It may feel like it sometimes, but a PhD is not a waste of time

They are out there. alexmillos via Shutterstock

Imagine if you could gauge your chances of getting to the very top of your profession, just as you are starting out your career? A recent publication has boldly outlined a predictive model for doing just that in the competitive world of academia.

By measuring both the quality and quantity of a scientist’s publications and taking into account their institution and gender, the authors of the study say they can estimate the likelihood of a scientist transitioning into the role of principal investigator – an academic who manages large research projects.

From the inside looking out, I am sceptical of this oversimplified answer to a much more complicated and constantly evolving problem. The career landscape for up and coming scientists is constantly changing. Factors that could predict the likelihood of success today will likely no longer apply to future graduates.

Over the last four years, I’ve watched my well-published colleagues, mentors, and peers graduate and transition into successful careers both inside and outside of academia. In this time, I have realised that it takes much more than publication output, gender, and a notable pedigree to find career success.

To those of us in the thick of our doctorates, the once great promise of a PhD loses its lustre. Trying to get enough data to publish and perfect the next presentation, we are all prone to forget the obvious reality that the PhD, regardless of the number or impact of publications, is no longer a ticket to success.

Meet us over a pint and you’ll hear a very common refrain: we feel trapped in a system that produces but cannot support university research scientists. The odds are never in our favour. The rapid increase of recent doctoral graduates is far outpacing the availability of academic research jobs.

There are more PhDs now than ever before and for graduates, this translates to greater competition for all relevant jobs both inside and outside the university walls. In this competitive environment, the majority of us now feel entirely unprepared for the changing job market.

There is value in a PhD

Even in this new research landscape, with decreased funding and increased uncertainty, the PhD is not a waste of time. Despite the seemingly dire circumstances, not one of my fellow scholars regrets their decision. That’s because there is still definite value in obtaining a doctorate degree.

It provides technical training in experimental design and execution but it also teaches broader skills such as communication, time management, and project planning to name a few. The foundation for career success is there, but it needs to be guided with clear career goals and relevant work experience.

Unlike most graduate students, I was fortunate enough to have two phenomenal upper-year mentors, both intelligent and dedicated leaders set on two very different career paths. One continued on in research to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University and the other left academia to become a scientific diligence officer at an investment banking firm.

Although their chosen careers were vastly different, their advice was the same: take charge of your own training. Seeing them succeed in the following years, I recognised the value of career planning as a critical and often overlooked aspect of doing a PhD.

Plan ahead

Career planning starts with a reflection of your needs and ambitions, an admittedly difficult task. The majority of us enter academia with little knowledge of alternative careers, which are neither advertised nor promoted inside academic institutions. The responsibility then falls on us to seek out career fairs, cross-disciplinary classes, and professional networking groups to better define our ambitions. Completing an individual development plan can go a long way to helping hone aspirations.

After setting clear goals, the next challenge facing graduate students is to somehow gain relevant work experience while completing their degrees. In a high pressure research space, it can be difficult to find the time but the pursuit of leadership and volunteering opportunities is absolutely critical to improving and showcasing your skills. When the time comes to finally apply for a job, it is these additional experiences that set candidates apart.

The other major hurdle and source of frustration for all PhD graduates is the need to network and build contacts. Most alumni, going into any sector, get unadvertised, word-of-mouth positions that were passed along through their contacts.

Unemployment numbers show that PhD graduates are definitely attractive to employers and often more qualified than we realise. We just need to take the time to look beyond the science, find additional training, and get career ready.