The science of science careers: never too late to consider options

This is the first post in a series highlighting the collaboration between COMPASS and CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE)–featuring some of the exciting work that is being done to understand how we learn about science and how science careers impact the people who work in both academia and industry.

Graduate students and postdocs face a lot of the same challenges. Organizing lab work, keeping up with the literature and driving research projects forward can all take their toll, but none of these responsibilities can cause quite as much stress and anxiety as making crucial career decisions. Trainees in academic research are faced with a wealth of career options and alternatives to a tenure-track academic career, ranging from leaving science altogether, to working in science-related professions, to working in the industrial sector. A series of studies published in LSE has been striving to understand the dynamics of these career choices, with the ultimate goal to identify where scientists need the most support in their careers.

A fascinating study from Gibbs et al. has been hunting for trends in the experiences of recent science PhD graduates who decide to remain in academia versus those who choose to leave for a variety of other career options. Rather unsurprisingly, those who choose to leave academia are mostly motivated by the difficulties of a career in the modern, competitive world of academic science, including lack of job stability, relatively low pay, and the insecurity that comes with depending on grant funding. What is perhaps more interesting is that the quality of advisor relationships did not seem to affect whether trainees chose to remain in academia. This seems to contradict the common-sense idea that students who forge good, professional relationships with their advisors are encouraged to remain in academia. Instead, this study suggests that a trainee’s career path is somewhat independent of their relationship with their advisor.

Further support for this idea comes from another study by the same authors, which looks at the career trajectories of U.S. postdocs. The choice to remain in academia and choose a faculty job as the next step was unrelated to the quality of the relationship between the postdoc and their supervisor. Moreover, wanting to remain in academia seemed to be somewhat independent from research productivity and publication rate. However, graduate students and postdocs seem to differ in an important aspect of their career aspirations. While graduate students may well experience confusion and stress over career choices, postdocs seem to be less clear on their career goals and aspirations. This is perhaps explained by the fact that postdocs in this study seemed to lose interest in faculty careers as time went on. The longer you spend in the lab, the keener you are to escape.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what the scientific community can do with these results. It would seem as though what deters trainees from entering a career in academia has little to do with career support that can be provided by institutions or by the scientific community. Instead, trainees appear to be choosing alternate career paths because of issues inherent to the world of academia, including insufficient funding opportunities, job instability, and a scarcity of suitable jobs. These issues are endemic to academia and will require a coordinated effort on the part of the entire scientific community to ensure that the brightest and best trainees remain in faculty jobs. Despite all these problems, a significant number of trainees remain interested in faculty jobs, primarily because they offer an opportunity for independence and intellectual freedom, according to a study published last year.

A lot more could be done to support trainees who do wish to attain faculty positions. One idea gaining momentum in educational institutions is to offer structured programs to support postdoctoral researchers who wish to eventually open their own lab. In particular, a recent study has highlighted the effectiveness of one such program known as Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE). Structured programs such as these allow postdocs to develop as future faculty in ways that have not traditionally been encouraged. For instance, trainees in these programs have an opportunity to gain teaching experience as independent instructors and to gain experience in balancing teaching with research—a trend not usually encouraged in postdoctoral trainees, who are often seen as “data-farms” by publication-hungry PIs. Programs such as these can provide trainees withthe support they often lack from their supervisors and their families (as highlighted by this study on postdoctoral trainees and their career aspirations).

Structured postdoctoral training programs could continue to provide the support that graduate schools offer to PhD students. Graduate student support has been shown to provide predoctoral trainees with the tools they need to make career decisions confidently, and this sort of backing is sorely needed by trainees in the later stages of their careers. We are looking forward to seeing many more structured training programs for future faculty to give trainees the tools they need to go after the careers they want.

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The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Gaia obtained her PhD from King's College, London working on melanoma cell plasticity and how it affects metastasis and patient survival. She has since moved to the United States, where she is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke University. Her work focuses on understanding how breast cancer metastasizes to the bone and manipulates the tumor micro-environment. She loves writing about science and communicating her passion for all things biology. You can find more of her writing here: