Graduate education and alternative careers

It’s Summer… students who have graduated are sending out resumes…
art history graduate students are practicing saying ‘You want fries with that ?’

(Tom and Ray Magliozzi in their radio show Car Talk)

In a recent post, Mad Hatter discusses the wisdom of setting up a blog devoted to alternative careers for PhD scientists. The idea is sensible, well worth pursuing. Career counseling is something from which we all benefit, at various stages of our professional lives. Who better qualified than peers, fellow scientists to provide it ? The frank discussion and direct sharing of experience that can be achieved in a blog, may well prove more effective than other, more formal ways of conveying the same information.
I have to confess, however, that I have always had a problem with the expression “alternative careers for PhD scientists” (or, “PhD anything”) and its underlying implications. It assumes and perpetuates the pernicious notion that university education, particularly at the graduate level, is geared toward ushering students into some narrowly defined career path (in this case academia and research), that that is the normal, expected outcome, and that any other one should be regarded as “alternative”, with a usually unintended but almost inevitable, disturbing “did-not-make-it” connotation.

Yes, there is a need for career guidance for graduate students and postdocs in all fields, not just science, as seldom are they aware of the full spectrum of professional options that are available to them. However, the distinction between “traditional” and “non-traditional” (or, “regular” and “alternative”) careers is meaningless. The problem is mostly one of misplaced expectations, and possibly wrong-headed approach to higher education.

Are traditional careers really that traditional ?
The first, fundamental misconception with which to do away, is that higher education serves as high-level apprenticeship for selected “elite” careers, academic as well as of other types. Firstly, this is manifestly at variance with the simple observation that no single professional sector (academia or anything else) can absorb all graduates in a given discipline. This is fairly evident in academia, where PhD graduates of a given department over a period of ten years typically outnumber faculty, most of whom spend well over thirty years on the job. Thus, most of those graduates will have to look outside academia for employment, as a matter of simple accounting.
Secondly, I strongly believe that graduate school should be mostly, if not entirely, about cultivating a passion (if the passion is not there, graduate school is not the place to be, period). I am also convinced that society benefits from the presence and contribution of highly educated individuals who are passionate about their subject, regardless of their eventual occupations [0].
Mad Hatter defines “alternative career” as “pretty much anything that isn’t the dominant or traditional career path in [a] field”. At first it may sound like a reasonable definition, but it actually begs the question: what is “dominant or traditional” ? Who makes that determination anyway ? Aside from few highly specialized fields, such as medicine, with a clear, direct connection with specific professional sectors, in general there is really no such thing.
Among our colleagues across the aisle, in the arts and humanities, this entire discussion would elicit bemusement at best, “alternative” careers being the norm for the vast majority of their graduates, who by and large fully understand this from the get-go (in many respects they have thicker skins than their science peers… and no, you won’t find many of them flipping burgers). But such a state of affairs is true even in the sciences, at least if by “traditional” one means the route taken by most graduates in a particular field. The commonly held belief that the “traditional career” of a science PhD should consist of research oriented employment, mostly in academia or in a laboratory, clashes with reality.

  • Already back in 1973, almost half of all PhDs in Science and Engineering were engaged in activities not involving “basic research or teaching”; by 1991 the fraction thereof had crept up to 63% [1].
  • A National Science Foundation study found that no more than 35% of the science and engineering postdocs from the 1960s through the 1980s were in tenure-track or tenured positions in academia in 1995. Moreover, many of these people ended up at liberal arts colleges or comprehensive colleges, not research universities [2].
  • In 1999, a whopping 70% of new physics PhD recipients who took permanent jobs were working at private companies [3,4], up from about 40 to 50 percent a decade earlier. Most of these scientists reported doing little or no physics or research in their work [4].
  • All available data suggest that the number of available positions in academia and research will decrease in the decades to come. This means that any talk of “alternative careers” with reference to all that is not academic, already of very little substance now, will be further and further disconnected from reality as time goes by.

