Science PhDs lead to enjoyable jobs
A science doctorate has high value in the UK and Canadian job markets.
As universities around the world award science PhDs at an ever-increasing rate, some doctoral students might wonder whether the degree is still worth all the time, effort and sacrifice.
But two recent projects tracking the journeys of PhD holders in the United Kingdom and Canada offer reason for optimism: graduates in the sciences and other fields are highly employable, even if they don’t always end up where they expected. “There’s a lot of pessimism about an oversupply of PhDs,” says Sally Hancock, an education researcher at the University of York, UK, who led the study in her nation — one of only a few of its kind worldwide. “These data can help demystify what happens next.”
Using information collected by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, Hancock analysed the job outcomes of more than 4,700 people throughout the United Kingdom who graduated with a PhD in either the 2008–09 or 2010–11 academic years. All respondents were surveyed 3.5 years after graduation.
Hancock’s analysis, funded by the UK Society for Research into Higher Education and yet to be published, suggests that around 2% of graduates across all fields were unemployed, and nearly 80% had full-time jobs. Close to 10% worked part-time. The rest were mostly pursuing further studies or doing volunteer work.
Nearly 30% of those with full- or part-time jobs ended up in academia. Of those, about 70% worked as teaching professionals and 30% were university researchers. Around 20% worked in industry, often as researchers or managers. Another 20% held medical jobs, including as practitioners and medical scientists.
PhD holders, at least in the United Kingdom, are hardly on the poverty line, says Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, a non-profit science-career advocacy organization in Cambridge, UK. “It’s been like that since the 1970s,” Metcalfe says. “They’ve always been highly employable. They’ve always had a premium over those who hold master’s and undergraduate degrees.”
Previous Vitae surveys, Metcalfe notes, have found that roughly 80% of postdocs want to remain in academia — many more than actually do so (see Nature 550, 549–552; 2017). “There’s a complete mismatch between career aspirations and the potential for getting academic positions,” she says.
Although many people with PhDs end up changing course from their original career plan, that hasn’t drastically eroded career satisfaction: more than 95% of respondents across all sectors in Hancock’s analysis said that they were at least somewhat satisfied with their careers, including 48% who said they were very satisfied. “Satisfaction doesn’t vary much by sector,” Hancock says. “Even if it’s not what they expected, the outcomes are OK.”
Hancock’s analysis revealed some disparities in salaries. Those reported for graduates in academia (a yearly median of £37,000, or US$51,000) were higher than those in industry (£36,000 for men; £34,000 for women).
Women in the biological sciences reported earning a median of £35,000 per year compared with £36,000 for men. The gender gap was slightly larger in the physical sciences and engineering, where women reported a median salary of £34,000 and men £36,000. The biggest gap was in the biomedical sciences, where women reported an annual salary of £36,000, whereas men earned £45,000. “There are persistent and stubborn gender differences,” Hancock says, but she adds that the data offer no clues about the root cause of the pay disparities.
Metcalfe says that the data do not make it clear whether UK female scientists are getting short-changed. She notes that the survey used salary ranges, not exact salaries, and that the relatively small number of people surveyed in the biomedical sciences — fewer than 600 — makes the figures sensitive to outliers.
In Canada, the 10,000 PhDs Project at the University of Toronto (UT), led by biochemist Reinhart Reithmeier, also found encouraging results. The project tracked outcomes for all PhD holders who received a doctoral degree from UT between 2000 and 2015. Through online searches, project researchers verified job titles for 9,583 PhD holders, or 88% of all graduates. The study has no data for the remaining 12%, but Reithmeier notes that in the 2016 census, the unemployment rate for all PhD graduates in Canada was 5.1%.
Science doctoral degrees led to a wide array of positions in Canada. About 23% of respondents have tenure or tenure-track positions, and just over half work in any type of academic position, including as administrators. Nearly 30% are in industry, and others work for the federal or provincial governments, charities or entrepreneurial businesses.
