What is the future of a PhD student?

Answer by Rishabh Jain:

There are two interesting ways to think about this question:
  1. What happens to PhDs later in life?
  2. What is the future of PhD students?
The first is easier (since it requires less viewing into my crystal ball). Unfortunately it is somewhat less exciting. The short story is very few PhDs get academic jobs. This article from the Atlantic looks at US NSF data, and the author finds less than 20% of PhDs get academic jobs (across fields).
Now onto the crystal ball question… what does the future hold for PhD students?
Here is a short list of what I think the future will look like:
  1. More holistic training: Given the increasing rate at which we produce PhDs, the labor market will demand broader skills from PhDs and expect more and more preparation for incoming newly minted researchers. So universities will have to train researchers more holistically, including simple things like grant writing classes, presentation classes, journal editorial processes, and similar. Meaning, we will move to actually training people for the job, not just the research.
  2. More career guidance: Right now PhDs are basically left to fend for themselves at the end of the degree. This is creating a lot of unhappiness and anxiety in newly minted PhDs. So eventually, this major hole will have to get filled by someone, whether the university or an external body. Helping to place PhDs in jobs where they can apply their skills. I am seeing this happen already in the private sector with cool startups like Oystir – The Best Jobs for PhDs.
  3. Even more collaboration during grad school: The levels of collaboration during PhDs is growing constantly. It is already known that collaborations improve the quality and impact of researchers work (see more here). So we will see the PhD students doing increasingly collaborative work!
  4. More software tools for PhDs: This is more and more obvious, that research is lagging as an industry in adopting and creating new software and web based tools to increase productivity. We still communicate by word of mouth and group meetings, and write notes in physical books. My own startup OpenLab is a part of this ecosystem trying to improve communication and collaboration within research (do check us out!). Others are doing cool things as well, like TetraScience, creating an IoT platform for labs. These tools will easily make PhDs 5-10x more productive than they are today. Just like what software tools do for business today compared to 10-15 years ago.
  5. Fewer PhDs overall: Sadly, the feedback of employment difficulty after a PhD will eventually mean that we will see a slow down in PhD enrollment and eventually a reduction. Essentially, a correction in the labor market for PhDs has to happen soon. This is especially true given the rise in postdocs everyone knows too well:
Overall, I am highly optimistic for what the future state of the PhD process and student looks like, and am super excited to be a part of that future!

What is the future of a PhD student?


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