Here in the UK, most research council-funded PhD students will have a thesis deadline four years after their start date. As someone who moved straight from undergraduate to postgraduate study with no breaks, this means I will be a doctor by age 25.
While this is quite nice to know, I’m now at the point of starting to consider my future and career. And I’m coming to realise that only four years of doctoral work may end up being more of a hindrance than I thought.
When applying for postdoctoral positions, your publication record plays a huge role in how successful your applications will be. But getting those first-author publications takes time. Getting results is just the first step. Next, you need to actually write the thing, and get feedback from a supervisor (and anyone else involved, such as others in the lab or collaborators).
Then you begin the process of actually trying to get published: submission, acceptance, peer review, corrections, and finally publication (and even this might take a while if there is a backlog). Although some journals, such as eLife, pride themselves in a quick turnover (90 days submission to acceptance), some can take a lot longer.
Rejections will increase the time – and this can often happen as people try and publish in journals with as high an impact factor as they can. Other factors can affect publication time – such as over-worked supervisors or lack of funds to publish (Nature Communications, for example, costs £3150 to publish).
All things considered, a British PhD student could easily end their PhD with several first-author publications in the pipeline, but none published.
Compare the length of a UK PhD to PhDs in other countries, and you start to see where my concerns lie. Some countries, such as Germany have four-year PhDs like us. But many have postgraduate courses lasting much longer.
In the US there is no set deadline for a PhD thesis. Stanford University suggests that most finish their PhD programme within five and a half years – already gaining a year and a half on us. And a US PhD can easily last much longer than this – students can often expect to be finishing their theses after seven or eight years.
The decision of when a PhD candidate at an American university can defend their thesis is made by their supervisor. The time taken to complete a PhD in the US is one of the most common topics mocked by spoof academic and comic sites such as PhD Comics or #WhatShouldWeCallGradsSchool.
The same thing happens in Sweden, where a student can expect to be studying for longer than five years. These longer PhDs often involve other activities – teaching, for example – but are also important for producing publications. The number of publications may have an effect on when a student will be allowed to defend their thesis.
The longer PhD programmes in other countries allow more time for broadening horizons. Time spent teaching or researching other projects can give PhD students an additional edge when applying for jobs.
The British system has tried to help provide its students with some of this experience. The BBSRC and several other tesearch councils now fund a large proportion of students as part of Doctoral Training Programmes or similar schemes. These programmes have a mandatory three-month internship as part of the four years of study (I recently completed my placement).
Several universities have also opted to put students through training – such as the University of Oxford, where first year PhD students spend their first term having lectures. They may also have ‘rotation projects’, spending their first year trying two or three projects and choosing the one that suits them best.
Although these schemes leave students more ‘well-rounded’, they also take away from the already limited time-frame – leaving many with just three years in which to carry out their research and write-up.
So, looking at the facts, PhD students in the UK are going to be left competing for the best postdoctoral positions against people with far more research experience than us.
I was talking to a careers advisor about this last week, who told me “you can get that first postdoc position without any publications”. The next day I had the same conversation with a lecturer (and I’ve had this conversation with my supervisor more times than I can count) who had a different view: unless you have a particularly high-profile supervisor who can vouch for you, those jobs are going to go to someone else.
This is clear when you start looking at the statistics. According to an article in the Times Higher Education, up to 200 people may be chasing the same post at top Universities.
And if you can’t get those top posts, perhaps you will end up struggling to get high-impact publications from your first postdoc – leaving you struggling to get the next position, and so the cycle continues.
Only 0.45 percent of UK science PhD graduates end up as professors – so every step of that career ladder matters if that’s your ambition. The realisation of this competition has almost certainly driven some people off the ladder – and the “confidence gap” of women faced with such tough competition may partly explain the leaky pipeline of women from academia.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should lose hope. Most likely, a student will manage to get their name on a few other publications during their PhD, and though their names may be lower down the list, at least it’s something.
I’m also starting to see that there is still a huge ‘who-you-know’ aspect to finding jobs in academia. So get out and network with people whose work interests you. Presenting at international conferences can also help with this – and as PhD students begin to get results, they often have abstracts for oral presentations accepted and get the chance to give talks.
Networking with the other group leaders in your university or institute may also give you the edge you need. Even social media can help – I’ve met at least one group leader in my research area who recognised my name from Twitter.
It isn’t just the PhD to postdoc gap that publishing affects. Publication records count throughout your career. Newly-appointed group leaders face huge pressures to publish – and this continues even after tenure is awarded. As they say, “publish or perish”.
Even a career break such as parenthood or taking time out for caring responsibilities can mean a gap in your publication record which could affect your career. The government is trying to make changes in the career structure for postdocs to recognise career breaks – but it’s happening slowly.
I have my fingers crossed that those who want to pursue a career in academia will be able to fight off the competition and find the jobs that they want. And as for the rest – perhaps those internships will help them get the jobs that they want too.
Izzy is a John Innes Centre PhD student. She’s on Twitter as @isabelwebb.
Featured image: Kat (swimparallel)/Flickr.