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5 Infuriating Reasons Why The PhD Crisis In Academia Is About To Get Worse

There is a crisis in academia.

PhD salaries are stagnant. The economy is facing inflation, yet PhD salaries are dropping.

One of the worst mistakes you can make in your professional career is staying in academia beyond your PhD.

The sooner you realize this, the better it is for your career and your overall future.

PhDs are exceedingly valuable in industry. During your time in graduate school, you acquired mastery over a field of study. You learned how to research, analyze, innovate, and present data. Furthermore, you  learned to innovate and push the boundaries of knowledge.  

You amassed skills such as creative thinking, risk mitigation, and risk management – all of which are transferable to industry.
Yet, PhD is a training position, compensated not with a salary but a stipend. Once you secure your degree, you should focus your efforts on your industry job search and transition out of academia.

I have noticed that PhDs face several hardships in academia, but the one they struggle the most with is the low salaries. 

One of the PhDs in academia who sought advice from Cheeky Scientists said – “I spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota. About one year in, I saw danger on the horizon of my academic career. I was quite frustrated with how things were going with my research, and wasn’t happy with my potential future in academia. 

My previous PhD advisor actually warned me about pursuing a career in academia because he saw the trend-line in funding and how the university was handling new Assistant Professor job openings. 

He helped me realize that the future of academia simply did not bode well for newly minted PhDs. At the time, I thought this was a rather strange thing for a professor to say. Pretty much all other professors would say otherwise and would try to mold me to their image. But once I recognized the issues that my advisor was describing first hand, I thought I should heed his wisdom and look to transition to industry. Also I was tired of being poor.

Remember that you are valuable in industry.  The job market is a mystery. So, take your job search seriously and work towards transitioning into industry. 

Inflation Versus PhD Salaries In Academia

The pandemic hit virtually all industries and job sectors in the United States and worldwide. But there is something weird going on lately. The job market has been a bit of a conundrum. Our data indicate an 81% depreciation in hiring but a heightened cash influx into the market. 

Why is there a lot of liquidity in the market?

Many countries provided government assistance for the public during crisis, which led to ample cash inflow. This liquidity has, in turn, caused inflation. Overall prices have increased. 

Gas prices have gone up by 30-40%. 

Rent and food prices have increased above inflation levels.

But have PhD salaries increased to meet the demands?

Unfortunately, no! They’re actually going down. 

In other words, gas, food, and rent prices are going up more than usual, but salaries in academia are going down. 

According to the AAUP’s annual salary report, even the compensation for full-time professors stayed static -without hopes of any improvement. Even before the pandemic crisis, average salaries for full-time professors tended to remain flat. In some institutions, there was even a 1% decrease when average salaries were adjusted for inflation.

If full-time professor salaries plummeted, what happened to postdoc salaries?

Postdocs are an undervalued workforce. There are mixed responses from academics regarding Postdoc salaries and job trajectories. It’s appalling that administrators even lobbied with the government to prohibit overtime pay for Postdocs. 

crisis in academia

Postdocs are compelled to work excessively hard and handle multiple laboratory responsibilities for insignificant stipends

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median salary of a Librarian is $55,370 per annum and that of a postman/postwoman is $57,200. Shockingly, Postdoc salaries are even lower than that of a librarian or postman! According to the National Institutes of Health and the National Postdoctoral Association, some 5th-year Postdocs earn $52,116. Yet, a vast majority of Postdocs get paid $48,000 –  even in their 5th year.

To most academic administrators, you are cheap labor at best. Plain and simple. There is no way around this argument.

Read the signs all around you, take your job search seriously and transition out of academia. 

Now Is The Time To Take Your Job Search Seriously

The pandemic sparked a frenzy among  PhDs. Some panicked, whereas others became increasingly confused and clueless. For many, the uncertainty was devastating. Nonetheless, the crisis propelled a lot of PhDs out of their dormancy and stagnation. Many started thinking about their next career steps strategically.

PhDs constitute a small niche. Less than 2% of the world’s population and only 1.2% of the US population have a PhD.  PhDs are quite rare. This rarity must add value. 

Instead, PhDs tolerate academic bullying, work tirelessly for free,  undervalue themselves, and markedly devalue their PhD. Surely, there is an imminent crisis in higher education. 

PhDs are considered an undervalued labor force. PhD salaries are not a priority in academia. It is laughable that postdocs with 5 years of experience make ~$4,000 less than a librarian and ~$5,000 less than a postal carrier!

The longer you stay in academia, the worse your salary and career trajectory become. Companies are aware that the academic mindset differs radically from the industry mindset. They prefer not to hire long-term academics because they think they are untechable. If you have been working for free for your PI instead of focusing on your job search – you will have to justify that as you would a work gap. And as you stall in academia, the job market keeps changing drastically

Transition from a stipend to a salary.  

Now let us explore why it’s crucial that PhDs transition out of academia as soon as possible.

1. Academia doesn’t provide job security

Working long hours and academic burnout is quite common in higher education. The crisis in academia is more evident now than ever. The number of tenure positions is decreasing uncontrollably. This concept is hard to grasp but tenure professorships are a thing of the past. 

There is an evident crisis in academia. Certainly, you have seen the  fallout from the furloughs and job cuts. Colleges and universities have cut 650,000 jobs. This represents a sharp decline of over 13 % in higher education jobs since February 2020. Many of these jobs are not expected to return anytime soon since student enrollment is synchronously declining. Even current PhD candidates have seen a reduction in their stipends. 

You must realize that academia doesn’t offer job security. Not even tenured professors are protected in academia. The pandemic compelled many PhDs to accept this harsh reality. Don’t stay behind the curve.

Academia lures PhDs into the inflated feeling of false security.