Which is the “alternative” one … ?
In a recent post, and with his characteristically colorful style, PhysioProf put it quite eloquently. There are some professions, such as actor, singer, football player, fashion model, CEO, as well as academic these days, for which the competition for the few available slots is quite keen, and a large fraction of contenders simply do not make it, for many different reasons (luck being arguably the most important). It is a bitter pill to swallow, and the disappointment can be enormous and long lasting, especially if one’s exclusion occurs in circumstances perceived as unfair, or less than transparent. Still, I am afraid that it is just a fact of life, and that not really much can be done to fix it. Rather, it should always be kept in mind, and restated whenever necessary, that the few lucky ones who do “make it” (whatever that means) are the exception, not the rule.
The fact that many end up disappointed does not mean that enthusiastic young people inclined to pursue science studies should be discouraged from doing so (much like one would not discourage anyone from pursuing philosophy, music or dance degrees, in spite of the slim chance that careers in philosophy, music or dance will ensue). Nor, in my opinion, does it justify calls for such draconian measures, advocated by some, as limiting the admission of students to specific programs [5], or the radical restructuring of programs that by and large function well (namely provide the educational experience and formation that students sought in the first place) [6].

So, is there not a problem ?
There is no downplaying the need of identifying a satisfactory professional placement for someone who has spent years developing expertise and/or a specific set of skills for which the most natural occupational outcome is not viable, for one reason or another. But a possible drawback of entertaining a high-profile, public debate about “alternative careers for PhD scientists”, and of making this consistently a central topic of discussion in the context of higher education, is that it may give an external observer the impression that scientists are especially affected by this problem, which is in fact far more acute for other categories of intellectuals and workers. Young men and women who have invested significant time and effort trying to pursue a career in science and research, but are forced by adverse circumstances to abandon their dream and recycle themselves into a different line of work, do generally quite well, owing to their broad training, analytical skills, versatility and flexibility [1].
To convey (albeit involuntarily) the message that PhD scientists face employment adversities, to a greater degree than philosophers, architects, musicians and other intellectuals that graduate from universities in large numbers (to the benefit of all of us, let me be clear on this), may well induce many bright youngsters to stay away from science, and that will hardly be a good thing for society, in the long run.

Telling the truth (everyone)
It is often suggested that science academics tend to be unforthcoming with their advisees, when it comes to expressing a blunt, dispassionate assessment of one’s chances of succeeding in research or academia. The contention is also frequently heard that professors, mostly out of self-serving reasoning, choose to let students cultivate academic illusions, while looking unfavorably to those expressing interest in a career switch. The proposed rationale is that students, whose collaboration and research contribution are valuable, may choose to abandon prematurely, negatively affecting the professor’s bottom line.
Based on my experience, I find this contention naive, off base and unfair. First of all, students are quite smart, know exactly what they are getting themselves into, and rarely believe in fairy tales; they know it is going to be hard, but they still want to give it a try (it’s called “life”). Secondly, most faculty realize that it is not in their best interest to point to academia as the path that their graduate students and postdocs ought to regard as appropriate, knowing that, statistically, most of them will be forced out by scarcity of opportunities. That would be tantamount to declaring one’s own advising record a failure.
I have personally never met a science faculty less than proud of a graduate advisee having landed a good employment outside academia, in just about any professional sector.
Some, possibly many faculty may not be qualified to give career counseling, as they may simply not know much about anything other than what they themselves did; while such ignorance is clearly unacceptable of a college professor, this day and age, the charge of being “hostile” to, or “unsupportive” of students wanting out of academia, or research, is unwarranted.

