A recent commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education by neuroscience graduate student Jon Bardin restates a lot of the truths about graduate school: that tenure-track positions in the biomedical sciences are extraordinarily hard to come by, that graduate school is a great place to learn effective communication skills and problem solving and that graduate school mentors need to learn to guide their students towards paths away from academia and towards 'the real world.'* However, what marks Mr. Bardin's essay is an air of nonchalance towards the typical "What did I just do?!?" panic of typical senior graduate students. He tends to lean heavily on the 'alternative career' path, as you can see from the following excerpts:
...These are experiences and skills that will carry me through many dark days as a writer. But the same skills would have benefited me if I were leaving for the pharmaceutical industry, or for consulting, or to open a microbrewery. Everyone needs a problem solver, an articulate communicator, a thoughtful arbitrator. If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview, I think many who choose to leave would find that they had not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid, to boot. (emphasis CJ's)
...A few months ago, I attended an event sponsored by several local biomedical universities titled "What Can You Be With a Ph.D.?" The event was spread over numerous auditoriums and included panels on science writing; teaching at the elementary, high-school, and college levels; government jobs, both in bureaucracy and research; forensic lab work; nonprofits; finance; biotechnology; consulting; and, yes, even postdoctoral research. Roaming from panel to panel, I was amazed at the sheer scope of opportunity for science Ph.D.'s. The event reinforced that, as the world becomes ever more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields. Looking around, it became clear that we've been looking at this pyramid upside down.
Here's what I think Mr. Bardin's essay elides: cost. His Ph.D. education (and mine) were paid for by the US taxpayer. Is this the best deal that the taxpayer can get? As I've said in the past, I think society gets a pretty good deal: they get 5+ years of cheap labor in science, (hopefully) contributions to greater knowledge and, at the end of the process, they get a trained scientist. Usually, that trained scientist can go on to generate new innovations in their independent career in industry or academia. It's long been my supposition that the latter will pay (directly and indirectly) for the former. If that's not the case, is this a bargain that society should continue to support?
Mr. Bardin also shows a great deal of insouciance about the costs to himself: what else could he have done, if he hadn't gone to graduate school? When we talk about the costs of getting a Ph.D., I believe that we don't talk enough about the sheer length of time (5+ years) and what other training might have been taken during that time. Opportunity costs matter! An apprenticeship at a microbrewery (likely at a similar (if not higher) pay scale as a graduate student) or a 1 or 2 year teaching certification process easily fits in the half-decade that most of us seem to spend in graduate school. Are the communications skills and the problem-solving skills that he gained worth the time and the (opportunity) cost? Could he have obtained those skills somewhere else for a lower cost?
This last problem leads me to a core dilemma of alternative careers for Ph.D. educated scientists. In the range of careers that Mr. Bardin uses to suggest "the sheer scope of opportunity for science Ph.D.'s", in how many of these fields will a science Ph.D. be an entry-level credential or an advantage? Patent law, for example, offers (or did?) Ph.D. chemists an opportunity to increase their wages significantly versus a career at the bench. How many of these fields would see a science Ph.D. as a wild overqualification (i.e. elementary education?) Would someone in one of these careers welcome a Ph.D. scientist or see them as a usurper of positions away from whatever entry-level credential that's preferred? This is a problem to be confronted, not wished away.
While I sincerely hope that "as the world becomes ever more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields", betting over 50% of your 20s on that hope seems like a risky proposition.
*BTW, I'm getting bored and irritated with these sorts of comments:
Crucially, they [professors] must make it clear that leaving academe does not suddenly brand them a waste of their mentor's time... But too many young scientists are made to feel worthless because of their desire to leave academic science. It has to stop.Perhaps it's the fact that most chemistry graduate students (used to?) end up in industry. But your self-worth shouldn't be dependent on whether or not you can become a tenure-track professor and the vagaries of your mentor's evaluation, true or not.