From undergraduate to faculty member: Critical decision points in the academic career

If you’re an undergraduate contemplating an academic career or a graduate student considering the next steps, you may have the long-term goal of becoming a tenured professor at a major research university. At the same time, you may have serious doubts about whether this is the career for you. Are you good enough to be a faculty member? And if you’re not good enough, will you waste years of your life with little to show for it in the end? Even if you’re good enough, is that sufficient, or will you also need an extraordinary amount of luck? By embarking on an academic career, will you be making a high-stakes gamble that may have a catastrophic outcome if you lose? These are serious doubts, and they can make the prospects of pursuing an academic career seem overwhelming and pointless. As a substitute for these overwhelming, larger-than-life questions, I’d like to offer a set of critical decision points and simple rules about how to proceed. I hope that these suggestions will make the path to an academic position more navigable and less stressful.

Let me first clarify, though, that I don’t think every graduate student has to become a tenured professor at a major university. In fact, I believe that the majority of graduate students are not on track to become faculty members. For example, I read about a case study once where of an entering class of 20 graduate students at Yale university, only 2 had a tenure-track career 10 years later (I’m recalling this from memory, so I may have some details wrong, but the gist was approximately that.) Losing that many students to pursuits other than pure academia is Ok, as long as the majority of them finds satisfying and appropriately compensated employment. And I’m pretty sure they do. They certainly do if they picked up serious computational skills during their PhD. On the other hand, while I don’t see it as my mission to turn every student of mine into a professor, I also don’t want to see highly gifted and capable students give up on an academic career just because they perceive it as an impossible feat, one they shouldn’t even attempt.

From undergraduate to graduate student

If you’re currently an undergraduate, you shouldn’t even think about whether you’re on track to becoming a professor. It’s impossible to know anyway, and it doesn’t matter for the main decision you have to make: Should you go to graduate school or not? Unless you are under strong financial pressure to earn money right away (e.g. you have enormous student debt, or you have three children that you have to support on your own), this decision should not primarily be a financial one. For most students, graduate school is approximately cost-neutral: The stipend you’re paid while working as teaching assistant or graduate research assistant covers your basic living expenses. You don’t save any money while you’re in graduate school, but you also shouldn’t accumulate any debt. You could think about graduate school in terms of income lost over five years versus your future earnings potential, but frankly, if you think in these terms I don’t think a graduate program in science is right for you. Get a graduate degree in business, economics, or management, and embark on a career of serious money making.

A graduate degree in science is for people who really care about figuring things out, or about solving problems. As an undergraduate, you have to be aware that graduate school will be very different from your undergraduate experience, unless you’ve already spent a substantial amount of time in a research lab. Graduate school is not about passing exams, getting good grades, or cramming material. In the end, it’s all about doing science and writing papers. Some people have a 4.0 undergraduate GPA and fail in graduate school, and others have a 2.9 GPA and succeed. If you really care about figuring things out, if you could see yourself spending months at a time getting to the bottom of an issue, then graduate school is for you. Don’t worry about the naysayers that say a PhD is a worthless piece of paper. I am not aware of any evidence that a PhD in science will hurt your subsequent employability. It may not help you much, depending on how things go, but as I said already, you shouldn’t get into a PhD program for the money anyway. You should get into it because of your passion for research.

From graduate student to postdoc

Ok, you’ve now made your way almost all the way through graduate school and the end is in sight. Should you continue and search for a postdoc position? Or should you jump ship and look for alternatives? At this point, I think it is justified to ask about earnings potential. You have obtained the most advanced degree you’ll ever get. From here on out, you’re not in it for the education, you’re in it for the experience. You have to ask yourself: Would I rather make money, or would I rather do nothing but research for a few years? For most academics, the postdoc time is a uniquely rewarding and free time. A time during which you can (mostly) freely pursue whatever research you care about, on your own schedule. You have completed your 10,000 hours of science by that time, so you can hit the ground running and do interesting stuff. For poor compensation, mind you. If your mindset is “I don’t really know what else I’d want to do anyway” then go ahead and do a postdoc. But if you can see a clear alternative path, and if that path looks attractive to you, then that alternative path may be the better choice.

Importantly, though, it is still not time to ask yourself whether you’re on track to becoming a faculty member. Plenty of graduate students don’t do that well, only to recover spectacularly during their postdoc. And others do well as graduate students but falter as postdocs. Generally, the former group does much better than the latter on the academic job market. I’m part of the former group, and I made out alright. I like to say that if you erased from my resume every single thing I did during graduate school, nothing of consequence would change. I got a job as a faculty member anyway.

You do have to make an honest assessment, though. Where do you stand relative to your fellow graduate students? Would you say your performance is comparable to most? Better? Worse? After five years in graduate school, you may not yet have made an earth-shattering discovery, but you should know by now whether you’re cut out for science or not. In particular, do you have one or two papers to your name for which you did the majority of the work, including the conceptual work? (I don’t care how good they are, just that they got done.) If after an honest assessment you find that you’re not really cut out for science, then don’t do a postdoc. Find a different occupation.

One word of hope for finding a postdoc position: For as long as I can remember, the job market has been in favor of postdocs. Any capable graduate student who wants to can find a decent postdoc position. So don’t ever worry about not getting a postdoc position. If you want one, you’ll get one.

From postdoc to faculty member

Now you’re two to three years into your postdoc. Finally it’s time to ask yourself whether you’re on track to becoming a faculty member or not. Take honest stock. Where are you, compared to other people in the field that you’d be competing with on the job market. Ask some senior scientists about an honest evaluation. Hopefully your postdoc adviser will be able to tell you where you stand. In my opinion, if you’re three years into a postdoc and you’re nowhere near ready to apply for a faculty position, then it may be time to consider alternative careers. If you’re three years in and you’re ready to apply, then go for it and see how it goes. If you’re three years in and you’re getting close but you’re not quite there yet, then it’d be reasonable to wait another year. But don’t keep saying “I’ll be ready next year.” At some point, if things don’t work out in academia, you have to cut your losses and move on. Where that point is is a somewhat arbitrary and a bit of a personal choice, but I’d place it around five years. After five years of a postdoc-level position, you should find something more permanent. And if that job is not a tenure-track faculty position, then you may have to settle for research scientist, lecturer, administrator, or whatever else you can make work for you. There are plenty of reasonable career paths for a scientist, just don’t become a career postdoc.

Now, you can’t expect things on the job market to work out the first time round. You may not be quite ready, the big paper you wrote may not yet be that well known, or it may just be a bad year for academic hiring. If by your own and by your senior colleagues’ assessment you are ready to get a faculty position, then don’t despair if it doesn’t work out the first time round. Try at least two rounds. Also, if you changed your field after your PhD, or if you didn’t really do much of consequence as a graduate student, you may need a little more time as a postdoc. I was a postdoc for five years, and I think I needed that time to be really ready for a faculty position.

Summary

As undergraduate, follow your passion. If you have a passion for figuring things out, get a graduate degree and see if you still like it five years down the road. Don’t worry about not being good enough.

As graduate student, if your passion hasn’t disappeared, and if you can stomach another three to five years of being poor, go for the postdoc. Don’t worry about not being good enough.

As postdoc, do an honest assessment of where you stand. If you are competitive on the job market, go for it. If you’re almost competitive, do what needs to be done to eliminate the “almost.” If you’re nowhere near competitive after about three years, start thinking about alternative options.