Life outside universities

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When is a scientist not really a scientist? This the provocation launched by Nature last week.

For many people, whoever has a PhD in Molecular Genetics or in Physics can rightfully exhibit this ‘title’. But for others, science is something that you ‘do’, not just something you learnt. According to the purists, then, those who leave the lab after a post-graduate education, in order to work somewhere else, have lost their way and have been seduced by the dark side.

In this view, job opportunities for post-PhD outside the research world have been often labelled as ‘alternative’ careers.

But is it fair to consider these ex-scientists as failure? The answer is found reading journals like Nature every day: if it weren’t for the scientists who publish their work, they would not exist. But the existence of these journal is also based on ex-researchers in alternative careers. Those who leaves the academic world for other paths, why do they do it? Here, the British journal editorial allows a consideration about the ‘PhDs factory’ and post-PhD job opportunities.

In the scientific area, the number of PhDs assigned every year has increased of almost 40 percent between 1998 and 2008, reaching a total of about 34,000 for the OECD countries members. This growth has however made it less of an elite system, a system guided by research funding and not by the request of the work market.

In 1973, 55 percent of the PhD laureates in Biological Sciences ‘made in USA’ used to get a place as researchers within six years of course completion. From 2006, only 15 percent manages to get a place six years after the PhD.

Even worse, the data from the American Society for Cell Biology underline that less than 10 percent of 86,000 currently PhD students in Biology in the US will become university professors. “The academic market collapsed in 1970, but the universities have not updated their admission policies because they need graduate students to be employed in the laboratories. Once the students have completed their studies, they will not find an academic job,” explains Mark Taylor from Columbia University. The numbers speak clearly: there are much more PhD graduates than the university system can employ.

But, then, why not choosing an alternative career as soon as completing the PhD?

Many young researchers find it frustrating and almost a failure after years spent studying and doing academic research, and they prefer to accept small grants in their University instead of looking for a different job.

But the contrary is also true. In Italy, for example, the title of “dottore di ricerca” (PhD equivalent) that certificates knowledge and expertise acknowledged by the State, is not taken into account by the Italian companies, by whom is almost unknown. In the job market, almost nothing is known about what they do in university, therefore a researcher is treated as a youngster who is starting to work three years later, instead of being considered a precious resource. Things are not better in the public sector: it should be enough to notice that, in open competitive exams, the PhD title does not provide higher scores in respect to other candidates, but is evaluated at the commission’s discretion.

Another aspect that should not be ignored, however, regards the inadequateness of many PhD programmes as far as entering the world of work concerns. Too often, PhD courses are too specialised and the research carried out is too ‘narrow’, not palatable on the job market. In many cases, holding a PhD title turns out to be a handicap more than an advantage: because it precludes other possible jobs; or because the acquired knowledge and expertise are only spendable in the research or in university teaching. “The majority of PhD programmes are conform to a model of European university developed in the Middle Ages, where education is a cloning process that aims at transforming the students in their mentors. The clones now are much more numerous than their mentors,” underlines Taylor. Many are advocating a change in the PhD programmes in line with gaining useful skills for becoming competitive beyond the academy. Instead of being the first step of a ladder that terminates with an academic job, the PhD courses should be like a path that, through a series of different ways, leads smoothly to the world of work. Universities should not just prepare students to become ‘only’ good academics, but should put them in the condition of taking advantages of other opportunities opening up in the job market.

Outside universities, a world full of possibilities does exist. An example is the story of Renata Sarno, who, after eight years of theoretical physics, has completely changed work, making her own fortune with online business. “She was a brilliant student,” remembers her supervisor Giorgio Parisi, theoretical physicist at the University of Rome. Sarno had arrived at Parisi’s laboratory to finish her graduation thesis in physics in 1987 and continued working there throughout PhD and post-PhD. She helped developing the supercomputer then used for modelling subatomic particles called fermions. A future in the university was her likely prospect, but things went differently. In 1994, the post-PhD funds finished. “I found myself without a salary and decided to take a new way,” remembers Sarno.

She did not waste any time, and together with three friends and only 10,000 euro she launched a series of websites, among which a travel website called Venere that was one of the first websites offering hotel booking and other services. “At that time, the Internet was really poor of contents. It was only the following year that the first search engine was launched. Our idea was a portal for hotel booking. This way, we could offer a service without having to ship anything, therefore without any problem of logistics or storage. The initial aim was to sell abroad something that we had in Italy: the ample offer of hotels,” explains Sarno.

Fundamental for the company success – Venere has been sold for 200 million euro in 2008 – was the knowledge in calculus and problem solving acquired during the years of PhD. “Parisi was sorry to see one of his students leaving the university but he was proud for my success”. Sarno did not leave the research completely. After selling Venere, she founded a foundation supporting research for blue cone monochromacy, a rare genetic disease of the retina that is transmitted through the chromosome X and affects 1 to 50 people over 100,000.

The story of Renata Sarno is just one among many other story of researchers who, after completing a PhD, successfully chose to take another path, different from the academic one.

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