The Contemplative Mammoth (ecology and climate change from the 4th dimension) Academia doesn’t have a PhD problem, it has an attitude problem


A month after last January’s  State of the Union Address, in which President Obama called for an increase in STEM graduates, The Atlantic published this piece on the “Ph.D Bust,” lamenting the decline in academic job placement rates for scientists. The latter has been making the rounds again, coincident with the latest William “Don’t get a PhD” Pannapacker’s piece in which he reiterates that a humanities PhD is an immense investment of time and money, and that the job prospects are prohibitively dismal. Meanwhile, says Pannapacker, we know very little about job placement rates for PhDs, (if you have a moment, please fill out your information at the PhD Placement Project), and– most tellingly, to me– Academia is doing a deplorable job in general of preparing students for “alternative careers.”

This, to me, is the crux of the matter. People call Academia a pyramid scheme; certainly, if one scholar produces as many as 20-30 PhDs in their lifetime, it’s easy to see how the numbers don’t work out in the long run. Add to that the university adjunct crisis, where half or more classes in some institutions are taught not by tenure-track faculty, but by poorly-paid, benefit-less lecturers, and it’s not a stretch to see a perfect storm brewing: too many graduates, not enough jobs, and a 10+ year investment in education and training that (as conventional wisdom goes) leaves you ill-suited for little else than those jobs that are rapidly disappearing down the drain.


And yet, I have been increasingly dissatisfied with the broader discussion about academic job placement, and I’m finally starting to realize why. It starts with two fundamental assumptions: 1) all  PhDs want to be academics, and 2) a PhD can only prepare you for a job in the Academy.

Most of the graduate students I’ve known over the years have not wanted to go into an R1-type position at a top research university (and the broader numbers bear this out). Many realized that they’d prefer to teach, write about science, or do research full-time, or go into policy. Many of these students genuinely believed that those careers were not available to them, or that they should doggedly pursue the R1 job in spite of their own doubts– a PhD, after all, is what you get for an academic job. Other folks I’ve known have become so jaded that they left academia altogether, going into business for themselves or working in some field completely unrelated to their research. These transitions can be emotionally devastating, and my friends and colleagues often express that they feel like failures, or that their PhD was an utter waste of time and energy.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with deciding that a career in academia isn’t right for you. Having a science PhD in industry, politics, education, journalism, and even business– that is, having a science PhD but not actively practicing science– should be seen as an asset, rather than a failure. Instead, it’s a failure of mentors, departments, institutions, and the broader academic culture. It’s a failure of PI’s and departments to not accept students who are interested in non-academic careers, thereby failing to normalize those choices in their labs and cohorts. It’s a failure of mentors to encourage students to discover their strengths and pursue careers that are meaningful to them, even when the students discover that those paths veer away from academic science. It’s a failure of departments to provide training for “alternative” careers that are rapidly no longer alternative at all, but the mainstream. It’s a failure of a broader academic culture that says to the general public, “we want you to value us and our work, and be informed citizens, but we don’t want to walk amongst you– we are not you.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say we don’t need fewer PhDs, and that the PhD bust is more of an attitude problem than a practical one. We need better training. We need to better prepare students for a range of career options, both with skill-sets that can support non-academic career paths, but to show them that many of their existing skills are already invaluable. We need to train students to rebrand themselves from academics to capable problem-solvers, efficient multi-taskers, effective writers and editors, systems-level thinkers, leaders, proficient researchers, managers, communicators, and creative minds.  And we need to not just provide, but require our students to learn marketable skills in teaching, programming, statistics, social media, communication, mentoring, mechanics, languages, geographic information systems, graphic design, policy documents, legal proceedings, and multimedia.


I’ve got two graduate students, an MS and a PhD, starting with me this fall, and I made it explicitly clear to them that I expect them both to acquire a complementary skill as a part of their graduate training. If you’re a PI, you can require the same of your students. Talk about this in lab meetings, and including everyone in the hierarchy from undergraduates to postdocs. Acknowledge that the job market has changed since you went to graduate school. Don’t reject an applicant simply because they don’t want to follow the path that you, Professor Hotshot in FancyPants Program at Major Research University, followed– the reality of the job and funding situation is that they probably can’t, anyway. If you’re a student, don’t despair; be proactive. Pick up skills, ask your department to do career development workshops for non-academic jobs, and learn how to rebrand yourself, and have backup plans. You may find your real dream job on the way, but at the very least you’ll be 1) better prepared with a safety net, and 2) you’ll make yourself more marketable for those precious few academic postitions.

In other words, these ideas aren’t utopian. We don’t need to fix the adjunct problem, solve institutional sexism, or restructure university administrations or political systems in order to make progress on this. We can start right now, with ourselves.

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