New York | Becoming a university faculty member or joining a research-oriented college is not the only reason why students pursue a post doctorate career, according to a new study.
Researchers from Georgia Tech and Cornell University in the US conducted a survey of nearly 6,000 doctoral students in a broad range of fields. They found that over a third of the students with plans to pursue postdocs had more interest in careers outside of academic research.
The finding is surprising because it challenges the notion that postdoctoral research is a stepping stone primarily for research faculty positions, said Henry Sauermann from Georgia Tech University. There is this common belief that PhD students pursue a postdoc because they want to have a faculty career. The answer is it is much more complex, said Sauermann.
Although more than 60 per cent 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 non-research careers, researchers said.
For a lot of these PhDs, the postdoc is an opportunity to consider other options and explore other career paths, said Michael Roach from Cornell University. It is an easy natural next step for them, and it gives them flexibility to keep that academic option open, said Roach.
Researchers were prompted to look into the motivations of students pursuing postdocs because of what they saw as an imbalance between the number of postdoc researchers and the number of research-oriented faculty jobs at colleges and universities across the country.
They surveyed PhD students beginning in 2010 at 39 research-intensive universities in the US. The students were surveyed again in 2013 after many had already begun a postdoc or entered other full-time positions. The respondents were also asked to estimate how likely it is for them to get a tenure-track position within five years after finishing their PhD.
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, said Sauermann.
The study highlights the need for more data on students’ career preferences in order to compare graduates’ career goals to their actual career transitions, he added.