Although academic research has traditionally been regarded as the most desirable career path for science and engineering PhDs, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing share of PhDs entering employment in the private sector. While some observers suggest that challenges in securing a tenure-track faculty position push graduates away from academia, others argue that the private sector attracts PhDs by offering higher pay, access to leading edge technologies, and an "open science" atmosphere. Using a novel longitudinal survey, this project follows a national sample of science and engineering PhDs over the course of their graduate training and into their first post-graduate positions to examine why some PhDs enter research careers in academia, while others pursue careers in industry. The first study in this project investigates PhDs' training experiences over the course of their program to assess changes in graduate students' career preferences over time and to examine potential drivers of such changes. The second study contrasts PhDs' career preferences prior to graduation with the positions they actually obtain after graduation. It also probes more deeply which PhDs are able to pursue their preferred career (or not) by examining how individual preferences, ability, and labor market conditions shape initial career transitions.

This project contributes to the research on scientific labor markets and innovative human capital in several ways. First, prior literature often relies on the notion that PhD scientists are socialized during graduate training to aspire to an academic research career. This notion, however, seems at odds with emerging evidence showing that students' interest in academic science declines over the course of graduate training. This project empirically assesses changes in students' career preferences over time and examines how career preferences are shaped by a broad range of factors such as peers and advisors, learning about one's own skills, labor market conditions, and the job attributes associated with particular career paths. Second, this study complements prior work that has described aggregate patterns of labor flows by providing micro-level insights into how scientists' and engineers' initial career trajectories are shaped by their own preferences and ability as well as by labor market opportunities.

Broader impact. By examining the career preferences and career transitions of science and engineering PhDs, this research provides an important empirical basis for the ongoing debate regarding science and engineering labor market conditions, including the potential "mismatch" between graduates' career aspirations and the positions actually available to them. The results also provide insights regarding how graduate curricula can be improved to better prepare students for a range of academic as well as non-academic career paths. The project's findings regarding changes in career preferences during graduate training have implications for university administrators, graduate student advisors, and policy makers who are concerned with shaping graduate student experiences. They are also important for students, who can benefit from thinking more explicitly about their career goals and from learning about the career opportunities available in different sectors of the economy.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA)
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Maryann Feldman
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Georgia Tech Research Corporation
United States
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