An essay on the modern system of science: The expendable PhD

Research and training go hand in hand…there are no incentives to engage in birth control when it is the dominant research model. The needs of the researcher come before the job prospects of the trainee

Paula Stephan. How Economics Shapes Science

When people ask me what I want to do after grad school, I shamefully reply “I want to want to pursue a career in academic research, so I will try for a post doc.” I then feel I have explain myself and justify why, against all odds in succeeding, I wish to continue discovering the undiscovered. It shouldn’t be like that. I should be explaining why I don’t want to continue down the academic path, yet this is the reality of academia in the 21st century. There is now a surplus of PhDs relative to jobs available, which has led leading critics to call the academic career structure a pyramid scheme. Here I delve into the dark side of academia with a focus on the PhD student as the foundation on which the academic pyramid rests.

To understand the current state of academia one must be aware of the history of scientific research. Science has been with us in various forms for centuries, but the institutionalization of scientific research is relatively new. The mysteries of science used to be unravelled by natural philosophers, who would often befriend wealthy patrons or would take up ecclesiastical roles to support their work. The term “scientist” was coined by a Cambridge professor, William Whewell, in 1833. Together with his friends Babbage, Jones and Herschel, Whewell helped transform research from a frivolous past time into a profession (Snyder, 2011). Government support was still limited with applications being presented directly to parliament/congress. This changed in the late 1940s with one man, Vannevar Bush, who gave rise to the government supported academic system we now know.

In 1944 Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter to Bush, who was the director of the highly secretive Office of Scientific Research and Development (think Manhattan project, radar and penicillin). In this letter, Roosevelt explicitly stated his desires for a sustainable peacetime science program to foster research for the good of humanity:

New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful life.

Bush’s response came in a revolutionary report titled, Science, The Endless Frontier. In this report, Bush recommended the establishment of a government organization to administer federal funds to universities, knowing fully that scientific advancement could not be made under the economic constraints of industry. Such basic research was to be undertaken at the investigators discretion and was be totally open, in contrast to wartime research, to preserve the freedom of inquiry. Most importantly Bush realized that to maximized research you needed the best minds and to obtain the best minds you needed to fund the greatest resource a country has; the intelligence of its citizens. Thus government support for research and trainee funding was institutionalized, which has become and remains the most successful model for scientific research worldwide.

This system worked wonderfully as the scientific establishment grew; the self replicating PhD allowed for expansion of research universities and institutes to cope with demand from returning soldiers and subsequent baby boomers. Newly minted PhD most students would find faculty jobs immediately and it was only the lucky few who spent another couple of years in a post-doc. But no one planned for what would happen when such a system reached its cap. This cap was reached in the mid 1970’s with the oil shock and a decade of war in Vietnam, which led to reduced science spending worldwide. Yet PhDs continue to be cranked out as if there was still exponential growth.

Despite this decades old dilemma, criticism has been few and far between. In the early 2000s there was a push to graduate more PhDs in both the US and Canada which only served to exacerbate the issue (Binderley, 2010). Several damning opinion pieces have come out over the last few years in widely read publications such as The Economist and Nature (Anon, 2010; Cyranoski et. Al. 2011; Anon, 2009). These articles delve into the long hours of the PhD, the many years of low pay, the imbalance between PhD graduates and academic jobs and the lack of education on career paths prior to entering and during a PhD. As a PhD student these are very sobering, but as a scientist opinions do not convince me. I need statistics. Show me this is real.

A recent PLoS One paper has approached this issue from the point of view of the student (Sauermann, 2012). PhD students from tier one research institutes in the US were asked how they perceived their career outcomes, and how much the academic environment encourages certain careers. In the biological sciences, a preference for an academic research career drops significantly from those in their early years of studies to those in later years (Figure 1a). Despite this, the majority of PhD students still found research to be most interesting. Further to this, graduate students perceive careers in academic research to be highly encouraged relative to other careers. The authors interpreted this data to result from a lack of education on the job market prior to enrolment in graduate school, and a bias in graduate school to promote an academic career. This is logical as all our mentors in science chose such a career and for the most part have known no other career. Further to this the data indicates most students who enter a PhD did so because they want to do research, and perhaps it is a realization of the job market that changes their opinion (Figure 1b). After all, who would spend half a decade doing a PhD to enter a teaching or management career if that’s what they wanted to start with?

Career preferences of biological and life sciences PhD students (left). Students judging a career "extremely attractive" by field and stage in program. (right) Share of students finding particular work activities interesting/uninteresting. Source: Sauermann, H & Roach, M. Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement (2012) PLoS One.
Career preferences of biological and life sciences PhD students (left). Students judging a career “extremely attractive” by field and stage in program. (right) Share of students finding particular work activities interesting/uninteresting. Source: Sauermann, H & Roach, M. Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement (2012) PLoS One.

Nowadays a PhD is not a golden ticket into academia; on the contrary most PhD graduates end up working outside of academia despite being trained exclusively for an academic career. This is nothing new (Mervis, 2008). So what careers are PhD students entering if academia appears at a standstill? The good news is that with a PhD you are employable. The unemployment rate for PhD graduates in the US is around 2% with full time employment at 85% (NIH, 2012), although this data does not distinguish between a post-doc or a burger-flipper. This falls well below the current US and Canadian unemployment rates of around 7.5%. The bad news is that in the long run a PhD is unlikely to be employed in academia. When careers for PhD students are discussed there are three general categories; academic research, industry research and other. A recent retrospective study of UK PhD graduates demonstrates that 7-10 years post graduation only 30% of respondents remain in academia with 58% falling into “other” (Figure 2). Reports from the NIH mirror these figures with around 40% being in academia 6-10 years post graduation (NIH, 2012).

Careers of PhD graduates from the Departments of Immunology and Biochemistry, University of Toronto. Data courtesy of the Departments of Immunology and Biochemistry.
Figure 2. Careers of PhD graduates from the Departments of Immunology and Biochemistry, University of Toronto. Data courtesy of the Departments of Immunology and Biochemistry.

How Canada stands up against these figures is unknown. CIHR has no published data on career trends of PhD graduates, which is odd given the millions of dollars it sinks into training students annually. But surely U of T has done better than this? The deanery at the Faculty of Medicine has no clue and does not seem to care about its alumni (unless of course they have money to donate). To the best of this author’s knowledge there are only two departments in Fac. Med. that have such data on record; Immunology and Biochemistry. Both show remarkably similar trends with slightly over half remaining in academia, setting us above the US statistics (Figure 3). Interestingly 44% of Biochemistry graduates and 68% of Immunology graduates in academic careers work outside of Canada.

In the face of such evidence it becomes obvious there is a major supply and demand issue with many students toiling away their most productive years for a job that would have taken a fraction of the time to train for. But surely it pays off for those who stay in academia? The answer to this question depends on the measurement. If you measure in terms of job satisfaction, globally academic scientists tend to be satisfied (55%) with their professions (Russo, 2012). When compared on a national scale, 90.5% of those in postgraduate work are satisfied which is significantly higher than the average satisfaction rate of 87.5% (Gallup, 2011). Monetarily the outcome is bleak. After 6+ years of graduate school, a post-doc position in Canada will provide an income of around $38,000. By comparison an equivalent 5-9 years experience with Tim Horton’s will lead to an average salary of $46,000 (

Let us speculate as to what may happen if we continue down this path of chewing up and spitting out graduates. There currently is and will be huge sums of money wasted in inefficient training of PhDs. It will not be long before more than 75% of PhDs will have to leave academia. Eventually facts and figures will feed back to those considering a career in research, and resulting in reduced interest from undergraduates to pursue graduate studies. This is already the reality with a drop in US male citizens and minimal increase in female citizens earning doctorates over the last few decades (Freemen, 2004). The majority of PhDs in the US are currently earned by permanent or temporary residents (Stephan, 2012). If international interest in obtaining a PhD from North America falters, the foundation to the scientific pyramid will crumble.

So what is being done to address this problem? In a nutshell, not a lot. Cutting the number of PhDs would not work. Science as it is relies on PhDs for productive research and competition is essential for productivity. But as it stands to throw away those who don’t succeed is a terrible waste of talent, so why not provide training for alternative careers? This will not likely happen at the level of the research institutes as the only current incentive is the moral burden of caring for non-fee paying recent graduates. Our chair, Dr. Zuniga-Pflucker, has confirmed that the Faculty of Medicine is aware of the issue and discussing it. At the national level, the US appears to be taking the lead. A recent report has spurred the NIH into action (NIH, 2012), which has resulted in new policy to cap graduate study to 5 years, have graduate schools publish statistics on their students, boost post doc funding and increase exposure to non-acadmic careers (Price, 2012). The caveat to this report is that most policies were preceded by the phrase “encourage – but not requiring,” suggesting the issues may be dragged out unless there is impetus for change.

