Your science in seven words

UPDATED: The Running Hot conference for emerging researchers is underway in Wellington – follow updates via Twitter @smcnz. Last night kicked off with an interesting panel discussion moderated by Radio New Zealand’s science-friendly Nights host, Bryan Crump.

running hot

Crump quizzed three scientists on their areas of research, with included climate change, neuroscience and epigenetics. Before that, outgoing acting CEO Lesley Middleton from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology put up a slightly disturbing slide that caused a lot of discussion among the gathered early-career researchers.

Here’s that diagram Lesley Presented H/T Dr Michael Edmonds for finding it in Igniting Potential. UPDATED: The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology has provided an updated version of the graph which shows only science-related PhDs. The previous version showed all PhDs – 14,148 of them…

career pathway

It showed using arrows of varying thickness illustrating what percentage of PhDs go where after university (if I can get hold of a copy of it I’ll post it). It showed that around 68 per cent of PhDs don’t continue on in research but disappear off into other sectors to do a myriad range of things. Only two per cent will advance through academia to eventually become professors. Many in the room felt the seemingly large exodus of PhDs from academia is a sign that there aren’t enough attractive opportunities in research in New Zealand for those seeking post-doc projects.

Middleton didn’t seem so concerned about it. She said what was more important were the “feedback loops” that saw PhDs going out into industry or Government coming back in contact with academia in some form of collaboration. Her message was that we need to boost this kind of public-private collaboration to make our country more innovative. Fair point, but there was lingering unease in the room at the massive grey arrow diverting 68.8 per cent of qualified PhDs out of research and into the ether.

Prior to that, myself and Science Media Centre colleague Dacia Herbulock again gave researchers tips on communicating their science. This time there was a bit of a twist – after getting researchers to describe their science in one or two sentences, we then got them to repeat the exercise, summing up their science in a maximum of seven words. Here are some of the results…

My personal favourite…

Is Facebook the new-age ‘virtual’ marae?

Some of the others:

Ways people heat and cool their homes

Telling the story of migration between western countries

Technology to help people with brain injuries

How do people have ethical sex

Stopping babies exploding

How we organise knowledge affects what is possible

Telling the stories of merino wool

Nanomaterials as high performance electronic devices

Understand the relationship between structure and function

I develop rehabilitation devices for stroke patients

I want to make a molecular dragon

Transporting people in resource-constrained cities

Torturing shellfish: Using stress to develop understanding

Are we what our mothers eat?

Mysteries of the deep sea.

Disasters: survival of the fittest?

Does earthquake risk influence tourist choices?


  1. Grant Jacobs

    The high-level categories used are listed in the update in my earlier article: “Includes natural and physical sciences; information technology; engineering and related technologies; architecture and building; agriculture, environmental and related studies; health. Excludes areas such as society and culture; education.”

  2. serra

    Stellamcq wrote: “Alison, teaching, management, Ministry-of-whatever wonk jobs likely still use skills learned during the PhD but someone somewhere decided that they didn’t count as science-related. I imagine there is a huge grey blurry area between ’science’ and ‘non-science’ jobs.”

    There are a large number of career paths in government and industry which are directly science related- DoC, MaF, MFish, Intellectual Property, not to mention NIWA, Landcare, and many companies within Primary Industry- horticulture, agriculture. And that is not counting the blurry areas!

    I also wonder if the diagram creators were meaning research.

  3. fionaproffitt

    I also wonder if science communicators are classed as having a career outside science. I happen to think communication is an important part of science. So, as a science writer, I don’t consider myself to have left science, although I have left the coalface of research. I think the people who drew up the diagram are really talking about scientific research, not science.

  4. Alison Campbell

    Yes, I was wondering that 🙂 Also, what’s going on that might cause them to explode in the first place, & necessitate this research???

    I think you have it, Stella. When I finished my PhD (which, I will confess, I sort of wandered into) I ended up going secondary-school teaching for several years. To my uni colleagues, I was ‘lost’ to science. Me, I thought I was helping others to appreciate it 🙂

  5. stellamcq

    Alison, teaching, management, Ministry-of-whatever wonk jobs likely still use skills learned during the PhD but someone somewhere decided that they didn’t count as science-related. I imagine there is a huge grey blurry area between ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ jobs.

