Should I stay or should I go (after the PhD)? Some reflections on the post-PhD life in particle physics.

These are certainly complicated times for early career researchers (ECRs) in all domains of science. To begin with, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has slowed, when not ground to a halt, a significant fraction of all research activities, and has affected in particular laboratory-based work. These COVID-related restrictions will inevitably cause important delays in the ECR careers, whom by definition struggle with temporary contracts and job insecurity. A delay of a few months (in the best case) might leave students without the necessary research time to wrap up their PhD theses or to prevent postdocs to publish that landmark paper that would increase their chances of finding the next academic position. To make things worse, many universities and research institutions have put in place a staff hiring freeze that could remain for months or years. Such hiring freeze further diminishes the chances of landing one of the few, extremely competitive, and coveted tenure-track positions available. And this goes without mentioning the associated travel restrictions, which might make attending a job interview all but impossible depending on the countries involved.

And it does not end up here. Despite all the praise and commendation about the crucial role that research and innovation should play to address the ongoing pandemic (and to prevent the next one) as well as to contribute to the economic rebound by bolstering a knowledge-based society, R&D investments remain far from being a top priority for politicians at all levels. This unfortunate state of affairs has been again confirmed recently by the output of the negotiations for the new EU budget, which have slashed the R&D spending by an unprecedented amount, with potential long-lasting consequences for the European research and innovation ecosystem. While these dismal developments hurt of course the whole scientific community, they are specially harmful for ECRs, whom more often than not rely on external funding to kick-start their careers as independent PIs and to carry out their research programs. The plummeting success rate of grant applications is already one of the major problems affecting science, and this problem is bound only to get only worse in Europe, at least if the proposed cuts to the EU research budget are not reverted by the European Parliament.

Given this apparently gloomy situation, why on Earth would someone attempt to pursue a career in science? What is this motivation that still pushes brilliant and energetic students to start a PhD and then follow a scientific career? What are the reasons that justify such decision and overcome the many concerns related to the dismal prospects of the academic job market and the ever-thinning chances of being able to secure research funding?

I thought that this was the kind of question that we as scientists should attempt to answer in a (somehow) quantitative way. Fortunately, a valuable statistical sample was already available that provided some interesting information about the question raised in the title of this post. In December 2019, during the traditional yearly get-together of Nikhef (the Dutch Institute of Subatomic Physics), also known as the Nikhef Jamboree, the members of the PhD council arranged an interesting survey among our student population. The goal of this survey was to collect their views over the perspectives (or the lack thereof) of a career in science, the pleasures and pitfalls of the PhD supervision process, and their perspectives concerning the general picture of science organisation nowadays.

The Nikhef community in full during its last year general assembly, the Jamboree, back in those by now almost-forgotten times where hanging out together in densely-packed gatherings was the traditional convention about how this kind of scientific meetings should be held.

With the authorisation of the Nikhef PhD Council, I reproduce here some of the representative results of this survey and comment on their main findings, together with some personal reflections based on my experience and anecdotal evidence (needless to say, this is not an scholarly analysis, so bear with me for the lack of references 😉 ). More than half of our large student population answered the survey, which provides some sensible degree of representativeness to the results (I have seen published scientific papers with smaller sample sizes!). While of course this sample corresponds to a very specific research field (particle physics), I believe that the general conclusions would not be too different were PhD students of other disciplines to be consulted.

The first question was the money question: would you like to continue in science after your PhD? Traditionally, such question would have seemed laughable, since the only reason one would ever do a PhD was to attempt a subsequent career in science. The situation is completely different nowadays, with follow-up careers in (academic) science being the exception rather than the norm for PhD graduates. While around 40% of the surveyed students declared an interest to continue in science after their graduation, 18% on the other hand were done with research and planned to do something else. Everyone else, 42% of our PhD students, was still undecided, which implies that they were still considering academic research as a sensible way forward for their careers. All in all, for more than 80% of the respondents there was the possibility of (scientific) life after the PhD.

