Thursday, September 25, 2008

So many PhDs, not many professors.

When I was finishing my PhD, I drove many of my professors crazy by asking them where their students were. I was searching for alumni from my graduate program that made it into academia. I wasn't going as far as wanting a tenured faculty member, as our program only started in the early 1990's and admits about 3-5 students a year. It is also true that several of the alumni are foreign students, many of which return to their own country. I assumed that most professors kept track of their students, shouldn't they get brownie points for their progeny's success? However, my professors kept sending me to each other, and in the end one of them introduced me to a student of theirs at a conference who had recently gotten a tenure-track position. (Her husband, who is in the same area, ended up with an industry job, but I'm not sure if it was by choice or not.)

My argument with my professors was that they were not training their students to stay in academia. They were not preparing them to go into tenure-track positions. I lived through my husband's struggles to get tenure and I knew he was a lot more prepared for the job at the end of his PhD than I was at the end of mine. He had a lot more grant writing and teaching experience, which is probably why he landed a tenure-track position with a year and a half of postdoc experience. It is true that I chose my PhD program partly because it didn't require teaching, all students admitted receive research assistantships. My thought at the time was that I didn't want to have to teach while I was taking classes or getting my qualifying exams done or my dissertation written. I didn't know that "no teaching requirement" meant "no teaching opportunities." I did manage to TA for a class, but three lectures are not enough to call experience. I tried to overcome that deficiency by volunteering to present my work at meetings and by joining as many journal clubs as would fit my schedule. But I am now looking for teaching opportunities during my postdoc, which are also quite difficult to find.

Given what I believed were shortcomings of my PhD program, I was quite surprised to read an article in Science stating that only one out of 26 of Yale's molecular biophysics and biochemistry program graduates from the class of 1991 holds a tenured faculty position 10 years after graduation. Five other alumni are working in academia, but only one of those is on a tenure-track. The article makes the point that many of the alumni chose not to go into academia and that two thirds are still working in the life sciences. The author's concern was whether the low funding opportunities were to blame, but that does not seem to be the case. The main point I see is that most students are choosing not to go into academia, why?

I know that not everyone holding a PhD can (or wants to) become a professor. And there are not enough positions available for the ones that are trying for it. I understand not trying for something because you don't want to do it, but what I see is many students thinking they cannot compete. I heard that professors tell their students to aim one tier down, that someone from a "first-tier" institution will get a job in a "second-tier" and so on. That kind of comment sends some students straight to industry, as they are scared they will end up teaching at a community college. Not to mention the married couples who are told to forget about dual-position offers unless they both have Science & Nature publications. Are the prospects really that bleak? No wonder most students are scared of academia!


  1. I end to think that it is even more bleak- the institute where I formally worked was full of post-docs and permadocs (few grad students. These post-docs had no where to go. I knew of a few that were applying to PI jobs. My one friend was in several "top tens", had a few interviews and keeps trying, but after TWO YEARS of actively seeking positions, writing tailored applications and research statements, it gets hard...and NIH is now at an 8% funding rate...and more Uni's are hiring non-tenure faculty for teaching positions...

  2. It's one thing to talk about getting more students to have interest in staying in academia, it's another thing to talk about getting overall TT position numbers up. We are simply limited by the number of TT positions available- it's not like there are unfilled positions floating around out there!

    I do agree, though, that we need to do a better job of encouraging students to try it out. As my grad advisor would always say to me, you can always start in academia and then leave for industry, but it is near-impossible to start in industry and worm your way back into academics.