Why academic life is now less attractive

I have lived all my life working in universities, except for two years in a national laboratory which was pretty similar to a university physics department except that there was no teaching involved. It has been a good life for me.

But a recent study of graduate students in the life sciences, physics, and chemistry finds that they find academic life less and less attractive as they progress further along towards completing of their degree, although their thesis advisors encourage them to seek academic jobs.

On an anecdotal level, I can see why. Faculty in the sciences are under a lot of pressure to bring in grants at a time when government funding is either flat or declining. This is the result of a model of doing research in the sciences that developed in the post-Sputnik era when the government was pouring money into science and it was not too difficult to get an academic job and research funding. But funding is being cut back on a major scale and young scientists now face much greater challenges.

I see young faculty working extraordinarily hard and for long hours, driven by the need to get results and money and papers at a pace that they cannot, and should not, maintain if they want to lead healthy, balanced lives. I can well imagine that graduate students view that life and find it wanting. This is not a healthy state.


  1. jamessweet says

    I did a combined BS/MS program in Computer Engineering. A number of my professors were strongly encouraging me to pursue a PhD at a better school, and for a time I thought that maybe is what I would do.

    Then, after I finished my course work but before I had finished my thesis, the company where I had been interning hired me full time. My reaction: “Holy shit, this is way easier than college, and on top of that, with all the money they are paying me I can buy as much beer and video games as I want. THIS IS AWESOME!” Long story short, I quickly dropped plans for pursuing a PhD, and it took another two years before I finally finished my thesis.


  2. Eric Riley says

    I too have left a PhD program (in mathematics) for favor of a job that paid more than I would have been able to make as an adjunct instructor, even had I been able to find a full-time position. I’ve just changed jobs for a 25% salary increase – putting me well above what our instructors are paid, and edging me into the range of junior faculty pay – without having to fight for grants or try to balance teaching with research with service for 50 hours a week…

    I still think about going back and getting my PhD – but as a personal accomplishment for after I’ve retired, I don’t see how it would benefit me in terms of getting a better job, and at this point (I’m 46), I really cannot afford to cut my salary so drastically for 3-4 years for an uncertain chance at getting a bit more than I already will be getting by just working through…

    If I won the lotto though – if money weren’t an issue – I would be back in a heartbeat though.

  3. mnb0 says

    According to all tests I was capable of finishing every course I would like. Still I dropped out within 2 years as I couldn’t stand the highly competitive attitude required. Had I finished my universitary study I would not have been able to lead the life I lead now in a remote town in a developing country.
    Thanks to internet I can study anything I like.
    My son, who is brighter than me, has doubts too. He more or less deliberately missed a chance to participate in the Olympiad of Physics this year ….

  4. Eric says

    I’m currently finishing my third year of a chemistry Ph.D., and I am torn on where I want to take my career. I came in to graduate school bright-eyed and excited to start an academic career. After seeing all of the pressures, obstacles, and, most disturbingly, the egos and politics involved, I am about 90% sure I don’t want to pursue an academic career. However, I know that these elements will be present in an industrial or government job as well. The difference for me comes down to an expected better hours and higher salary. I also expect that the unchecked egos are an artifact of the academic model.

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