The unusually large percentage of graduates in academia might be a local phenomenon, says Joshua Barker, dean of UT’s School of Graduate Studies. “We know that a lot of our graduates like to stay in the region,” he says. The report found that the city’s two largest universities — UT and York University — employed nearly 1,200 UT graduates between them.
The study shows that PhD holders landed a variety of positions in industry. Nearly 60% of life-sciences graduates now working in the private sector ended up in biotechnology or pharmaceutical jobs. But 13% of all physical-sciences PhDs in the private sector work in banking, finance or investments — sectors that increasingly need specialists who can manage big data (see Nature 548, 613–614; 2017). “These niches probably didn’t exist 15 years ago,” says Reithmeier.
The UT findings were largely consistent with a survey from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver done in 2016, which tracked graduates who had earned PhDs from 2005 to 2013. Just over half of those graduates had positions in academia; of those, nearly 15% had postdoctoral fellowships. More than 91% of survey respondents said that they felt as if they were on the right career path, but some reported that they felt overqualified, unable to find work that was relevant to their doctoral degree. “I don’t want to ignore those who are struggling and unhappy,” says Susan Porter, the university’s dean and vice-provost of graduate and postdoctoral studies. “Some feel that they were fed a line.”
The main takeaway, Metcalfe says, is that PhD recipients should feel confident in their career potential, especially if they are willing to look beyond universities. “All of our language in academia encourages researchers to be academics,” she says. “The challenge is getting over this psychological barrier to help researchers look more widely in terms of employment. There are some great jobs out there.”
Nature 555, 277 (2018)
Image adapted from Getty
Canadian science wins billions in new budget
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration released its 2018 budget on 27 February and scientists couldn’t be happier. It includes almost Can$4 billion (US$3.1 billion) in new funding for science over the next five years, a significant portion of which will go to the country’s three granting councils. This is in contrast to the Can$1 billion in new science funding contained in last year's budget — almost none of which went to basic research. The latest budget is “the single largest investment in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history,” said finance minister Bill Morneau in remarks to legislators on 27 February. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will each receive Can$354.7 million, while the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will get Can$215.5 million. All three councils will share another Can$275 million to support research that is “international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and higher-risk”. Much of this money will be reserved for early and mid-career researchers. The councils didn't receive any new funding in 2017, and have only gotten tens of millions of new money in past years. Scientists had been lobbying Trudeau’s middle-left Liberal government hard for an unrestricted boost to granting-council budgets, as opposed to funding earmarked for specific research projects, which has been a hallmark of previous years. The move follows recommendations from last year’s Fundamental Science Review, a report by an expert panel led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor. He was “relieved and pleased” with this “historic recalibration” in science funding. “They seem to have read the report more carefully than most governments,” he says. On the right track The budget doesn’t provide the huge boost of more than Can$1 billion a year for the granting councils that Naylor’s report recommended. But it sets the right trajectory and shows that the government listened to scientists and took Naylor’s review seriously, says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the University of Toronto’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. “It falls short but it doesn’t preclude adding to it going forward,” he says. “Scientists should be sleeping well tonight in Canada.” Others were equally pleased with the result. “The government went further towards meeting the recommendations of the Naylor report than anyone expected,” says Alan Bernstein, chief executive of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto. The budget includes Can$763 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which funds research infrastructure. The government has also pledged to make this funding permanent — in line with the Fundamental Science Review — with an annual budget of Can$462 million by 2023. Until now, the CFI was funded only in ad hoc chunks every few years. Early-career researchers got a boost, in the form of an extra Can$210 million over five years for the Canada Research Chairs programme. The programme supports scientists at universities across the country, and the money is reserved for young researchers. In fact, the "running theme" of the 2018 budget seemed to be focused on early career researchers, says Tina Gruosso, vice president of communications for Science & Policy Exchange, a Montreal-based campaign group run by graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. "We were really happy to see significant steps in the right direction." The budget still includes funding for some independent research organisations: the Institute of Quantum Computing, for example, will receive Can$15 million over three