Despite the fact that over 95% of science PhD students want to stay in academia, only 0.5-16% of us become professors. The exact number varies depending on where you live, but none of the statistics are encouraging. Fewer of us are ‘making it’ to tenured positions and it is taking longer for those who do.
The New Reality
In the 1980s, life was good for science PhD graduates. They had a 41% chance of becoming a professor. Researchers received their first R01 independent investigator grant at an average of 38 years old. The academic career track was running relatively smoothly from PhD to postdoc to professor so there were less than 20 000 postdocs working in the US. Many of our professors and mentors were lucky enough to be postdocs in that era.
Times have changed. Fast forward to today and there are over 60 000 postdocs working in the US. But no more tenure track positions. So now life science PhD graduates in the US have only a 16% chance of finding a tenure track position. This means that those of us who want to stay in academia in the US are forced into doing longer postdocs or working in several postdoc positions. The average age when researchers get their first R01 grant is now 45 years, despite the fact that since 2008 the NIH has been attempting to increase funding for new and early-stage investigators. The average PhD graduate is 33 years old, so that means that scientists now have to spend, on average, twelve years as a postdoc before ‘graduating’ to the next stage in their academic careers.
Still US PhD graduates have more reason to hope than their English, Japanese and European counterparts.
A report by the Royal Society found that over 95% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) PhD holders in the UK leave academia. Only 3.5% become permanent research staff and only 0.5% become professors. That bears repeating – 99.5% of STEM PhD graduates in the UK do not become professors. They end up in industry or government jobs or become ‘perma-docs’. Based on this research, the Royal Society is now recommending that universities and institutes make prospective PhD students aware that there are a limited number of academic positions available and help students find out about non-academic career options.
It’s even worse in Japan where over 50% of science PhD graduates have no job at all after graduation and only 12% of science PhD holders find any academic position on graduation.
European graduates seem to have a slightly better chance. In Germany, 6% of science PhDs find full-time academic positions. In Belgium, 30% of science and engineering PhD graduates go on to become academic postdocs. Although 80% of Belgium postdocs want to become professors, only 10% do so. This means that only 3% of people with a science or engineering PhD become professors in Belgium.
How did this happen? It’s a matter of supply and demand. Many countries around the world have dramatically increased the number of annual PhD graduates. At the same time there has been no increase in tenure track and tenured professorships.
In 1994, there were 7800 life science doctorate recipients – 71.5% of these people had a job or postdoc offer on graduation and 28.5% had no offer. By 2014, there were 11 335 life science doctoral graduates. Only 57.9% of those had a job or postdoc offer and 42.1% had no immediate postgraduate plans.
Since 1980 there has been no mandatory retirement age, so tenured professors have been staying in their positions longer. The flow on effect of this phenomenon is that the number of tenure track and tenured faculty positions has not changed during that time.
Also, according to the American Association of University Professors, more than 50% of all faculty appointments are now part-time positions – adjunct professorships, part-time lecturers or graduate assistantships. Roughly 20% of all part-time lecturing positions are held by grad students and so are not available to postdocs. To make matters worse, 70% of all teaching positions are non-tenure track positions.
A Change in Mindset
Many life science stakeholders have recognized the severity of this problem and are working on solutions. The Royal Society has published a series of recommendations that PhD training institutions provide training for non-academic careers. The NIH is actively working to fund more young and early-career researchers. Individual universities like NYU are limiting the length of postdoc positions to five years. Countries like Germany are also limiting postdoc terms.
None of these solutions solves the problem. Limiting the length of a postdoc position without increasing the number of tenured positions or decreasing the number of PhD graduates has simply led to postdocs having to move around and take on several postdoc positions. However, collectively, these, and other solutions, may mitigate this crisis.
The purpose of a PhD has changed in the last thirty years. We need to recognize that today most PhD graduates will not stay in academia. PhD programs have traditionally trained graduates for academic research careers. In our current world, it might be a better option to modify the training programs so they prepare graduates for industry and government jobs. We could increase the non-academic, non-research training components, include more business courses and partner with pharma and biotech companies to create internship programs. Or we could develop alternate PhD tracks for either academic or industry.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Some people do make it. We are talking to those people about how they did it in our interview series called ‘The Seven Percent’. If you are an Assistant Professor and would like to inspire grad students and postdocs with your story, please contact Leah at firstname.lastname@example.org.