The major question almost all graduating PhDs face is whether to pursue a career in academia, industry, or government. I’ll discuss pros and cons of each along with some common misconceptions.
Many graduate students are under the false impression that most PhDs go into academia. This is because our mentors are professors, and academia is what they know, so in turn, that’s all you learn from them.
However, only about 13% of PhDs actually obtain tenure-track academic jobs. Some PhDs don’t realize this before they’ve taken an academic postdoc and find out how brutally competitive it is to land a tenure-track position. This can lead to wasted time working in a low paying academic postdoc before realizing they should pursue another career path.
For the minority who go on to become professors, their reward is that they can research pretty much whatever they please. Obtaining tenure also provides job security. However, I believe professors are severely undercompensated for all that they do.
On top of research, they have a ton of other responsibilities including teaching, grant writing, mentoring, recruiting, outreach, etc. When determining which career path was right for me, I personally felt all of that was not worth the pursuit and satisfaction of becoming a distinguished professor.
Academia should be considered an alternate career path. I cannot stress this enough. There are plenty of industry and government jobs available. These jobs offer substantially higher pay, can be less stressful, and, in many cases, you don’t have to constantly write grants worrying how you’re going to fund your lab. But what if you love teaching? Well, whatever research job you take you’ll be teaching and mentoring other people. But if it’s really your dream to be a professor, by all means, pursue it, just make sure you know the facts beforehand and are making an educated decision.
Industry jobs are the highest paying, but provide the lowest job security. Research in industry is profit driven and demands hard deadlines. This can lead to high stress levels, but it can be rewarding because you can see your work turn into product. Industry jobs are the hardest to obtain right after grad school because almost all these positions currently require at least one year of postdoctoral work experience.
As a result, it’s almost impossible to get your foot in the door immediately. Companies do this because they don’t want to risk wasting time and money training someone who only takes a job for a few months before leaving for the job they really want.
So what do you do if you want to work in industry, but can’t get your foot in the door immediately after grad school? I would recommend taking a position in government. A government job can serve as a good transition from academia to industry. But if you don’t want to go into industry, you can make a great career out of working for the government. Funding is typically easier to obtain compared to academia because there are specific funding agencies that allocate a large portion of their budget to government research.
Working for the government also gives you a sense of purpose. For example, in a government biodefense job, you are helping to protect your nation and the world from biothreat agents. However, it’s difficult to obtain a long-term government position in today’s economy. Most government jobs for young PhDs are contractor positions. Long term civilian appointments are very hard to come by due to cuts in government spending. I also want to mention that some government jobs are restricted to U.S. citizens, so it’s harder for international students to find these jobs. However, if you are a U.S. citizen, there is less competition.
Whichever career path you choose, make sure you know the facts beforehand. Talk to people who work in the field and get their opinion. Read articles and blogs, attend seminars and conferences.
Be proactive. If you’re still unsure where you belong, postdocs are good opportunities to test out these career areas to see if they’re a good fit. But I warn you not to enter a field with false impressions and misguided expectations. Doing your research beforehand can prevent this from happening.