    I am an Ecology masters student, still using skills learned in my History undergrad degree!

    I also wonder how many people got a PhD by simply progressing through the system after school, rather than thinking about what comes next? I am currently doing Masters and my plan is to work for a while to find out what I am suited to and get more experience, and only do a PhD if I get bored with my current opportunities and think a PhD will get me where I want to be.

  6. Michael Edmonds

    It would be interesting to perhaps chart the different job opportunities for PhD’s against the different skills/benefits in each area.
    Academia has the advantages of being able to pursue your own research interests, but requires a good sense of what is worthwhile researching.
    Industry often specifies what you are researching which suits some researchers, can have better financial rewards (well at least overseas).
    Government and management positions can suit those with good people skills and an interest in affecting policy at a higher level.
    My own position doing research at a polytechnic gave me academic freedom to pursue areas of research, albeit having to do all the research myself as we don’t have graduate students.
    It has allowed me to dabble in educational research and to do collaborative research with staff at universities. I also had the opportunity in the last few years to move into management and apply my skills there. When I was doing my PhD my main goal was to be a university lecturer but in retrospect my work at CPIT has been far more interesting as I think by nature I am a generalist at heart and my work allows me to mix with colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds. Another thing I noticed when I moved into management from research is that I no longer spend a lot of my spare time keeping up with all of the literature in my specialist areas, but instead can read wider and do things like writing blog entries 🙂

  7. Alison Campbell

    Stella, I know at least some who have moved into the teaching profession. Beyond that, who knows? Company management? Ministry-of-whatever policy wonk? (LOLZ for your professor comment!)

  8. stellamcq

    This does of course assume that to be a professor is the greatest possible pinnacle of achievement as a scientist.
    If that is the entire point of doing a PhD, then something is terribly wrong with the system (too many students, for one). However if professordom is not the entire point of a PhD, then the percieved hierachy is out of whack with the reality (namely professors are a bit too full of themselves 😉

    The loss of PhDs from science is an interesting one. What could they all possibly be going into?

  9. Peter Griffin

    thanks Grant – you were on to it long ago! As you say, similar conclusions reached, would be interesting to benchmark this against other countries – for instance, in Finland, which was endlessly talked about at the NZAS conference, I wonder if more PhDs stay in academia, or conversely, do more go into industry: ie into the bowels of Nokia etc – maybe that’s a better thing for the country overall?

  10. Grant Jacobs

    I posted that diagram as a blog post sometime ago 😉 Readers might be interested in the commentary that ensued. The original diagram was in error. Looking at it quickly, that’s the copy you have. (The general message in the corrected one is the same, but the details differ.) More recently I wrote a post that gathered earlier posts I had written on careers together, which has the correct version of the diagram.

  11. Peter Griffin

    Thanks for the diagram Michael – yeah I think the real dismay from the researchers was that, progressing down the road of academia, as many of them are, the likelihood is that they are more likely than not to leave academia and research behind. I agree with you, I think they need to be more open to the other opportunities out there. I got the same sort of vibe on the Emerging Researchers tour of the universities I did earlier in the year. I asked many scientists what they wanted to do longterm – very few said business/industry type things – they all wanted to get successive research projects going. Good point also about the polytechnics…

  12. Michael Edmonds

    Assuming the diagram you describe is the same one as used in the govt’s Igniting Potential document then I would like to point out that there is no mention of polytechnics in the diagram despite the fact that:
    YES, we do have staff who do research and YES they are mainly PhD graduates
    This seems to be a common oversight by both government and universities when they have conversations about the tertiary sector – they forget to include us!

  13. Michael Edmonds

    Peter, thanks for reporting such an interesting event. It is interesting to hear your description of the response by the audience to the diagram showing only 2% of PhD graduates go on to be professors. However if you think about how many PhD’s are produced by science departments compared to the number of professors in the department it makes perfect sense that the majority of graduates will not attain professorship. From the diagram it looks like another 7% still make it long term in academia.
    Perhaps it is time PhD students stopped thinking that the university academic is the pinnacle of success for a PhD graduate, although given they are taught by university academics there is already an inbuilt bias.

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