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The Risks and Rewards of Academia

According to a report released last month by U.K.-based charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust, decisions by high-achieving Ph.D.-holders whether to stay in academia depend on the perception of whether the rewards justify the considerable challenges. The report also suggests that women are more affected than men by many of those risks and are quicker than men to abandon such careers.

Risks and Rewards: How PhD Students Choose their Careers: Qualitative research report, which was put together by Ipsos MORI, a U.K.-based market-research company, analyzed career decisions made by 89 Ph.D. graduates and considered whether gender plays a role. The survey, which was conducted in autumn 2012, included phone interviews and online interactions with basic-science Ph.D. graduates who benefited from Wellcome Trust funding while they were doing their doctoral studies. Here are the report's main findings:

[S]ome women of exceptional potential would prefer to continue in research but are leaving because of concerns about their working environment.

—Kay Davies

Motivations for doing a Ph.D. When they started their Ph.D. training, the students generally weren't aiming for a particular employment sector. Some did indeed aspire to academic careers, and a small number started out intending to work in industry, government, or a nongovernmental organization. But most of the respondents embarked on a Ph.D. because they love science, with no particular career path in mind. Most of the respondents admitted at this early stage that they had done little career planning and had little awareness of their options.

The rewards of doing a postdoc. Respondents saw many benefits to doing a postdoc, including the opportunity to pursue their research interests, reap the benefits of years of hard work, contribute to science, and enjoy a stimulating work environment and lifestyle.

The risks of pursuing an academic career. All the respondents felt that pursuing an academic career was risky and that dealing with those risks becomes more difficult as time goes by. Perceived challenges include securing research funding and obtaining a job in a context of increased competition; the need to move around among labs and countries; rising workload and time pressures, compensated by little support; and the role of luck in scientific success.

Although both genders saw the job insecurity, long hours, and need for mobility as downsides to academic careers, these deterrents were perceived as affecting women more than men. Some women also expressed concern at the lack of female role models and career support. Others, the report says, characterized the academic environment as "macho and competitive." "They felt everyone had to take a competitive stance and avoid 'showing weakness' "; such expectations were perceived as favoring men. Women were just as committed and passionate as men, and they did not doubt their ability to compete. "Rather, women said they found it wearing and boring, and it was a game that they did not want to play over the long term." Some women also were put off by the perceived need to network and boast about their research, feeling that integrity and meritocracy were eroded by competitiveness and self-promotion.

Embracing risk. Some of the respondents who were still working in academia when the survey was conducted said that they "felt equipped to live with risk and continue to work towards the goal of being a research leader," the report says. "They were mostly thinking strategically about how to minimise the risks, obtain secure funding, and progress as quickly as possible."

When risks outweigh rewards. Many respondents left academia when the risks started to outweigh the rewards, which happened most often when they decided to settle down and start a family. Greater job security, better career support, and a slower pace of work, as well as changing interests and the prospect of a greater impact on society, influenced decisions to leave academia.

Most of the respondents who had left academia had started a Ph.D. because they loved science. (Those who had started a Ph.D. with an academic career in mind tended to continue with their original plan, though a few more women than men abandoned the academic path. Overall, women left the academic track more often than men, and they did so sooner than men, often right after the Ph.D.)

Happy elsewhere. Whatever their reasons for leaving, the majority of respondents who had left academia said that they now held fulfilling and enjoyable jobs in which they used their scientific training. Some of them, however—slightly more women than men—said that they would have liked to stay in academia. Some who had left said they felt disappointed that they did not stay, but could see no alternative.

"For many women who leave science, the decision is a positive choice to move on to a fulfilling career beyond academia," stated Kay Davies, a professor and deputy chairman of the Wellcome Trust, in a press release. "This report suggests, however, that some women of exceptional potential would prefer to continue in research but are leaving because of concerns about their working environment. It's clear that funders, universities and employers must address this in a coordinated way to ensure that we hold on to the brightest minds in science."

The report's authors and respondents go on to recommend ways that academic career risks can be minimized or offset. Their proposals include the creation of dual industry-academia jobs and non–principal investigator academic positions related to project management or lab work, family-friendly workplace policies, and longer-term funding for early-career scientists.

While many of these recommendations are aimed at employers, the report includes a few suggestions that young scientists can implement on their own: networking, finding a mentor, seeking information about the range of careers available after a Ph.D., and getting an early start on your career planning. 

You may read the full report on the Wellcome Trust Web site.