A career in science is not for the faint-hearted. It involves years of training, achieving a PhD and multiple post-doctoral positions, before the ultimate goal of having your own lab or even a prestigious professorship is achieved.
A recent survey in the journal Nature has suggested this already difficult path is harder than we all thought. The survey was extensive, involving over 5,700 students, and considered various aspects of PhD students’ lives.
The survey showed that the majority of PhD students aspired to a career in academia. However, despite this, in the UK only 3 or 4 students per every 100 PhD students are likely to go on to get a permanent job in a university. Therefore, this indicates that in the UK, we are training more scientists than there are positions for them in academia. Additionally, the disparity between the number of those hoping to work in academia and the number of those who actually do this work suggests that PhD students are not aware of how big the issue in future job prospects actually is. These statistics mean that graduate students face a harsh reality: if they aspire to a career in academia then they are likely to need to also seriously consider an alternative backup career.
In the UK, we are training more scientists than there are positions for them in academia
There are a huge variety of non-academic career options for PhD science graduates. Skills developed during PhD’s, such as data analysis and critical thinking, are highly desirable for many careers such as working in industry, banking, journalism or intelligence analysis. Some graduates even start their own spin-off companies as a result of their PhD!
Other concerns raised by this survey include the high numbers of PhD students suffering from mental health issues. 45% of these students had sought help for either anxiety or depression which was thought to be caused by their PhD. One student even made an alarming suggestion that universities should have rooms dedicated for graduate students to go to cry in.
Most universities have useful career advisors so be sure to make the most of them if you are unsure of the options available to you
The highest contributor to PhD student satisfaction was mentorship. This highlights how crucial it is for there to be a good match between supervisor and student.
Although this survey has raised some concerning issues you shouldn’t let it put you off doing a PhD or even aspiring towards a career in academia. Instead, let it teach you some valuable lessons. Firstly, have a backup career in mind just in case things don’t go to plan. Most universities have useful career advisors so be sure to make the most of them if you are unsure of the options available to you. Secondly, if you are suffering seek support and thirdly make sure you and supervisor get on well. Finally, make sure you love the topic of your PhD – even if you don’t want a career in academia a PhD is still 3-4 years of your life and if you spend them researching something you love it will be a lot more enjoyable!