When asked about the reasons for why they would like to stay in science (note that multiple answers were allowed), more than 75% of the respondents replied that the love of physics was the main driver of their decision. And this is not completely unsurprising: with all the challenges and difficulties associated to the scientific adventure, being able to peer every day into the inner fabric of the Universe, discover genuinely new aspects of the fundamental laws of Nature, and contribute to the corpus of legacy human knowledge is certainly a most exhilarating experience. In short, science is fun, and the results of the survey indicate clearly that most of Nikhef’s PhD students thoroughly enjoy what they do for a living (at least so far). Other reasons that motivate a possible post-PhD career in science for which a majority of the survey respondents agreed were the intellectual challenges provided by their research environment and the flexibility of the working hours. Interestingly enough, grandiose (and pompous) visions of being the next Einstein (or its more realistic equivalent of ending up as a university professor with their own research group) were by far less popular. So in summary, physics is cool, intellectually challenging, and benefits from a freedom of inquiry that also brings logistical freedom to organise their own work.

Physics is cool and challenging are the two main reasons why Nikhef’s PhD students would consider a follow-up career in research.

From the answers above, I find particularly interesting that our PhD students mentioned the intellectual challenges of their research work as one of the main reasons that motivates them to attempt to stay in science. I raise this point since I often talk to former colleagues that have transitioned from academia to a career in consulting or commercial data science, and it is frequently pointed out to me that they miss the challenges of working in the really difficult problems, at the boundaries of human knowledge, literately trying to get where no one has reached before. Due to fully understandable constraints, data science work in companies (as an example of a popular non-academic career for STEM PhD graduates) often focuses on low-lying fruits and on lines of research that can provide quantifiable returns in the near (rather than the asymptotically far) future. Which is perfectly fine, and as far as the people I know one can pursue an extremely satisfactory and fulfilling career as commercial data scientist, but it is also true that the spark and thrill of discovering little by little new fundamental aspects of Nature is missing in that context.

Remarkably, the importance of this factor (the intellectual challenge) to attract the best scientific minds (and thus achieve real breakthroughs) appears to have also been picked up by big companies such as Google, Facebook, or Amazon. Indeed, these behemoths are since recently basically recruiting shooting stars of the academic world (from AI to quantum computing) and paying them (a lot) to pursue their own research interests, with little to none restrictions from the upper management. The idea here being that if you have really brilliant and motivated (and of course also well funded) people around, the best way to ensure benefits for your company is leaving them alone to pursue what they believe is scientifically most interesting, and avoiding at all costs to micromanage them.

Nothing embodies the idea of fun for (theoretical) particle physicists as lengthy scientific discussions in front of a large blackboard. Stereotypes notwithstanding, this is actually true. Photo credit: Nikhef.

Now, the above considerations applied for those of our PhD students that were planning to try to stay in science. What about, on the contrary, those 20% of students that had already decided to quit science as soon as they were done with their PhD, or perhaps earlier? Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming justification quoted by the respondents is the sheer lack of career perspectives in academia, namely the very limited chances of eventually securing a permanent job in science. And this is of course a very sensible consideration. Given that the number of tenure-track jobs has more or less remained unchanged (and in some countries even decreased) while the number of PhD graduates has been growing steadily, basic maths tells you that the competition for academic jobs is becoming fiercer and fiercer.

What are the reasons PhD students have decided to drop science? First and foremost, the lack of career perspectives.

There are different estimates and large variations by country and discipline (see also the Royal Society chart below) about the chances of getting a permanent job. However, one sensible ball park estimate is that no more than 10% of the PhD graduates will end up landing a permanent research position, and perhaps only 2% or 3% will ever each the university professor level. The fact that chances are not that great rings true even for graduates of world-leading universities: a survey of PhD graduates from the theoretical condensed matter group of the University of Oxford revealed that less than one third of their students ended up in academic jobs (source: informal discussions with a local academic colleague while we monitored our kids playing in the park). Actually, these career perspectives are even gloomier if one considers that after the PhD comes typically a long string of temporary research gigs (postdocs) often involving moving country before one can eventually land a tenure-track faculty job. So it not only that chances are small, also that, irrespective of the outcome, you are expected to spend several years in temporary jobs in different institutions. Further, not everyone plays under the same rule in this game: caring responsibilities and financial considerations often unfairly disadvantage some scientists at this stage of their careers. Again and again, the dismal situation of the academic job market and the lack of compatibility with personal situations and constraints are mentioned as the one of the main reasons to drop science after the PhD.

