PhD in Wonderland. Dream or Reality?

Talking with other PhD Students and colleagues of mine, it emerges that the main drivers for choosing a PhD in science is passion. We love what we are doing, the project we took part into becomes a piece of us day after day. Most of us are not requested to stay into the lab such a large amount of hours, nevertheless who has never spent a night in there? It happens so frequently to see lights still turned on in department's labs late in the evening and, to whom is able to observe deeply, immediately a thought comes up in mind: “Research is going on there!”

That probably is the most meaningful definition of research: free-minded students' energies devoted to push knowledge ahead and to discovery.

That probably is the most meaningful definition of research: free-minded students' energies devoted to push knowledge ahead and to discovery.

On the same hand, everybody of us is aware of the whole set of difficulties that have to be faced every day in doing recognized quality research. Low salary per number of worked hours, lack of investments in infrastructures and materials, difficulties in publishing research in high ranked journals and most of all, the tremendous lack of opening positions in academia that would allow to proceed in a permanent career in university. It naturally makes arise a quest for positions all around the world that, although it allows a faster growth both from the professional and the personal side, it also demands a considerable amount of years of instability and precariousness...

The problem begins to be recognized worldwide. Recently a number of articles from respectable scientific journals, such as Nature and Science, addressed the problem of increasing amount of opening PhD positions in the US that would never be absorbed in academia [1]. It is the American Institute of Research (AIR) that in 2014 takes the task of quantifying the phenomenon of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) PhD holders that rather than running for tenure track, exit the university to dive into the market [2].

Totally, 61% of PhD holders find a place in Industry, while the amount increases to a high 74% when only Engineering is considered. Interestingly, the 88% of graduates with doctoral degrees working in Industry at the survey moment comes from three major fields: Engineering, Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences (fig. 1) with an overall amount of 57% of PhD holders still working in Research and Development at different levels: Basic Research, Applied Research and Development; the remaining 43% is involved in management and other professional services. The combinations of these data make arise the need for soft skills to be acquired alongside with technical skills. Communications to general public, project management, basics in economic balance and market trends are missing competences to STEM PhD holders that may heavily affect the transition to industry into a tough job even for highly qualified researchers.

Figure 1. Distribution of PhD degrees of workers in Industry at 2014 in the USA. Source AIR [2].

By the way, despite the impact that it can have on the researcher’s working habits, this kind of transition could provide benefits from a financial point of view. Indeed, OECD research states that higher education provides consistently higher salary with respect to secondary level education, to an amount that is about +150% higher for the US and about +100% in EU [3].


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Data definitely state that pursuing PhD is a profitable investment, but it is also as much evident how risky it could be running for an academic career. Indeed, focusing on the Italian scenario, statistics collected by the University and Research Ministry and elaborated by PhD and Researchers Association (ADI) make it clear that how only 8% of researchers will be absorbed into the academic path within 2020 [4]. Moving to the UK scenario, this percentage reduces to about 3.5% when Permanent Research staff is considered and drops to 0.45% for a Professor Position (fig. 2) [5].

Figure 2. Diagram illustrating transition points encountered in typical career for scientific careers following a PhD. Source The Royal Society [5].

Talking to other PhD Students and colleagues of mine, it emerges that the longer they are into research, the more they become concerned about their future. Sometimes the will for staying into academia comes mainly from the lack of knowledge of what there is outside; Industry is often perceived as subject to money rules, as the killer of the free-spirit driving discovery.

Probably we will persist in being deaf to what data tell us, despite our analytical mindset, but sooner or later we will have to deal with the tough choice between academia and something else. It will be better to know more about the rivals.



  1. Cyranoski D, Gilbert N, Ledford H, Nayar A, Yahia M, Education, the PhD Factory, Nature 472, 276-279 (2011)

  2. Turk-Bicakci L, Berger A, Haxton C, The Nonacademic Careers of STEM PhD Holders, Broadening Participation in STEM Graduate Education, STEM at American Institutes for Research (2014)

  3. OECD (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing.

  4. V Indagine ADI - Il reclutamento di assegnisti ricercatori a tempo determinato di tipo a e b, ADI Associazione Dottorandi e Dottori di Ricerca Italiani.

  5. The Scientific Century, securing our future prosperity. The Royal Society. ISBN: 978-0-85403-818-3, Issued: March 2010 Report 02/10 DES1768