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STEM Doctoral Candidates Seeking Nonacademic Careers

Photonics.com
May 2016
ATLANTA, May 10, 2016 — A recent study indicates that the research-faculty path may no longer be the norm for postdoctoral students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Landing a job as a research college or university faculty member typically requires having spent time as a postdoctoral researcher. Now researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., have surveyed nearly 6,000 doctoral students in a range of fields; they found that more than a third of the students with plans to pursue postdocs said they had more interest in careers outside of academic research.

Professor Henry Sauermann of Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business
Professor Henry Sauermann of Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. Courtesy of Georgia Tech.

The finding is surprising because it challenges the notion that postdoctoral research is a stepping stone primarily for research faculty positions, said Georgia Tech professor Henry Sauermann.

Although more than 60 percent of survey respondents rated a research-oriented faculty position as one of their most attractive career paths, more than one-third rated other careers as more attractive, including research in government, established firms or startups, as well as teaching and other nonresearch careers.

The team surveyed Ph.D. students beginning in 2010 at 39 research-intensive universities in the U.S. The students were surveyed again in 2013 after many had already begun a postdoc or entered other full-time positions.

Sauermann and co-author professor Michael Roach of Cornell said they were prompted to study the motivations of students pursuing postdocs because of the imbalance between the number of postdoc researchers and the number of research-oriented faculty jobs at colleges and universities across the country.

The respondents were asked to estimate how likely it is for them to secure a tenure-track position within five years of finishing a Ph.D. While the respondents were knowledgeable about the limited availability of faculty positions in general, some appeared to be overly optimistic about their own chances of getting a faculty position, Sauermann said.

The study highlights the need for more data on students’ career preferences in order to compare graduates’ career goals to their actual career transitions, Sauermann said. More data is needed to determine also how useful a postdoc is for nonacademic careers, he added. Results of the study, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, were published in Science (doi: 10.1126/science.aaf2061).

Photonics Media has previously covered the lack of skilled workers in photonics industries, as well as efforts in the Northeast to bolster workforce training.


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