This Is What Your Professors Really Think About You Leaving Academia

As university budgets shrink, more and more graduate students are seeking jobs outside academia. You'd think this would be a good thing for the world, but professors aren't convinced. In fact, many actively discourage their students from striving for non-academic jobs.

The Chronicle of Higher Education's Stacey Patton reports that at a recent conference on the topic of careers for grad students and postdocs, this issue came to the fore. University of California at San Francisco's director of career development, Bill Lindstaedt, showed a slide with comments he'd heard from faculty about students pursuing nonacademic jobs. They were dismissive of the idea that students might need such jobs, despite the tiny academic job market, and expressed no interest in helping students discover other career paths.

UCSF is a medical school, so all their work is focused on medical and scientific research. Here are some choice quotes:

"The problem isn't that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty."

-Program director at large graduate program

"It's my JOB to create more people like me."

-Senior faculty member

"I'm very supportive of students in my lab who decide they want to leave academia. But they're smart. They'll figure out how to get there (alternative career) on their own."

-Senior faculty member

"If a rotation student comes in saying they want to be a science writer, they're not staying [in my research group]."

-Senior faculty member

"They shouldn't get distracted until after quals. And after quals, they need to be in the lab doing research. I don't want my students out of the lab teaching or other distracting activities."

-Senior faculty member

"I made it and nobody helped me. Plus, I was the only woman in my graduate program. The best students will always succeed."

-Senior faculty member

As a science writer, I especially love the comment from the professor about how potential future writers will get kicked out. Because why would you want science writers who had formal scientific training in a lab, anyway? Better to complain later about how science journalists are "dumb" and just "don't get" science.

You'll note that a lot of these comments center on how university professors want their students focused on lab work, AKA the professor's research. So this reluctance to discuss outside careers is as much about wanting cheap grad student and postdoc labor as it is about wanting to create "more people like me," as one faculty member said.

But there are also more subtle causes for this disconnect between what professors prepare their students for, and what they can actually expect in the real world. Many senior researchers came of age in an era when university budgets were not taxed to their maximum, so they don't realize how uncommon a tenure-track position is anymore. And in my personal experience (yes, I was a grad student back at the turn of the millennium) there is also intellectual prejudice against nonacademic jobs. If you want to be a true scholar, you are supposed to stay in the Ivory Tower. Anything else is getting your hands dirty, or catering to mere commercial interests.

Whether it's out of clueless prejudice or a venal desire for low-paid lab assistants, professors may be endangering the future of their disciplines by assuming that university work is the only legitimate path. Scientists and researchers are leaving the academy, no matter what we do. As these freelance scholars come of age, gaining more power and legitimacy, it will be better for everyone if they regard academia as a possible partner in their future work — not as the place that used them up and threw them away.