Another look at the PhD and scientist/academic as a career

The recent news about a doctoral student (suspect) shooting at the Colorado theatre certainly brought some concern about the health and well-being of PhD students (Colorado theater shooting suspect James Holmes was doctoral student; Of course it is just an incident which does not suggest PhDs are of risk to general public. However I do have genuine concern about the whole academic system. Let’s just examine what a PhD is and how the academic system works.

Here science refers to more general meaning including social science. So when I say scientist it also includes those researchers doing engineering degree/subject. PhD refers to research doctoral degrees, not professional doctoral degrees such as doctor of medicine (MD) or Juris Doctor (JD).

PhD and how academia works

According to Wikipedia, ‘PhD’ was not invented until 1861 and only imported to the UK in 1917. Previously you did not need this thing to start an academic career, which made you wonder why one needs a PhD at all in academia: Archimedes didn’t have one; Isaac Newton didn’t have one; a current professor and also director and former head of the transport studies group (CTS) at Imperial College London doesn’t have one either. Andre Geim, the Nobel Prize winner in 2010, labelled the PhD work as going unnecessary depth and “so boring that I decided that I did not want to end up doing this for the rest of my life” (Renaissance scientist with fund of ideas).

This leads one to suspect whether PhD is really a necessary qualification or is it just a way for the professors (including ‘lecturers’) to use them as cheap labours. In the UK, PhD students typically receive £11k – £18k (depending where you are and which university you go) a year (tax free), which is far much lower than a full professor and even a lecturer. Some PhDs, mainly those from outside EU, are even self-funded. As this article points out, “universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money”; and clearly it is very often that “the interests of universities and tenured academics are misaligned with those of PhD students”.

This echoes what I have seen in universities. To see this clearly, we need to think about this question: who are the people actually doing research in universities now? The respected professors? Lecturers? No. The answer is PhDs and postdocs. With a few exceptions, permanent academics usually don’t do much research. One of my PhD supervisors once told me learn as much as you can while as postdocs as there would not time for me once as a lecturer. An academic is too busy with writing funding proposals. One source indicates that a faculty member usually spent 1/3 of the time to write proposals. Remember they also need another 1/3 of the time to teach (as told by my supervisor); and another portion of the time to manage the funded projects or network at various conferences – no wonder academics don’t have time to do research. This leaves PhDs and postdocs as the main labour (if not only) force doing research in universities. Yes they are the true researchers and scientists. The professors and lecturers? I would rather call them managers and/or sales person – they don’t do (much) research, but manage others (i.e. PhDs & postdocs) to do research for them. Now this is a huge difference.

So why do you want to do a PhD?

… in the first place? I think most people choose to do a PhD mainly for their love of science. For fame? Try to name three people who won Nobel Prizes in science in 2011. Money? Even as full professor what you earn would look rather pathetic compared to other professionals. In the UK a full professor could earn around £60-70k; in the US “the average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009” (Doctoral degrees The disposable academic). On the other hand, a top banker could easily earn £1 million basic salary PLUS another £1 million bonus ( In academia, the only way to achieve that level is to win a Nobel Prize every year. No, this is not a joke. Want some serious data? Let’s look at the salary comparison between PhDs and Non-PhDs (see below), you could easily realise that PhDs are worse off in Europe and US. Artificially PhDs still seem to earn more, but this is the comparison of 6-10 years after achieving “highest qualification”. Since PhD itself can take anywhere between 3-10 years (or even more, see the following paragraph), this means that those “non-PhDs” would have extra 3-10 years of professional experience compared to PhDs at the same life stage. Obviously non-PhDs are likely to earn more.


So I appreciate the passion for science. However, you are also a human being and you also have a life. “Science is a profession, not a religious vocation, and does not justify an oath of poverty or celibacy.” (Don’t Become a Scientist!). As one source put, “It is incomprehensible that you spend 10 years of your life educating yourself and then you are earning the same amount as a bus driver”. What even worse is the timing. In the UK you would spent 3 – 5 years after your first degree when you finish your PhD (some even spent 8 years for PhD alone). In the US, “half of all science and engineering PhD recipients graduating in 2007 had spent over seven years working on their degrees, and more than one-third of candidates never finish at all.” (The PhD factory). What this means to you is that after finishing your PhD you are mostly likely to be around 30 years old. At that age, you may have a partner that you want to marry to; you would need “a house in a good school district and all the other necessities of ordinary middle class life” (Don’t Become a Scientist!); you want your children to receive best education such as piano lessons with private tutors as well as sending them to expensive private schools. However you will soon discover that you would fall into that “postdoc trap” (discussed below) that paid poorly and without any job security. You need to prepare to move every couple of years to find a new position once your current contract ends. You may not want to buy a house because you don’t know where you are going in the following year. You have little hope to persuade your partner to move with you to another country (or state/city, well unless your partner is out of work anyway or willing to sacrifice). If you are a women, you may also have to delay having children (even though it’s a good age to have one) or without a proper family for years (Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried).

