Graduate School = Postdoc = Faculty

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Graduate School = Postdoc = Faculty

Editado: Fev 24, 2009, 12:18am

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Fev 24, 2009, 1:52am

Speaking as a former grad student (I left academia after getting my PhD rather than take a job 3000 miles from my spouse), I think this question is utterly meaningless without specifying a field.

There are fields where grad school -> faculty is still, if not the norm, at least not uncommon, and there are fields where two postdocs are expected.

As for "how many ain't gonna make it", you can do the math; how many PhDs did your department produce in a year? How many did they hire? That's the percentage, in a quick estimate, that will find jobs at major research universities -- some will get jobs at colleges that don't grant PhDs (which is considered definitely second-tier in the sciences), but the rest will end up outside academia one way or the other.

Fev 24, 2009, 8:45am

Er, am I the only one who thinks that sounds fairly rude? As a former (and admittedly incomprehensible) Philosophy professor of mine once said: no question is meaningless, for meaning itself is questionable (is it any wonder I ended up in the History department?)

Anyway, I'm happy to offer an opinion. Well... let's face it, I'm always happy to offer an opinion, a state of affairs to which my friends, advisors and a certain parking inspector will freely attest.

I started out with the intention of transitioning from grad school to faculty, but at the moment my intention is to run screaming for the hills at the first opportunity. But on a practical level, I think it's kind of a given that you will have to travel to unGodly places (what do you MEAN there's no Starbucks here?), and gather more qualifications and continue to move around as you work your way up the ladder. At least, that's how they do things where I come from, pretty much regardless of your field.

Fev 24, 2009, 2:59pm

I'm a grad student in physics, and even within physics, there is wild variation depending on sub-field.

I happen to be in theoretical high-energy particle physics, which is one of those fields where multiple postdocs are expected and the "survival rate" has recently been rather low. (Perhaps things may change in coming years, as many people ended up in finance, which isn't quite as viable at the moment as it has been.)

Fortunately, I also happen to be in computational physics, which improves my prospects in two ways. First, the sub-sub-field of computational theoretical high-energy particle physics (officially, lattice gauge theory), is relatively small and tight-knit, so I know very promising places for good postdocs with less competition. Second, it's a relatively short hop into the broader sub-field of computational physics, which provides many more opportunities, both in academia and in high-performance-computing-related industries (Intel, IBM, SiCortex, etc.).

If I do stay in academia, I would be very pleased to get a faculty position within five years, probably a little desperate if I didn't get one within ten. Then I guess it would time to worry about tenure, which in my field is by no means guaranteed.

Fev 24, 2009, 4:32pm

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Fev 24, 2009, 4:37pm

But on a practical level, I think it's kind of a given that you will have to travel to unGodly places (what do you MEAN there's no Starbucks here?), and gather more qualifications and continue to move around as you work your way up the ladder. At least, that's how they do things where I come from, pretty much regardless of your field.

That's a bit flip.

People have reasons for geographic constraints that go beyond the creature comforts of weather or good restaurants -- they may have a spouse who is restricted in where they can find a job, and be unwilling to live apart for years or decades, they may have kids who they don't want to uproot every few years, they may want to stay close to aging parents, they may want to live in a state where they're treated as full citizens rather than someplace where they can't get health care for a spouse because they're the wrong gender.

Sadly, it is assumed -- at least it was in astronomy, and it sounds like it is for you in history as well -- that if you aren't willing to sacrifice all other constraints for your career, you aren't "serious", and don't belong in the field.

Fev 25, 2009, 1:53am

Ah. Do you think that because I have a sense of humour I am unaware of the reality of the situation? I am acutely aware of all the serious problems with this system, hence the 'run for the hills' comment.

Fev 25, 2009, 2:52pm


I'm sorry, I didn't interpret it as a joke, but rather as a dismissal of any geographical concerns as mere trivia. I've encountered plenty of people who in all seriousness have said that any such concerns really are unimportant -- that anyone who isn't willing to live thousands of miles away from their family for a few years isn't worthy of being in the field -- that it wasn't obvious you weren't serious. Sorry.

Fev 25, 2009, 3:57pm

Re: 2 & 3.

While lorax maybe stated it in a way that sounds flippant over the internet (where one can't glean vocal nuance), he/she is correct that specific fields make a big difference with regards to postdocs. The original poster's question simply doesn't have a lot of relevance with regard to the humanities and arts.

