Changing The Currency Of Academia

Academic papers have become the de facto currency for PhD students. With the professional landscape of post-doctoral careers changing, we need to change our currency to add value both to the PhD student experience and to the academic institutions for which we’re working.

For tenure-track professors looking to bolster their applications, academic papers are of incredible value. Consider the case of a PhD student interested in pursuing an academic career in a tenure-track PI’s lab: in a fair exchange, the student works hard to conduct research and publish papers that are added to the growing CV of the professor, furthering both of their professional goals. The PI's accomplishments will be looked upon favorably by tenure committees, and eventually the PhD student will follow suit by publishing in well-respected journals, bringing him/her closer to a tenured position as well. Metrics by which professors and graduate students are evaluated are clear: journals’ impact factors allow the scientific community to gauge the significance of an author's publications.

The case where the exchange is profitable for both the PI and the student is growing increasingly rare. It was recently reported that less than 1 % of scientists succeed in publishing a paper every year. The prolific few who do operate large labs staffed by high numbers of graduate students whose research over several years may only result in a singular publication. A 2012 NSF survey reports that total academic doctoral employment grew less since 2006 than in any comparable period since 1973. With the scarcity of academic positions, PhDs are diversifying the types of jobs they go into upon graduation. A smattering of these include: consulting, industrial research positions, teaching (outside of the university setting), entrepreneurship, science journalism, and science policy.

While some of the interviewers for these jobs care about your publication history and may even attempt reading one of your papers, most don't. A publication history of peer-reviewed articles will be important for jobs specifically in line with your thesis research (possibly industrial R&D, for example). Outside of the research world, however, the number of papers you’ve pushed out, and the impact factors of the journals they’re featured in, are statistics profoundly less important than other characteristics you’ve hopefully cultivated during your doctorate. This is reflected in employment outcomes: in 2012 the proportion of STEM PhDs graduating with employment commitments fell for the third consecutive year. Can we adopt a quantitative way to evaluate students’ endeavors aside from just publications? To help PhD students striving for careers outside of academia, universities should be developing metrics to ensure that our sole point of evaluation isn’t our publication list.

What, then, is considered valuable by prospective employers? The most valuable aspect of the PhD, to many employers, may simply be validation that we are ferociously autodidactic in a manner unique to those who have performed years of independent research. Beyond holding the title of “Doctor”, there are more concrete accomplishments that PhD students should focus on that add significant value aside from our research. Some of these are:

  • starting a company
  • pursuing patents on valuable IP
  • forging licensing agreements on dormant IP already belonging to the university
  • generating revenue for a company
  • fundraising to support research or product development (ie. grant writing or raising capital for a startup)
  • teaching
  • being an effective communicator
  • creating new outreach programs

These activities not only provide new avenues of learning for students, but add value to the university. Let’s not dissuade students from pursuing doctorates, as we will always need highly skilled independent researchers, but instead have universities provide a structure that shapes us into marketable future employees. We need to redesign the milestones of doctoral programs to reflect the value and importance that our future employers attribute to accomplishments other than merely peer-reviewed publications.