How do you plan to use your PhD?

If you follow my blog or medium account, you’ve probably already read some of my thoughts and musings on the topic of running a research lab, training graduate students, and being a mentor. I think I wrote about that just a few weeks ago. But if you haven’t read any of my previous essays, let me provide some context. I’m professor of Psychology at a large research university in Canada, the University of Western Ontario. Although we’re seen as a top choice for undergraduates because of our excellent teaching and student life, we also train physicians, engineers, lawyers, and PhD students in dozens of field. My research group fits within the larger area of Cognitive Neuroscience which is one of our university’s strengths.

Within our large group (Psychology, the Brain and Mind institute, BrainsCAN, and other groups) we have some of the very best graduate students and postdocs in the world, not to mention some of my excellent faculty colleges. I’m not writing any of this to brag or boast but rather to give the context that we’re a good place to be studying cognition, psychology and neuroscience.

And I’m not sure any of our graduates will ever get jobs as university professors.

The Current State of Affairs

Gordon Pennycook, from Waterloo and soon from University of Regina wrote an excellent blog post and paper on the job market for cognitive psychology professors in Canada. You might think this is too specialized, but he makes the case that we can probably extrapolate to other fields and counties and find the same thing. But since this is my field (and Gordon’s also) it’s easy to see how this affects students in my lab and in my program.

One thing he noted is that the average Canadian tenure-track hire now has 15 publications on their CV when hired. That’s a long CV and as long as long as what I submitted in my tenure dossier in 2008. It’s certainly a longer CV than what I had when I was hired at Western in 2003. I was hired with 7 publications (two first author) after three years as a postdoc and three years of academic job applications. And it’s certainly longer than what the most eminent cognitive psychologists had when they were hired. Michael Posner, whose work I cite to this day, was hired straight from Wisconsin with one paper. John Anderson, who’s work I admire more than any other cognitive scientists, was hired with a PhD from Yale and 5 papers on his CV. Nancy Kanwisher was hired in 1987 with 3 papers from her PhD at UCLA.

Compare that to a recent hire in my own group, who was hired with 17 publications in great journals and was a postdoc for 5 years. Or compare that to most of our recent hires and short-listed applicants who have completed a second postdoc before they were hired.  Even our postdoctoral applicants, people applying for 2-3 year postdocs at my institution, are already postdocs and are looking to get a better postdoc to get more training and become more competitive.

So it’s really a different environment today.

The fact is, you will not get a job as a professor after finishing a PhD. Not in this field and not in most fields. Why do I say this? Well for one, it’s not possible to publish 15-17 papers during your PhD career. Not in my lab, at least. Even if added every student to every paper I published, they will not have a CV with that many papers, I simply can’t publish that many papers and keep everything straight. And I can’t really put every student on every paper anyway. If the PhD is not adequate for getting a job as a professor, what does that mean for our students, our program, and for PhD programs in general?

Expectation mismatch

Most students enter a PhD program with the idea of becoming a professor. I know this because I used to be the director of our program and that’s what nearly every student says, unless they are applying to our clinical program with the goal of being a clinician. If students are seeking a PhD to become a professor, but we can clearly see that the PhD is not sufficient, then students’ expectations are not being met by our program. We admit student to the PhD with most hoping to become university professors and then they slowly learn that it’s not possible. Our PhD is, in this scenario, merely an entry into the ever-lengthening postdoc stream which is where you prepare to be a professor. We don’t have well-thought out alternatives for any other stream.

But we can start.

Here’s my proposal

  1. We have to level with students and applicants right away that “tenure track university professor” is not going to be the end game for PhD. Even the very best students will be looking at 1-2 postdocs before they are ready for that. For academic careers, the PhD is training for the postdoc in the same way that med school is training for residency and fellowship.
  2. We need to encourage students to begin thinking about non-academic careers in their first year. This means encouraging students’ ownership of their career planning.  There are top-notch partnership programs like Mitacs and OCE (these are Canadian but programs like this exist in the US, EU and UK) that help students transition into corporate and industrial careers. We have university programs as well. And we can encourage students to look at certificate program store ensure that their skills match the market. But students won’t always know about these things if their advisors don’t know or care.
  3. We need to emphasize and cultivate a supportive atmosphere. Be open and honest with students about these things and encourage them to be open as well. Students should be encouraged to explore non-academic careers and not make to feel guilty for “quitting academia”.

I’m trying to manage these things in my own lab. It is not always easy because I was trained to all but expect that the PhD would lead into a job as a professor. That was not really true when I was a student but it’s even less true now. But I have to to adapt. Our students and trainees have to adapts and it’s incumbent upon us to guide and advice.

I’d be intersted in feedback on this topic.

  • Are you working on a PhD to become a professor?
  • Are you a professor wondering if you’d be able to actually get a job today?
  • Are you training students with an eye toward technical and industrial careers?

 

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