Academia is great for education and training, but-not job security. You don’t have to hang onto it.

Instead, you must build your unique case and market job-specific technical and transferable skills. This approach will go a long way in establishing you as the best possible candidate for the job. A  targeted cover letter (for the specific job) that highlights your unique selling proposition and job-relevant skills will speak enormously for you.

Leverage your academic PhD experience, understand your transferable skills and demonstrate to industry employers that you can research, innovate, and achieve reproducible results.

2. University funding doesn’t come from grants

As a graduate student, I was convinced that most  funding came from grants. So, as a postdoc, I planned to get a grant to secure my  funding. But it turns out that universities rely on tuition from undergrads for their survival. So, even with a grant, academic labs are not secure. 

In the last year, there has been a 20%-21% drop in first-year tuition in graduate schools pertaining to higher education – representing a steep decline in institutional revenue.

To add to that, universities are facing huge fund and money losses

Several postdocs have been terminated; numerous others are barely managing meager compensation.

Even with funding, PIs are struggling to keep  their labs afloat. 

Instead of increasing postdoc salaries, they are bound to divert money to ensure maintenance and survival. Universities have run out of budget areas to trim. 

Financial losses have pushed universities to close departments and terminate programs.

Research needs funding that academia can’t provide. 

 Companies in different industries have a whole department dedicated to managing budgets. They conduct  routine meetings to allocate resources and delegate responsibilities. Every contingency has its  contingency. Each risk is researched and risk management approaches are documented ahead of time, before any potential crisis. 

Showcase your accomplishments from academia while speaking the language of industry. Ditch the academic mindset and choose to get hired in the right high-paying industry position. 

3. Higher education doesn’t support PhD candidates and postdocs

Postdocs suffer from a lack of support for higher education. 

It is a fact that universities rely on undergrad tuition for funding. The drop in student enrollment has pushed universities to a very tight budget situation.

A study conducted by Nature revealed wide inconsistencies in postdoc salaries. This disparity emphasizes negligence on the part of academia towards postdocs. Several institutions failed to even count the number of current postdocs. Postdoc salaries are undeniably undervalued.

Lack of support is quite evident even in the salaries of female postdocs, many of whom are relatively underpaid in some parts of the country. 

Lack of tenured positions forces PhDs to spend years juggling temporary contracts.
Eventually, many of them end up unemployed, with no career despite earning a PhD; or dependent on their PI, even working for free.

PhDs in academia receive zero training for non-faculty positions. Your PhD taught you to survive amidst adversities. What you need is the right knowledge and the right network. Don’t get career advice from academics who don’t want you to leave academia. Find PhDs who have successfully transitioned out of academia and can provide genuine guidance. Look for this kind of support and be prepared to receive inputs and advice that will catapult your application to the top of the pile. 

Almost 85% of the open positions are filled through networking. Revise your fundamentals and stop doubting your abilities.  Overcome imposter syndrome and get hired in a position where you feel truly valued.

4. There is a mass exodus out of academia

PhDs have received their fair share through government stimulus checks. And this has put a lot of PhDs to sleep.

You may now have extra money from tax refunds and stimulus checks. So, there is no urgency to get a job. 

But what happens when the assistance runs out?

We are seeing increased unemployment and a mass exodus out of academia.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that 10.7 million people are looking for jobs.

When 10.7 million try to join the workforce, it will reach tidal wave proportions.

Hard to envision? It’s hard to convince people that are comfortable in moderate pain to take this seriously. But you need to realize that things are not going to improve. 

Examine the current prices and compare that to your postdoc salary. You might have extra assistance right now, but don’t take it as an excuse to hang out in academia.

A massive number of PhDs will graduate in spring. A lot of fresh  PhDs will then start looking for jobs.  

So, right now in April, you have a golden chance to get ahead of the competition. 

Don’t put off your job search for another year. Don’t wait until the moderate pain turns into intense, acute pain— which is what most PhDs are doing. If you stall and neglect your career, it will soon be too late.  

 Before long, you will exhaust all options and fall into sheer desperation. 

Eventually, people will start seeing these market changes. You can get  ahead of the curve -if you act now. 

Academia will not prepare you for an industry career. Kick-start your job search. Revamp your resume. Filter out meaningless words and focus on keyword connectedness. Your resume is a powerful tool to market yourself. Hiring is expensive. So, you need to convince companies that you are worth the expense. And it all starts with your resume.

5. Companies are focusing on product promotion instead of hiring

The numbers indicate an 81% drop in hiring from November 2020 to February 2021. A few ups and downs but, overall, this hasn’t changed.  While PhDs are being complacent with government assistance, the job market is changing yet again.

Employers are not spending money on hiring, but towards efforts to save their companies. They are adding dollars into product promotions — as they did at the beginning of the pandemic. During a crisis, companies deprioritize innovation and hiring new talent. They rather focus efforts on conserving revenue, promoting their products, and minimizing risk.

Companies are funneling money and resources away from hiring and human resources; and pouring those funds towards marketing their products, services, and treatments. Redirecting revenue into stimulating sales of products and services. 

This is good too as it gives you a chance to revamp your job search especially during a crisis. So -if you took it easy in the last couple of months- now is a great time to reboot. If you act now, you can get ahead of the tidal wave.

Concluding Remarks

The academic mindset breeds confirmation bias, self-justification, and self-doubt. Don’t overthink it. Academia will not prepare you for a career in industry. Don’t wait for this moderate pain to progress to severe pain. It is time to transition out of academia into a valued position with the competitive salary you deserve. Leverage your academic accomplishments and skills while demonstrating an industry-mindset. Revamp your resume. Speak the language of industry and revise your job search process. As always, remember your value as a PhD and start thinking and acting like a successful industry professional.

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Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.

Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

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