Academia Is the Alternative Career Path


Pretend for a moment you were a young academic, a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, pursuing the subject of your dreams. The mad dance of the fireflies, or the solar wind. The underground Protestant resistance of Bloody Mary’s reign, or the influence of Cockney folk music on early 20th century neo-classicism. The genetics of lopsided earlobes, or how the brain can tell the difference between Coke Zero and Diet Coke (tip: it can’t).

Here’s the thing. If you don’t have a permanent job in academic research by now, in all likelihood you never will. And it’s not your fault.

The leading institutions of academia in North America and Europe — the journals (Nature, and Science), the funders, the academies — have spent the last few years fretting publicly about the need to equally value careers outside academia. Much has been written about the need to train PhD students in generalisable skills, for them to experience work environments outside the laboratory or the library. In short, to prepare young researchers that they may, possibly, potentially need to pursue alternatives to academia.

I’ve grown tired of this approach, for this wording is dangerously wrong. It still frames the problem as one of finding alternatives to academia. Yet the vast majority of graduate students and postdocs can never reach a permanent job in academia, because those jobs do not and will not exist. Supply vastly outstrips demand.

Instead we need to be clear: Academia is the alternative career path.

Let’s walk through some of the nuances here. General prescriptions often don’t work well in academia. Different research fields have wildly different rates of converting PhDs into fully-fledged academics. In some fields it’s still just about possible to go from a PhD to an academic position without having spent a decade as a postdoc. Biologists, weep.

In others, the demand for the degrees heavily depletes the pool of PhDs. Many fields of engineering for example. If you’ve got an engineering degree, go earn lots of money doing engineering. And the difficulty of finding, let alone retaining, quality researchers in machine learning and AI at the moment is causing serious issues for Computer Science departments.

Another nuance is that there are many great career paths that remain in universities. After all, when the institutions of science write about the difficulty of “making it” in academia, they always mean: a research-based permanent position at a research-focused university. But most universities are not research-focused. Of the 130 universities in the UK, 24 belong to the self-appointed “Russell Group” of research-intensive universities. There are good research institutions outside this group (Leicester and Bath, for example). But the point remains: most universities teach.

Similarly in the USA, the elite institutions are research-intensive. But most institutions are not — the liberal arts colleges, and other public and private universities. And not forgetting that the research-intensive institutions also have many teaching-focused positions too.

(Of course, there is the rather glaring problem that teaching at universities is currently being treated as the poor dumb relation to research. And many lecturers are employed on short-term, temporary contracts in both the US and UK.)

And there are many careers in science that are not in academia. Private sector research, of course. Journal editors. Science journalism. Science communication. But what of the jobs outside of this bubble? You know, normal life?

A PhD can be a wonderful, unparalleled experience. A chance to spend 3 (UK and France) to 6 or 7 (USA) years dedicated to a single focus of research. A chance to become a world expert in your own little niche of science or the humanities. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of being a world leading expert in the sexual habits of pond snails? (Hey, don’t knock it: Stephen Jay Gould’s primary speciality was the reproduction — and hence evolution — of snails).

Along the way, you’ll obtain a wealth of useful skills. You’ll get the ability to read highly technical documents. Write and give presentations. Synthesise disparate sources of data. Obtain advanced IT skills. And test your writing of all kinds, from long technical papers to short abstracts.

The deep unteachable skill is that you’ll learn how to motivate yourself, how to drive and guide your own work (for if you don’t learn this, getting a PhD will be tough). Decide what to prioritise; be creative; turn ideas into actions. Skills that are fundamental to leadership and entrepreneurship, the mindset that all countries crave in their workforce.

These skills are happenstance though. Things that people acquire through the process of doing a PhD, not by design. If we adopt the mindset that academia is the alternative career path, then it means radically reshaping graduate training.

It means all graduate students should be planning their post-PhD employment from year one. And not, of course, on their lonesome. Supported and nurtured by their institutions and their supervisors. There is a catch for supervisors: they are themselves academics, and so will understandably have little clue about what might constitute useful training for the current job market. The onus must so fall on broader shoulders, of the institutions and funders.

For starters, training in how to code and how to analyse data would open doors to an extraordinary range of careers. As well as head off the reproducibility crisis — but, hey, that’s another story.

Academia is the alternative career path. Unless we adopt this view, we will continue to do untold damage to the mental health of some of our smartest people. For we place in front them a goal they can never reach, through no fault of their own.

As a mark of the damage it wreaks, many of those who leave academia confess to feelings of failure. That somehow they have not been good enough, not reached the standard, not been the best. That’s just bollocks. Staying in academia is the exception, a simple consequence of a vast over-supply for the available positions. Once more, for the cheap seats: Academia is the alternative career path.

Twitter: @markdhumphries

Postscript added 1st August 2018

You’re possibly now thinking: “Yes! But how do I turn my PhD into a career?”

Then you absolutely must visit Jobs On Toast

Deep, constructive advice on how to make your PhD the platform for all the other career paths!

Theorist and neuroscientist. Writing at the intersection of neurons, data science, and AI. Unceasingly British.