When organizing career events for PhD students and postdocs, we realize that most young researchers envision an academic career. They are shocked when we confront them that only 3-5% of them will actually end up as academic staff.
ONLY 30% OF ALL DOCTORATE HOLDERS STAY IN ACADEMIA – MOSTLY AS POSTDOCS
The Centre for Research & Development Monitoring (ECOOM) follows up the career paths of young researchers in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Their data indicate that about 30% of young Belgian researchers in natural sciences, engineering, and life sciences continue their careers in academia (ECOOM-Belspo: CDH survey 2010).
In a nice summary by PabloAMC several articles were reviewed that corroborate this percentage: around 30% of PhD holders in the U.K. and 34% in the U.S. remain in academia.
This means that about 70% find a job outside academia after their graduate programs – for example, in industry, government, or hospitals. In humanities and social sciences, the percentage of Ph.D. graduates who stay in academia for three years after their Ph.D. ws about 50% (ECOOM-Belspo: CDH survey 2010).
UP TO 33% OF ALL POSTDOCS STAY IN ACADEMIA
Data from Belgian universities indicate that most of the young researchers who stay in academia become postdoctoral researchers. Only a few take over staff positions, such as organizers of doctoral schools or specific study programs. Of these postdoctoral researchers, only 1 in 10 finally reach a long-term academic position as a professor. Thus, approximately 10% of all postdocs become tenured in Belgium.
Interestingly, in the United States, the numbers appear to be higher:
Andalib et al, 2018 reported that 17% of U.S. postdocs from all science fields (including health and social sciences) obtained tenure-track faculty positions within 10 years.
Kahn and Ginter, 2017 found that 21% of U.S. biomedical postdocs reached tenure-track status within 10 years.
Denton et al, 2022 reported that 23% of life sciences postdocs and 33.2% of physical sciences and engineering postdocs in the U.S. were employed in tenure-track faculty positions within 5–6 years following degree completion. The authors carefully mention that the different percentages may be influenced by the longer duration of the earlier studies (10 years years versus 5–6, respectively).
It is important to note, that these data included assistant Professor, associate professor, and full professor positions. To my knowledge, there are no data available comparing the chances to become an adjunct professor who works for a university on a contract basis versus a tenured professor holding a full-time position until retirement.
Thus, about 67 to 90% of postdoctoral researchers find jobs in the industry or public sector – and NOT in academia! Surprisingly, this fact is not known by most young researchers!
UP TO 80% OF ALL POSTDOCS HOPE TO PURSUE AN ACADEMIC CAREER, ALTHOUGH ONLY 33% OR LESS WILL WORK IN ACADEMIA
To investigate postdoctoral researchers’ expectations and needs, we performed a survey in Belgium (Belgian Postdoc Survey 2012). We received feedback from 413 postdoctoral researchers from all scientific domains at Belgian universities.
Surprisingly, nearly 80% of all postdocs hoped to pursue a career in academia, although only about 10% end up in higher education.
Nearly a decade later, 63% of all postdocs surveyed in the 2020 postdoc survey by the journal Nature stated that they hope to pursue a career in academia. The majority of postdocs had pessimistic career expectations: 39% reported feeling ‘somewhat negative’ and 17% ‘extremely negative’ about their job prospects. 74% of the postdocs consider their job perspectives worse than those of previous postdoc generations.
Although this generally increased pessimism about their career chances may be considered more realistic, there is still a massive mismatch of the perceived employment opportunities in academia compared to the actual positions for postdocs in the academic field.
Thus, 63-80% of all postdocs have hopes and only 10-33% of them actually end up in academia.
3% OF ALL STUDENTS With A DOCTORAL DEGREE BECOME PROFESSORS
Based on data from Belgian universities, I would dare to state: If you are a holder of a doctorate degree (PhD), you have a 30% chance of becoming a postdoc and a 3% chance of becoming a professor.
Surprisingly, the available studies on European and U.S. data sets are confusing and difficult to compare.
The lowest number I have found in a figure in a brochure of the British Royal Society. It suggests that only 0.45% of all Ph.D. holders become professors. However, the given references were neither transparent nor accessible to me.
