Is There Life After Graduate School?

In an earlier post, I discussed the decision about attending graduate school in the sciences. I argued that graduate school is certainly not the right choice for everyone. For people of a certain mind-set, though, it is the perfect choice. And even if you have all the right attributes for graduate school, you can still be miserable if you pick the wrong advisor or graduate program, so that choice is also important. But let’s assume that you decided that graduate school was the right choice for you, you did the research, found the perfect advisor, happily toiled away long hours discovering things about the natural world that no one else in the world knew about, published lots of exciting papers about those results, finished a dissertation, and successfully completed a Ph.D. Now you have to address the question that friends and family have been asking you for years: What will you do for the rest of your life, and how will you make a living doing it? How can you make a living doing something as specialized and arcane as phylogenetics, for example?

Many people seem to assume that all prospective Doctors of Philosophy are working toward a tenure-track position in academia. That is one option, but it is only one of many, and it is not the first choice for many people. Clearly, most graduate students can’t go on to become tenure-track professors at tier-one, Ph.D.-granting universities. That has never been the case. If the average professor at a tier-one research university trains ten graduate students in his or her lifetime, academia would have to be growing exponentially by an exponent of ten to produce jobs for them all. Instead, U.S. universities are close to a steady state. With a few exceptions (such as China), that is true for most other countries in the world as well.

For some people, a tenure-track position at a tier-one research university is a perfectly appropriate and reasonable goal. If you loved graduate school, including the long hours dedicated to research, teaching and training undergraduates, collaborating with other graduate students and faculty, participating as a graduate student representative on departmental committees, and writing proposals to get funding for your research—AND if you were successful doing all these things—then you are probably well suited for a tenure-track position at a major research university. If you were unhappy or not very successful doing any of these things, then you will probably be a lot MORE unhappy in a tenure-track position at a tier-one research university. Life as a Professor is like being in graduate school, but with a lot more responsibilities, expectations, duties, and paper work in trade for more independence and a better paycheck.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m a Professor, and I love it. I love the freedom to explore my research interests. I love writing papers that report these results to others. I love teaching undergraduates. I love advising and mentoring graduate students and postdocs, and helping them discover and develop their passions. I love working with my colleagues to build a better department, graduate program, college, university, and world. I love consulting with the public and with politicians to inform them about science so that they can develop better products and policies. I love editing and reviewing scientific papers written by my students and peers. I love all these things so much that I’m willing to put up with all the frustrations of academia to have a chance to do them.

The biggest frustration for me is the constant scramble to fund the programs I care about. More and more resources in academia (at least in the United States) are being directed away from teaching, research, and educational outreach programs (what should be the primary goals of a university) and into administration and non-academic activities. State legislatures are putting fewer resources into educational institutions at just the time our society should be emphasizing public education. Furthermore, hard work, especially for teaching and service, often go unrecognized and unrewarded. In some departments (not mine, thankfully), petty politics can be severe. Although I work to try to address those problems, I don’t let them keep me from doing what I’ve been trained to do. Happy and productive academics find ways to be successful despite the problems in modern academia.

Although I love being a Professor, it is certainly not a job that everyone would enjoy. Like graduate school, professors have to work long hours and fulfill many different roles, often with minimal resources at their disposal. And hard work alone does not ensure success in academia. By its very nature, research is a gamble: sometimes, we don’t know if the questions we are asking can be answered. Teaching well is not something that comes naturally to many people. Writing grant proposals is an art (and many otherwise good scientists are not talented at crafting successful grant proposals). Not everyone likes public speaking or public outreach. Many PhDs look at the demands and challenges of academia and choose other careers. This is a very personal decision: only you can know what will make you happiest in life.

What are some other options for a Ph.D.? There are many. As an example, I recently looked back at what all the people who have earned a Ph.D. in my lab over the years are doing now. This is not meant to be a representative or exhaustive list of career options, but it serves as an example for discussion. The graph below shows eight categories (listed below the figure) that indicate what PhDs from my lab (all trained in various aspects of phylogenetics and evolutionary biology) are doing today:


(1) Tenured or tenure-track jobs in academia (53%)
(2) Research jobs in government agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (15%)
(3) Research positions in academia or NGOs (9%)
(4) Recent graduates who are currently in postdocs (9%)
(5) Individuals who own and operate their own company (6%)
(6) Tenure-track positions in research and public education at a natural history museum (3%)
(7) Research positions in biotech industry (3%)
(8) Teaching positions in academia (not tenure-track) (3%)

It is a fallacy that everyone who earns a Ph.D. wants to work in a tenure-track position in academia. Many people would prefer another option. For example, one of my former graduate students loves caving and cave-related research. She started her own company that does environmental consulting on caves, hydrology, and related subjects. This gives her the freedom to pursue her interests, and her academic experience and credentials allow her to do what she most wants to do in life. Others are happy to be working in government positions, where they can best apply their talents to solving problems in public health or wildlife conservation issues. One former student landed his dream job working in a large public museum, where his mission is research (into his favorite organisms), curation of a large collection of specimens, and public outreach and education. Several have full-time research positions. The most recent graduates are working as postdocs, continuing to pursue their research interests while looking for a permanent job. Almost all of these graduates are satisfied with their careers of choice.

Each lab, and each field, is different, so you need to investigate prospective labs and career opportunities before you enter graduate school. If you have dreams or expectations for a particular career, be sure to discuss those aspirations with your prospective graduate advisor. It is important that your advisor understands and supports your goals, and does everything he or she can to help you reach your full potential in an advanced field of knowledge. Then, it is up to you to decide what you will do with that training.