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Multiple users on this site have stated that only around 1 in 10 (or maybe an even smaller ratio) PhD students are able to successfully continue in academia, beginning with an Assistant Professor position and working their way up towards tenure. (I am unable to find links for this, but I have read it in at least 5 different answers/comments on this site.)

For the purposes of this question, I am ignoring those who actively want to pursue a career in industry, and am focusing on those PhD students who wish to go into an academic career and fail to successfully do so. I wish to know why students fail to make the transition, and what exactly is the hardest part of this.

For instance, is it:

  1. The transition from a PhD position to a postdoctoral position: A postdoc has to work much more independently than a PhD student, and maybe people struggle with this.
  2. The next transition, from a postdoctoral position to an assistant professor position, or,
  3. Simply making a bigger impact on one's research field of interest, after securing a tenure-track position, and hence moving away from academia into industry.

In which part do newly graduated PhD students, who actually want to go into academia, "fall by the wayside"? Or, which of these transitions is the hardest to make, resulting in students not making the transition to a full academic career?

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  • 21
    The title is unclear to me, PhD students are in academia Jun 8 at 3:03
  • 2
    When I say academia, I mean a full-time career in academia, affiliated to a University, conducting research, handling classes, basically a professor position. Jun 8 at 3:12
  • 2
    Are you saying that you didn't work full time while earning the PhD? Shame on you :-) Jun 8 at 12:42
  • 5
    Highly suggest you read Lantsoght, The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory (available online), esp., Sec. 13.5.1: "Transitioning from PhD Student to Faculty Member". Jun 8 at 13:17
  • 2
    "Hardest" is ill-defined. Maybe one could answer a question about transition rates. Jun 8 at 13:41
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Most PhD students will not have academic careers. This is not because the duties of academic careers are "hard." Academic careers do involve hard duties. But so do non-academic careers.

Most PhD students will not have academic careers for economic reasons. There is simply not enough demand to employ more academics. The economic factors have the biggest impact on those who seek so-called permanent positions. Permanent jobs require a long-term financial commitment from the employer, and there is very little demand for making that sort of commitment.

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    Yes, exactly this. The hardest part of transitioning from PhD to academia is simply finding a job in the first place.
    – mathkb8
    Jun 8 at 2:13
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    @RamPadmanabhan It is easy to find one department with an open tenure-track position. You might find tens of open positions. But in most fields of research there will be hundreds to thousands of qualified applicants, and tens of thousands of qualified people who don't bother applying because there is so much competition. Jun 8 at 2:41
  • 6
    @AnonymousPhysicist So, in a sense, it is the transition to a tenure-track position that is hardest, because there are so many applicants, all of whom are well-qualified? Jun 8 at 2:46
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    I would not say that; there are plenty of other careers where there are many applicants. It is the low demand that stands out. Pick any professional sports league in the US. The number of athletes one league hires in a year is greater than the number of tenure track physicists hired in one year. Jun 8 at 2:53
  • 8
    It's easy to see what @AnonymousPhysicist is saying. Look at your department. How many tenured or tenure track faculty are there. How many PhD students, and how many graduate each year. That ratio (faculty to students) represents a slice of the market realities in your domain.
    – Flydog57
    Jun 8 at 18:45
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In addition to the point that @AnonymousPhysicist makes that there are far fewer postdocs positions available than there are PhD students, and far few faculty positions available that there are postdocs, there is also the up-or-out mentality: after a certain number of years as a postdoc, many people will start to think you are past it - that if you were any good, you'd already have a faculty position by now. This means there is really a limited amount of time you can spend as a postdoc looking for a faculty position, even if you were willing to stay as a postdoc.

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    "after a certain number of years as a postdoc" That number of years varies a lot by field. Jun 8 at 9:12
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    @AnonymousPhysicist but is absolutely true (rightly or not) -- especially if you're a postdoc at the same institution for a number of years. When I started postdocing, I remember a mate advising me not to stay longer than 2 years at any position, as "after 2 years, you will benefit as much as you can from them. They can still benefit from you working there, but the benefits of you start going down".
    – penelope
    Jun 8 at 11:53
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Yes. This will vary by field (and by supervisor) - I have one colleague who is very much against hiring anyone who has already done a postdoc somewhere. In my part of biology that is somewhere between 2 and 3 postdocs. Jun 8 at 11:55
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    Here, in Germany, there is a hard limit on the number of years (12) that you can work on temporary contracts in academia, so you literally cannot stay as a postdoc. I'm not sure whether similar arrangements exist in other countries? Jun 8 at 12:17
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    @penelope That's not good advice if you work in a laboratory field where each position uses different, complex instruments. When you move you must retrain. It is even worse if you spent two years building an instrument and then move, leaving it behind. Jun 8 at 12:21
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In my field (cond-mat physics), there are really two main reasons. First, a lot of people want a job in the industry, and they leave after a PhD. Then, if you want to find a postdoc job, chances are that you'll get it rather soon: there are many open postdoc positions (in Europe, at least) and it is usually a problem to find a candidate to fill it, not vice versa. Second, the main bottleneck is between the postdoc and the adjunct or Jun.-Prof. level. Those jobs are scarce.

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    Yes. This might be field dependent of course, but I would say that the majority of PhD students do not stay in academia mainly because they do not want to. They have seen academic research from the inside for long enough to decide that it is not the right fit for them. I've seen this realization with many people roughly half way through. Some of them stop right there, while others finish the PhD to improve their C.V., but none of them even try to apply to post-doc positions.
    – mlk
    Jun 8 at 9:01
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    Also, there are quite a few research institutes in Europe. People have a third option besides academia (as in being employed by a university) and industry.
    – Roland
    Jun 8 at 9:05
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    You have confused "adjunct" with "assistant." Jun 8 at 9:11
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    @mlk The fact that many do not want to stay in academia is not entirely unrelated to the fact that it's very hard to find a permanent job in academia.
    – gerrit
    Jun 8 at 15:46
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    @gerrit Certainly, and the two are hard to separate. But I know more than one person who was good enough to likely have made it in academia, but still decided against it. One classic recurring theme seems to be that many people begin to think about starting a family around the age where they finish their PhD. And suddenly a career that will likely involve several long distance moves, frequent travel and long hours doesn't sound so appealing anymore.
    – mlk
    Jun 8 at 16:40
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I doubt there is a common answer across all disciplines. I'd highlight a few challenging inflection points, whose relative painfulness will vary.

1a. Being genuinely self-driven (work ethic). During a Ph.D., one is meeting frequently with an advisor, who may themselves have deadlines. There is at least annual reporting of progress to stay enrolled (varies a bit). So while a lot of Ph.D. students struggle a bit to buckle down and get stuff done, there's still a fair amount of regular external pressure. A post-Ph.D. but pre-tenure academic faces that less frequently, so may not make enough progress to make the cut to the next stage.

1b. Burnout, the flip side of 1a. Many junior academics, rightly or wrongly, always feel time is breathing down their necks and just find the number of hours they feel they need to put in is not worth it. This is doubly so if their personal lives deserve time too!

  1. Continuing to find interesting but answerable research questions. This is what - in many disciplines - the post-doc stage is supposed to help bridge, but regardless can be challenging. Aim too high and you don't get publishable results. Aim too low and your career becomes a yawn.

  2. Building teams and getting funding. More relevant for high-capital disciplines like experimental science, but also others. Even conference travel takes $, and you need to learn how to ask for it and get it!

And then there are the more pragmatic ones:

  1. More applicants than jobs. In many disciplines, the supply of Ph.D.s far exceeds demand, in terms of junior academic jobs. That can translate directly into no job, but also insidiously into getting tracked into not-so-good jobs, cut off from your community, with loads of service responsibilities, very temporary, etc. -- all of which impact your ability to do great research to land the next job.

  2. Mobility issues - the best or only job available may be somewhere you can't go, for personal or family reasons.

Oversimplifying greatly, in my experience, 4 and 5 are problems universally, felt particularly keenly where 1 or more postdocs is the norm (and so more opportunities to be zinged by these factors). 1a tends to be the biggest problem where people go from postdoc to independent researcher, where that's applicable, or Ph.D. to junior faculty member, where there are no postdocs. 2 and 3 at the more senior pre-tenure stages.

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The academic career after PhD starts with at least one postdoc position. In order to get a postdoc offer you need to show strong ability and talent to do research (in math it means good letters of recommendation, publications, good PhD granting department, well known and good advisor, etc.). To transition from a postdoc to a tenure track position you need more of the same. Usually only a few people with PhD can become postdocs and even fewer will get tenure track positions.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Jun 10 at 4:03
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If we leave aside financial reasons and difficulty of finding a job, it's simply difficult because most people aren't that good at doing research.

I have actually thought about this a lot: I'm curious as to why my friend who was a stellar student in his Mathematics degree and got a high First (obviously seems to know a fair amount of mathematics) has really failed to make it in academia.

One thing which I think people do wrong is that they don't seem to read many research papers. This really seems like a big mistake. You will have to read a lot to be able to zoom in on a section where you are able to make a contribution. Similarly, it's hard to know how to write papers properly when you aren't reading them, then you become dependent on other people to help you, and if you are dependent on others, you will probably fail at postdoc level.

Another of my friends seemed to do well on his Engineering PhD and published two good papers (with several co-authors) but has struggled on his postdoc and not published anything (possibly because he now has to direct his research a bit more independently, as opposed to being told what to do). It's definitely worth trying to reflect on this a bit, try to identify what others do wrong that they fail, and so on.

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  • True, but I am more interested in the case of graduated PhD students who could not transition, though they were excellent researchers, published quality papers in highly ranked journals, etc. etc. I think the "demand" answer addresses this pretty well. Jun 9 at 1:01
  • This is a bit surprising to me that this would happen: almost all PhD students are not cut out for research and there are enough academic positions to go round amongst the few people that remain. I think probably independence of the researcher plays a role ie. they publish quality papers but they are essentially being told what to do by a supervisor.
    – Tom
    Jun 9 at 7:13
  • almost all PhD students are not cut out for research I'm not so sure about this; particularly at top-20 programs in the US, I would say that most PhD students will be cut out for research. I do agree with the independence point, but this might vary from field to field. Jun 9 at 7:38
  • @Tom True enough but the "alickers" often get the job over the claims of the self-directing researchers.
    – Trunk
    Jun 9 at 11:04
  • Yes I see your point. For example, it took Einstein a surprisingly long time to land the job in academia which he wanted because he didn't get on with the relevant people or didn't hide that he thought they were stupid (hence he had to work at an office for quite a few years). Is this the sort of thing you mean?
    – Tom
    Jun 9 at 12:46
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My two cents : I don't agree with your first premise:

The transition from a PhD position to a postdoctoral position: A postdoc has to work much more independently than a PhD student, and maybe people struggle with this.

My experience of supervision as a PhD student :

  • First 2 month : 30min / 1h talk with supervisor ~ once every two days during lunch.
  • Following 6 months : The same, once a week
  • The second year : A 2 hour talk, circa every month
  • The 3rd year: My supervisor left and was replaced with another one. A 1h talk circa every two weeks or so.

I would call this very independant work, as I was basically making all the calls, I just needed to justify them adequately with my supervisors. I did not go for a postdoc afterwards (I transitioned to industry), but I doubt a postdoc position would have left me "less independant".

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