Nature’s recent PhD survey presents some pretty bleak findings around academic careers and the mental health of those perusing them.
“Science PhD students love what they do — but many also suffer for it. That's one of the top findings from Nature's survey of more than 5,700 doctoral students worldwide.”
There are many reasons why a graduate would take on a PhD – the impact on society, the valuable contribution to industry, but most of all, the love of science. And, despite many issues, including funding and the current political landscape (Brexit, again), students are as committed as ever to research as a career.
However, while 75% of students feel it’s likely they’ll pursue an academic career when they graduate, “only three or four in every hundred PhD students in the United Kingdom will land a permanent staff position at a university.” Hardly surprising then that students ranked career path as the thing they are most worried about since starting their studies (joint with ‘maintaining work-life balance). What is shocking though, is the statistic that 45% of the student surveyed have sought help for anxiety or depression due to their PhD study.
The problem is that faculties often want to keep students in academia - it furthers the work of the lab and it keeps funding ticking over. But this means that the “normal” outcome of a non-academic career is often seen as second-class, and access to information around other opportunities is limited. So much so that only 15% of students said they were able to find useful careers resources at their institution, and “around 30% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that their supervisor has useful advice for non-academic careers”.
So what can you do?
- Start conversations early. If you have roles for STEM graduates and post-docs, develop the pipeline from year one
- Engage with PhD supervisors and help them understand the merits of a non-academic career. We talk about communicating to influencers and parents when talking about apprenticeships, so why should post-docs be any different? Get in front of those who are helping students make decisions around their careers, and ensure they are well informed
- Educate. If you have roles suited to academics, it is your responsibility to join the dots, especially if access to resources is limited. Help student understand the rewards of careers from attraction, through to assessment
- Make opportunities visible in academic institutions. If only 15% of students were able to find useful resources, leading the way in communicating the transferable skills and STEM opportunities in industry/business is a very ownable space
If you are looking to recruit STEM talent, whether that’s for research in industry, education, testing, policy, IP, business, or technology, the key is ensuring that mentors, supervisors, and students all understand the rewarding careers that lie #beyondacademia. Speaking to students about career opportunities as they embark on their studies is not only good news for your pipeline, but could also impact on the mental health of students in the process.
With an already tough academic job market getting tougher, many hopefuls will need guidance. But that's not always easy to come by. Only 15% of respondents said that they found useful career resources at their institution, down from 18% in the 2015 survey.