James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 21, 2011

Dropout Rates in Academia (In Perspective)

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 12:04 am

A few weeks ago I was reading an article which claimed before the recession seven times as many PhDs were awarded in the biological sciences as there were openings in tenure track positions. Of course in between finishing grad school comes years of post-doc work, but in the end PhDs in must equal PhDs out.

So assuming every PhD graduate wants to be a professor (probably not true) that means even after making it past admissions committees and qualifying exams and thesis defenses, these newly minted PhDs face an 86% washout rate in their quest for a faculty position.

Eighty-seven percent. Let’s put that in context. These are the numbers I turned up with some quick googling:

  • Roughly 10% of marine recruits drop out during basic training
  • Roughly 55% of people going through the training to become army rangers drop out
  • In an average year 70% of the people who start training to be Navy Seals (the folks they sent in when they finally found Osama bin Laden) don’t make it to the end.
  • To actually find a training regime with a higher dropout rate than the road from PhD to Professor I had to go to the wikipedia page of the Pararescue Jumpers — the guys who jump out of the rescue helicopters into enemy territory to rescue the wounded. Their washout rate in 90%.
Now there are all sorts of reasons these numbers aren’t comparable. I think they do a good job of driving home just how long the odds against success are in academia. And this is all based on numbers from before the recessions.
So that’s why I’m lying awake after midnight tonight. How about you?


  1. I think it’s kind of inevitable because if one professor can train say 15 people during his or her career, say one generation, then there would have to be a 15x growth in faculty spots each generation to absorb them. Or another way to look at it is that a typical lab needs 10-20 workers but only one PI.
    But in science at least one’s training can also be used in industry. It would be interesting to know how many people decide to go that route because they have to, as opposed to voluntarily deciding that they don’t want to be a PI.

    Comment by William Nelson — November 21, 2011 @ 10:11 am

  2. James,

    There are other factors to consider in your quest for the post-Ph.D.-permanent-position. The number of publications, accepted grant proposals, classes taught, and administrative duties pursued; will all increase your chances of getting a tenure-track academic or industrial position.

    Everyone’s path is different, but every year there are postings for one or more jobs that specifically fit your expertise and experience at tht moment. The next year, your experience will have changed, so differentjobswill becomeavailable.

    Gettingthe Ph.D. s just the first step.

    Comment by Lincoln Paradox — November 23, 2011 @ 4:52 am

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