Obtaining a PhD is the first step towards a successful and triumphant career, so you thought before entering graduate school. After years of hard work during your PhD, things should be looking up, right? You find a good postdoc position and you are on your way to having your own lab. Except it’s not that easy. Look at what happened to Ethan Perlstein - a successful young scientist with an excellent track record, a PhD from Harvard and a postdoc in Princeton with publication in top journals who could not find an Assistant Professor position. He ended up running an independent research lab, Perlstein Lab, much like a small biotech company.
And Ethan found a good postdoc position in an Ivy League university, something that is becoming almost impossible to do. Hundreds of thousands of people graduate each year with a PhD in life sciences (in 2010: 49000 in the US, 25600 in Germany, 6500 in Australia and 49000 in China, just to name a few) and the competition for good postdoc positions is fierce. Having a decent publication record alone won’t guarantee you a position in a well-funded lab doing the sort of research you want to do. That is, unless you have your own funding. And that’s where the vicious cycle starts: no publications - no funding - no research and so on. Each step is dominated by competition. To name one example, in 2013-14, Clare College, Cambridge UK, received 230 applications for one single junior research fellowship.
Let’s assume you are that lucky scientist who got the position and signed your contract. You move country, work long hours at minimal wages with zero annual leave and spend at least six months writing new grant proposals just to start the vicious cycle all over again. You might be fortunate enough to find an assistant professorship, but chances are you won’t. That’s the point where most scientists give up and leave academia. By then you are in your mid-to-late-thirties and in contrast to all your non-science friends, you are way behind on things like buying a house and starting a family.
So why is it that no professor tells you the truth about science careers? Or that graduate school doesn’t prepare students for careers outside of academia? Perhaps if people knew the statistics, less people would enroll in graduate school.
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