“What are you going to do after you get your PhD?”

It’s a question familiar to every PhD student, ranking up there with “When will you finish?”, and if you’re lucky enough to be in biology: “Are you working on a cure for cancer?” As a PhD student entering the twilight of my graduate school career, I have been thinking more and more about what I want to do next. Whether it be a post-doc in academia, industry, or a complete change of pace such as work in science communication or policy, the prospects of a new project in a new setting can be exciting. Other times, the uncertainty turns my stomach over with anxiety.

After reading U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there, Sunday felt more like the latter. The article fingers a confluence of factors contributing to the lack of STEM jobs, in particular for biology and chemistry PhDs. These include: a scarcity of traditional academic jobs, an overproduction of PhDs from 2003-2007, stagnant federal spending on research spending, and significant job contraction in the pharmaceutical industry. Put simply, the PhD bubble burst and now there aren’t enough jobs to go around. And as if the article isn’t disheartening enough, it ends with a woman discouraging her daughter from pursuing science–so much for efforts in encouraging women in STEM.

What, then, is a newly minted PhD to do? Some find themselves working jobs for which they did not specifically train, such as an academic administrator. One emerging profession, called a knowledge broker, is also something to consider. Others might take different routes into science writing and communication. But as David Kroll points out, “Even a typical non-lab career of science writing is becoming extremely competitive, both for salaried positions and freelancers.” Not particularly encouraging news, considering how I started blogging to try my hand at writing.

Or perhaps we should be taking a cue from our more math-inclined brethren. Physics and astronomy PhD’s seem to be the exemption to this trend and are finding jobs in a variety of fields and industries. This is probably because, as Julianne Dalcanton explains, “a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy.” Take home message: obtain a skill set that is marketable and applicable to many different jobs. 

Or maybe we should keep things in perspective. As the article points out, the unemployment rate for chemistry PhD’s is around 4.6, while physics and astronomy is even lower at 1-2. No numbers were provided for biology PhD’s, but I suspect its lower than the national average. Razib Khan writes, “Consider that the woman who seems to have “wasted” a neuroscience Ph.D. in yesterday’s Washington Post article now has a job in academic administration. This is the sort of failure that manual laborers and factory workers alike would probably kill for.”

Truthfully, my ideal job would be some combination of what I currently do. I enjoy doing research, but I’d also like to devote some of my time towards education outreach programs like the one I’ve been involved with during grad school called ARISE. And I would also like to continue writing and blogging about science. The trick now is to find said job. And make sure it pays beaucoup bucks.

Related Reading:

More thoughts on the Washington Post article from Chemjobber

The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps (The article refers to the woman with a PhD as Ms. Apparently, once you go food stamps you lose your honorific.)

3 thoughts on ““What are you going to do after you get your PhD?”

  1. What’s worse is having a graduate degree in a Liberal Arts (and I graduated near the top of my class). I went to the workforce center because I was getting increasingly frustrated with working as a waitress and not finding any work, and they said they can’t help someone with as much education as I have. I think every one is a bit baffled by this PHD bubble.

    Anyway, best of luck!

    1. I haven’t looked into the numbers for humanities/liberal arts PhD’s yet, but it’s certainly troubling. I can only sympathize, and best of luck to you as well!

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