What use are PhD’s? What future do they have?

 A picture attached to a tweet I received from

@mocost (and others) is profoundly depressing. It plots the number of biology PhD students in the US (86,000) against the average time to completion (7 years) against the current number of postdocs (estimated at between 37,000 and 68,000) against the numbers that will end up in tenure track positions. The numbers are horrific. A vanishingly small portion will stay in academia.

It reminded me of a report which was widely circulated a couple of years ago by the Royal Society (The Scientific Century). This report contains this figure


(Careers in and Outside of Science) which shows that, of the numbers of students who enter science at PhD, 53% leave after their PhD to pursue a career outside of science, 47% continue on for a number of years, and of that 26.5% leave science and over time, 0.45% attain the permanent position of professor.


A third analysis on a prospective cohort is discussed by Curt Rice of male and female chemistry students. This analysis shows that by the third year of the PhD, in a sample of  chemistry PhD students from the UK, only 20% of males and 10% of females wish to continue with an academic career. Now, chemistry may be a special case because a PhD may in fact be required as an entry-level qualification for individuals who wish to work in the pharmaceutical, fine chemical and related industries. But nonetheless, the key point here is that there are few academic posts, and an academic path is very difficult for PhD students.

The austerity regime of the past years has also meant that less than one in three academic posts are being replaced here in Trinity College. In the US, the recent fight regarding budgets at a federal level has resulted in the loss of more than 1000 PIs who were formally (and now formerly) supported by the NIH.

We must, therefore, confront the difficult question of what it is that a PhD is now for. In particular, the old apprenticeship model which served so well for close on a century, can no longer be regarded as tenable. New ways of thinking through the training of PhD students are required, and students may find that there are ample opportunities outside of academia. One report suggests, for example, that in the US humanities PhD students who self-consciously elect not to follow an academic track end up with good career prospects in a whole variety of other fields.

The implications here are straightforward: there is an onus on academics and PhD students to think much more expansively and creatively about what they are hoping to get from their period of training as a PhD student. And institutions need to think more deeply about what they are doing and why. Funding agencies likewise.

And we need to also address where the knowledge needed to power tomorrow is to come from too.

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

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