Where Can a PhD Take You? Back to School, Usually

Doctoral students in the sciences are more like the rest of us than previously thought: They don’t know what they want to do with their lives, either.

So, when confronted with the choice of what to do with their newly minted doctorates, they tend to keep marching in a straight path, to pursue postdoctoral research positions.

In a study published Thursday in Science magazine, researchers tried to figure out why so many Ph.D. students choose to do post-docs given the relatively low odds of landing a full-time faculty position, which is traditionally the end goal of such work.

Their results, perhaps befitting the complex topics of advanced research, were somewhat inconclusive. “Unfortunately, it is not clear why Ph.D. students pursue postdoc positions and how their plans depend on individual-level factors,” they wrote.

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But the authors of the study, from the business schools at Georgia Tech and Cornell University, did find evidence that many Ph.D. students pursue post-docs as a “default” option after graduate school, or as part of a “holding pattern” until the job they want is available. (This may not come as a surprise to liberal arts majors who have gone to law school for the same reasons.)

The authors, who did not get postdoctoral degrees themselves, conclusively demonstrated the need for more career planning among graduate students, and that graduate students should consider their career paths before they even begin a Ph.D. program.

“It’s probably not a controversial conclusion,” said Henry Sauermann, an associate professor at Georgia Tech and one of the authors of the study. “But what might be a little different here is thinking about whether the Ph.D. is the right path in the first place.”

To collect their data, the authors surveyed Ph.D. students who were studying biological and life sciences, or physics, chemistry, engineering or computer science at 39 research universities in the United States in 2010 and 2013.

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More than three-quarters of biological and life science students believed they needed to do at least a year of postdoc research to be qualified for Ph.D.-level research in academia or in an industry. Forty two percent of the students in the other fields thought the same.

Of the biological and life sciences students who had finished their doctoral degrees by 2013, 74 percent had taken a postdoctoral position, and so had 46 percent of those in the other fields of study. That year, the most common reason students gave for doing a postdoc was that they thought it would increase their chances of getting the job they wanted.

At times, it is difficult to get a clear takeaway from the paper. For instance, the authors wrote that the limited availability of faculty positions may discourage students from pursuing post-docs, but that limited availability may also encourage students to pursue a postdoc in order to become more competitive.

One lesson may be: Don’t get a Ph.D. until you know what you want to do with it. But this may require further study.

This article first published on The New York Times (link)

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