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Chapter 4

Chapter 4 of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering

by Richard M. Reis, Stanford University

© IEEE Press 1997: All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, nor may it be stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form, without written permission from the publisher.

Chapter 4. Your Professional Preparation Strategy

During my graduate study at UCLA, and most of my three-year academic postdoc that followed, I thought I would end up in industry. But I see now that I was also preparing for an academic career. As an undergraduate at U.C. San Diego, I held some discussion sessions and liked it. At UCLA, I was a T.A. for most of my time and did very well (won many awards) and again, really liked it. Near the end of my postdoc a position at San Jose State University (SJSU) was brought to my attention and I decided to apply for it. I also applied to a number of other schools as well. I was looking for a place where teaching, research, and service were valued, and this seemed to be it. San Jose State had a very extensive national search going on and they knew just what they wanted. I learned that they viewed me as more interested in research than teaching so when I got back to UCLA to finish my postdoc, I arranged to teach a five-week section of a biochemistry course. I informed SJSU of this and it made all the difference. They made me an offer and I've been here ever since. Pam Stacks, professor and chair of chemistry, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA.

If you choose to pursue an academic career you will be making what psychologists like to call a "consequential decision." Indeed, except for choosing a spouse or deciding to have children it is hard to imagine a decision with a greater life-altering impact. When you consider that it usually takes up to 15 years from the beginning of graduate school, through a postdoc, to the possible awarding of academic tenure, you can see why such a decision must be made very carefully - and not too quickly.

To pursue an academic career you will almost certainly need to pursue a Ph.D., since today it is difficult to have the first without the second. If you also consider that there are now more Ph.D.'s and postdocs in science and engineering looking for academic positions than there are positions available, your decision becomes even more important, and more difficult. In some fields, such as electrical engineering and chemistry, where there has always been a path for Ph.D. graduates in industry, the oversupply is not as great as in areas, such as civil engineering and high energy physics, where there are fewer long-term options for Ph.D.'s outside academia. [1] To make matters worse, in some fields of science and engineering there is an oversupply of Ph.D.'s in all sectors: government, industry, and academia. [2]

What lessons can be learned from the current situation that will help you decide what to do, and depending on that decision, enhance your chances of starting on the professional career of your choice? While avoiding unwarranted optimism, we must also guard against undue pessimism. As Peter B. Boyce, writing in Mercury, the Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, puts it with respect to astronomy:

Realism, not cynicism, is the best response to employment trends in astronomy. Professors and teachers must tell students about the shaky job market, train them for a wide range of careers, and not lead them to believe that non academic positions are somehow inferior. [3]
  • The key to your decision is the following:
  • Follow your passion.


  • Understand what you can and can't do with a Ph.D., and whatever you pursue be sure it is for the right reasons.


  • Do not assume the current problems, with respect to available positions, will result in a drop in the supply of Ph.D.'s or postdocs by the time you graduate.


  • Do not assume there will be significant improvement in the demand for Ph.D.'s or postdocs by the time you graduate.


  • Given the above, if you still want to proceed with a Ph.D. and possible academic career, do so by adopting a preparation strategy that significantly increases your chances of getting the position you want.

The strategy proposed here is a three-pronged one of developing breadth as well as depth, pursuing multiple options, and at the same time thinking ahead, looking ahead, and acting ahead of your current stage in ways that establish your readiness for an academic career.

Before we examine this strategy in detail let's look more closely at the decision to pursue an academic career.

4.1 The Decision to Pursue an Academic Career

There are certainly many other things you can do with a Ph.D. besides becoming a professor, and we will look at some of them in the sections to follow. However, with very few exceptions, you can no longer be a professor in a four-year college or university without a Ph.D., or its equivalent. In all science fields, and in some engineering fields as well, your Ph.D. is almost always followed by a period of two to four years as a postdoc prior to seeking an academic position.

Earning such a degree is no small matter. It requires an exceptional capability and a significant commitment of time and resources. To be sure, it opens the doors to certain occupations, but it also closes the doors to others by making you appear unsuited or overqualified. What then, is a Ph.D.?

The doctor of philosophy degree is the highest academic degree granted by North American universities. Ph.D. programs are designed to prepare students to become scholars, that is, to discover, integrate, and apply knowledge, as well as to communicate and disseminate it. A doctoral program is an apprenticeship that consists of lecture or laboratory courses, seminars, examinations, discussions, independent study, research, and, in many instances, teaching. The first year or two of study is normally a probationary period, during which a preliminary or qualifying examination might be required. The probationary period is followed by an examination for admission to full candidacy, when students devote essentially full-time to completing dissertation research. This research, planned with the major advisor and the dissertation committee, usually takes 1-3 years, depending on the field. An oral defense of the research and dissertation before a graduate committee constitutes the final examination. [4]

You should pursue a Ph.D. only if the things you want to do actually require such a degree. In addition to college or university professorships, the main other possibility is some form of research and scholarship, possibly followed by management of same, in industry, government, or academia.