You, and your family, making all these sacrifices, hoping one day you could climb to the top of the pyramid of academia, with passion for science, will only find out that you eventually become a “manager” or a “sales person”. Is that really what you want (i.e. to be a scientist) in the first place? Sadly it is often the case that “having achieved the promised land, you find that it is not what you wanted after all.” (Don’t Become a Scientist!).

Yes again, I appreciate one’s love of science. If that is the case why not learn something that appeals to you by yourself. That is what you did for your PhD in most cases after all!

The postdoc trap

So assume you are ok with being a science “manager” or “sales person”, it still takes ridiculously long process to secure a permanent faculty position, making it far less attractive than normal ‘managers’ in a company. Of course I know that there are people who are very talented and/or lucky to get one soon after finishing PhD. The fate of majority of PhDs are however not so promising . They often need to do multiple postdoc posts for many years.

Take Andre Geim, the Nobel Prize winner mentioned above, for example: he did several postdocs and applied for the first permanent academic position only around the age of 35. A senior lecturer at University of Manchester stated “In my case, I had temporary contracts for seven years before obtaining my first permanent job as a lecturer, which is not unusual in my field.” One source said one needs “about six years” to obtain a tenure-track position (which just means one have a chance to get a ‘tenured’ position after another lengthy process). It is also reported that “In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.” From my personal experience, I have seen one doing postdoc for 5 years before finding a job in some second class university far from home in a quite remote place. Another postdoc in my office have been doing 5 years already without securing any tenured (or tenure-track) faculty job yet. I also personally knows someone who did postdoc for 10 years before he eventually gave up and went to be a high school teacher. You want some proper/reliable statistics? How about this: “In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured”. Also remember tenure-track doesn’t guarantee tenure ( I heard MIT has a failure rate of 50%.

Remember spending more time as postdoc does not necessarily means you will get an academic job in the end: see for example “The NSF estimates that only 26 per cent of recent PhD recipients in the US will secure a tenure-track position. UK postdocs appear to have even more reason for pessimism: according to the Royal Society’s 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only about 12 per cent of those attain permanent research jobs.”

Obviously this issue is mainly caused by the over supply of PhD students (see The PhD factory). When in golden age during which the universities were expanding, it was much easier to find a faculty job. I routinely heard that, at least in my university, someone started a lecturer job before finishing his/her PhD (like 10-20 years ago). My PhD supervisor once told me that, there was only two PhDs at a research centre in Imperial College London back in 2001. Now there are around 50. Has the number of faculty positions increased by 25 times during this time period? And what are those PhDs going to do in the end?

As discussed above, when you finish your PhD, you are likely to be 30s; and then after all these series of postdocs you will be around 35-40 years old. Or that is 12-17 years later than your mates who left university after undergraduate education and now may be a manager in a Forbes 500 company living in luxury. If you happen to live in a US or US-style university also be prepared to spent another 6 or so hard-working years to get actually tenured. Good luck with that!

This is not surprising after all. Suppose an academic produces average 10 PhDs in his/her lifespan, unless the higher education expands significantly (bad news though:, there will be only one vacancy after he/she leaves. This means a failure rate of 90%. Simple maths. The PhDs are supposed to be smart and they should have known this.

To understand why such a miserable thing happened one needs to look at the history: “In the ’60s and early ’70s many profs were hired fresh from grad school. Postdoctoral ‘training’ was unnecessary. Were PhDs so much better then?” and “if postdoctoral ‘training’ was once unnecessary, why have it now? As the golden age ended, research jobs became scarce. So postdoctoral positions were created as a holding pattern for graduates. Circling like vultures, postdocs waited for older professors to die off. As fewer profs were replaced the stack grew. Postdoctoral ‘training’ became the norm.”. See? we are back to the situation described in the previous section. Postdoc – even the name was strange: is there a post master, post lecturer or post professor? It is clear that postdoc was created to feed the need of academic ‘managers’ who don’t have time to do research themselves. After PhD, instead of giving you a real job, the university/profs hires you as a postdoc as a cheap and disposable labour, leaving you on hopeless rolling fixed terms. One has to ask is it even legal?

So how about going to industry?