A survey of the Royal Society based on the UK system revealed that PhD graduates end up overwhelmingly in careers outside science, and that the chances of landing a permanent research staff job at a university were at the few percent level at most.

The second most frequent consideration pointed out by the respondents concerning the reasons to drop science was aiming to a better salary. I have to say that was a bit surprised to see this result in a survey from Dutch PhD students, which enjoy in comparison with most other countries very generous employment conditions and benefits. As someone who never earned more than 1000 euros per month (without benefits) during my PhD, the Netherlands offers outstanding work conditions for PhD students, though perhaps it is true that graduates can land better paying jobs outside academia. In this context, perhaps one should also point out that no one complained about physics being dull or boring or that the Nikhef research environment was not supportive. So even the reasons for leaving science are quite telling, imho, about the reasons why these respondents accepted starting a PhD to begin with, if one considers also the “missing” answers.

Another of the questions that were asked as part of this survey were related to the current way in which science is organised. Here there was a higher diversity of options. The aspect that was more highlighted by the respondents was that of the freedom to organise their own work. This freedom is something that e.g. is absent in company world. Being able to travel and meet fascinating people are over the world is (was?) also an aspect well appreciated.

Positive aspects of the current organisation of science from the perspective of the Nikhef’s PhD students.
The time flexibility of academia can be a double-edged sword. It is sometimes required to work outside “office hours”, for example to meet a deadline for a paper submission. Image credit: PhD comics.

Concerning points of attention about the way science is organised, the survey’s respondents indicated two topics as particularly relevant. The first is that from their perspective too many excellent researchers end up leaving science. The second, the complaints about the fact that the current model requires enduring a series of short research gigs in different countries before one can even hope applying for a permanent position. Clearly, the two points are closely related: many outstanding scientists will leave the field if they are not willing (or able) to embark on postdocs gigs, in many cases for good reasons. Note also that as mentioned above the system does not treat all players equally: people with caring responsibilities might find more challenging following the traditional path from PhD to professor, and researchers from wealthier backgrounds or with a bigger support net have important advantages (as one might have noticed, relocating to a different country every couple of years is financially rather taxing). Other suggestions that our students put forward were to improve the possibilities of combining a scientific career with personal life, caring responsibilities, with the careers of their partners. I also note that another of the frequent complaints (too much travel) has been made irrelevant by Corona. Noting that most research activities and scientific life can go on with online remote conferences and meetings, it is unlikely that we go back to the pre-covid situation of almost continuous travel anytime soon. While there is no magic wand to solve these problems instantaneously, one positive recent development is the adoption of the “Recognition and Rewards of Academics” position paper by the Dutch universities, which emphasises that there are many different pathways to become a succesful scientist beyond the traditional one and that these should also be appropriately recognised.

Points of attention on the same topic: what we can do to improve the way science is organised?

Let me now finish this post by putting on my (fake) social scientist hat and draw together some general conclusions from the results of this interesting survey:

  • The overwhelming majority of Nikhef’s PhD student are either considering or have already decided to attempt to follow a career in science.
  • Why? Because science is fun, exciting, and intellectually challenging (at least in particle physics 😉 ): this is by far the main reason why our PhD students would attempt a career in academia.
  • But following up a scientific career also brings in many challenges from the personal point of view. Worse, there is no guarantee that all these sacrifices might result in landing one of the few professorial positions available
  • In the current way that science is organised, ECRs benefit of a significant flexibility to pursue their own interests, and of ample opportunities to meet and interact with people all over the world…
  • … but also the current model is affected by a leaky pipeline where many excellent researchers leave and those who remain are not always the best, in most cases due to the challenges to reconcile a scientific career with personal life and caring responsibilities.

So should you stay or should you go? No one can take this decision for you. What I believe is of utmost importance is to take this decision based on accurate information rather than on rumours or gut feelings, as well as seeking advice from more experienced researchers (of course when doing so one needs to be aware of the Survivor Bias) as well from people that have successfully transitioned to other jobs. Irrespective of the decision, what I want to strongly emphasise is that leaving (academic) science is never a defeat, something to be ashamed of. For many, it is the first step towards a fulfilling and rewarding career, perhaps not the one they had imagined for them when they first started the PhD, but perfectly suited for them nevertheless.

Some valuable advise on post-PhD career paths, again by the one and only Jorge Cham of PhDcomics.com

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