What to be with a PhD. (Banff science writing assignment, 2010)

Looking out, I saw a sea of familiar faces. Anxious faces. Faces peering up at the speakers on the dais, searching for a reflection of themselves. I had learned these faces at seminars and networking events on science-related career pathways. We would meet again and again, as well-dressed representatives described careers that might, just might, be hiring PhDs. Most weren’t.

There are many more PhDs than “traditional” academic jobs. The number of doctorates in the biomedical sciences increased by 54% between 1980 and 1995, and is increasing still, while the number of academic faculty positions remained almost the same. This surfeit of PhDs often end up unemployed and grossly underutilized.

As the Canadian government implements its Science and Technology Strategy to encourage more students to obtain PhDs, the question looms: what will become of the ones we already have?

Earning a PhD in the sciences takes between 5 to 8 years. This is longer than any other professional degree and the least likely to be rewarded monetarily. Students accept this dubious bargain because they are motivated by the ideal of contributing to the advancement of knowledge and one day being the head of their own laboratory.

But in reality, there are not nearly enough of these positions. This imbalance between job seekers and jobs leads to a pyramid scheme that has become the foundation of the research process: several PhDs do the bulk of the research for one faculty member. After graduation, PhDs spend years in low paid training positions, called post-docs, with only a small chance of this dedication netting them their goal.

Martin Hudson, now a tenure-track professor in neuroscience at the Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia, is an example of a science PhD who battled against the odds. It wasn’t easy. He spent 11 years in 4 post-docs, submitted 126 applications over 4 years, and was separated from his wife and child for over a year, before finally landing his position. He describes this as the “ruthless reality of academia” and states that he “was seriously considering the end. No more science. Nothing. Gone. Walking away. 15 years of academic endeavor down the drain.”

The reality of few jobs for many also has an impact on the science itself. Post-docs desperate to earn the credentials required for an academic position feel pressured to compete instead of collaborate—while collaboration remains an essential component of the scientific method. An extremely talented post-doc at the University of San Francisco, with a PhD from Stanford University (who wishes to remain anonymous), accepted a job at a small biotech company. He chose to leave academia when he personally experienced what he had thought were rumors of sabotage between post-docs in his laboratory: “there is an intent to make other people’s jobs harder.”

Perhaps shockingly, he and Martin are the lucky ones. Megan Hall, who has a PhD from UCLA, spent 7 years in graduate school and 6 in two post-docs, before she became a secondary victim to her advisor’s loss of funding. She is “disgusted with the whole field” and looking for work away from the bench.

Although such “alternative” careers do exist, most scientists like Megan have had little training outside of the laboratory. John Spiro, who has a PhD from the University of San Diego and did post-doctoral work at Duke University, left academic research to become an editor at Nature magazine and now works at the Simons Foundation, a non-profit granting foundation for autism research. Although his own transition was very successful, he confirms that “only lip service is given to things you can do with a PhD that don’t involve running a lab.”

For Megan, the experience has been “less confusing, than just demoralizing.” She has reached out to contacts in several fields, but remains unemployed.

Despite thousands of similar stories of trial and heartbreak among brilliant and talented scientists, the field has been slow to admit the problem. Those with the loudest voices are the small percentage who have managed to scramble to the top of the pyramid and benefit from its structure. Yet, the only way we can ensure that valuable PhD training is not going to waste, is if we accept that not all PhDs will end up in academic positions. Only then will PhD programs provide the relevant training, and advisors the appropriate mentorship, for the majority of doctorates.

Years of hard work and training go into earning a PhD, as well as significant government resources through grants and training. Instead of convincing students to enter the sciences, we should invest in those we promised a world of opportunity that no longer exists. A curious mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but so is a PhD.

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