12

I am looking for potential PhD opportunites in engineering and I found a potential PhD supervisor. Personally, I plan on entering academia after my graduation. However, it seems that during the past 12 years, the professor had no students staying in academia after their graduation. I also found that some of the PhDs have very good publications in top journals and excellent experience in being a research associate but they all eventually entered the industry or even finance companies.

One reason for this might be that nearly all of these students were sponsored by industry. For me, I wonder if it is normal for a PhD supervisor to have no academic "descendants" in universities or other research institutes and if the professor is suitable for me if I plan to enter academia after finishing my PhD. I would appreciate it very much if you could give me some suggestions on this.

7
  • 3
    Do you mean that none of their supervisees are now profs, or that they don't stay in academia even for a postdoc? – Ian Sudbery May 21 at 12:08
  • 1
    The former one. As mentioned in my question, some of them have done very good work as a research associate (similar to postdoc) after their graduation. – Eric94 May 21 at 12:16
  • 9
    I actively encourages my students to go into the industry. Personally, I feel that a student should experience the 'real world' instead of continuing in academia, where one repeats a 'PhD degree' essentially again and again. I have colleagues who still think and act like are a PhD student, even when they are about to retire! Also the salary in the industry is much higher. – Prof. Santa Claus May 22 at 4:07
  • 7
    Engineering is a professional field that is driven by industry. Most engineers end up not in academia, and most of the time that's the whole point. – J... May 22 at 7:05
  • 1
    What are the salaries in industry (or finance), vs those in academia? How many openings are there? And does industry require something equivalent to the slow climb up the tenure ladder? – jamesqf May 22 at 17:44
31

The first thing to bear in mind is that only 3.5% of those that graduate PhDs will end up in faculty positions. If one takes on a student year year of a 30 year career, that means that on average each supervisor will have one student that eventually becomes permanent faculty. This makes sense, as each supervisor needs to replace themselves with one person to keep the academic population stable. If on average, 1/30 students will go on to be faculty, 0/12 is not particularly worrying. Also bear in mind that 12 years is a very short time to make it from starting a PhD to making faculty in many fields. In biology for example, I believe the average time is more like 15 years.

However, it's not quite as simple as this, as some supervisors do have many students who go on to be faculty, so it stands to reason that there are some supervisors who will have none over their whole career. Some of this will be random chance, but my feeling is that the variance is too high to just be accounted for by pure chance.

Things will also vary from discipline to discipline. In some disciplines, the industry options are very attractive, in others there is not much to do directly related to your PhD other than academia. If you are in a computing or engineering field, it is likely that there are so many options that are more appealing than academia, that an even larger number of students than average will leave academia for industry.

In conclusion: it is not necessarily a red flag that 0/12 students went into academia, when that is what you want, but it is obviously more comforting if they do have students that have taken that path.

9
  • 6
    Of course this also varies dramatically by school rank. At a top 5 school this would absolutely be a red flag. – Noah Snyder May 21 at 12:52
  • 14
    @NoahSnyder, not in every field. – Buffy May 21 at 14:39
  • 1
    Thank you! Very useful comments! – Eric94 May 21 at 15:06
  • 2
    Your 3.5% number assumes that all faculty members supervise Ph.D. students. There are many faculty positions at institutions or in departments which do not grant doctoral degrees at all. – Michael Seifert May 21 at 21:48
  • 2
    @MichaelSeifert The 3.5% number doesn't depend on all faculty members supervising PhD students, its comes from survey data into the long term destinations of PhD graduates. royalsociety.org/~/media/royal_society_content/policy/… The fact that this eqautes to one student per academic does rely on most academics supervising students. The data is from the UK, where there are very few academic institutions that grant no PhDs, although there are a cohort of non-research intensive universities that grant far fewer. – Ian Sudbery May 22 at 17:59
15

The idea of academic descendants is common in some fields and for a number of people, and you will find many answers around here that are written around this idea, suggesting e.g. to check the academic descendance, but in many other fields (e.g. in many branches of engineering) and for many people there's no interest for this.

First, beware that there are many more PhD students than academic positions, even more so in certain fields and certain areas of the world. So, most of the graduates, sooner or later will eventually end up in industry. Actually, this is one of the first things that I make clear to my PhD students and prospective ones: not to demoralize them, but because I think that keeping the feet firmly on the ground avoids many delusions in life.

Second, many people don't consider being an academic as a dream job, a goal to be pursued at all costs. For many people, it's a job like another, and if they cannot find a position in the area where they live, they move to industry to stay where they like. For instance, I applied to just one position, and if I couldn't get that one, I wouldn't have looked for another position elsewhere. And this is something I tell to my students too: be practical, don't be obsessed about an academic career.

And finally, there are professors who have many connections with the industry, who find PhD students who are interested in pursuing these kind of projects, and who frequently then get hired by those industries. Isn't this a form of successful advisorship?

Thus, don't take the lack of academic descendance by that professor as a red flag: discuss with them yours and theirs goal, and see whether they align or not, and then decide on the basis of this.

5
  • 2
    Thank you! That's very helpful! – Eric94 May 21 at 15:06
  • should "descendance" be "descendants" ? – Ben Bolker May 21 at 21:38
  • @BenBolker I used "descendance" with the meaning of "descendants considered collectively" (from the OED). – Massimo Ortolano May 21 at 21:53
  • OK, thanks. (Not a word I'm familiar with ...) – Ben Bolker May 21 at 21:54
  • 1
    @BenBolker It's actually given as obsolete, but I like outdated words ;-) (actually I didn't check before using it). – Massimo Ortolano May 21 at 21:57
11

Great to ask these questions. Many prospective graduate students don't.

I'm not in engineering, but have hopscotched STEM-related fields and between academia<>industry.

As others have answered, only a fraction of awarded Ph.D's stay in academia. So many or even all of someone's descendants leaving is not necessarily a red flag. But it is very appropriate for you to want to make sure your supervisor is a good fit for your desired career path. This is particularly true since, like it or not, connections and network matter in academia -- so an effective "placement engine" through the descendant tree may be quite valuable and make your life more challenging if unavailable. And a small but important number of advisors have quirks that make their students' lives more difficult, for instance pathological disorganization in writing reference letters, or an inability/unwillingness to match the tone of positivity expected of such letters in your field.

With all that in mind, I'd:

a) Look at this factor only in comparison with other advisors in your chosen (sub)field. If your prospective advisor has no academic descendants in 12 years and others have 80%+ of their students with academic jobs, it may mean something. If that field of engineering has had pent up industry demand and anaemic academic hiring demand for a couple of years, it may mean nothing.

b) Use it to focus your conversation with the prospective advisor. "I'm really hoping for a career that looks like this ... Do you see that as feasible?" "Have other of your students gone in such a direction?" "What do you think it will take for me to be successful in going on to ... from your group?" You're not being challenging and judgmental, but you're asking positive questions. You may be reassured by comments on how their students had academic offers but chose not to take them, etc. Or you may be very appropriately put off by clearly uncaring/uninformed, or even worse, defensive replies.

3
  • This is particularly true since, like it or not, connections and network matter in academia -- so an effective "placement engine" through the descendant tree may be quite valuable and make your life more challenging if unavailable. This is a most terrifying vista. Because if it's true, it may also mean that being a PhD of a professor who is not well regarded - or simply personally disliked - your future in academia is doomed. With so many universities today and moving to jobs abroad almost the norm, surely it's more communicative ability and research interests that will be more vital. – Trunk May 22 at 18:59
  • @Trunk, no need to get terrified, but also no one should be too idealistic. As you say, the Ph.D.'s research output, "communicative ability", and general "research interests" are certainly pre-eminent. But networks do matter; they identify opportunities and do open doors. In particular, for junior academic positions that seek a fit with existing faculty members' interests, that box is checked much more effortlessly if you are part of the same descendant tree. With a "poorly regarded" advisor you aren't doomed by any stretch, but you do have to put more effort into job hunting! – Houska May 22 at 19:10
  • I know what you are saying. When a high-rank graduate school "takes a chance" on a graduate from a little known university and it turns out well, then they start to take more PhD candidates from that institution. The converse is also true with candidates from the same university as a "bad" PhD being rejected. But what I mean to say is that a proper academic - while humanly entitled to get a reward from their efforts and protect their hard-earned reputation - should be fair and recognize that a graduate is more than the sum of his/her teachers' inputs: they have a mind of their own too. – Trunk May 23 at 13:22
4

It is perfectly normal, especially at lower-ranked schools. In engineering, there are many good opportunities for PhD graduates in industry. This professor has successfully supervised PhD students to graduation, so there is no reason to believe that you wouldn't obtain a PhD and be qualified for academic jobs.

That being said, I think some professors or programs are more successful than others at placing students. For instance, my advisor has less than 12 years experience, and so far 3 of his PhD students joined academia and 2 joined industry. Academic jobs are competitive and completing a PhD does not guarantee a position. I attribute my own success to my advisor's guidance. Advisors with a track record of placing students in academia may have more experience or better guidance for students who want to enter academia.

0

To use a favourite word of Nigel Hamilton, your question appears somewhat jejune.

If you are primarily wanting to be an academic, you have to get as supportive an academic working environment as possible. While it is physically possible to have an A-rated academic research occurring within an A-rated teaching department, I do not feel that - in the present academic climate - it is humanly possible.

Your "researching" past PhDs at the professor's department is wise. But you do not say why you chose this professor particularly. Was it because of his/her research achievements ?

Have you sought out any other professors with a good record in producing academic "descendants" regardless of their areas of research ?

More to the point, have you conceptualized and put into words what you expect by way of mentoring towards a career in teaching and academic research from your would-be supervisor ?

Even more to the point, have you asked yourself what attributes you think you have that make you a worthy candidate for challenges and anticlimaxes of a career in academia ? I guarantee you that you will be asked this question if you ever do encounter a true academic whilst searching for a PhD supervisor.

You're not as jejune as you'd have us believe, I feel. You're too cute by far, if anything. I get it. You want to avoid the challenge of a genuine academic apprenticeship under a dedicated academic supervisor, get the PhD title from a 2-3 years outsourced and taxpayer-funded industrial research project and then proffer your candidacy on nominally equal terms to more honest candidates for tenure track academic posts.

In the old days when PhDs were scarce, you might pull this off. The odds delineated by other posters here should tell you that this attempt is just not on today.

3
  • 1
    Thank you for your comments. It's helpful. I am sorry that I skipped some details related to the background. – Eric94 May 21 at 15:20
  • 1
    Remember, you can always edit your question to add detail. – JosephDoggie May 21 at 15:23
  • 1
    This answer makes hostile assumptions about OP's career goals. At the same time, it reminds us that it does not particularly matter if something is normal or not. It only matters whether a thing supports OP's goals or not (which OP has not shared). – emory May 23 at 15:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.