There have been some studies to examine whether graduate students’ career aspirations change over time.
Gemme & Gingras (2012) surveyed 294 students in the sciences (including health sciences) and engineering at French-speaking universities in Quebec regarding career preferences. Students were surveyed in 2003-2004, and again 2006. They were asked if they would like a career at a university (academia) or in a range of non-academic settings (industry, government, etc). They found that 30.3% of students desired a university position at both time points, and 17.3% of the sample initially expressed interest in a non-academic career, but wanted an academic career by 2006. Thus, a total of 48% expressed an interest in an academic career by 2006. In contrast, 43.9% expressed a consistent interest in non-academic work, and 6.8% shifted from academic to non-academic career interests. The authors noted that those students who shifted towards academia also were more likely to have received scholarships from their institution by 2006. They suggest this may have encouraged those students to consider pursuing a career in academia.
Another study surveyed 469 basic biomedical science graduate students at UCSF regarding career choices (Fuhrmann, Halme, O’Sullivan, & Lindstaedt, 2011). They compared responses of first year students to those in their second and third years, looking at overall trends for career preferences, rather than looking at the same sample at multiple time points. They noted that early in graduate training students indicated a marked drop in interest in pursuing research careers, but this applied to only specific types of careers. Interest in being a PI in academic (research/teaching) or “other” reseach careers (government, industry, or non-PI in academia) did not change significantly. However, there was a steep and significant drop in those students who wanted to be a PI at a research-intensive university: 41.7% of first year students, 35% of second year students, and only 25% of third year students. The authors note that at by their third year, the students would have spent 8-10 months in a single, research-intensive lab and would be better able to evaluate that career path. Congruent with this drop in interest in being a research-intensive PI, there was increased interest in non-research career paths related to science (e.g. business, law, writing, consulting, etc).
Fuhrmann and colleagues (2011) also found that when students were asked about their top career choice, 75% of second years wanted a research intensive PI position, while only 55.2% wanted it by their third year. Interest in PI positions with a mix of research/teaching had a smaller drop in that time (56.3% to 44.8%). Also, while women showed less interest in research-intensive PI positions initially compared to men (21.3% compared to 39.5%, respectively), both sexes lost interest in research-intensive PI positions at an equal rate as time progressed. Of those students who indicated a move away from a research-intensive PI track, 91% identified at least 1 negative perception or reason for the shift. This included negative beliefs about work-life balance, career competition, research funding, length of training, and salary for the research-intensive PI track. In contrast, only 24% of students identified at least 1 positive reason for picking a new career path, such as developing new interests or skills.
Golde & Dore (2001) conducted a survey of several thousand doctoral students across 12 disciplines. In one analysis of 4,114 students, they found 35.4% of respondents reported a decline in interest in becoming a university professor since starting their program, while 21.1% reported an increase in interest; 47.9% still listed it as a strong current interest. In contrast, 39.8% of students reported increased interest in conducting research in the private sector, 34.8% reported an increased interest in conducting research at non-profits or for the government, and 39.4% reported an increase in working independently as a consultant or writer. A subanalysis (n = 2505) found that concerns about the tenure and promotion process, academic job market, work load, needing to obtain research funding, and salary levels all decreased interest in pursuing an academic career. Individuals who enjoyed many aspects of university/graduate work were more likely to be interested. The authors also found many quality of life variables (such as work life balance) had an ambiguous influence on academic career aspirations.
The largest study I identified surveyed over 8,000 graduate students on 9 of 10 UC campuses (Mason, Goulden, & Frasch, 2009). The authors specifically asked about students’ interests in the “academic fast track,” defined as tenure track positions in research-intensive universities, not in academia more broadly. They observed a decreased interest in the fast track over time. While 45% of men and 39% of women reported they had been interested in the fast track when they began their program, only 35% and 27%, respectively, expressed interest at the point of the survey (this corresponded to 1-7 years later in the program, depending on the student). As with the study by Furhmann and colleagues (2011), Mason and colleagues (2009) found little decline in the percent of students interested in academic careers that focused on teaching, and saw increases in students looking to careers in industry or government.
When Mason and colleagues (2009) restricted their analyses to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, they found an even sharper drop. While 40% of men and 31% of women in STEM initially intended to pursue a fast track career, this dropped to 28% and 20 % respectively at the point of the survey. Across disciplines, both men and women reported concerns related to having other life interests and negative experiences as a graduate student as reasons for moving away from the fast track. Women also mentioned concerns about having children, geographic re-location, and issues with their spouses/partners. Men moving away from the fast track also indicted that the career path was “too time consuming” and placed a greater emphasis/concern on compensation and promotion than women.
Overall, most of the studies found decreases in the percentage of students considering research-intensive academic careers, with less of a shift for those interested in teaching. All of the articles indicate that despite these shifts, and despite the fact that only half of individuals with PhDs are in tenure-track positions five years after graduation (Golde & Dore, 2001), few graduate programs educate students about opportunities outside academia. Most of the articles express two concerns: 1) that there are not enough academic positions for the students who want them, and 2) in some cases talented students who could make important contributions in research are leaving it entirely because of the quality of life issues inherent in the current academic structure.
- Fuhrmann, C. N., Halme, D. G., O’Sullivan, P. S., & Lindstaedt, B.
(2011). Improving graduate education to support a branching career
pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in
the basic biomedical sciences. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 10(3),
- Gemme, B., & Gingras, Y. (2012). Academic careers for graduate
students: a strong attractor in a changed environment. Higher
Education, 63(6), 667-683.
- Golde, C. M., & Dore, T. M. (2001). At Cross Purposes: What the
Experiences of Today's Doctoral Students Reveal about Doctoral
- Mason, M. A., Goulden, M., & Frasch, K. (2009). Why graduate students
reject the fast track. Academe, 95(1), 11-16.