Unlike in the sciences where the vast majority of doctoral graduates move on to postdocs prior to faculty positions, in fields like film and media studies, communications, rhetoric & english, they are uncommon. Postdocs do exist here and there in the humanities, but immediately moving onto faculty positions is more the norm (for those who remain in academia).

I really think this a lot of this has to do with the differences in the nature of research between the fields, and advantages/disadvantages for individual departments in hiring postdocs (gaining an additional researcher on a funded project vs. justifying hiring someone who's not teaching or performing service to the department, for example).

I'm not aware of the existence of postdocs for the applied arts (and I'm not sure what that would even entail).

Fev 25, 2009, 4:06pm

I am in a dual-degree program, so I am both a PhD student in Genetics and a medical student. Comparing the two fields, I think that Grad schools are almost criminal in the way they educate way more people than there are available jobs in the field, and fail to convey that truth to their students. Almost all the grad students want to pursue the path in comment 1 (postdoc, faculty, tenure) and there are obviously too many students for all of them to do so. The degree itself takes at least five years, and then they will go on to postdoc, possibly for five more years, working at a very low salary in relation to their years of education. Labs tend to be getting bigger, with fewer faculty and more "lifetime" post-docs. Obviously there are non-academic jobs that they could look for, but I think my program does a bad job of bringing these alternatives to light.

As a medical student, I don't have to worry about all that. I will get into a residency, because that is the way the system is set up. Medical schools limit national enrollment to rates that ensure all graduates have jobs, while all grad programs in a field are always trying to grow in competition with other programs. I often wonder if grad programs in certain fields should get together to think about the number of graduates they put out, and try to optimize that number in light of available jobs. But maybe that kind of practicality is out of place in academia.

As for the infamous "two-body" problem, and other types of geographic constraints, I think that is just part of life. You are either willing to make sacrifices in your family life to work at a really great place, or willing to make sacrifices in your career to stay where your family wants, or lucky enough not to have to make the choice. I think your choice does say something about your general valuation of the two parts of your life, but I don't think either choice is necessarily "better".

Fev 25, 2009, 4:28pm

As for the infamous "two-body" problem, and other types of geographic constraints, I think that is just part of life. You are either willing to make sacrifices in your family life to work at a really great place, or willing to make sacrifices in your career to stay where your family wants, or lucky enough not to have to make the choice. I think your choice does say something about your general valuation of the two parts of your life, but I don't think either choice is necessarily "better".

The thing is, outside of academia, people aren't viewed as non-serious if they aren't willing to always put career first 100% of the time. Refusing to apply for a job because it's in Alaska and you have a family in Massachusetts that you don't want to uproot may limit your opportunities in non-academia -- it means you won't get that Alaskan job, obviously -- but it doesn't mean that employers in Massachusetts will look askance at your application as it would in academia (or, again, at least in the parts I'm familiar with.)

Fev 25, 2009, 5:53pm

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Fev 25, 2009, 5:59pm

-11 In medicine too, at least, people at more prestigious institutions like to see a breadth of experience (they don't like inbreeding, as they put it). So in that sense the profession is similar to academia. I totally agree with you though - I think that the idea that you must sacrifice all other interests and obligations to be good at your calling is absurd. It is a very prevalent idea though. The institution at which I am a student is extremely family-friendly, and I often hear snide comments about lack of "commitment to science" and "work ethic" from a certain groups of people who think you cannot be a good scientist if you aren't in your lab 80 hrs a week and neglecting your spouse (and just forget about kids!). I figure to each their own, and I hope their obsessive devotion pans out for them and makes them happy. I also figure I wouldn't want to end up working at a place with that philosophy.

Fev 25, 2009, 6:55pm

Another alternate point of view - no intention of entering academia when I finish. I work (part-time) in industry in my field now, and I intend to do something similar (with much better pay and chance of choosing my own projects) when I graduate. I am starting to get a little worried that I'll have to move (at least within the state) to find a job one day. I may be educating myself out of a lot of jobs, but the ones that are left look pretty interesting!

But what I'm seeing in my department (Math) is that while we're willing to consider hiring someone just out of school into a tenure track position, we prefer the candidates who have at least a two-year post-doc under their belt. And two years seems to be the standard for math and statistics.

Fev 25, 2009, 9:25pm

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Fev 26, 2009, 12:06pm



The "do the math" about number of PhDs produced at a research institution per year, versus the number of profs hired, is something I really, really wish they had told us when we started grad school. I was lucky enough to leave academia on my own terms, choosing to turn down a postdoc offer, but I have plenty of friends who've left after a postdoc or two when they just could not find a faculty job, and that's a lot of time they may not have spent if they'd had a more realistic assessment of the situation.

