The personal values held by postdoctorate scientists play a bigger part in determining whether they decide to pursue a career in academia than previously thought, according to new research.
The authors of a study published last month say that giving researchers more opportunities to align their work with their own values may help to stem the loss of talented researchers from biomedical science.
Kenneth Gibbs, a fellow at the US National Science Foundation, and Kimberly Griffin, an associate professor of student affairs at the University of Maryland, examined the factors that influenced the career decisions of postdoctorates amid the changing landscape for academic careers over the past few decades.
Just 40 years ago, the majority of scientists who obtained PhDs managed to secure a university academic position, says the paper, published in CBE-Life Sciences Education.
In comparison, today, only 14 per cent of life scientists go on to hold a permanent – or the prospect of a permanent – position (tenure or tenure-track) five or six years after graduation.
Early career researchers who want to stay in academia now face significant hurdles that may discourage them, such as the supply of postdoctorates far outstripping the number of academic jobs available.
To learn more about the decision-making processes of those considering an academic career, Dr Gibbs and Dr Griffin held 11 focus groups with 38 biomedical scientists who had gained PhDs between 2006 and 2011 and analysed the results.
They found that research performance and relationships with PhD supervisors did not explain different attitudes to faculty careers.
Instead, personal values were the “primary driver” of whether they chose to stay in academia or not. The paper, “What do I want to be with my PhD? The roles of personal values and structural dynamics in shaping the career interests of recent biomedical science PhD graduates”, states: “If what scientists felt was important to him or her personally and professionally could be best achieved in an academic setting, he or she pursued a faculty career,” the authors write.
They also find that the lack of structured career development activities in many PhD courses means that students form expectations of academia based on the working lives of more experienced colleagues – many of whom are seen struggling to secure faculty positions, juggling demanding workloads and having a poor work-life balance. Young researchers cite these as reasons for eschewing academia, the paper says.