Explore career opportunities while pursuing your PhD.

4 minute read

Only 0.45% of science PhDs that graduate every year will ever become professors. You better start looking for alternatives.

If you are attending a PhD programme, chances are you consider yourself quite smart. Most likely you are very dedicated and you possess the grit to go down an intense and challenging path… But do you really think you are part of the 0.45% 1?

The number of doctoral degrees awarded has more than doubled since between 2000 and 2018. In the academic job market that keeps shrinking and is becoming more and more competitive, the opportunities for the “average” PhD to carve their path to professorship is slimmer than ever.

The number of PhD graduated in the US since 1958Number of PhD graduates graduated in the US since 1958. S&E: Science and Engineering; Non-S&E: non STEM field 2 & 3.

Professorship is a path that is not easily accessible to everyone

When I started my PhD in 2013, my dream was to become a professor. I dreamt about being at the forefront of scientific discovery and being able to mold new minds for the future. However, I realized that this was going to remain a dream. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my years as a PhD student. I was lucky enough to travel the world, produce scientific content and train others. But I realized half-way through that I also wanted to affirm myself as a professional and grow in my career.

I realized that, despite the competition and the limited job openings that are available every year, I didn’t want to travel from contract to contract every number of years, from post-doc to post-doc until one-day, maybe, I would be lucky enough to find a tenure track position opened at a University in the middle of a country very far from home. I started late to explore alternatives to change my career path. I was fortunate enough to find a new passion in data science. Of course there are a lot of pros and cons in changing careers but I personally believe that this is something you should actively explore while completing your higher degree!

What are the advantages of an alternative career outside Academia after your PhD?

  1. The career progression is stable enough
  2. Your professional skills acquired in one specific sector or company can be transferred easily to another company, thus making you more appealing in the job market
  3. This was a big part for me. Once you start a job, you can become an adult… For example you can afford to ask for a mortgage!
  4. You can choose a job that makes you travel around the world (hello consultants!) but you don’t have to! You can choose to stay in one place and maybe start building your family

I was lucky to find myself in a position where I could learn the basics of data science and from there I fell in love with programming and manipulating data. It was like going back to the lab, tinkering with flasks and batches and testing out hypotheses, getting results that either proved or confuted the initial assumptions.

I think that the field of data science has a number of advantages. Most importantly, these jobs are now in high demand which make the job market more receptive for new people entering the filed.

Why both STEM and non STEM PhDs can succeed in Data Science

The basic assumptions that hold true for being a successful PhD are the same in data science. For me, the data science process is like the process I was doing while in grad school:

  1. Understand the data and the field in which you are operating
  2. Evaluate the limitations and the edge cases, and set up a controlled system for experimenting
  3. Form assumptions and hypotheses
  4. Find a way to test the hypotheses and generate insights and recommendations

If you wrote a review and or a scientific paper, you would find that the mental process is thus very similar.

The field of DS is evolving rapidly and constantly. This give us the chance to continuously learn and find our own niche in the field. Again, a process very similar to Academia.

Personally, I also fell in love with the ability to create from scratch using programming languages. Once I realized that by using lines of codes you can build literally anything you want from a website to an entire business, it has been a one-way ticket to becoming a wanna-be programming geek.

If you love the scientific process of learning by hypothesis testing and experimentation and you are an avid and constant learner, I believe that the field of Data Science could open you doors an new horizons, and that you can find yourself successful in this career. Data Science or not, have you started exploring the alternatives that you have outside Academia?

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.. L.A. Seneca

Manfredi Miraula

Manfredi Miraula

Scientist, data scientist, blogger, trainer, continuous learner. 5+ years of experience in Analytics, Technical PM. I offer consulting services in the Analytics space and technical mentoring for folks changing career into Data Science.


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