The highest number I have found in the aforementioned article by PabloAMC. The author analyzed multiple studies of the last decade and tried calculating the probability of getting tenure track positions in academia. The author estimates that between 10% and 30% of Ph.D. alumni get a permanent position in academia. I think these numbers are too high because (as the author self-critically mentioned in the article) he mixes very distinct types of studies that investigated different time periods, durations after graduation, countries, and subject area of study.
Since the academic job market is so heterogenous, and the quality of graduate schools and doctoral programs varies significantly among countries and even institutions, it makes sense to take all these numbers with a grain of salt.
Therefore, the percentage of postdocs that obtain tenure (10-33%) reported above is more relevant information to make career decisions.
Considering all these numbers, it is a safe bet that there is a 90-97% chance that you will work in a non-academic environment after graduating.
SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT THIS?
No. You should make a conscious decision whether you want a career in academia, industry, government, NGOs, hospitals, or somewhere else in the public sector. If you are not sure, maybe these posts may help: The 8 best tips to find your dream job in science and How to become a professor? After making a clear decision, it is much easier to plan your career, get expertise and increase your market value.
SHOULD I TAKE THE RISK?
If you want to pursue an academic career, you should know exactly what the advantages and disadvantages of the job are. Here are a few posts that may help you to develop an idea of whether pursuing an academic career is the right choice for you:
* How to become a professor? – European perspective
* Top 10 Reasons Being A University Professor Is A Stressful Job – U.S. perspective
What is tenure?
Tenure is a category of academic appointment existing in some countries (see this Wikipedia article for country-specific information). A tenured post is an academic appointment until retirement. Usually, it can not be easily terminated. Potential reasons for termination are only program discontinuation or substantial misbehaviors such as embezzlement of grants, considerable scientific fraud, or abuse of power for sexual or financial advantages. There is a good reason for this: Tenure is a means of defending the principle of scientific independence and academic freedom – for example, to avoid political oppression of specific research themes or industry-influenced fraudulent research.
What is a tenure-track professor?
At the beginning of their academic careers, a university employs professors only temporarily. After a probationary period (referred to as “tenure track”), they transition to a permanent professorship position. The transition may also include a promotion, for example, from assistant professor to associate professor. Depending on the institution, after 5 to 6 years, the performance of the tenure tracker is evaluated (tenure review), including the publication record, the teaching portfolio, awards and grants, and administrative tasks.
Which types of professors are there?
For making good career decisions, it is helpful to know which types of tenured and non-tenured positions are available in the academic market. There are many types of college professor jobs in many different disciplines available, such as full-time professor, part-time teacher, and research assistant. The types of professors differ between countries. However, most countries have a system that is comparable to the U.S. American system (see below a concise summary of this article):
Tenure-track or tenured professors
Assistant Professor: Typically, this is an entry-level professor position generally taken after receiving a Ph.D. and often after a postdoc period. This position may or may not be embedded in a tenure-track system.
Associate Professor: A mid-level position, usually tenured.
Full Professor: A senior, tenured professor position.
The terminology of non-tenured professor positions varies significantly between countries and institutions. Many non-tenured posts may be referred to casually as “professor” independent of an officially designated job title by a university or college.
Collegiate professors, Teaching professors, Clinical professors,: These instructors may hold parallel ranks as their tenure-track counterparts (i.e., teaching assistant professor or teaching associate professor) at institutions whose policy is to only provide “tenure” to those who do research.
Professors of the Practice, Professors of Professional Practice: These lecturers are often practitioners with skills and expertise acquired in non-academic careers whose primary focus is teaching.
Adjunct professor: These are part-time faculty members who function as lecturers or instructors.
Lecturer/Instructor: A full- or part-time position at a college or university without tenure or formal research tasks
Visiting professor: There are at least two types of visiting professors. Either temporary assistant/associate/full professors who temporarily replace a faculty member on sabbatical to cover their teaching tasks or a professor invited to serve as a faculty member of another college or university for a limited period, for example, an academic year.
Research professor: Professors hired primarily for independent research with no teaching obligations, often paid by external funding sources. They are usually expected to produce original research published with high impact factors in prestigious academic journals.
See this Wikipedia article for details.
Should I strive for a tenure-track position?
