If you haven’t seen it already, the December 2010 issue of The Economist has an
article entitled “The disposable academic” that is worth your time to read. While many of you will find it a rather depressing
article, it is a hard-nosed look at the realities of the academic career path.
Which brings me to what wasn’t discussed in the Economist
article, namely how do you avoid becoming one of the disposable academics? I think the first step is to broaden your
horizons about what an acceptable career might be. One of the major issues I run into on a
regular basis is scientists who really consider an academic career the only one
worth having. This notion gets strongly
reinforced throughout grad school and postdocs since very few people in
academic research have any experience outside of it.
However, given the statistics in the Economist
article, in the US
only 16% of PhDs will end up in academic jobs, so maybe it is time for most
PhDs to start thinking about a career in the commercial sector. Careers in the business world can be just as
rewarding, if rather different from an academic career.
Of course, this is a very difficult change, largely
because universities and research centers have few, if any, opportunities to
learn the skills needed in the business world.
I’ve always found this odd since at the undergraduate level, most
universities do teach business skills.
Our work at sciphd.com is a first step that we are actively pursuing
with a number of universities, but this kind of thinking needs to be more
Furthermore, looking at a career in business means
changing the way you look at your research.
The bottom line is that the commercial sector doesn’t measure you by the
number of publications you have or the specific technical skills you’ve
mastered. Instead, they are looking at
your ability to adapt to new situations and work with a wide variety of
I recently had a conversation with a postdoc who
was considering taking a second postdoc to learn some specific skills and
publish a bit more so he would be more attractive to industry. This is exactly the wrong way to look at this
transition. Instead of spending time
working on more lab skills, he would be much better served by building his
business skills, and more importantly, expanding his network to include people
already in industry. Unlike in academia
where most jobs are advertised, in the private sector the majority of jobs are
never advertised, so your network becomes the most valuable asset you have in a
The Economist supports a solution where fewer PhDs are
awarded, and while this certainly could be an answer, I think it is a misguided
one particularly for all of us who already have their degree. Instead, we need to focus on getting existing
PhDs some decent business skills and on universities to start taking their
responsibilities towards graduate students much more seriously. If the overwhelming majority of people going
through grad school are going to end up in the commercial world, then PhD
training needs to reflect that reality.