Academic birth control


There are too many PhD students and too few jobs available for them, yet the system (the academic system that is) encourages, demands, the production of new PhDs. As a new lecturer at the University of Reading I have probation targets that I have to meet to secure my position. One of these targets is having at least 1 PhD student in the next 3 years. This is actually a very reasonable expectation and most starting lecturers and assistant professors would like to excess that target for their own benefit. But let’s see what this means on the long term.

If my academic career goes on for another 30 years (accounting for an inevitable late retirement) then even assuming a low supervising rate (1 PhD student every 5 years) I would produce 6 “academic children” over my “reproductive” lifetime. If I stick to having 1 student every 3 years, then I could have 10 academic children, and if I accomplish my goal of having a lab with about 2-3 PhD students all the time, then well, you get it, I could match Valentina Vassilyeva.

In the meantime, the number of jobs in academia is not increasing at a sufficiently high rate, which means many of my future academic children will be without a job if they want to work in academia. So what should I do? (besides complaining about it) I could try to make a career supervising only a very small number of students, but keeping my job may be difficult and I do enjoy the interaction with the new generations. I do want to be an academic mother. Alternatively, I could ignore the problem and just get as many PhD students as I can and let them deal with the bleak post-graduation future. But I want to be a good academic mother. So What should I do?

First, I should exercise adequate academic birth control. My ideal lab with several PhD students interacting and working together could be achieved by working with other colleagues and having joined lab meetings for instance. Even if tempting I should avoid taking on too many students.

Second, I should clearly discuss with those students I do take the reality of the academic path and expose them to alternative career paths. Academia is not the only possibility, and while it is the one I chose (or did she choose me?) there are NGOs, government agencies, science journalism, and other options that may be more interesting and/or suitable. Because these are not careers I am familiar with, I would need to figure out how to help students gain skills that are important for these paths and then search for jobs.

These steps are going to require self-control and stepping outside my comfort (academic) zone but I want to go beyond complaining about the “too many PhDs problem”.

Let’s come back in 5 years to see how I have done.


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