Research funding deficits lead to fewer research grants, but not fewer PhD grads

Expert Insight

Research funding deficits lead to fewer research grants, but not fewer PhD grads

Early-stage PhDs have long been plagued by hefty workloads, low wages, and uncertain returns on their labor investments, but the struggle seems to be getting more attention in the media lately. The journal Nature dedicated their October 2016 issue to “The Plight of the Young Scientist.” The issue cited ongoing difficulties that early researchers experience with burdensome administrative responsibilities associated with securing funds and chronic disappointment when funding opportunities fall through.

The most recent data from the Higher Education Research Database (HERD) shows a continuing trend of limited funding for university research from the federal agencies. Limited funding not only means restricted growth for the research enterprise, but also that the future of students entering PhD programs and graduating with doctoral degrees, predicated on the ability to secure research funding as tenured professors, has become increasingly murky.


The number of PhD graduates has grown in the last 20 years. The good news is that a 2014 survey of doctoral degree holders from across the University of California System suggests that 93% of graduates remain satisfied with the decision to pursue their PhD. However, in the past five years, the number of PhD graduates has grown twice as quickly as the rate of research funding to higher ed.


Expanding the PhD job market for graduates

Though research grants may be in comparatively short supply, jobs for PhD graduates are more abundant than many students and faculty traditionally imagine. Survey data from a variety of sources indicates that roughly 42% of U.S. PhD graduates are employed outside of academic positions. Indeed, many countries send more than half of their graduates outside of the ivory tower—more than 60% of Canadian doctoral degree-holders work in other industries.

There are a number of resources, typically provided through the office of career services, that are available to PhD students looking for non-academic jobs. The most vibrant part of the PhD career-support market appears to be helping students gain access to other graduates in their field who have successfully marketed themselves to industry. Career counselors organize online forums, sponsor local meet-ups, and encourage network building with other PhD holders who have applied their doctoral education to non-academic careers.

Growing interest in non-academic PhD careers

With the emergence of social media, a number of resources have sprung up to help students in doctoral programs find other careers. Sites like LinkedIn and Facebook host a wide variety of support and mentoring for students and graduates with a specific career focus. Beyond free resources, a number of fee-based services offer more tailored advice to doctoral graduates hoping for a non-academic career. Independent consultants on sites like Jobs on Toast and From PhD to Life offer fee-based coaching to help doctoral graduates find careers. On Cheeky Scientist, members can pay a fee to access premium content; the site promises to “turn PhDs into confident and successful industry professionals.” The number of related sites that remain active on the web suggests a growing interest in non-academic PhD-level careers.

In response, some research universities are taking new measures to support their PhD students in pursuit of broader career opportunities. In addition to more advanced career services for graduate students, some universities have invested university funds to purchase additional career services for their PhD students, like Versatile PhD, a membership-based service accessible to graduate students through campus-wide memberships, rather than through individual user purchase.

Currently, 75 universities across the U.S. and Canada hold member subscriptions to Versatile PhD. Universities can join a STEM or humanities Versatile PhD membership, although the vast majority (over 90%) subscribe to both. Developed in 1999, the listserv that evolved into Versatile PhD originally only catered to the humanities. From those roots, founder and CEO Paula Chambers estimates that today about 40% of the nearly 70,000 members are using the STEM resources, which were added to the site in 2011.

Preparing the next generation of researchers

While the jury is still out on the long-term efficacy of paid services for PhD candidates seeking non-academic positions, their growing popularity should signal to research administrators that graduate students are increasingly looking beyond academia for their careers. For many institutions, creating a rich, diverse research culture with a range of career opportunities for PhD students is a top priority. As we look toward the future of research, a robust range of options for PhD graduates will help to quell some of the disquiet generated from decelerating federal research funding.

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