years. But it also states that the government will consider a peer-review approach to determining how to allocate such funding in the future — another recommendation from Naylor’s report. “It’s wonky, but really important,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of the science campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa. “It will change how funds are dished out in the future.” Listening to the community But scientists didn't get everything they wanted. There was no mention of renewed funding for the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research programme, which is set to end this year. Without an influx of cash, several of the programme’s research stations in the high Arctic will have to shut down. Only one station, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), received money to keep going until 2019 when the government provided Can$1.6 million last November. Matt Jeneroux, the shadow science minister from the opposition Conservative party, says that the budget leaves many questions unanswered. They include the future of specific projects — including PEARL — and long-term support, beyond the next five years, for the granting councils. “There’s lots of colourful language, but I’m not sure what it means when the rubber hits the road,” he says. Despite that, Gibbs says this budget is a testament to the campaign waged by Canadian researchers over the past year to ensure that the government took the recommendations in the Fundamental Science Review seriously. “It really shows the government spent the last year listening to the community,” she says. Nature 555, 153 (2018) doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-02529-6
How one Canadian scientist is tapping into the knowledge of Indigenous communities
Jean Polfus, a postdoctoral fellow at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, studies the distribution and spatial organization of caribou (or reindeer; Rangifer tarandus) populations in the Sahtú region of the Northwest Territories. She explains how she collaborates with members of the Dene Indigenous community, and how their insights benefit her research. Why was it important to you to work with Indigenous communities? In 2012, the local community-run institutions responsible for resources such as fish, wildlife and forests got together and drafted a resolution asking that Dene traditional knowledge, laws, traditions and language be respected and represented in any caribou research going forward. I adapted my work in response to this community initiative and developed memoranda of understanding with the communities to dictate how that should be done — the research questions to pursue and the methods that local people considered appropriate to carry out research. I developed a way to do caribou research that respected local people and included them in all phases of the research process. Recommended articles Working Scientist podcast: Science and government, Canadian style > Why are Canada’s scientists getting political? > How did you incorporate traditional knowledge into your scientific work? My colleagues and I asked people to help us collect caribou scat, and we gave Can$25 (US$19) fuel cards for every sample they brought in. Once we had some of the genetic results from the scat, we analysed those results in collaboration with Dene people to see how traditional knowledge and language about what type of caribou lived where matched up with what the genetic data were telling us. The results from the genetic analysis and accompanying discussions showed that we could distinguish different types of caribou genetically, and that those genetic groupings matched with how Dene people use language to describe the types of caribou. This understanding can help both the community and scientists develop better conservation plans for caribou in the region. What did you learn from the Indigenous communities? Dene people have such nuanced language to describe caribou. They have words for types of caribou that we don’t identify in conventional classification and taxonomies. For example, there’s the Tęnatł'ǝa which is a type of mountain caribou with unique markings and behaviour. This word wouldn’t exist in their language if it wasn’t essential to understanding the caribou and how to hunt them effectively. Tęnatł'ǝawarrant further study because they might harbour unique genetic diversity and could play an important part in caribou population dynamics. All of that is tied to the detailed and place-based knowledge that we often disregard in Western science because we’re trying to find standardized approaches. And when we try to standardize biodiversity, we lose some of the nuance and some of the beauty. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.
Animals and the zoogeochemistry of the carbon cycle
Predicting and managing the global carbon cycle requires scientific understanding of ecosystem processes that control carbon uptake and storage. It is generally assumed that carbon cycling is sufficiently characterized in terms of uptake and exchange between ecosystem plant and soil pools and the atmosphere. We show that animals also play an important role by mediating carbon exchange between ecosystems and the atmosphere, at times turning ecosystem carbon sources into sinks, or vice versa. Animals also move across landscapes, creating a dynamism that shapes landscape-scale variation in carbon exchange and storage. Predicting and measuring carbon cycling under such dynamism is an important scientific challenge. We explain how to link analyses of spatial ecosystem functioning, animal movement, and remote sensing of animal habitats with carbon dynamics across landscapes.