Where is the demand for PhDs?

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The internet is flooded with bleak news for academics. Tenure track jobs are dwindling at an astonishing rate, and the road to these positions is paved with a series of post-doc positions. If you are lucky to get one. All in all there is a large highly skilled workforce chronically terrified of being unemployed.

Part of the challenge is the supply of PhD educated professionals: graduate schools accept and graduate more students than there are jobs available in academia. While a certain margin between supply and demand in the academic workforce would be normal and account for people pursuing other interests, the gap between the number of graduates and the number of academic positions is dramatic.

The Royal Society published a report in 2010 showing the following graphic, which very clearly illustrates the flow of professionals from academia to other sectors. Less than 1% of those graduating with a PhD actually become professors.

Where does the talent go? The overwhelming majority pursue careers outside science and a portion continues on in private sector based research. At first glance, there isn’t really any problem with this: PhD educated professionals gain many transferable skills from their time in graduate school and make desirable hires. Having said that; there is a certain loss of knowledge that accompanies this shift in career focus.

Why are not more scientists employed in private sector research? Many R&D groups in the private sector consist of a core team of researchers. At times, projects cannot be pursued because the core team either does not have the expertise or the manpower to complete the work. At this time, companies may decide not to pursue a line of enquiry, or they may have to outsource, or find partners in academia. Either option is not straightforward because the success of this relies on a variety of factors. Knowing the right individuals to take on the work is the main stumbling block. Classically, researchers get to know potential collaborators through literature, conference visits, and their existing network. This is no different in industry. This process is slow (it takes time to build up a network, and then identify the right match for any particular project), and there is no established alternative in place. Especially when it comes to the large group of PhDs who have moved on to alternate careers the connection to academia and the research industry tends to be completely lost, while many of these would still be willing to lend their expertise.

Many companies identify a need for occasional expert advice on projects, or outsourcing experiments. There are some companies in place that do offer some services (e.g. genome sequencing), but there is no current marketplace where all expertise is available under one platform. Redirecting some of the experts currently working in alternate careers back to their scientific roots would preserve the knowledge, benefit the progress of science, and provide a flexible workforce in a highly dynamic job market.

Kolabtree aims to interface between academia, industry, and PhD graduates wishing to continue using their expertise. Valuable expertise should be deployed where it is needed, and matching project needs to the right expert is at the core of where we want to address the challenge of losing expertise when PhD graduates are no longer involved in research.

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