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So I’m a doctor – now what? Post-PhD career choices

The road to a PhD is long and hard, and it’s natural that students’ goals for the future would change over the course of their education. Anecdotal evidence abounds – just ask anyone who’s been through it – and now a study published last week in PLoS ONE shows that students close to graduation are less interested in pursuing faculty careers than are their younger counterparts.

The authors, Henry Sauermann from Georgia Institute of Technology and Michael Roach from University of North Carolina, investigated the attractiveness of different careers to over 4,000 PhD students at different stages in their training in the life sciences, chemistry, and physics at 39 different US tier-one research universities. Across the board, late stage students, defined as those who were looking for jobs or were planning to do so within a year, found faculty jobs less attractive than did early stage students, who had not yet completed their qualifying exam or similar milestones.

There were some interesting distinctions between the responses from chemistry students and the biologists and physicists that caught my attention. My PhD is in chemistry, but I conducted my research in a biology lab, and I felt like the cultures were very different – a distinction that appears to be borne out in the numbers.

From the beginning, the chemistry students in the study were much less interested in faculty positions than were either the biologists or the physicists: only 23% of early stage chemistry students declared a research-focused faculty position to be extremely attractive, as compared to 39% for biologists and 37% for physicists. Furthermore, chemists’ interest in working for either an established firm or a start-up showed huge increases from early to late stage, even though their initial interest in these types of positions was already high relative to their counterparts in biology or physics.

The authors don’t discuss potential reasons for these differences, but my impression is that industry jobs in chemistry are simply more common and more accessible than those in biology. This may not always be the case, but it will be interesting to see how both the academic and industrial cultures evolve as research – and the accompanying funding – goes in new directions.

Citation: Sauermann H, Roach M (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036307

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