On the other hand, how many youngsters dead set on becoming scientists, or singers, actors, football players etc., are willing to listen to a senior mentor recommending a “safer” alternative instead ? Honestly, how many of us would heed that kind of warning ? I know I would have not (and did not). I am not even sure that that kind of youthful stubbornness is necessarily a bad thing.
Obviously, at some point there is the risk of falling victim to one’s own obsession with a specific goal (e.g., an academic tenure track position), refusing to see the “writing on the wall” and wasting precious time on a path to nowhere, e.g., on an endless postdoctoral holding pattern (I was guilty of that myself, to a large extent). Blaming the “academic culture” for one’s own inability to come to terms with a negative life outcome, is disingenuous. The truth is, many of those who lament not having been encouraged to explore “alternative careers”, would never have seriously considered them anyway (conversely, by and large those who are open to the idea, do not need to be told about it in the first place); some might even resent receiving such an advice (I know I did), seen as implying that they may not “have what it takes” to succeed in academia.

Preparing for… what ?
The thesis, periodically advanced by some, that at least some responsibility rests with universities and science departments to provide broader training, aimed at easing the transition from “conventional” to “unorthodox” employment makes about as much sense as proposing that acting schools teach their students a trade as well, in light of the fact that most of them will not be making a living by acting. This line of reasoning is not only misguided [7], it is also fraught with potentially nefarious consequences, at both the educational and scientific levels. Attempts that I have seen to “broaden” the scope of the graduate education of physics graduate students, for example, have led to a number of actions that I regard as detrimental to the discipline as a whole, as well as to the educational mission of physics departments. These include, and are not limited to:
1) introduction of graduate courses in other areas (e.g., business), for which students show in turn little or no interest, not surprisingly given that they did choose physics over business in the first place.
2) taking emphasis away from science, to place it on technical content (e.g., computer programming).
3) dilution of physics course syllabi, on the ground that “much of that stuff is of no use in the real world” (I wonder what would happen to philosophy graduate programs, if the same idea were implemented… just kidding).
4) promoting “interdisciplinary” research, eventually graduating PhD scientists who are perceived as out of place virtually everywhere in academia.
Aside from rendering the graduate experience overall less substantive and meaningful, the above actions also have the unfortunate effect of attracting to the discipline, for the wrong reasons, students whose heart is not really in it (so much for career guidance…).
One of the problems is, very often the underlying motivation of this career talk has a lot more to do with departmental bottom line (beefing up dwindling enrollment, so as to fend off attacks from administrators with downsizing appetite) than genuine concern for the welfare of future graduates.

[0] Why should the choice of PhD scientists to teach in high school, or pursue a career in public service, or stay at home to raise children, for example, be regarded as a “waste” of their research experience and studies ? All of these activities (typically regarded as “off the regular track”) can be enriched by scientific training and research experience. More generally, why should a university degree be regarded as valuable only if matched by an employment making use of it ? It seems a very dry and narrow view of higher learning. Among other things, it neglects the benefit that society derives from a scientifically literate and competent public.
[1] Numbers quoted here are taken from the report Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (1995). Although I disagree with its diagnosis of the problem (in my view non-existent) and the proposed solutions, this is a very valuable source of information.
[2] Additional information can be found in the Sigma Xi postdoc survey.
[3] American Institute of Physics 1999 Initial Employment Report.
[4] See, for instance, here.
[5] I am personally wary of any exercise in “social engineering”, including trying to funnel younger generations into specific occupational sectors over others. Among the various objections that can be raised, the difficulty of coming up with an equitable, objective and reliable way of selecting the few to admit, and the impossibility of making credible forecasts on the number of available positions in various fields a few years down the line, pale in importance (in my view) compared to the inherent unfairness of preventing anyone from giving his/her best shot at pursuing the desired life path, regardless of how arduous it may be.
[6] One of the most famous music schools worldwide is Juilliard, known for its selectiveness and rigor. By all accepted measures, students graduating from it are among the most talented musicians of their generation. Yet, only a tiny fraction thereof go on to accomplished careers as soloists, directors or players. Most of them end up with relatively unassuming occupations, many even unrelated to music. But, anyone regarding their training as “inadequate”, or “in need of restructuring”, in light of such numerically unimpressive outcome, would be simply missing the point.
[7] More on this specific subject in this post.

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One Response to “Graduate education and alternative careers”

  1. Mary E Winn, PhD » The PhD: Is There Really a Problem? Says:

    […] out this blog post […]

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