The Journey of a PhD Student
The arduous journey for a medical student encompassing medical school, residency, and licensure testing has been widely reported describing the cut-throat competition between students and the long, grueling hours a resident is expected to fulfill. It’s considered a rite of passage that every practicing physician has endured. However, the grueling journey of a Ph.D. student is no less demanding but is largely underreported. It begins with a passion, an unquenchable desire to achieve goals in a chosen field that most people will never have the opportunity to realize. Earning a PhD degree affords membership into an elite community.
Entering a PhD program does not ensure success or completion of the degree. In fact, the Council of Graduate Schools found in a study that, out of 49,000 students surveyed, approximately 43.4% who were enrolled in PhD programs didn’t complete their degrees. Fewer baccalaureate students are choosing the traditional route of obtaining a PhD resulting in older students matriculating into graduate programs (average of 33 years old). The challenges these students face are as diverse as the passions that drive them to pursue an advanced degree. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all program today, and the lack of support services for older students is cited as one of the key reasons the attrition rate is as high as it is.
Many PhD students enter their programs with their site set on entering academia as a professor to attain tenure. However, less than 17% of all new PhD students are offered a tenured position three years after graduation. Larson and colleagues report that, using engineering as an example:
A professor in the US graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his/her whole career on average, and only one of these graduates can replace the professor’s position. This implies that in a steady state, only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions in the USA.
Even fields that have rapidly advanced over the past few decades, such as the life sciences or computer science, have seen little to no increase in available faculty positions. Older graduate students are at a disadvantage when compared to traditional students because most have to work full-time (or at least part-time) to support their families making aspects such as assigned group work difficult.
However, the prognosis for current and new graduate students isn’t as bleak and desolate as it may seem. There are numerous career opportunities outside of academia for post-graduate students. The video below is a TED talk by a PhD student who realized that academia wasn’t the path she wanted to take once she completed her degree.
Holding a PhD has its advantages when looking for a career in industry rather than academia. Being a researcher requires three skills that most industry positions are looking: critical thinking, complex problem solving, and prowess in decision-making. How many first-year graduate students went in thinking they were going to make that life-changing discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, and instead, learned very quickly that life as a researcher involves failing over and over again without receiving any recognition for it? That resilience gives the PhD holder a tremendous advantage over non-graduate degree holders vying for the same position.
Some PhD’s have taken their knowledge and become successful entrepreneurs in start-up companies or act as consultants in their areas of expertise. There are no limits to the direction a post-doctoral graduate can take; a PhD is a valuable asset and not a liability.