Do not pursue such a degree for the prestige and status it might bring, and certainly not for the job security you think it will provide. As David Goodstein, vice provost at the California Institute of Technology, puts it:

Do it if you love it. Don't do it because the Ph.D. is your ticket to an easy life, because that's not true anymore. But if you love science and want to do research, you should still do it. [5]

James C. Fleet, assistant professor at the Tufts University School of Nutrition, says it this way:

Others have suggested that Ph.D.'s should consider alternative careers in areas of business, education or law, where scientific expertise may increase job prospects. While this may be realistic for currently underemployed Ph.D.'s, this is not a plausible long-term strategy to help future Ph.D. candidates or graduates. The fundamental flaw in this proposal is that it ignores the motivations that bring people to study for a Ph.D. A love of science and an interest in discovery are the seeds that graduate schools nurture into Ph.D.'s. [6]

I recognize that passion is not the only consideration and that we make career choices for a variety of reasons. One of these is often to impress others, particularly our parents. According to Peter J. Feibelman, author of, A Ph.D. Is Not Enough, "A common theme in the minds of young scientists is impressing Mom and Dad. This strong motivation is to be cherished, of course, but only if it does not overwhelm one's ability to make rational decisions." [7]

If what you want to do involves teaching at a secondary school or community, technical, or engineering technology college, working in most business settings, or performing much of the science and engineering in industry not requiring a Ph.D., then don't bother studying for it; stop at a master's degree. You will save yourself a lot of time and will most likely be much happier for it.

Why people choose, or don't choose, academic careers.

There are many reasons for wanting, or not wanting, to be a professor and many possible paths to getting what you want. Here are just a few:

From graduate student to professor:

I knew for a long time that I wanted to teach, but I also liked doing research. I got my Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics, but my real interest was in ships, in particular an area called unsteady free-surface flows. I also wanted my research to have some practical application. I applied to a number of schools right after getting my Ph.D. The University of New Orleans was building a tow tank and I knew if I joined the mechanical engineering department I would also be around naval engineering faculty which is what interested me the most. This access has provided me with some interesting opportunities for cross- disciplinary collaboration. Norm Whitley, associate professor, mechanical engineering department, University of New Orleans, New Orleans, LA.

From graduate student to professor - twice:

When I was a young girl I used to "play teacher," give little lectures in my attic, things like that. I also loved to read and math came very easily to me. When I graduated from high school I went to the University of Iowa with the idea of returning to high school as a math teacher. But, as soon as I took calculus, I realized that I didn't want to go back to high school and teach the factoring of polynomials. I went and got my master's degree at Creighton University, and in those days you could get a college teaching job with just an M.S. degree. So I stayed on at Creighton and taught math full-time. After awhile I came to see that I really would be better off with a Ph.D. and Creighton even helped pay for me to do so at the University of Nebraska. Eventually I got my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota after following my husband around. I had no doubt as a Ph.D. student that I wanted to teach college mathematics, because I had already done so. Eloise Hamann, professor and chairman, department of mathematics and computer science, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA.

From graduate student, to postdoc, to professor:

As an undergraduate I got started in research and really liked it. During my doctoral studies at Colorado State University, I trained undergraduate researchers and also helped get other graduate students started on their respective projects. These activities came naturally to me. As a postdoc in chemistry at Stanford University, I learned a great deal about what it takes to maintain a productive leading edge research group. I was prepared to go either way, industry or academia after my postdoc, but the idea that I could also play a role in developing a teaching, as well as research, program had a lot of appeal to me. Shon Pulley, assistant professor, chemistry department, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO.

From graduate student, to industrial scientist, to professor:

I had been a teaching assistant while working on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I really liked it and always felt that I would return to academia after a period in industry. But, I felt that to know the real world, you had to get into the real world, and there were certain things you could only learn in industry. I worked for IBM for ten years and then decided to apply for professorships. It was a lot of work and it took me over a year to land a position. I know that my industry experience helped me get the job, and that it has helped me in my teaching and research. Kody Varahramyan, associate professor, electrical engineering department, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, LA.

From graduate student, to government scientist, to professor:

I got hooked on research as a graduate student at M.I.T. After I got my Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry, I took a job as a research chemist in the Aeronomy Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado. I had thought about teaching, but the Aeronomy Laboratory, with 30 Ph.D.'s, gave me a lot of freedom to pick and choose the topics I wanted to work on. I worked there for about eight years and then, on a leave of absence from NOAA, I served for two years as an associate program director at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. This brought me to the attention of people in academia and I thought it was time for me to consider both teaching and research. My experience in the government, and particularly at NSF, certainly didn't hurt my application. Mary Anne Carroll, associate professor, department of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, and department of chemistry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

From graduate student to industrial scientist:

I basically felt industry needed more Ph.D.'s. When I graduated in the early 1980's, all my friends were accepting academic positions, but I felt there were real problems in industry that would benefit from people with Ph.D.'s and the analytical skills accompanying such degrees. I really liked the industry pace and the immediate reward system. I haven't regretted it for a minute. Cheryl Shavers, general manager, advanced technology operations, Intel Corporation, Santa Clara, CA.

