Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Alternative career paths?

A few months ago, Science published an article which highlighted the bleak scenario recently (and not so recently) graduated PhDs in the life sciences face after graduation1. The size of the 'post-doc' population worldwide is dangerously increasing while the number of tenure-track academic positions is not. This generates a 'post-doc glut' which has been a problem for some time now. The number of PhDs graduating every year is by far larger that the number of positions in academia for them to fill; further, as PDFs (PostDoctoral Fellows) are 'more expensive' than grad students, many PIs tend to accept more and more grad students into their labs instead of accepting PDFs (labs need people, you know, and grants are not getting any larger). The programs themselves accept more students; where does this lead? To even more and more PhDs graduating every year and more PDFs have a hard time finding a job. Lots of offer, little demand.
Many (most) of the students enter PhD programs with the idea to follow the academic track. Are these students making informed decisions? Do they know what the job market is like? What it has to offer and what is doesn't? Has anyone taken the time to inform them about alternative career paths?
It is not, by any way, my intention to alarm any senior bachelor planning to enter a PhD program, but this is a reality. Better to know about it early.

The point is that there are alternative career paths to academia; some students even enter the programs knowing they do not want to enter that career track. Others, realize during their PhD that maybe academia is not what they want.
So, what would these alternative paths be? There are plenty of jobs in the commercial sector, science journalism, biotech industries, consulting, science administration, etc. It's not my objective to list all the possible positions, but to highlight the need to inform our students. For example, the University of Toronto has seminars by alumni who have chosen different career paths, in a way for grad students to be exposed to several options.

Should Universities accept fewer grad students? Should the efforts be made to hire more faculty? Is advice and info on alternative career paths enough? This is an ongoing debate over a very serious problem in our area of work….

See also:
Postdoc Perspective: Taking the “Alternative” out of Alternative Careers in Science
What Happened to 30 Biochemistry Graduate Students at Yale?


1 Mervis J. Science education. And then there was one. Science. 2008 Sep 19;321(5896):1622-8. [PubMed Link]

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