There are many solid arguments for becoming a tenured professor. You have an intellectually stimulating job, a lot of academic freedom, a higher annual salary, and a pretty secure job, among many other advantages. On the downside, you will be pressured to raise a lot of grant money and publish many scientific papers, ideally with high impact factors. There may be a big teaching load, regular office hours, and a lot of administration. I have posted a comprehensive list of the most critical parameters determining whether you will become a professor. Before you decide to strive for a tenure-track position, you should check whether you have sufficient qualifications to pursue a career in science.
Should I strive for an adjunct professor position?
Adjunct and tenured professor positions differ substantially. The most important difference is that adjunct professors usually do not have research tasks. If your primary interest is teaching, such a position is an efficient way to become a professor. From a strategic perspective, it may also make sense to strive for such a position: It is easier to apply for a tenure-track professor position when you already have (or had) the title professor‘. However, while adjunct and tenured professors often bring similar educational backgrounds to a job and both teach college classes, the median salary of both may differ dramatically.
Many adjunct professors teach 6-8 classes per year. Despite heavy workloads, more than 1 in 3 adjuncts reported earning less than $25,000 a year. In contrast, tenure-track university professors in the U.S. may be around $140,000 a year, according to glassdoor.com.
If you have research ambitions, you must carefully analyze whether a position primarily focused on teaching may hurt your research career. You may accept such a position for a year and finish papers you have in the pipeline and then apply for a position that includes teaching and research.
Should I become a professor at a community college?
The career options for professors at community colleges are limited. Most community colleges only offer teaching positions, and few offer research or administrative functions. Community colleges are also called junior colleges, city colleges, or technical colleges and usually focus on lower-level post-secondary education. The tasks of community college professors may substantially differ from those of university professors. A community college professor usually concentrates exclusively on course planning and instruction, as community colleges are not focused on research.
The rules for becoming a college professor are different compared to those for becoming a university professor. Teaching experience is substantially more important than research expertise. Interestingly, many community colleges and other two-year schools may require only a master’s degree instead of a PhD degree. It’s common to find professors with only a master’s degree at the community college level or working as adjunct faculty at four-year colleges. However, if there is a surplus of PhD graduates, which makes competition stiff even for adjunct positions. In these fields, a master’s-level professor position is rare.
What are the necessary qualifications?
In order to become a college professor, several steps need to be taken. The first step is to obtain a tenure-track position at a university. This can be done by completing a Ph.D. program and writing scholarly articles. College professor requirements are high, and multiple parameters will determine the chances of becoming a professor. It may be necessary to add some experiences and skills to your curriculum vitae to qualify. Depending on the institution, an important next step in the first year may be to create course materials and teach at the postsecondary level.
As mentioned above, there are many different types of college professors, such as those who teach at a technical school or those who teach at a doctoral level. To become a college professor, it is important to have the necessary skills and academic qualifications. These qualifications include strong grades and work experience in research. It is also important to have soft skills, such as communicating effectively and building strong relationships, because as a professor, you will automatically take over some leadership roles in the academic community. These roles may include being a research group leader, head of commissions, or higher academic functions such as head of department or director of an institute.
It is self-explanatory that you need an advanced degree, such as a PhD, to teach at a University graduate school (or grad school) that awards postgraduate degrees in master’s and doctorate (PhD) programs.
With only a master’s degree, you can not supervise graduate students in a doctoral program. With a bachelor’s degree or a similar undergraduate degree in a subject that is teachable at the high school grade level and a license to teach in public schools, you may teach at high school. But also in this job market, a surplus of PhD and master’s degree applicants may increase competition substantially.
The average salary can vary depending on the type of school, public or private universities, and the particular field of study – and your negotiation skills. You may have more chances at private colleges to negotiate a higher salary. If you have additional years of practical experience as a postdoc, have raised big or prestigious grants, and have published papers with high impact factors, your chances are much higher to negotiate better conditions.
Leaders of academic institutions are proud of and known for their research focus. A big-name school usually prefers job candidates with strong research experience and track records for a university faculty position. In some countries such as the U.S., private universities may have an advantage when it comes to funding, but professional experience in raising grant money is – what a surprise – valued in different departments across the board.