Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

There's No 'Alternative'

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

There's No 'Alternative'

Article excerpt

Most PhDs graduates won't work in academia. More must be done to prepare them, says a research fellow

I regretted my honesty as soon as the words were out of my mouth. At a conference earlier this year, a professor asked me what I was planning on doing after my current postdoctoral job. I answered by talking about my fellowship applications. But then, before I could stop myself, I also mentioned that I'd applied for a couple of non-academic jobs. And my stomach felt hollow as I visibly plummeted in his estimation.

Feeling a need for secrecy when considering what are dismissively referred to as "alternative careers" is common among early career researchers, and it highlights a bigger problem. The idea that non-academic jobs are "alternatives" for PhD graduates is misleading in the extreme. Figures from the US National Institutes of Health show that only about one in 10 PhD graduates in US biomedicine ends up in a senior academic career. In the UK, just 3.5 per cent of scientific PhD graduates become permanent research staff, according to the Royal Society. If upwards of 90 per cent of all PhD graduates end up in non-academic careers, it is hugely damaging to that large majority to dismiss these careers as "alternative" and, crucially, to fail to provide useful training about how to embark on them.

Related to this lack of information is a second, less tangible, problem. My embarrassment at the conference stemmed from working in an environment where there is a single-minded focus on academic careers. This is entirely forgivable among academic supervisors because most of them will have had a solely academic career path behind them, and their enthusiasm for their students' research prospects is an important part of supervision. But we learn from a far wider circle of people than our direct supervisors alone, and the universal silence on non-academic career options does nothing to alleviate the feeling that to leave academia is to fail, or to "waste" your PhD.

Of course, this is nonsense. Many skills developed during doctoral work are highly valued by non-academic employers, and it would be a terrible thing if the nine in 10 who don't continue in academia were missing the information or training that would direct them towards their ideal job. …

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