Why are STEM students abandoning academic career paths?

Faculty in the STEM fields are powerful forces in shaping engineering and computing education—the profession’s essential source of training and skills development. But even as the number of students pursuing science and engineering doctorates has increased dramatically, there has been a steep decline in candidates interested in pursuing academic careers.

Ebony O. McGee, associate professor of STEM education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development wanted to find out why. She led a multi-institutional research team that examined factors that dissuade engineering and computing doctoral students in the United States from pursuing a career in the professoriate. Their findings are published in International Journal of Doctoral Studies.

McGee and her colleagues surveyed STEM doctoral students, asking them to elaborate about their educational experiences and career aspirations.

Among the subset who indicated they would not pursue an academic career track, researchers found a general lack of interest in the professoriate and “disgust” over the associated pressure-filled norms and culture.

“Respondents were critical of institutional norms that emphasize research (e.g., stress related to grant writing, publishing and promotion as junior faculty),” the authors state in the report.

“Findings support rethinking the outdated faculty model and interchanging it with healthier and more holistic approaches.”

Tenure-track positions have become more difficult to obtain as academia has increasingly relied on non-tenure-track full-time or part-time positions. Meanwhile STEM graduates may be attracted to industry jobs offering higher pay.

In order to attract STEM students to remain on the academic track, the researchers suggest removing the prevailing “secrecy and toxicity” of the tenure and promotion process. They also posit that future research should explore in greater depth the extent to which junior faculty’s experiences in the professoriate influence doctoral students’ and postdoctoral scholars’ attitudes toward working in academia.

Finding ways to improve faculty and doctoral students’ experiences is a first step toward reversing the trend of STEM students abandoning the professoriate. Improving these experiences and perceptions is also important, they say, because they tend to disproportionately affect members of historically underrepresented groups.

This study is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Additional Authors of the report:

Dara E. Naphan-Kingery (Vanderbilt University); Faheemah N. Mustafaa (University of California, Berkeley); Stacey Houston (George Mason University); Portia Botchway (Vanderbilt University) and Jeremy Lynch (Fisk University).


Read “Turned Off from an Academic Career: Engineering and Computing Doctoral Students and the Reasons for Their Dissuasion” in International Journal of Doctoral Studies.


The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.