From graduate student, to professor, to industrial engineer:

I graduated from Wayne State in solid state physics and I wanted to teach in the Northeast, really upper New England. I landed a job as an acting professor of physics at the University of Maine. The university was one of the lowest paying schools in the country and I knew I needed to supplement my income. I obtained a grant from industry for summer research but the university wouldn't let me earn the salary I put down on the grant even though the industrial sponsor was willing to pay it. They said it wasn't fair to the other faculty. That really upset me. I enjoyed my contact with students, but financially I just couldn't make it. So I decided to leave and take a good job in industry in New England and it's worked out very well for me. Dr. Roger Verhelst, senior engineering manager, IBM Corporation, Essex Junction, VT.

From graduate student, to professor, to entrepreneur:

I think the real problem for me was that tenure came too easily and I began to see it as a trap, as a way to retire on the job, and I just couldn't do that. I was a professor of actuarial mathematics at the University of Manitoba. We were a very small department, doing the same thing over and over again. I was becoming obsolete. At age 46 , an opportunity came up in California to consult on a big computer science project and so I took a two-year leave of absence. After two years I started my own company in Silicon Valley and, of course, I didn't go back. It wasn't the weather or anything like that. I liked the university and I liked teaching, but I was getting stale and I had to do something on my own, and I couldn't do it where I was. Dr. S. Amir Bukhari, executive vice president and chief technical officer, Cardinal Technologies, Inc., Sunnyvale, CA.

What can we learn from these stories? For one thing they show us that there are many paths to an academic career, not just ones that go directly from a Ph.D., or even from a Ph.D. followed by a postdoctoral position. They also tell us that there are quite legitimate and rewarding careers with a Ph.D. outside academia, some of which can be achieved after a period as a professor.

Figure 4-1, shows possible paths one might take toward careers in science and engineering. Most students obtain a master's degree before deciding if they want to continue on for a Ph.D. The majority will decide not to continue, but rather to pursue careers in high school or community or technical college teaching, in government or in industry. Still others may decide to work toward a professional degree in law, business, or perhaps medicine. Those who continue for a doctorate, either immediately or after a period in education, government or industry, then have to decide what to do after obtaining their Ph.D. For science Ph.D.'s, the almost universal path is that of a postdoctoral position for a few years prior to seeking a position as a professor or as a scientist in government or industry. Some Ph.D.'s in engineering will do postdocs as well, but their more common approach is to seek professorships or positions in government and industry immediately after obtaining their degree. As the figure shows, one could then remain as a professor or leave and go into government or industry, or vice versa. The figure is not meant to represent all possible options, but it does illustrate the most common paths.

Figure 4-1: Possible paths toward careers in science and engineering

Fig 4.1

In making a decision to study for a Ph.D. and, in the process, possibly preparing for an academic career, you need the right information. You can then factor this information (knowledge) into your assessment of your own interests, needs, capabilities, and strengths. We will look at this process more closely in a later section, but first let's see what's going on with supply and demand.

4.2 Supply and Demand -What's Going on Here?

No one has a crystal ball. Predicting future job opportunities in any field is a little like predicting the stock market or the results of a horse race. However, from where we stand today, we project an abundance of engineering faculty positions well into the next century and a shortage of qualified candidates to fill them. For the past ten years there has been a widely publicized shortage of engineering faculty, and all indications suggest that this shortage will continue. From: An Academic Career; It Could be for You, by Raymond Landis, published by the American Society of Engineering Education, 1989. Job openings for college and university faculty will expand by 23,000, with the best opportunities for professors in business, engineering and science...... There will be a shortage of 7,500 natural scientists and engineers with doctorates by the year 2,000.From, The 100 Best Jobs for the 1990s and Beyond, by Carol Kleiman, Dearborn Financial Publishing, Inc. 1992. pp. 176-77.

Sounds terrific, but wait!

Ask graduate students about the job market. In scores of disciplines the answers will be much the same: They are finding that advertised positions at little-known colleges attract hundreds of applicants, the first 100 being from Ivy League post-doctoral students. How can this be? As recently as 1990, we were reading reports written by distinguished educators predicting a shortage of professors throughout the 90's. Heeding these predictions we encouraged our best students to go to graduate school, and they followed our advice, swelling graduate enrollment to record numbers. Now they - and we - are reaping a harvest of bitterness and embarrassment.From; Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 1994 by Shirley Hershey Showalter Down in the trenches they call it "The Myth." It's the idea, which started to make the rounds around 1987, that the nation faced a shortage of scientists. A wave of retirements in academia, plus burgeoning demand for scientists and engineers in high-tech industry, would create a short-fall of 675,000 scientists and engineers, crippling industrial competitiveness and threatening national security. Heeding the nation's call (and lured by a vision of recruiters beating down their dormitory doors) students labored through organic chemistry and differential equations to earn a bachelor's degree in science and in many cases, pushed on to graduate school. Now "The Myth" has met reality, and reality bites."From: "No Ph.D.'s Need Apply," Newsweek, December 5, 1994. Sharon Begley with Lucy Shackelford in Washington and Adam Rogers

Figure 4-2 shows some recent headlines that capture the concern and frustration many feel about the present situation.

