3 Questions You Should Ask Your PhD Supervisor Before Choosing A Career In Science?

1 out of 222 PhD graduates will achieve the status “Professor”. Are you still dreaming of a career in science? And are these dreams grounded in the reality of professorial life?

This startling statistic shows that betting all your money on an academic career is risky. The risk grows if your perceptions  of life as a research leader are different from the actual demands and expectations professors face in their daily jobs. In this post I will show you how to explore if a career in science is the right choice for you.

The statistics on academic career paths don’t make for easy reading – if you are a PhD student hoping to secure a permanent position in academia, your chances are slim.

From those that manage to survive in a PhD, only 0.45% will become Full Professors.

3 questions to ask your phd supervisor choosing a career in science

This figure comes from the 2010 Royal Society report “The Scientific Century”. The 53% who appear to leave science after their PhDs actually leave academia – many of them move into science related posts outside universities. To see more analysis of post-PhD careers visit the “What Do Researchers Do?” website.

As a careers professional who has specialized in academic careers for around 15 years, I’ve become very familiar with the figures and spend a lot of my time trying to help aspiring academics improve their chances of success.

Most of the career advice for aspiring scientists revolves around publishing and funding and there’s no question that being successful and prolific in these key areas is essential to academic success.

Surprisingly few of these aspiring academics ask me about what it is like doing the job and what they should be doing to prepare themselves for the varied challenges ahead.

Much of my awareness of academic challenges comes from my work running development programmes for new and recent principal investigators and more senior academics, listening to them describe the challenges of their roles.

During these workshops, I’m often struck by the contrasts between the reality of their experiences and the motivations for remaining in academia that I often meet when talking to PhDs and postdocs.

What a PhD thinks a career in science is:

  • Staying at the bench
  • Focusing on science
  • Unlimited creativity

What a career in science really is:

  • Administration
  • Managing people
  • Finance

Not surprisingly, most of the training and support that I’m involved in covers strategic thinking, project management and people management.

As a PhD or postdoc, you aren’t usually in a place where you can hear academics talking frankly about the challenges at their level. Conversations usually focus on science and research achievements, which although clearly useful, will only give you part of the picture.

How can you decide if the academic path really is the one you want to pursue?

The obvious answer is to start talking to experienced academics around you. Most academics in the sciences contribute to their fields by building research groups, populated with staff and students. They know the reality of a career in science.

Have you considered talking to your supervisors about their people management strategies?

Ask Your PhD Supervisor These 3 Questions

  • What are the challenges that have emerged since you became a prof/senior lecturer/group leader?
  • What should I put energy into doing now, in addition to publishing?
  • What do you think will be the big issues in our field/institution in the next ten years?

The answers to these questions should help you to understand academia and to decide if a career in science is made for you.

You will build a wider understanding of the challenges ahead. Furthermore, you will be able to start developing the skills that will help you to be effective on all fronts

If you cannot get much feedback from your boss, you can always turn to some science blogs that talk about academic life as well as research.

3 Blogs To Help You Choosing A Career In Science

These are some of the blogs that I recommend most frequently in my work. Not all of them are scientists, but I think that insights from other disciplines are often as valuable as those from scientists whose work we know.

Developing a collaborative approach will be essential for many academics, so understanding, respecting and engaging with other fields can only be positive for your career.

Matt Might is an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Utah and many of his blog posts have strong tech content. However, he also generously writes about his perceptions of a PhD, advice on getting letters of recommendation and boosting academic productivity. Scattered throughout these and other posts are many references to academic life.

Professor Dame Athene Donald’s blog gives fantastic advice to any prospective research leader giving an honest, comprehensive picture of life as a senior academic. Although the posts have particular relevance to readers in the UK, if you think your career in science at any point will either be based in the UK or involve those working there, it will help to explain the current agendas in our work. For women scientists, Athene’s experiences are inspiring and important. It’s the blog I read most regularly.

Dr Peter Matthews is a relatively new lecturer at Heriot-Watt University. Peter is studying for a Post Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCap) (like any new academic in the UK) and he shares his assignments through his blog. If you plan to take up an academic post in the UK, this gives you a rare insight into the demands of the qualification.  Another reason is that Peter, like Athene, is very honest about his feelings and reactions to many aspects of academic life.

 

I sincerely hope that these science blogs and the replies to the 3 questions won’t put you off the academic path. They should prompt you to have some slightly different conversations and seek out a broader perspective as you plan your career in science.

 

Homework for the readers

Please leave us a comment with your favorite blogs about a career in science.

If you are a PhD student …

can you ask your supervisor the 3 questions and share their feedback in the comments section?

If you are a senior scientist …

can you leave a comment with answers to the 3 questions?

About Sara Shinton

Dr Sara Shinton works in researcher development, with particular interest in academic career development. A former physical chemist, she founded Shinton Consulting in 2000 and works with researchers across the UK and Europe. You can follow her on Twitter (@sarashinton).

Comments

  1. Nice post mostly because I’ve been fed up of “kids” thinking that it is acceptable and easy to finish your undergrad degree by the age of 21, getting a masters certificate when you’re 22, joining a PhD and getting the Dr of it when you’re 25, a couple of post-docs when you’re 27… And then, by the age of 28 you’ll get to be a Professor. I must quote Cat Stevens for the sake of all of us and with no sarcasm in my ideas:

    “But take your time, think a lot, 
    Why, think of everything you’ve got. 
    For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.”

    • Young people are so ambitious and unrealistic. I agree. 
      What it also should be stated is that older and qualified people have big trouble getting a fixed position in academia. There are very few open positions for professor compared to the amount of PhDs and postdocs produced every year. 

      Many scientists feel that even deserving it, they won’t get the fixed position, which is frustrating and leads to abandoning science. 

      Cheers,
      Julio

  2. Dr Peter Matthews says:

    Thank you very much for sharing my blog on your blog – really appreciated and glad you like reading my assignments. Just working through my latest one at the moment and it might be up later in the summer.

  3. Dr Peter Matthews says:

    Thank you very much for sharing my blog on your blog – really appreciated and glad you like reading my assignments. Just working through my latest one at the moment and it might be up later in the summer.

  4. One of your links is not working:  “What Do Researchers Do?” I tried opening it, but I just get redirected to this post

  5. Thanks Sara. This is exactly what the participants in our training programmes need.
    Brigitte Hertz

  6. Interesting piece – though as a PhD I’m not so much teleologically inclined (i.e. hoping for a Golden Future in Academia) but doing this job because I enjoy the job.

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