Fev 26, 2009, 4:15pm

-16 It is criminal! They need to do one of two things: pay postdocs well enough to make it a job worth going though all that education for in and of itself, or limit the number of incoming graduate students. Or both.

In most areas of science, some actual thinking on the trajectory of lab size needs to be done too. I see that massive labs may be necessary for certain types of projects, but maybe they can make a system that allows for a number of PIs to coordinately administrate the lab, rather than increasing the postdoc to PI ratio.

Fev 26, 2009, 4:29pm

I'll agree with lorax that the field matters. As does the school, your area of research, and a lot of other factors. When I was working as a secretary at a university, I knew one person who was an assistant professor in all but title as he was finishing up his PhD. He had a faculty office, did applicant reviews, sat in on faculty meetings, etc. Meanwhile, I was double-checking his references and formatting his tables for his dissertation! Obviously, that was a very unusual situation and I'm not quite sure how it came about.

Fev 26, 2009, 5:59pm

I actually dislike the idea of limiting PhD positions to the number of faculty jobs available afterwards. I think it's good that people can study something just because they're interested in it, not because it will lead to a great job afterwards. If a tenured position were guaranteed, there would be a lot of people going to graduate school not because they were particularly interested in it but because they wanted that cushy guaranteed position at the end, and there would be other people who just wanted to do what they loved regardless of what it led to but weren't able to because they weren't at the absolute top of their class. I'm not sure how turning graduate school into med school, with the insane pressure throughout undergrad and the constant rejection of good students, would be an improvement.

I don't think people entering graduate school are uninformed about what the prospects are, and if they are, I don't feel particularly sorry for them. Who agrees to devote 5-10 years of their life to something without thinking it through first?

I worried for a long time about the limited prospects for future employment, and I was all set to give up and go to teacher's college instead of pursuing a PhD. But at the very last minute, after the acceptances had come in and I had two weeks to decide where to go, I realized that I'd rather take the more interesting path than the one that led fairly directly to good employment. Graduate school for me isn't about the end, it's about the process itself. Sure, I'd like to get a faculty position eventually, but if not, I'll still have spend five years being paid to read books about things I'm interested in. How is that a bad deal?

Fev 26, 2009, 6:30pm

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Fev 27, 2009, 1:51pm

You may want to visit the online forums on the "Chronicle of Higher Education" website. ( There's a section titled "Grad School Life" where you can get lots of info about grad school.

Editado: Fev 27, 2009, 2:34pm

-19 I agree that the best motivation for graduate study is a pure love of the topic. I don't agree that the field in general should leave that unsullied interest and devotion unrewarded.

It is a waste of good, trained minds to make career post-docs out of PhD students. Becoming the leader of your own research isn't simply about money, it is about self-determination. Maybe this is different outside the sciences, but without autonomy and money you just cannot pursue most areas of scientific interest. You can't just give up on the whole academia thing and set up a laboratory in your garage. I think most graduate students that enter grad school without an awareness of the reality of their future prospects are the idealists you celebrate, and I think it is the job of the graduate program, which is specifically entrusted with teaching them about their new field, to enlighten them. I just feel like the current system takes advantage of idealism.

As for limiting enrollment, I have some mixed feelings on that. I don't really buy the "but learning should be available to all!" argument because it clearly isn't right now; if you lack the grades and the experience you won't be allowed to pursue graduate education, and every school sets some limit on the number of students it accepts each year. I just think they need to think a little harder about how they set that limit.

Clearly, my comments are mostly geared towards science PhD programs. I don't know much about how programs in the classics work (how they are funded, what people tend to do after graduating, etc). I have a feeling that more students in the classics are aware of the shortage of faculty positions than are students in the sciences, and I think that is probably the fault of science educators.

Nov 30, 2020, 2:12am

It totally depends on your fields of study. From my perspective, for the Ph.D. of most of the STEM subjects, they really need to pursue higher education because what they learned in their Bachelor's degree is so fundamental. When they are near the end of their academic life, they are more similar to a qualified faculty indeed. However, for other majors, studying for a Ph.D. is really someone's own choice. They just want to be a professor instead of learning more knowledge. Not to mention, even on the graduation day, the graduation regalia for a Doctor is extremely expensive.