Figure 4-2: Recent headlines regarding the academic job market

Fig. 4.2

So what's going on here? Clearly there has been a significant change in just a few years in both the supply and demand for full-time tenure-track positions in science and engineering. How did this happen, and why did it come as such a surprise?

In a pure market economy the demand for science and engineering professors would be proportional to the number of students taking science and engineering courses plus the number doing science and engineering research in graduate school. This demand, in turn, would depend on the number of students enrolled in higher education, the number of those required to take science and engineering courses, and the number who wish to do so because they are majoring in science, engineering, or related fields. It is among the latter group that there is the most variation. At the undergraduate level, this number ebbs and flows over a period of years, often in response to the perceived need for such graduates in industry. However, since it takes four or five years to obtain a bachelor's degree, the supply of science and engineering graduates is often out of phase with the demand. The number of graduate students choosing to pursue academic careers is also related to the perceived supply and demand for professors, and here the demand is also often out of phase with the actual supply.

Of course a true market economy doesn't operate in an academic environment and so the picture is more complicated. The increase or decrease in the number of science and engineering majors does not necessarily result in an increase or decrease in the funds available to support faculty. Even in private schools, the fraction of tuition going to supporting the institution is often less than half the total operating budget, and it is much less than this for public institutions. Furthermore, such tuition income is only roughly distributed to departments in proportion to the number of students taking courses in such departments. Add to this factor, the matter of how faculty hiring contracts are set, tenure, faculty retirement rules, and distribution of funds among departments, and you have the case where faculty are not simply hired, or fired, in direct response to increasing or decreasing enrollments in a given field.

There are reasons to believe the supply, even back in the late 1980's, was not as insufficient as argued since the number of Ph.D.'s has been increasing steadily over the last 20 years. [8] There is no question that it has increased over the last half dozen years, for both predictable and unpredictable reasons.

The very predictions of a shortage in the late 1980's led to the expected result; an increase in the number of students entering Ph.D. programs. As David Goodstein, vice provost at the California Institute of Technology, puts it:

Even just the rumor that there might be academic jobs at the end of the decade prompted a large increase in the enrollment of American students in graduate school. The problem solved itself instantly if there was going to be a problem, but it was never going to be a problem. [9]

Furthermore, as companies downsized in the early 1990's, demand for all types of degree holders dropped and this drop encouraged some undergraduates to stay in school and continue for advanced degrees.

Supply can also be affected by events that for the most part could not have been anticipated. For example, when the Tineneman Square uprising took place in April 1989, most of the relatively large number of Chinese mathematics Ph.D. students in the United States applied for, and received, political asylum, allowing them to stay in the U.S. indefinitely. The granting of political asylum resulted in a considerable bulge in the supply of mathematics graduates looking for professorships. Similarly, when the Soviet Union broke up, a number of senior Ph.D. mathematicians, some with 50 or more publications, became available. Many of these people were delighted to take jobs in the U.S. at assistant professor ranks and salaries. Both of these events had a smaller, although still significant, impact in other areas of science and engineering.

Change in demand can also manifest itself in unpredictable ways. The launching of Sputnik in the late 1950's and the Star Wars program of the mid- 1980's are two examples. In the late 1980's a wave of retirements was predicted based on the hiring of professors in the 1950's and 60's. However, unanticipated changes in retirement laws resulted in a delay in the expected retirement of many of these professors. Yet,, all of these people will eventually retire, die or otherwise leave the profession. By the year 2008, nearly half the 595,000 full-time college faculty members in the nation are likely to retire. These retirements should also coincide with an increase in college enrollments predicted by some demographers. For example, California alone predicts an increase in college enrollments of some 455,000 students by the year 2005. [10] Yet, for the reasons outlined in Chapter 1, not all retiring teachers will be replaced by full-time, tenure-track professors. [11] Also, it is not clear what impact increases in productivity via advances in communications and other technologies will have on the demand for professors.

Another problem is that the ground is shifting in all areas of employment for science and engineering Ph.D.'s. This fact is summed up in a recent report of the National Research Council's Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP):

Hence, the three areas of primary employment for Ph.D. scientists and engineers - universities and colleges, industry, and government - are experiencing simultaneous change. The total effect is likely to be vastly more consequential for the employment of scientists and engineers than any previous period of transition has been. [12]

In light of the above oversupply some have advocated reducing the number of Ph.D.'s by specifically limiting the enrollment of graduate students in science and engineering. A few schools have indeed instituted what Roman Czujko of the American Institute of Physics, calls, "graduate student birth control", with Cornell University going the furthest by taking only 19 instead of its typical 40 physics Ph.D. students. [13]

However, most schools don't have much of an incentive to reduce their graduate student populations. Kevin Aylesworth, theoretical physicist and founder of the Young Scientists Network, asserts that, "Because advisors depend on graduate students to put in many hours in their labs, they don't want to discourage graduate students from their narrow task of research. [14]

Others have argued against artificial limitations on supply, noting that it won't help those now seeking jobs and that a better approach is to seek good advice followed by an application of the free market. The COSEPUP study referred to earlier concludes:

Nevertheless, we see no basis for recommending across-the-board limits on enrollment for three reasons: First, conditions differ greatly by field and subfield. Second, we believe that an extensive, disciplined research experience provides valuable preparation for a wide variety of nontraditional careers for which scientific and technical expertise is relevant. Third, limiting actions would have little immediate aggregate impact even if they could be orchestrated effectively. Instead, we believe that our recommendations of greatly improved career information and guidance will enhance the ability of the system to balance supply and demand. When the employment situation is poor, better-informed students will be able to pursue options other than a Ph.D.; when the market is expanding, students will be able to move more flexibly and rapidly in the direction of employment demand." [15]

It is also important not make the mistake of assuming that just because supply exceeds demand, that there is no demand. We are always going to need new professors. In fact the latest predictions call for a constant academic hire rate of 5 percent for at least the next 15 years. [16] Yet, given the unreliability of any prediction, the approach for you to take is a conservative one that assumes there will be no decrease in the supply of graduates seeking academic positions and no increase in the demand for such positions.

Probably the best advice comes from Joseph S. Merola, director of graduate education for the chemistry department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Speaking specifically of science, but in terms also applying to engineering, he notes:

I think science as a career is still a good choice. But if you view a Ph.D. in the same way that you view a vocational school - that it's going to give you some skills and those skills are going to be marketable - that's a big mistake. You have to go into science because almost from the day you were born you found yourself investigating, you found yourself being curious, you found yourself playing in the lab or building things, and this is exactly what you want to do with your life. So long as you have that internal motivation, science is a good career. [17]

As note above, there are plenty of interesting and worthwhile things you can do in science and engineering without a Ph.D., but there are some things, such as becoming a professor, for which a Ph.D. is almost always essential. If these are the things you think you want to do, then by all means, go for it! However, do so with versatility and flexibility so as to maximize your chances of success. Developing a strategy that will help you do just that is the subject of the next section.

4.3 The Three-Pronged Preparation Strategy

A strategy, or overall plan, for achieving your goals is necessary because you have limited time, energy, and material resources. The plan should be flexible enough to allow you to explore different possibilities and at the same time prevent you from running into too many dead ends. It should also allow you to assess progress toward your goals and to make necessary adjustments along the way. A good strategy gives you a feeling of accomplishment as well as a reference point during your journey, often at times when you need it the most. Also, as noted in Part I, fundamental changes are taking place in academia with respect to teaching, research and other forms of scholarship. Having a strategy that helps prepare you for these changes can be particularly valuable.

The strategy proposed here has three components: (1) Breadth-On-Top-Of- Depth; (2) Next-Stage; and (3) Multiple-Option, as shown in Figure 4-3. Each approach complements the other and all can be carried out simultaneously during your graduate student and postdoc periods. Let's take a look at each of these approaches in detail.

Figure 4-3: Three-part preparation strategy

Fig. 4.3


In the Breadth-On-Top-Of-Depth approach, you seek to place your developing expertise in a broad context. By doing so you are better able to see connections between your work and that of others, to make a more compelling case for your own contribution, and to be able to develop related areas of depth should the situation call for it.

One way to look at the concept is to imagine a capital "T." Here, depth is represented by the stem of the "T" and breadth by the cross bar. The first thing to understand about this concept is what it is not. Breadth-On-Top-Of- Depth does not mean breadth in place of depth, nor does it mean breadth over depth in the sense that breadth is more important than depth. Breadth-On- Top-Of-Depth means breadth in addition to depth. Developing depth, be it in a research area, another form of scholarship, or the teaching of a particular course, is essential to academic success. You need to be known for something, and that something needs to be both important and unique. The last thing you want to be is "a mile wide and an inch deep." However, there are at least three good reasons for developing breadth in addition to depth. First, by increasing your knowledge and exposure to related areas, you create the possibility of developing additional areas of expertise; "drilling multiple holes," as one faculty member put it. Second, by knowing what's going on in related areas you increase the opportunities for collaboration in ways that can enhance your own scholarship. Finally, by placing your work in a larger context, you give it greater meaning and make it more compelling to a larger audience, which in turn makes it easier to justify and support.

As we will see in the next two chapters, the concept of Breadth-On-Top-Of- Depth applies to all areas of research and teaching, not just to the choice of a specific research topic. By way of illustration, consider your choice of a research advisor. As we will see in Chapter 5, no matter who you end up "choosing" as your advisor, this one person will have strengths and limitations with respect to managerial style, knowledge of the field, and contacts with industry and government. In seeking Breadth-On-Top-Of-Depth you will want to identify "complementary" advisors, one or more of whom may be in industry or at another institution. These additional advisors can make up for deficiencies always found in any single advisor. Also, by choosing to work with complementary advisors, you broaden your experience and your exposure to opportunities that would otherwise not be possible.