The most important thing we can do now is openly discuss this predicament. Without dialogue there will be no pressure for change. Ultimately it is up to our generation, the new generation in science, to solve this issue and create a more sustainable science in which all parties involved benefit. Until this happens it remains the sole responsibility of the graduate student to realize the unspoken truths of the system and make up his mind as to whether he wants to stick with it, or figure out what lies beyond academia.

The most important thing we learn in school is the fact that most important things can not be learned in school

Haruki Murakami


Anonymous Fix the PhD (2009) Nature 472

Anonymous The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is a waste of time (Dec 16, 2010) The Economist.

Benderly, B. L. The Real Science Gap (2010) Pacific Standard Magazine

Bush, V. Science, The Endless Frontier (1945) Office of Scientific Research and Development

Cyranoski, D., Gilbert, N., Ledford, H., Nayar, A. & Yahia, M. The PhD Factory (2011) Nature 472

Freeman, R.B., Jin, E. & Shen, C-Y. Where Do New US-Trained Science-Engineering PhDs come from? (2004) The National Bureau of Economic Research, U.S.A.

Gallup U.S. Job Satisfaction Struggles to Recover to 2008 Levels (2011)

Lee, H., Miozzo, M. & Laredo, P. Career patterns and competences of PhDs in science and engineering in the knowledge economy: The case of graduates from a UK research-based university (2010) Research Policy 39

Mervis, J. And Then There Was One (2008) Science 321

Mervis, J. Reshuffling Graduate Training (2009) Science 325

National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report (2012) Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH

Price, M. Big Hopes, Small Changes for Biomedical Training (2012) Science Careers Magazine

Payscale Salary for Tim Hortons Inc Employees (2012)

Russo Turbelent times: Nature’s 2012 Salary and Satisfaction Survey (2012) Nature 488

Sauermann, H. & Roach, M. Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement (2012) PLoS One 7

Snyder, L.J. The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World (2011) Random House

Stephan, P. How Economics Shapes Science (2012) Harvard University Press

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Eric Gracey

Contributing Editor
Eric is a PhD student with the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. He did his undergraduate degree at the University of Auckland, New Zealand where he investigated the effects of diet on gout. He currently studies the role of the immune system in arthritis, specifically an arthritis of the spine called ankylosing spondylitis. When not in the lab, Eric likes to run and has taken up backcountry canoeing.

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7 thoughts on “The Expendable PhD

  1. Thank you for writing this Eric. Since I just graduated and started facing the “real world”, I realized how little preparation is done within the formal Ph.D. training, unless the student themselves take the initiative acquire new skills outside of the academy. I am coming to realize that it is much better to take one or two students into a lab instead of 4 or 5, and train them properly instead of doing a so-so training job: send them to conferences, get them to meet people, get them to explore other career opportunities, have job fairs. We are ill-prepared for the skills needed in the post-academia real world, and I am glad that it is finally being addressed openly, even though I already left the department. Thanks for the article.

  2. Great article Eric, this recession has made me (and many others) reevaluate the current status quo. I have not seen these graphs so thank you for posting them. It is certainly true that young scientists (beyond the initial postdoctoral years) are having a struggle regardless of sector they find themselves in. Young early-career PhDs in industry are having as rough a time in this economy as the academic scientist. However I look upon this young and early-career scientist with admiration as we are not allowing this struggle to shake our vision and mission for scientific discovery and advancement. I think this generation of scientists may be stronger for their struggles and still look with more enthusiasm for the future.

  3. I just discovered this article – thanks, Eric! Governments fund graduate students as they want to train thinkers (academics or otherwise) to solve the problems left in the world, which are all complex. Governments are hoping that innovation and thus, a stronger economy will be the output of investing in graduate students. Having said that, the PhD is an excellent problem-solver and data analyst, but not all of them are trained to create and innovate. The latter part is what needs to catch up. We are slowly doing that with implementations of such programs as GPD; but for most PhD students, it is up to the individual to develop their professional skills to be part of the innovation force, if they wish to be competitive in today’s market.

  4. Thank you for this insightful article. I agree that universities should focus graduate students toward more than just academic careers and teach them the skills needed to move between them. I work in government research and we are experiencing a shortage of qualified, properly trained researchers willing to perform research. The government environment is different from both academia and industry and requires a whole new set of skills that are not taught in the traditional academic graduate program – project management, basic finance, client relations, inter-governmental communication and policy development. All of these should be made available to students in traditional graduate programs in universities. Graduate students interested in these types of skills could perform part of their degree in a government lab. There are opportunities out there if students and their departments just stretch their horizons a little bit.

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