Is it time to label academia as an alternative career option for PhDs?


Most PhDs aspire to make it big in the academic world – a tenured track position is the dream stuff for most postdocs. However, the reality is that only a mere 10% get tenured positions, and the rest end up with industry, government, or other alternative career jobs.

But wait a moment! If 90% PhD graduates aren’t bagging tenure track positions in academia, do we even call it a mainstream career option? Yes, roughly another 30% or so do manage to get non-tenure track positions, but still that makes it 40%. Can the “others” or “alternative careers” option be as significant an option for almost 60% graduates and postdocs? Also, if you pitch in the uncertainty around non-tenure track positions, we should probably discount for that 30% too!

This might be a big statement to make, but it’s probably time to rethink if academic positions should actually be perceived as the primary career option for PhDs. Isn’t something that accounts for just 10% of the options on the table be labeled as an alternative career instead? It might not just be about percentages but more so about the stability, prestige, contribution to research, and aspirations of graduates, but it’s high time for some change in perspective. One major reason to do this is to ensure that graduates who do not make it big in the academia sector, are not left out in the lurch.

Industry heads continue to complain of a lack of skilled graduates, and graduates on the other hand continue to suffer from the lack of viable options. There’s no smoke without fire. What employers are complaining is more about the employability of these graduates rather than their sheer availability. This is where a change in perspective can help fix the problem at both ends.

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Once institutions, professors, and graduate students collectively focus on the fact that only a small percentage of graduates land up with secure, long-term positions in academia, can the employability improve. It’s not that PhD graduates lack the skill set, but on most occasions, the lack of industry focus takes the sheen of their brilliant academic credentials. Ironically, at times, the PhD degree is viewed as an impediment for certain career options.

Follow the sun and the shadow shall fall behind. If the focus can shift towards improving graduate employability in the industry, this can be a game-changer for both the industry and graduate career options. Finding experts for industry projects will become much easier, and postdocs can benefit from the wide range of options to put their skills to good use and earn a respectable livelihood.

I would like to invite employers, professors, PhD students, and postdocs to share their thoughts through the comments section below.

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Minhaj manages operations at Kolabtree

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