In the Next-Stage approach, you think ahead, look ahead, and to some degree act ahead of the stage you (and your future competition) are currently occupying. By doing so, you not only demonstrate your willingness to assume the role of the position you are seeking, but also your readiness to do so. Just as most of the best graduate students began taking graduate courses and/or conducting research as college seniors, you need to begin doing some of the things professors do while you are still a graduate student and postdoc. Today it is not enough to be outstanding in your current job, you must also demonstrate that you can be successful in the next job for which you want to apply by actually performing in advance some of the activities and responsibilities that are part of that job.

Below are some areas in which demonstrating this "next-stage" competence would be important. As we will see in the next two chapters, no one expects you to demonstrate all of them. However, doing at least some of them will distinguish you from most of your competition, and within limits, the more you can do the better.

  • Research - In addition to having identified a dissertation or a postdoc research project that is compelling as opposed to just interesting, look for ways to engage in cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary activities with faculty and students from other areas or departments.


  • Technical reviewing - Find opportunities, both formal and informal, often for you to review papers, grants, and proposals written by others.


  • Proposal writing - In addition to reviewing the proposals of others and contributing sections to your advisor's proposals, write your own proposals and grant applications for research that you want to do as a professor.


  • Supervision of other students - As you advance in your development as a graduate student or postdoc, find ways to play a more formal role in the supervision of other students, both undergraduate and graduate.


  • Publishing - Coauthorship is fine, but make sure you publish at least one article in which you are the first author.


  • Presentations at conferences - Establish a record of giving technical presentations at conferences in which faculty and industrial researchers are present.


  • Relations with industry - Visit various research sites and give technical presentations, use equipment, samples, and other industry resources in your research, conduct joint investigations, publish with industrial collaborators, and consider internships and other forms of employment with industry or government laboratories.


  • Teaching - Plan to acquire at least some experiences beyond those of a typical TA, such as giving lectures, covering sections of a class or even taking full responsibility for a course.

The key steps in the Next-Stage approach are to ask questions (think ahead), make observations (look ahead), and acquire experiences (act ahead) by putting yourself in the right places at the right times and tuning your antenna to the gathering of the right information. You can do this in a variety of settings, such as classrooms, laboratories, faculty offices, staff meetings, seminars (particularly with guest speakers from other schools), professional conferences, private discussions with students and faculty, and during visits to industrial and government R&D facilities. In all cases, the key question is: Am I likely to encounter this situation as a professor, or future industrial scientist or engineer, and if so, what can I learn from it that will help to better prepare me for such a role?

The Next-Stage approach involves actively seeking experiences that you are likely to encounter in the future and we will look at a number of them in greater detail in Chapters 5 and 6.


In the Multiple-Option approach, you prepare concurrently for possible careers in academia, government and industry. There are four reasons why you should consider doing so:

(1) At this point you probably don't know enough about all the things you can do with a Ph.D. to zero in exclusively on any one of them.

(2) By preparing for more than one possibility you significantly increase your chances of professional employment after your graduation or postdoctoral experience.

(3) By doing things that will make you more attractive to industry and government you will, paradoxically, make yourself more attractive to academia. This increased attraction occurs because most colleges and universities want science and engineering faculty who can interact effectively with the other two sectors.

(4) A corollary to (2) and (3), is that with the increase in part-time faculty positions, an industry/government career option can allow you to accept such part-time teaching while keeping open the possibilities of long-term academic positions at a later date.

While most beginning graduate students have little accurate knowledge of what it is like to work in the various employment sectors, many have preset ideas that prevent them from considering options that might be quite beneficial. By exploring multiple options and not making up your mind too soon, you avoid the mistake of not pursing an academic career when, if you had additional information, you would have chosen to do so. You also avoid the reverse: choosing to pursue an academic career when, if you had additional information, you would have decided otherwise.

As someone considering an academic career, you have a particular advantage. You have seen your future profession in action throughout your undergraduate and graduate study. However, what you've seen is only a portion of the professional life of a faculty member, and one purpose of the three-pronged strategy is to help you learn as much as possible about the rest before making a final decision.

In describing the rewards of an academic career, Ray Landis, dean of engineering and technology at California State University, Los Angeles, sent a survey to the nation's engineering deans asking this question: "If you were to talk with one of your best undergraduate students, what would you tell him or her are the rewards of a faculty career?" The responses, ranked in order of their frequency, were:

(1) Joys of teaching/Rewards of working with students

(2) Freedom/Flexibility

(3) Work environment

(4) Rewards of research

(5) Variety of work

(6) Financial rewards

(7) Lifelong learning

(8) Job security [18]

It would have been interesting had Landis also asked the deans what they thought were the least rewarding aspects of a faculty career.

Richard Bube, former chairman of the materials science and engineering department at Stanford University thinks that much of the above is pure myth. As he puts it:

An idealized view of a career as an engineering or science professor at a major research university involves quickly earning tenure, spending time helping young minds develop, and measuring personal success by the maturation of one's students. One participates in a community dedicated to truth and does research in its pursuit, studying problems of personal interest. Safe in an 'Ivory Tower,' one has time to think and be absorbed by scholarly pursuits, enjoying the chance to work one-on-one with students. [19]

Even though Bube's comments apply to research universities, and Landis' results cover a broader spectrum of schools, the two contrasting views raises important questions about what is real and what is rhetoric in statements about the life of science and engineering professors.

