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Science basis for industrial careers?

Dr. ir. Boelo Schuur (Ass. Professor Separation Technology, University of Twente)


The New York Times recently had an article about the difficult path many PhDs need to walk to find a tenured position at a university or a renowned research institute. It is certainly true that if you want to work as professor at a highly ranked university in a highly competitive field such as astronomy or medicinal chemistry, you may need to accept life as a nomad for many years and work as post-doctoral fellow around the globe, with the risk that in the end “you miss the boat".

Academia or industry?

In the article, Emmanuelle Charpentier was mentioned as an example of a PhD who had traveled the world for no less than 25 years working in positions as temporary researcher, before she finally managed to obtain a tenured senior scientific staff position. The key opinion in the article appears to be that there are far too many people working towards a PhD, because fewer than half of all the people with a PhD-degree can end up in a tenured position in academia or a research institute.

When I read the article for the first time, I thought: “Why on earth does a PhD student need to end up as a professor?" Most of the PhD students in chemical engineering certainly do not and do not even want to. They choose a job in industry right after their graduation - to everybody's satisfaction. Based on the average time from title to market, engineers with a doctorate appear to be very much appreciated by industry.

In re-reading the article, I realized that its message is actually not that there are too many people receiving a PhD, but that too many of them walk the postdoctoral path for too long, hoping for an opening as professor, as they are taught that this is the only honorable way of living once a PhD-degree has been obtained. During their PhD training it is thought that they only learned to be a scientist and received no skills that are useful for a career outside academia. By the time they say farewell to academia, they are already middle aged, which means that they have lost a large part of their life on a journey they were unable to finish.

The author implies that the training a PhD-student receives is not suited to the career most of them will follow, which is intriguing and food for thought.

“The specialism of a PhD can be a firm basis,
but should not necessarily guide you in your next career steps.
Key is the analytical level of problem solving"

Analytical level of problem solving

To what extent do our PhD-students in Process Technology learn skills they can use in their future career and to what extent do they learn skills that would only be useful for a career in academia? Doing a PhD does not only deepen your thoughts on one specific subject so that you become a specialist on that topic. It also teaches you to choose, plan and carry out a project and write up the results. The specialism can be a firm basis, but should not necessarily guide you in your next career steps. I have always been of the opinion that the key is the analytical level of problem solving. That is something that is more generic, not just academic. This is a skill you can apply in any future job. Furthermore, someone who eventually graduates with a PhD-degree did not run away the first time some problems were encountered. With a few additional courses, e.g. on entrepreneurship, the PhD can broaden him/herself and all in all I don't think we are educating wrongly.

This said, I realize that I am an academic and I have always been. It may be interesting to ask senior industry research leaders what they think about our Dutch PhD-education system.