An academic career? I'm not sure I fancy it

Vitae uncovers gap between PhD students' career aspirations and destinations. Paul Jump writes

March 1, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Step lively: only among the arts does doctoral demand for scholarly positions outstrip supply

The proportion of doctoral students who find academic jobs is greater than the proportion with a definite aspiration to do so - except in the arts and humanities.

This is the surprising finding of a major survey of PhD students' career aspirations carried out by Vitae, the research careers organisation.

The online survey, carried out in 2010, attracted more than 4,500 responses from doctoral researchers across 130 UK universities and research institutes.

An overwhelming majority of respondents had entered doctoral study for reasons of intellectual curiosity, and only about a third had formed definite career plans, even by the latter years of their doctorates.

Physical science and engineering students were particularly unlikely to have definite plans, while those from the humanities were the most likely.

Of the latter group, 61 per cent envisaged becoming lecturers in higher education and another 14 per cent planned on entering academic research.

The academy was also a popular career destination for social science students, but was much less favoured by science students.

Just 9 per cent of students in the biological sciences aspired to become lecturers and 13 per cent aimed to enter academic research, compared with 55 per cent who sought research careers outside the academy.

The Vitae report on the survey, What Do Researchers Want to Do? The Career Intentions of Doctoral Researchers, also highlights previous figures on the known destinations of doctoral students, which indicate that only 58 per cent of doctoral students in arts and the humanities actually get jobs in the academy.

However, the proportion of students from all other disciplines who obtain academic jobs exceeds the proportion of respondents to the Vitae survey who have a definite intention of doing so.

The findings may assuage concerns about the mismatch between the number of young researchers entering the system and the availability of academic positions.

A report on this issue was prepared last year by the grass-roots pressure group Science is Vital and presented to David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

Respondents to the Vitae survey had been scarcely more likely than other students to aspire to academic careers when they began their undergraduate degrees.

Just 13 per cent overall had done so, rising to 35 per cent in the arts and humanities.

"From this it can be inferred that, for most, the attraction of research developed during their university years...which coincides with the time that they are targeted by corporate graduate recruiters," the report says. "[This insight] may be useful in considering how to assure the future supply of high-calibre graduates into research."

The report also found that even in the final years of their studies, only 10 per cent of doctoral students would not have pursued PhD study if they could make the decision again and 69 per cent would pursue the same or similar programmes.

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