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What jobs can you get with a Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Science?

March 29, 2011

Post contributed by Matthew Pritchard, Associate Professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Cornell.

What jobs can you get with a Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Science?

You would think that universities would be able to easily answer this question, but actually not many track what their graduate student alumni in different subfields are doing 5, 10, or 20 years after they graduate. I find the lack of information frustrating as I try to advise undergraduate and graduate students about career options.

I think most students are getting a biased perspective on what our alumni really do because they have only been exposed to academic settings and they are advised by people like me who only have worked in academia. This is why websites like this one with profiles of scientists with a variety of different careers are so valuable.

This post is a challenge to compile information and statistics from a variety of universities about what graduate student alumni are doing and make it readily available to prospective graduate students. I will get the ball rolling with the analysis of alumni from a single university over a limited period of time as well as mention some data I found from three other universities.

Current students can take a leading role in compiling this information. A group of Caltech graduate students in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences compiled a list of all 200 Ph.D. alumni from that university in the fields of geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and planetary science between 1987 and 2004. Because few terminal M.S. degrees are awarded at Caltech, we can’t discuss the employment opportunities with that degree here, but perhaps useful statistics can be compiled elsewhere.

Before discussing the results, it is important to discuss the limits of my data. All scientific disciplines evolve with time and past patterns of alumni employment might not reflect the future. For example, there is anecdotal evidence that there were few planetary science jobs in academia in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but that the field might be growing now with new opportunities in the field of extrasolar planets. Another limitation of the available data of Earth and Planetary Science alumni is that planetary scientists get their degrees from other types of departments (Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, etc.) and the employment trends of these fields might be different. Finally, graduates from universities in different geographic areas could be affected by employment patterns in that region – perhaps there is a dominant industry or employer in certain states. We will assess these limits to the extent possible by comparing the Caltech data to three online alumni employment databases from other universities. These are: the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona spanning 1965-2011 and including 170 individuals, the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University from 1997-2009 including 63 individuals in all fields of astronomy with 17 in planetary science, and the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at UCLA from 2000-2010 with 65 Ph.D. and 11 M.S. alumni in a variety of fields including planetary science.

Table 1 is a summary of the results showing the number of Caltech Ph.D.s in each subfield, percent that are tenure track faculty, percent in any career in science (industry, government, academia, consulting, etc. — including tenure track faculty), percent working in a mostly non-scientific field like publishing, finance, software development, and percent with unknown employment. The raw list of alumni names, graduation year, thesis topics, Ph.D. advisor, and current job titles are available at the following webpage:

Table 1. Current employment of Caltech Ph.D.’s (1987-2004)

  Total # Graduates % on Tenure Track % in Science % Non-Science % Unknown
Geology 47 45 79 6 16
Geochemistry 19 42 79 0 21
Geophysics 73 38 81 12 7
Planetary Science 61 21 83 15 2

One striking result is that across all subfields, upwards of 80% of Caltech Ph.D. alumni in Earth and Planetary Science are working in a scientific field. The companies and organizations these alumni work for are diverse in their geographic location and objectives, but are not necessarily representative of all potential career paths in Earth and Planetary Science. For example, there are only 5 Earth Science alumni (4%) working in the energy industry while other universities have a much larger percentage of alumni working in this job sector.

Another conclusion I draw from Table 1 is that the majority of Caltech alumni from 1987-2004 are employed in careers outside of academia. Furthermore, the percentage of planetary science alumni in tenure track faculty positions is about one half of those in geology, geochemistry and geophysics during this time period. It should also be noted that several of these tenure track Caltech planetary science alums are no longer engaged in planetary research but are now atmospheric scientists.

The majority of alumni from the other universities during the time periods with available data also have careers outside of academia: at the University of Arizona, 17% of planetary science alumni (26 of 170) are in tenure track positions; at Cornell, about 22% of all astronomy alumni are in tenure track faculty positions including 35% (6 of 17) of the planetary science alumni; at UCLA, 20% of the Ph.D. alumni (13 out of 65) are in tenure track faculty positions. Because of the different time periods spanned by the alumni databases, the percentages are not directly comparable between institutions, but we include the numbers here anyway for reference. Recent alumni are usually been employed in one or more temporary postdoctoral positions before finding permanent employment. Thus, most recent alumni in the Arizona, UCLA, and Cornell lists are employed as postdocs. The less up-to-date Caltech alumni list shows that 7 years or more after graduation, there are no known alumni still in postdoctoral positions.

