To stay in academia or not, that is the question

Weighing the costs versus the benefits of pursuing an academic career
MARCH 2018

Should I stay in academia or not after I graduate?

It’s a question that most PhD students find themselves asking at some point in their graduate careers. Some have unequivocal answers from the beginning, while others struggle with the decision even towards the end of their studies. Some just don’t want to think about it until close to their graduation or after they have had three shots of tequila on a Friday night.

Traditionally, postdoctoral positions leading to tenured track professorships would be the expected career path for PhD students. At the same time, the process it takes to get tenure is not easy, to say the least. In this article, we shall explore the vices and virtues of academia and see what prompts someone to lean towards one way over the other.

1. Passion and Freedom: The Light Side of Academia

Being an academic can feel like being an explorer and an entrepreneur with added job security. You are at the frontier of your field, navigating an uncharted territory of knowledge and pushing beyond the current limits of understanding. You often have the freedom to pursue a whole range of different projects that pique your interest.

“Working as a tenured professor essentially makes you your own boss,” said Gilbert Strang, Professor of Mathematics at MIT, “it’s great to get up in the morning and decide what you want to do for the day.”

Having been an MIT faculty since 1960s, Professor Strang is a prominent researcher and an active educator in the field of mathematical analysis, linear algebra, and partial differential equations. Recently he has moved on to machine learning.

“Machine learning has been exploding for the past few years and I simply decided to create a new course and a book,” said Professor Strang, “It’s a privilege to have the chance to pursue whatever looks exciting.”

Professor Madeleine Odin can’t agree more.

"The freedom to choose what you want to work on and who (sic) you collaborate with is one of the nicest things about academia," said Professor Odin, "at the Koch Institute where I did my postdoc, it was a great experience interacting with scientists and engineers from different fields.”

Madeleine was awarded a prestigious K99/R00 Pathway to Independence grant by the National Cancer Institute which led her to becoming an assistant professor at Tufts University. The projects funded under the grant are based on her past research, but incorporating new ideas, collaboration and strategies to tackle cancer.

2. Hyper-competitiveness and under-payment: The Dark Side of Academia

Given that you have the passion for your field, academia can be such a heaven- but only after you get tenure. Before that, it is also unstable and underpaid.

Let’s do some math here: after obtaining a PhD, you usually have to pursue one to two postdoctoral positions, each of which pays around 40K a year and can last somewhere between two to five years. After a series of postdoc positions, you would apply for assistant professorship (AP), which gives you around five years to demonstrate research capability and obtain tenure before the appointment expires. Summing up, you would have to go through nine years (four years of postdoc + five years of AP) of job insecurity and low salary after graduate school. Assuming you graduate at the age of 28, you would be close to 40 when finally getting a stable job.

The above calculation is way too optimistic. It does not take into account the hyper-competitiveness of the academic job market. During the interview, Professor Gil Strang spoke about the number of very strong PhDs on the academic job market, “I wish the success of so many good graduate schools did not lead to this problem.” At MIT, for instance, every AP position often receives 400 applications, leading to an acceptance rate which is 30 times lower than the Early Action admission rate of the undergraduate program. The hyper-competitiveness entails that you would have to adapt a fairly nomadic life, relocating to where the jobs are. As documented in an NYTimes article, a brilliant biologist by the name of Emmanuelle Charpentier rotated through nine research institutions across five countries for 25 years, before finally finding a permanent position at the Max-Planck Institute.

3. The Catch-22 of Academia

It looks like we are facing a catch-22 problem: being an academic can be one of the most passionate and stable jobs, but getting there typically requires you to face great job insecurity in one of the most saturated job markets. Ultimately, as graduate students, we have to balance our scholarly dreams with realistic concerns. At the same time, non-academic options do exist, which you can find more information about here.