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Why do some people get STEM PhDs, want a professorship, and end up not getting it?

Is it only about opportunity and competition, or are there PhD candidates that are just not qualified to be professors (why?)?

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    My understanding is that, at least for academia, the number of PhDs far outweighs the number of positions available, so even if everyone were exactly equal there would still be a limit on the number of graduates with good jobs in academia. – JAB Mar 20 at 23:29
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    The question needs to be clarified: what kind of job is "expected" with a PhD? "Low paid" is also quite subjective; additionally a high salary is not the only motivation for a job. Please give at least examples of what you consider expected and what you consider a low paid job. – Erwan Mar 20 at 23:48
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    Isn't this true for any type of degree from any country in any field? I can't imagine any of them have a 100% job placement rate. – Austin Henley Mar 21 at 0:46
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    Maybe changing perspective to another walk of life would help: Some people play sports for decades, but still don't become professional athletes. What could be the reason? – Anyon Mar 21 at 0:50
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    By “some” you mean “most”... – Greg Mar 21 at 17:30
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[Thanks for the clarification, it turns out to be an easy question]

What the reasons are that some people get STEM PhDs, want a research job in academia, but end up not getting it.

Because the ratio between the number of candidates and the number of available jobs in academia makes it mathematically impossible for every candidate to get a job.

Many candidates don't even lack anything to be a good academic, it's just a very competitive job market.


[Edit to answer comments (and the last version of the question)]

are there PhD candidates that are just not qualified to be professors (why?)?

Of course there are:

  • a PhD is not a diploma which makes you qualified to be an academic professor anymore, it only validates the fact that you are capable of doing research. Basically you received the training, but it doesn't automatically mean that you're good at it, let alone in the top N%* best where you get a real chance to become a professor.
  • even being good at doing research is by far not the only skill required to be a professor. Of course there are teaching requirements (not everybody with a PhD is interested in teaching), but there's also a range of soft skills which are recommended: social skills, public engagement, performing administrative duties, and maybe more importantly nowadays being able to attract funding.

It's also worth noticing that very few people become professors just after the PhD, postdocs are part of the career process because that's where one can demonstrate the other skills I just mentioned. But the same applies to postdocs: even somebody who has all the skills might not be good enough, it's a tough competition.

* "N" varies depending on many factors: discipline, country, etc.

  • Is that only about opportunity and competition, or, do PhD graduates suffer from quality issues? – user366312 Mar 21 at 2:50
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    I think there are three pools of candidates: those that could become professors and do, those that could become professors but there aren't enough slots, and those who aren't qualified to become professors. It would be interesting to expand this answer to explain why some applicants end up in the third pool. – cag51 Mar 21 at 3:27
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    The 10% figure is implausible as it varies so much by discipline. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 10:44
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    "a PhD is not a diploma which makes you qualified to be an academic professor" Seventy years ago it was agreed that a PhD did qualify you to be an assistant professor. The required qualifications have increased, not because the job has changed, but because the supply of PhDs has increased. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 10:46
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    I would also like to emphasize that faculty who are great at administration tend to be effective overall. In my experience as an administrator, it is the understanding of how bureaucracy works that is important. It generally means they spend their time effectively and come prepared. They are highly self-reliant and disciplined. If you want to succeed in academia, learn the rules and play by them. Of course, the top performers I support also tend to stretch those boundaries, but they always do so with a please and a thank you! ;) – yourfriendlyresearchadmin Mar 22 at 5:02
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For the united states, the number of PhD graduates per year is steadily increasing for many years.

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However, the federal budget for funding is stagnating and even decreasing:

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source

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This does not have to be the situation in other countries:

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To better estimate your chances of getting tenure, I would suggest taking a look at the demographic trend in a specific country and how the number of PhD graduates develops.

So the road after PhD towards professorship can be very different in, e.g., Germany vs. US. A rough estimate is always to take a look how many PhD's are graduating during lifetime of a professorship, average over faculty, universities... For physics this will be around ~20-40 in Germany, so your chances are 1/(20-40). In mathematics your chances are much better. But even solid state physics vs. astrophysics this number can vary strongly.

  • I think there are three pools of candidates: those that could become professors and do, those that could become professors but there aren't enough slots, and those who aren't qualified to become professors. It would be interesting to expand this answer to explain why some applicants end up in the third pool – cag51 Mar 21 at 3:28
  • @cag51 I agree on the groups you outlined, so the road after PhD towards professorship can be very different in Germany vs. US. A rough estimate is always to take a look how many PhD's are graduating during lifetime of a professorship, average over faculty, universities... For physics this will be around ~20-40 in Germany, so your chances are 1/(20-40). In mathematics your chances are much better. But even solid state physics vs. astrophysics this number can vary strongly. I think we agree there are more PhD's that are qualified to become professor than open positions... ;-) – user48953094 Mar 21 at 11:15
  • In the US, a student visa to attend grad school is essentially a (limited) work visa that is super easy to get. And very low risk. This skews all the numbers in recent years. – A Simple Algorithm Mar 21 at 19:02
  • "For physics this will be around ~20-40 in Germany, so your chances are 1/(20-40). In mathematics your chances are much better. But even solid state physics vs. astrophysics this number can vary strongly." --- can you kindly supply me some relevant links so that I can research more? – user366312 Mar 21 at 22:24
  • @user366312 dynamic-connectome.org/pubs/WissNachwuchs.pdf report in german with some numbers in the two tables, PhD have likelihood below <5% to become professor, mathematics 6.3% – user48953094 Mar 21 at 22:33
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It's basic supply and demand. Too many Ph.D.'s running after too few professorships.

