When individuals begin their Ph.D. studies, the majority of them are hoping for a career in academics. But for some reason or another, many change their minds throughout the process. Why do so many students, at the completion of a Ph.D. and sometimes even their postdoctoral fellowship, decide that an academic career isn’t for them? Even when they started their education wanting a life in academia.
How many Students Decide to Leave Academia?
In a study published in 2017, it was determined that at the beginning of a science and engineering Ph.D. program, eighty percent of students were interested in pursuing a career in academia. This statistic was discovered in 2010 at the commencement of a longitudinal study looking at students from 39 research universities in the United States.
When examining those same students in 2013, there was a twenty-five percent reduction in academic career interest. That being said, there was a five percent gain in interest. However, that means that forty percent of individuals completing their PhD. have no interest in academia.
Almost half of the students in Ph.D. programs are not interested in staying in academia, yet the vast majority of programs focus on specializing students for research. This is a problem that has numerous consequences for academic and non-academic work in STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) fields.
Why Do Students Leave Academia?
When students decide not to pursue a career in academia, research shows that it is not driven by the expectations of the available jobs, the availability of research funding, or postdoctoral requirements. Instead, the students report that it is their changing preferences for job attributes and the nature of academic research that pushes them away.
A significant number of students report a lack of knowledge about non-academic STEM careers. While in university, many are focused on their education and have little time to research their options. The researchers suggest that providing students with a broad amount of information early on in their Ph.D. may help with the uncertainty they experience. If individuals are not aware of the options and opportunities outside of academia, they may not realize that research isn’t the only option.
Other research shows that those with postdoc positions who have mentors who are full professors and are very supportive are more likely to have long term plans of working in academia. This suggests that those who are given specific attention from a higher-ranked mentor are more likely to work in academia. This research also shows that men are more likely to work in academia compared to women.
Unfortunately, this discrepancy isn’t just because women don’t enjoy STEM programs, it has much more to do with the culture of graduate-level education.
Why do Women Leave STEM?
It is not a secret that there are fewer women populating STEM programs and jobs than men. In the past, the reason for this discrepancy has been justified by stating that men and women have different preferences when it comes to abilities and learning. New research shows that women in doctoral programs leave before finishing their degrees at higher rates than men, and those that did earn a degree chose to leave academia.
In this research, women reported feeling that although they believed that they could succeed as a scientist, the masculinized culture of STEM made them feel alienated or discouraged during their education. There were some that also reported feeling discriminated against for being female. This, in turn, made many choose to leave and enter another industry such as teaching, law, or policy-making.
Problems with Graduate-Level Education
Although graduate-level education is able to adequately prepare students for conducting research, it doesn’t do a good enough job of preparing them for the diverse job market. Many graduates also are ill-prepared for communicating with the public, which is one of the most important roles of a scientist today.
In graduate-level programs, students become overspecialized and may end up struggling with generalized roles in the job market. Essential critical thinking skills are, unfortunately, not a priority in many programs leaving those who do not work in academia underprepared.
If there are so many people who lose interest in academic work, institutions need to alter their education plans. The philosophy should no longer be to prepare students for research, but instead to generate individuals capable of conducting thorough and communicative research, while at the same time producing more broadly trained scientists prepared for a world outside of academia.
Failure to follow this philosophy has been studied in the biomedical science field. It has the potential to lead to research that is poorly reproducible and ends up being retracted.
What’s more? Many graduate students report that their mentors are not as interested in them as they had hoped, which leads them to feel discouraged during their studies. Institutions need to insist on engaging mentors if they want their students to succeed in the world of STEM regardless of whether their graduates pursue academia or non-academia.
Most research suggests that if we are to help students discover whether or not they wish to fulfill an academic career, they need to be given more relevant information about opportunities. Further, internships and opportunities to experience academia first hand should be given to those interested.
Due to the intensity of graduate-level education, students are not always given the opportunity to explore their options and discover what they want for the future. Mentors and teachers should help students determine what they want. There are not an infinite number of teaching and research positions at institutions, so competition for jobs is intense. It would be beneficial for institutions to educate their students on opportunities outside of academia. So that those who stay, would be those who truly want to be in the academic world. Research shows that when individuals are enthusiastic about their careers, they are more likely to work harder and succeed.
Preparing students for a generalized career in science with the ability to conduct effective research will help individuals become better workers in all fields.
- Roach, M. and Sauermann, H. (2017) The declining interest in an academic career. Plos One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184130
- Hayter, C. and Parker, M. (2019) Factors that influence the transition of university postdocs to non-academic scientific careers: An exploratory study. Research Policy 48, 3:556-570. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2018.09.009
- Bosch, G. and Casadevall, A. (2017) Graduate biomedical science education needs a new philosophy. American Society for Microbiology. https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.01539-17.
- Cabay, M., Bernstein, B., Rivers, M., and Farbert, N. (2018) Chilly climates, balancing acts, and shifting pathways: what happens to women in STEM doctoral programs. Soc. Sci. 7(2), 23; https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7020023.
- Schnoes, A., Caliendo, A., Morand, J., Dillinger, T., Naffziger-Hirsch, M., Moses, B., Gibeling, J., Yamamoto, K., Lindstaedt, B., McGee, R., and O’Brien, T. (2018) Internship experiences contribute to confident career decision making for doctoral students in the life sciences. Life Sciences Education 17, 1. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.17-08-0164.
- McConnell, S., Westerman, E., Pierre, J., Heckler, E., and Schwartz, N. (2018) Career choice, gender, and mentor impact: results of the U.S. national postdoc survey. The preprint server for biology. https://doi.org/10.1101/355511.