The low percentage of alumni in tenure track positions in planetary science relative to other Earth Science fields is not surprising. When I was a prospective graduate student deciding between geophysics and planetary science, a faculty member told me, “You have a greater probability of eventually becoming a professor if you choose geophysics, for the elementary reasons that there are far more departments that do geophysics than do planetary science.”

I know from reading graduate student applications at Cornell that there are many prospective students that are not aware of the statistics and have set a tenure track faculty position as their primary career goal. There is of course no problem with setting this goal – there are tenure track jobs available each year – but I am afraid students set this goal without information as to their most likely career opportunities. I know many Ph.D.’s who have felt frustrated at some point of their careers because of the lack of tenure track faculty opportunities. On a more positive note, more than 80% of Caltech Ph.D.’s are employed in a scientific field that they most likely enjoy.

Based on this analysis, what advice would I give prospective graduate students?

1) If you seek a tenure track faculty job, be aware of the low number of these positions, but do not get discouraged. There are jobs out there and there are several things that you can do to increase your competitiveness and I suggest the following resources. I hope readers will suggest more!

2) No matter what your career aspirations, you should spend time learning about careers outside of academia. These careers are challenging, important, and fun, and your best bet for employment. Even if you become a tenure track faculty member, you’ll be better able to give advice to your our students someday if you know something about these careers. There are lots of good resources, here are a few:

  • Look over the list of alumni job titles and employers;
  • Profiles of the 51 Women in Planetary Science;
  • Put Your Science to Work. The Take-Charge Career Guide of Scientists by Peter S. Fiske (2nd Ed. 2001, 179pp.);
  • Alternative Careers in Science, ed. Cynthia Robbins-Roth, 1998; and
  • Rethinking science as a career: perceptions and realities in the physical sciences, S. Tobias, D. Chubin, K. Aylesworth, Tucson: Research Corp, 1995.

3) Begin thinking about career prospects as a prospective student, not when you are about the graduate. Ask questions of graduate schools that you are applying to about what their alumni do. Talk to potential graduate advisors about the career prospects in that subfield and where graduates from that particular lab are employed. In any case, be proactive – it is your career!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2011 2:31 pm

    Based on the report and comments here, I’ve added a section to our toolbar at the top of the site: Careers. Additions and suggestions for improving the page are welcome.

  2. geochem-mom permalink
    March 30, 2011 12:14 pm

    I recently looked at the Status of the Geoscience Workforce document published online by AGI and found some very helpful information on general employment and salary data for BS, MS, and PhD graduates that I will use for advising both undergraduates and graduate students.

    Click to access 2009-StatusReportSummary.pdf

    and more details in

    Click to access 2009-EmploymentSectors.pdf

    • March 31, 2011 9:56 am

      Care to pull out a couple tidbits and contribute a post, GeochemMom? We can also add the studies to our toolbar.


  3. March 29, 2011 7:16 pm

    Thanks for the great post! Info about Wash U. Alumni can be found here:

    1979 is the oldest one I see… and there are Ph.D.s and A.M.s. Just glancing through it seems similar to you studies where most people are in science still.

    And thanks for giving advice to start considering their options early, it makes total logical sense. There are at least two barriers I can think off, of the top of my head, that I have seen graduate students attempting to find out about alternate careers (besides academia) run into:
    1) Most professors that might be advising graduate students have only been in academia,
    2) In many cases graduate students feel that they might not have the same respect from professors if they indicate interest in something other than becoming a professor at an R1 institution. Not saying it should be this way, but I have seen it happen quite a bit.

    Thus, it is helpful that you gave some suggestions about how to find out about alternate careers, like asking before you even accept at a given school what happens to their alumni etc.

    And that is why is so great to have blogs and outside resources like this! