Can Science Ph.Ds Exit Academia?

Dr. Elizabeth O’Hanlon talks with Dr. Richard Cone, who is a Professor in the Department of Biophysics at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. O’Hanlon completed her thesis in Dr. Cone’s lab in 2010, and she holds a post-doctoral position in this laboratory.

Dr. Elizabeth O’Hanlon talks with Dr. Richard Cone, who is a Professor in the Department of Biophysics at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. O’Hanlon completed her thesis in Dr. Cone’s lab in 2010, and she holds a post-doctoral position in this laboratory. (Photo Credit: Akshay Sanghi)

The number of tenure-track faculty positions is dwindling.1 Yet, universities are especially focused on training science Ph.D.s for academia.

Ph.D.s have focused their education and career on research professorship. According to Dr. Aaron Robinson, a 2012 graduate from the Biophysics Department at Johns Hopkins University, science Ph.D.s are groomed for academic careers.2 Most faculty and students in the early stage of their graduate studies believe the research faculty career is most desired.3 Yet, the percentage of science and engineering doctorates in full time tenure-track faculty positions decreased from fifty percent in 1990 to thirty percent in 2007.4 In contrast, three million government, industry, and non-profit positions available only to advanced degree holders will open between now and 2020.5

Thirty percent of science doctoral candidates from thirty-nine tier-one schools find pursuing faculty positions less attractive compared to when they began the degree.3 After matriculating into graduate school, “people are driven out of academia because it’s hard to get funding,” Dr. Robinson explains. Other surveys say the most frequent reasons for avoiding academia are personal changes in interests and excessive time on the job.5

Dr. Robinson, like most science doctorates, loves science. The freedom to investigate a pure scientific question motivates him.  However, many students “drawn into getting a Ph.D are not interested in academia, but still love science,” Dr. Robinson says. What career will they choose?

“There is no way to get training and preparedness for non-academic jobs,” Dr. Robinson asserts about the Ph.D program. The exposure to anything but academia before they finish graduate school is trivial. “I do not know what business skills I need…Getting a taste would be useful.” Dr. Robinson, as well as many doctorates, never worked in non-academic science jobs. After completing his doctorate, Dr. Robinson has to make a difficult decision on his career path. “If I go down another path, it would be hard to come back to academia.” When a science Ph.D leaves academia, he or she loses potential to publish papers and, particularly with industry positions, loses the opportunity to discuss proprietary research. Thus, university departments would not prefer hiring scientists from other job sectors. Dr. Robinson is applying for post-doctoral positions in universities and intends to become a research professor.

Fifty percent of basic science Ph.D.s enter non-academic careers post-doctorate. In contrast, seventy percent of engineering Ph.D.s work in non-university positions.6 Engineers, from the start of their undergraduate education, gain exposure to various career pathways through professional courses, non-academic internships, and networking. One may argue that for-profit and R&D organizations value engineers because of the applied focus during their training. However, basic science Ph.D.s still develop problem-solving skills and creativity in science. It is not the case that basic scientists are only valuable to academia, and certainly not all basic scientists desire faculty jobs.

Eighty percent of science faculty members encourage Ph.D.s in their laboratory and department to pursue academic research careers.3 “The advice I get is you should do these post-docs to get an academic faculty position,” Dr. Robinson says. Faculty mentors instill the passion for their field in their students, and seventy-three percent of trainees report being mostly advised by a faculty mentor or member.5 Like their students, science faculty never had opportunities to experiment with careers outside of academia.

Dr. Brenda Rapp remarks “basic science Ph.D programs seldom feel responsible for preparing students for alternate careers.”7 Dr. Rapp is a Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science and chairs the Johns Hopkins Doctor of Philosophy Board, which consists of a faculty committee that oversees all Ph.D programs at Hopkins. The Doctor of Philosophy Board serves as a “light” regulatory body, and the Ph.D programs have a great deal of autonomy. Individual departments maintain graduate programs, and funding for doctoral candidates is based on their respective thesis laboratories. With its highly decentralized approach, the university finds changing Ph.D programs difficult.

Would it be feasible for a graduate program to train students for various careers? Dr. Rapp responds, “it’s tough”, stating that funding must be found to support students as they receive alternative forms of training. One avenue is for faculty to initiate collaboration with government, non-profit, and industry partners. To incentivize faculty and students to start discussing changes, the Doctor of Philosophy Board and Provost’s Office launched, in September 2012, the Ph.D Innovation Initiative, which requests grant proposals about creative ideas that will enhance Ph.D education in career training and other issues.8

Ph.D programs should expose students, early on, to different job sectors. Thus, doctoral candidates can make informed choices of careers. Faculty should encourage their students to take time off from their thesis work to explore non-academic positions. Agencies such as National Science Foundation or Food and Drug Administration, and companies like Genentech or 3M would offer internships to doctoral candidates, if they could.  Interrupting their thesis research may complicate the funding model that supports science Ph.D.s, but it could work if students pursue paid internships, according to Dr. Rapp.

Students that hope to pursue advanced training in sciences may be avoiding Ph.D.s because the programs groom them for academia. The life trajectory of years of eighty hour work weeks in a training position and the uncertainty of research funding discourages some students. Yet, doctorates struggle to pursue non-academic careers. They never explored professions besides research faculty during their training. Recent graduates fear exiting academia because it’s hard to come back. Science Ph.D.s observe that their tenure-track professors love their careers, and pursing the same path is advisable.

Dr. Robinson says, “there is the academic track and then everything else.”


  1. Jaschik, Scott. “The Disappearing Tenure-Track Job.” Inside Higher ED, May 12, 2009, accessed November 25, 2012.
  2. Dr. Aaron Robinson (recent doctorate recipient in Biophysics at Johns Hopkins) in discussion with author, November 2012.
  3. Sauermann, Henry, and Michael Roach. Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5) (2012). Accessed November 20, 2012.
  4. Cyranoski, David, Natasha Gilbert, Heidi Ledford, Anjali Nayar, and Mohammed Yahia. “The PhD Factory.” Nature  472 (2011): 276-79. Accessed November 12, 2012. 10.1038/472276a
  5. Wendler, Cathy, Brent Bridgeman, Ross Markle, Fred Cline, Nathan Bell, Patricia McAllister, and Julia Kent. Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers. Educational Testing Service (2012). Accessed November 5, 2012.
  6. Survey of Doctorate Recipients. National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics (2006). Accessed November 27, 2012.
  7. Dr. Brenda Rapp (Professor of Cognitive Science and Chair of Doctor of Philosophy Board at Johns Hopkins) in discussion with author, November 2012.
  8. Ph.D Innovation Initiative.  Johns Hopkins University (2012).

Akshay Sanghi is a junior majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He conducts research in the Department of Biophysics at Hopkins and plans to attend graduate school in a biomedical related field. He is interested in an academic career. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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