Similar misunderstandings can apply to positions in government and industry. In some fields, such as computer science, electrical engineering, chemistry, geology and certain areas of biology, there is a history of Ph.D.'s accepting positions outside academia, and consequently a greater understanding of what these positions are like. In other science and engineering fields industry positions are much less common and attitudes about such options reflect this lack of experience. As William Jaco, of the American Mathematical Society, notes: "It is important to change the traditional view that the only job worth having is in academia. The culture of the science and math community considers anything short of academic employment a failure. We have to change that." [20]

As one industrial research manager recently observed:

Most recent graduates, particularly those who have not summer- interned, do not have the foggiest idea of what industrial research is all about. Some even think that using or developing technology to do something useful is not research and if it is a product that makes a profit, is even slightly dishonorable. [21]

However, Ph.D.'s are increasingly finding employment outside universities and more and more are in types of positions that they had not expected to occupy. [22] Figure 4-4 contains some recent headlines that make this point.

Figure 4-4: Recent headlines regarding the industrial job market for science and engineering Ph.D.s.
Fig. 4.4

With the Multiple-Option approach, you are encouraged to gain a variety of skills applicable to many sectors of Ph.D. employment. According to the Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy report, this greater versatility can be promoted on two levels:

On the academic level, students should be discouraged from over- specializing. Those planning research careers should be grounded in the broad fundamentals of their fields and be familiar with several subfields. Such breadth might be much harder to gain after graduation.

On the level of career skills, there is value in experiences that supply skills desired by both academic and nonacademic employers, especially the ability to communicate complex ideas to nonspecialists and the ability to work well in teams. Off-campus internships in industry or government can lead to additional skills and exposure to authentic job situations. [23]

As noted earlier, one advantage of the Multiple-Option approach is that by making yourself attractive to industry, you simultaneously make yourself more attractive to many academic institutions. At first this dual attraction may seem counterintuitive. How can industry with its focus on shorter-term applied research be compared with academia and its focus on longer-term theoretical understandings? In spite of the tensions created by such differences, industry and academia need each other more than ever. Having faculty with a knowledge of industry who can work at the intersections of these domains is becoming more, not less, attractive to academic institutions, including many at the Research I and II levels.

4.4 Vignette #4: A Ph.D. Career in Industry

Academic positions are not the only possibilities for those with Ph.D.'s' in science or engineering. In the following vignette we look at a path that has led to a very successful career in industry.

Cheryl L. Shavers 
Intel Corporation

"I haven't regretted for a moment my decision to go into industry," says Dr. Cheryl Shavers, the general manager of the Advanced Technology Operation in the Technology and Manufacturing Group at Intel Corporation in Santa Clara, California. But, that is certainly not what all her friends were doing with their Ph.D.'s from Arizona State University (ASU) in the early 1980's. "Most of the people I went to school with wanted to become professors. I saw many of them putting their lives on hold with low paying postdocs, in effect taking the low risk, easy way out," comments Shavers. "That wasn't for me. I wanted to get going, get back to industry where I could make things happen."

Growing up in the black community on Phoenix's South Side, Shavers came to realize that of the few women she knew who went to college, most became either nurses or teachers; that was the expectation. However, even at an early age, only doing what was "expected" was not one of Shaver's characteristics.

After observing how the police investigated a tragic homicide in her neighborhood, Shavers became intrigued with the possibility of becoming an forensic scientist. She did extremely well in math and science in high school and after graduation enrolled in a criminal justice program at a local community college. She soon discovered, however, that to actually work in a crime laboratory you needed a background in science, particularly chemistry, and so she switched her major. "This was a life-saver for me," she says. "Chemistry was a lot harder than criminal justice, but it made all the difference in the world in terms of my options." Shavers also discovered after a summer internship with the Phoenix police department, that she didn't want to work solely in an environment that imposed so many restrictions and provided such limited promotional opportunities.

After earning her bachelor of science degree in chemistry in 1976, she took a job at Motorola's Semiconductor Sector in Phoenix , Arizona, where she had a set of experiences that strongly impacted her future career. In the mid 1970's, Motorola required new college graduates like Shavers to take graduate courses at a local university while they were working for the company. Shavers began by taking MBA courses, but found them less than challenging. For intellectual stimulation more than anything else, she took a graduate course in thermodynamics in the chemistry department. Her professor soon recognized her potential and offered her a fellowship to study toward a doctorate in solid state chemistry.

By this time Shavers was also noticing a situation at Motorola that would impact her decision to return to industry after completing her doctorate. Most of the people she worked with were either young, enthusiastic, but naive start-ups like herself, or very much older employees who seemed to lack the energy and drive of her younger colleagues. There were few experienced, intellectually strong mentors with advanced degrees who younger science and engineering graduates could look up to. Shavers wanted to become such a person while still making a contribution to technology.