Ok, academia is difficult to squeeze into. We get it. Then how about going to industry? This sounds a brilliant idea. After graduation (at any degree), you may be able to enter a “graduate scheme” which in most cases means you’ll get a permanent job and if you perform well you will get promotion. On the contrary, in academia there is no such thing called “graduate scheme” after PhD and you are expected to do many years of postdoc (see the section above). Also industry seems to pay more than academia: the following figure compares the life time income between the two sectors:


Source: Academic Salaries in the UK and US (DOI: 10.1177/002795010419000110)

Clearly staying out of academia seems good at least in terms of money. Yes there are some good things about academia, such as small chance to be sacked (only if you have tenure which could take ages) and flexible work (but on the other hand you don’t have benefits in the industry such as bonus, free Premier League tickets. Just saying…).

For PhDs, these all sound good, until you realise it is difficult to find a suitable job in industry. Officially, yes, majority of PhDs go to industry eventually (remember the 90% failure rate I mentioned above?). A survey for the Royal Society of Chemistry also suggests that “88% of the women don’t even want academic careers, nor do 79% of the men”. However finding a suitable job is not easy for PhD students. As this article noted: “The organisations that pay for research have realised that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.”

Indeed. About a year ago, our research project holds a seminar inviting people from academia and industry to contribute and exchanging ideas (i.e. “dissemination”). One person from the consultancy industry asked how long our project is. We said three years. The person said the academia had the luxury of time, as his projects were usually measured in months and projects in academia were measured in years. I have no idea what he would think if he knew that just literature review alone could take 6 months in academia! This is a classic example. Do employers really value the skills you learnt from PhD?

Another problem is that, “PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia.” I have to admit that as well: PhD is deep but very narrow. The Royal Statistical Society stated clearly that because of this very reason PhD can only count one year of experience when applying for the Chartered Statistician (normally it requires five years’ professional experience).

Worse still: “the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them to become ‘quants’, analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. ‘A PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not competitive,’ says Dr Schwartz.” and ironically “a PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings”.

The fundamental problem is that PhDs/postdocs are designed for academia. This was deeply fitted into the DNA of these types of works. PhD/postdocs and industry do not fit by design. They are like two worlds, and they don’t really understand each other. My supervisor once said “academia views industry as knowing nothing about theory; and industry views academia as knowing nothing practical”. Go figure.

And this leads to another problem: “The longer you spend in science the harder you will find it to leave, and the less attractive you will be to prospective employers in other fields.” (Don’t Become a Scientist!). Or in other words “If someone is in the job market a long time … they haven’t met the standards elsewhere.” (The Postdoc Trap). Your experience as PhD and/or postdoc does not count “work experience” for industry. After spent 5-10 years in academic research you found you may still need to apply as a “graduate”. This is truly the lost ten years.

“Bad money drives out good”

So why universities and policy makers should care about all these issues? Sure, there may be an over supply of PhD students. But why not just let them compete for the few academic jobs and wait to harvest the best and smartest?

This kind of social Darwinism may be valid, only if there are no other choices. Competition doesn’t necessarily produce the best. Smart people could see this problem in a early stage and move to more promising sectors. I even suspect that the smartest are within banking and financial sectors in the current situation. Those who find difficult to get a job in industry may just cling to the academic system – they are not necessarily smarter nor loving the subject more.

Look, I am not wholly against choosing an academic career. Sure there are some perfect valid reasons, for example, it is much easier to find a faculty position in China than Europe or US because universities in China are expanding fast (i.e. more students each year – whether this is good or bad is another matter). Another example is foreign students looking for student visas. As Jonathan I. Katz stated in 1999: “The result is that the best young people, who should go into science, sensibly refuse to do so, and the graduate schools are filled with weak American students and with foreigners lured by the American student visa.” This seems to be true: “Dr Freeman estimates that in 1966 only 23% of science and engineering PhDs in America were awarded to students born outside the country. By 2006 that proportion had increased to 48%.” and “foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps wages down.” (Doctoral degrees The disposable academic).

And also for some reason, it is much easier to secure a work visa in academia than in industry. In the UK, universities can easily justify why they need a person outside from EU and they usually have no problem supporting you for a work visa. In the US, it is said that an assistant professor (or even postdoc) can obtain an American green card within 2-3 years while those working in industry have to wait 5-6 years. Because of this, immigrants are likely just to stay in academia long enough (e.g. 5 years in UK) to secure a permanent residency before looking for other options. Of course, at that time, they may as well find that they stay in academia “too long” that they are not competitive in industry.

“Bad money drives out good”. Yes, this could happen.

Recommended further reading:

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One Response to Another look at the PhD and scientist/academic as a career

  1. Pingback: When nonsense becomes common sense | Chao's home

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