Thursday, May 17, 2012

Graduate School Burnout Quantified

For most graduate students in physics, a research focused career ranks more attractive than teaching, government work, or science outreach and writing. Most PhD physicists, however, will never attain a tenure-track position at a university. Upon entering graduate school, many students realize that the odds are against them, but they push forward regardless.

Students may not realize how their career perceptions will evolve throughout graduate school, however. A study published earlier this month has revealed that research careers become less attractive to graduate students as they progress through school.

This image shows the relative attractiveness of different careers for biology, chemistry and physics graduate students. Positive percentages represent the proportion of students who found a career more appealing over time, and negative percentages represent the proportion of students who found a career less attractive over time. Image Courtesy Henry Sauermann/Micheal Roach/PLOS One.

Surveying thousands of graduate students in biology, chemistry and physics, study authors Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach tracked career perceptions for five different levels of graduate students:

  1. Those who have not yet passed a qualifying exam.
  2. Students currently working on dissertation research.
  3. Students working on non-dissertation research (e.g., as a research assistant).
  4. Those who intend to begin actively looking for a job or post-doc position within the next year.
  5. Students who are actively looking for a job or a post-doc position.

Moving from one to five, research careers became increasingly unattractive. In physics, the number of students who rated a research career as either "unattractive" or "extremely unattractive" doubled from 7 percent for early stage students to 14 percent of late stage students. Meanwhile, the percentage of physics students who ranked a research career as high as possible dropped from 60 percent to 53 percent.

A significant portion of graduate students are turned off by an academic career over time. But most students steadfastly pursue research careers despite the dearth of permanent positions. According to the study authors, this may be because advisers rarely counsel students on careers outside of academia.

The percentage of students who felt that their department encouraged or discouraged certain career paths. Image Courtesy Henry Sauermann/Micheal Roach/PLOS One.

Advisers don't actively discourage certain careers much more than others, at least in the minds of students. Instead, they don't discuss "alternative" careers with students, probably leading to the large neutral perception for careers outside of research. This may be because advisers rarely have extensive experience outside of academia; they can't give students reliable advice about these careers.

The authors of the study noted that universities should consider being more upfront about career prospects in research before admitting students. While this may lead to fewer students enrolling in graduate school, it will likely lead to fewer disillusioned students in the future.

Attending graduate school is a huge decision, and students should be well-informed before they take the plunge. We should give the students facts about careers after graduate school, but they ultimately have to make these life decisions themselves.


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