This doesn’t sound much like the title of a career path blog, does it?
You most likely know it as the title of a song by Paul Simon, but while it may resonate with a lot of people, what specific relevance could it have to science PhDs and postdocs?
Well, it does make sense if your first love is Academia, you know, independent research and teaching in varying proportions, and you decide on a career change.
“Separation” occurs more frequently than it used to, with estimates in various publications that approximately 20% of postdocs follow careers in academic research and/or teaching, a percentage that has been decreasing for at least 30 years.
While there seems to be general agreement that there are many more PhD scientists than open academic positions, there are at least two (strongly held) opinions of the significance. One is that there are too many PhDs and that there should be fewer of them. Another is that there are in fact not too many PhDs, because there are many career opportunities outside of academia. I just remembered that academia used to be called an “ivory tower” and that perception may still be an influence on those who think that there are too many PhDs.
A couple of recent publications provide some insight into PhD scientist career paths. A longitudinal study of NIH postdocs (Levitt, BMC Medical Education 2010, 10:80 http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6920/10/80) found that only 9% of men (but 23% of women) were not working in scientific professions 16 years later.
The difference was explained by a smaller percentage of women who found positions in industry. Similar numbers of men and women were in academia. The other was a US nationwide survey of the career preferences of biological science, chemistry, and physics postdocs (Sauermann & Roach, PLoS ONE 2012, 7: e36307. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036307) that documents changes in career objectives and perceptions that occur during graduate school.
OK, if you want to get into other (professional) spots, then what should you do? You need a plan. In the Paul Simon song, this is easy. Want to leave your lover? “Just hop on the bus Gus, slip out the back Jack, or drop off the key Lee.”
In the real world, it may take a bit more planning and analysis.
Cheers until next time,
Clement Weinberger, PhD