You also need to keep in mind that many grants and PIs have incentives to hire lots of grad students (as cheap, smart, lab techs). That the kids don't have good career prospects is not the concern of the PIs or grants. (Sure, everyone prefers if their people get nice placements. But they aren't going to cut their group size. And the main criteria for taking a grad student is what he will do as a grad student, not his employment prospects.)

That a STEM grad student finds this hard to comprehend (even to anticipate before starting a Ph.D.) baffles me. If someone lacks the curiosity and analytical ability to figure this basic phenomenon out for themselves, how can we be confident they will be shrewd, curious, independent, and creative researchers to recognize new physical phenomena?

See also: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2013/11/academic-cartel

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    That the kids don't have good academic career prospects.... Please. "Professor" is not the only viable career for PhDs, especially in STEM fields. – JeffE Mar 21 at 18:51
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    The same logic applies with their industrial prospects. If kids have a hard/easy time getting a job with Novartis or Exxon is not the main concern. Incentives are not aligned. Nothing wrong with that. Just caveat emptor. And for what it's worth a lot of physics Ph.D.s have a tough time getting industrial jobs. Or check out the average ACS conference (hiring discussions). – guest Mar 21 at 19:24
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I want to add that many PhDs do not want to become professors. A lot of people do a PhD as the final part of their studies without the intention to work as a professor (or see during the PhD that they do not want to stay in Academia). Some do the PhD studies because of the belief that the title helps in their career.

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    I think this is actually the majority.....at the end of the PhD :-) – user48953094 Mar 21 at 17:18
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    While true, this doesn't seem to answer the question, which is why PhD holders who want to become professors don't, not why PhD holders in general don't become professors. – Nuclear Wang Mar 21 at 17:20
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There are far, far more PhD holders than academic positions. In my field, pure math, just about everyone in it is there because they want to be a math professor. (Even if you want the payout of, say, quantative finance, it's probably better to go into physics.) Every point of the process involves a lot of factors outside your control and sheer random chance: how useful your adviser is; whether the research you started on pans out (you only have a few years to produce substantial results, and yet you have to aim high enough for those results to be useful to you); how well you manage to network; your own physical and mental and financial security; and so forth. Just wanting it isn't enough, and there's no way to conjure up a professorship just by putting in enough effort, even if you're quite talented and have a PhD from a prestigious grad school.

There's an anecdote in one of Paul Halmos' books (I think) where he describes talking with his advisor around the time he was leaving grad school, saying he wanted to continue in academia, and his advisor making a phone call to summarily arrange a position for him. That's not a thing anymore. Being good in your field isn't enough; you have to be good at the business of academia, and you have to be extraordinarily lucky.

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    Yeah, I think there are just so many things that can go wrong. Also it has to do with working on problems that enough people find interesting, having access to the resources you need to be able to get the results...and picking a field that is accessible enough (papers are readable enough)... – user74089 Mar 22 at 3:46
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The requirements and skills needed to get a PhD are different than the requirements and skills needed to get a job offer.

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    Usually there are multiple qualified applicants for each job, so meeting the requirements is insufficient. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 2:03
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    No, that is not what "requirements" means. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 21 at 2:06
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Yes, it is: "that which is required; a thing demanded or obligatory." When I give out job offers, one of the requirements is that they are better than all the other viable candidates. – Austin Henley Mar 21 at 2:10
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    Requirements are usually meant as a baseline, not as a ranking criterion. It is a prerequisite whereas placement in competition is by nature a posteriori. – Mefitico Mar 21 at 18:13
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    Austin, I feel like you are twisting words in an unhelpful way. “Requirements” refers to something which is a strictly necessary condition to be eligible for consideration, but something being a requirement doesn’t imply that having it is sufficient. So, not getting a job offer does not mean that you did not satisfy the requirements to get a job offer. – Dan Romik Mar 21 at 20:54
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I'll point out that some PhD holders don't hold full-time academic jobs because they don't want the kind of jobs that are available, even though they in principle would like to stay in the academy. This is not quite the same thing as saying there aren't enough jobs (though I don't disagree with that).

For example, in the United States, while in English literature it is now not unusual (I don't know how common) for someone with a terminal doctorate to have a full-time tenure-track-like position at a community college, most scientists would not consider such a position. Similarly, many graduates from more elite programs would rather change careers than assume the responsibilities of a "heavy" teaching load. Some people are very happy to move to another country if they are more interested in a research career, but perhaps many will not be.

My point is that although supply/demand is the overall picture, the OP's question sort of implies there is a monolithic "professor" position, while the reality can be quite different. So perhaps some want a professorship, might even get a job offer, but don't want that one bad enough to take it.


(Personal aside: I'm not sure that this assessment reflects very well on the motivations of people to get a PhD in STEM. If you compare the teaching load of few generations back in mathematics (my field) it looks quite different even at PhD-granting institutions - this paper has some interesting details.)

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