So, she left her $15,000 a year job at Motorola in 1978 for a $3,300 a year fellowship at ASU. "Most of my colleagues thought I was crazy," she says, "but I saw this as a temporary move, as a way to get the credentials I needed to return to industry and have the influence I wanted." Shavers loved the graduate student experience but wanted to get through quickly. Three and a half years later she left ASU with her Ph.D.

Shavers then took a job as a semiconductor process development engineer at Hewlett-Packard Company in Cupertino, California. A couple of years later this led to a job at Hewlett-Packard headquarters as a patent agent. Subsequently, Shavers held positions as a factory manager at Wiltron Company in Mountain View, California and as a thin films application manager at Varian Associates in Palo Alto, California. "Varian taught me a lot about being a manager and about a high-pressure business environment," comments Shavers. "I did well but it left me emotionally drained."

In 1987, Shavers was recruited by a Varian customer, Intel Corporation, as a member of the technical staff of the Components Research group in Santa Clara, California. In her current position as general manager, she investigates future generation devices for PC platforms as well as peripheral chipsets that fit into Intel's strategic wafer investment objectives. She also participates in numerous university outreach, as well as community, programs. "Now," she says, "I am in a position, and at a time in my life, where I can fulfill my original goals of mentoring younger employees in the technical and managerial challenges of high-technology companies." "One of my personal obligations," says Shavers, "is to provide industrial soft landing pads for students and interns who come to Intel." She works with these new employees to help them learn how to navigate the ropes, to see that exciting contributions can be made in industry by people with Ph.D.'s who are not that much older than themselves.

Shavers doesn't like the term "role model," although as the only senior level black female Ph.D. in the company, being seen as one is inevitable. She does consider herself an example of what's possible for bright, ambitious college graduates. And it is clear that, while Shavers may have decided not to become a professor, if her fellow ASU graduates could look at her now, they would certainly see a teacher.

4.5 Summary

We began this chapter by pointing out that the decision to pursue an academic career is a consequential one with long-term implications. It must be seen in the context of the more basic decision to study for a Ph.D., since such a degree is a prerequisite for virtually all academic positions in four-year colleges and universities. We examined the basis for an academic career decision, including a detailed look at the supply and demand situation in science and engineering. For those of you who wish to pursue a Ph.D. we proposed a three- pronged strategy that will prepare you for an academic career while maintaining options for careers in government and industry. The three elements of this strategy, Breadth-On-Top-Of-Depth, Next-Stage, and Multiple- Option, can be applied to all aspects of your preparation activities. We concluded the chapter with a vignette describing a successful career path in industry for a woman with a Ph.D. in chemistry.

4.6 References

[1] Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers., Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996, p. 2-3.

[2] Ibid., p. ES-8.

[3] P. B. Boyce, "Should we limit the number of astronomy students?" Mercury, the Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, vol. 23, no. 5, p. 8, September - October 1994.

[4] "The Doctor of Philosophy Degree: A Policy Statement," in Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996, p. 1-3. Copyright @ 1996 by The National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission.

[5] R. Finn. "Discouraged job-seekers cite crisis in science career advice," The Scientist, vol. 9, no. 11, p. 1, May 29, 1995.

[6] J. C. Fleet, "Young researchers' disillusionment bodes ill for future of science," The Scientist, vol. 9, no. 11, p.1, May 29, 1995.

[7] P. J. Feibelman, A Ph.D. Is Not Enough, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993. p. 13.

[8] J.C. Fleet, "Young researchers' disillusionment bodes ill for future of science," The Scientist, vol. 9, no. 11, p. 10, May 29, 1995.

[9] Ibid., p. 10.

[10] "Colleges face revenue gap," The San Jose Mercury, p. 3B, June 5, 1995,

[11] S. Mydans, "Part-time college teaching rises as do worries," New York Times, p. A17, January 4, 1995,

[12] Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers., Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996, pp. E-2-3. Copyright @ 1996 by The National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission.

[13] S. Negley with L. Shackelford and A. Rogers, "No Ph.D.'s need apply," Newsweek, p. 25, December 5, 1994.

[14] R. Finn. "Discouraged job-seekers cite crisis in science career advice," The Scientist, vol. 9, no. 11, p. 10, May 29, 1995.

[15] Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers., Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995, p. ES-8. Copyright @1996 by The National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission.

[16] E. Goldman, "Fac sen: grad students be wary of poor market," Stanford Daily, vol. 207, no. 60, p. 6, May 19, 1995.

[17] R. Finn. "Discouraged job-seekers cite crisis in science career advice," The Scientist, vol. 9, no. 11, p. 10, May 29, 1995.

[18] R. B. Landus, An Academic Career, It Could Be For You, Washington, DC: American Society of Engineering Education, 1989, pp. 4-7.

[19] R. Bube., "Expectations vs reality in engineering faculty careers," Engineering Education, vol. 79, no. 1, pp. 33-36, January/February 1990.

[20] S. Negley with L. Shackelford and A. Rogers, "No Ph.D.'s need apply," Newsweek, p. 25, December 5, 1994.

[21] Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers., Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996, p. 2-20.

[22] Ibid., p. 6-3.

[23] Ibid., p. ES-4.

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