always the reality, especially in Canada,” adds Clara Stafford, a psychology student from Western University.
“Pursuing an academic career is not as straightforward as I used to think it was and I am now reconsidering spending the next decade of my life pursuing a tenure track job post-PhD.”
Many students even consider pursuing a career in industry as non-traditional. It’s very easy to get caught up in the idea of a “one true career path” given the current mentality prevalent in the academic bubble.
There are options beyond the bench
Understandably, students can feel boxed into a seemingly limited range of job options, but what many take for granted is that a PhD has significant value beyond the bench.
A PhD is more than just a dissertation. It hones a collection of skills that are highly valued in professions outside of academia. Skills such as research strategies, writing, editing, project management, organization, and public speaking. In any case, many employers are less concerned with specific degrees and more interested in a candidate’s skill set, experience, and body of knowledge.
However, many graduate students don’t seem to know how to apply their broad set of transferable skills. What is truly unfortunate is that many won’t even consider a number of great career options because they are either unaware of them or they’re seen as lesser, fallback options.
“I think the problem is that students aren’t confident in marketing their skills and explaining how they might apply to non-academic positions,” says Anita Acai, a psychology and medical education student from McMaster University.
“The non-academic search can be overwhelming, particularly when your contacts are mostly in academia, so many of us don’t feel like we know where to start.”
Considering a road less traveled
When asked how well their undergraduate education prepared them for, or made them aware of, post-graduation career options, a majority of respondents felt they were not well informed.
“I was basically unaware, but then again, I hadn’t cared to know. I was happy entering grad school without a real post-graduate plan,” says Claudia Damiano, a cognitive science student from the University of Toronto.
Most universities offer a wide variety of resources at the graduate level, from guest speakers and panel discussions to workshops and seminars. There is a plethora of information available, though it seemingly comes too late as the transition from academia can be daunting, forcing many outside their own comfort zones.
Despite this challenge, it’s more important than ever to understand all career options available to you. For those who don’t feel that academia or industry is their calling, there are many opportunities worth pursuing and countless online resources to help you get there. Below, we’ve listed a few to get you started.
- Science Writing and Communication
- Public Relations and Marketing
- Patent Law
- Public Outreach
- Science Policy
Amidst challenges, students have no regrets
Despite what they now know and how their own expectations have changed, almost all the graduate students we surveyed said they have no regrets.
“Given the chance to do things over again, I would still go to graduate school simply because research is something I love doing,” says Vanessa Chan, a cognitive neuroscience student at the University of Toronto.
Times have changed, but graduate programs should not only provide students with the training necessary to compete for academic positions, but also provide a foundation to help them apply their degrees in new and innovative ways.
For this to happen, there needs to be a paradigm shift where “alternative career paths” become part of the normal spectrum of post-graduation options. While this movement is certainly gaining popularity, Nature’s survey results indicate academia is slow to follow.
Regardless, the opportunities are out there, we just need to find them.