Leader: Too many snakes, too few ladders

Academic career prospects for PhD holders are dismal, so why are those who seek external employment viewed as failures?

June 14, 2012

Is it the academy's dirty big secret? Certainly, the brutal truth about the academic career prospects of the current generation of PhDs and postdocs is starkly visible in the data: according to the Royal Society, just 4 per cent of those who obtain a higher degree in science, for example, gain a permanent academic research post, and less than half of 1 per cent end up as professors.

But it is also true that the matter is too often brushed under the carpet inside our universities, for it is the great academic taboo.

The sensitive and secretive nature of the problem is illustrated by the fact that the author of our cover feature - a frank, personal account of one highly qualified postdoctoral researcher's fear for his career - insisted on anonymity. It is bitterly ironic that the writer believed that his already gloomy career prospects would be weakened further if he were personally associated with trying to start a positive, open debate about those very career prospects.

Why is there such a taboo? It is, of course, in the interests of universities to keep hopes alive - to rightly encourage the focus on scholarly ideals, for one, but also to maintain the plentiful supply of doctoral students and postdoctoral employees as a vital source of high-quality but relatively low-cost labour. PhDs prop up undergraduate teaching, while postdocs often carry out the bulk of the research for their extremely busy professors.

But there is also a deep cultural element at play: the pervasive sense that those who do not pursue an academic career are failures.

It is little wonder that this emotionally charged void - which universities avoid acknowledging - is filled by blogs and web forums offering guidance that often reads as if it has been plucked straight from the pages of pop-psychology self-help manuals.

On her advice website, theprofessorisin.com, the former tenured US professor Karen Kelsky writes of academia as a "kind of cult" in which "deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls".

Those who leave the cult, she writes, "will be judged harshly by others" and - to the extent that they have been "properly socialized into the cult during graduate school" - by their own "inner voices".

"Making the decision to leave involves confronting that judgment, working through it, and coming out the other side. It is long and hard and involves confronting profound shame. I went through this. I know," she writes.

It is time to break the taboo.

As Canadian blogger Jessica Langer has written: "It is difficult adequately to describe without the use of profanity how awful I find it that some of the most intelligent people out there are encouraged to feel like failures...because they take their PhDs out of the academy."

Our brightest prospects need more honest information and more candid advice if they are to make better-informed choices.

But we must also make a stronger public case for the exceptional asset that each of them represents. The wonderful, highly transferable deep thinking and analytical skills acquired through a doctorate and through postdoctoral experience are of huge value - outside the academy as well as inside. That is a cause for loud celebration, not shame.


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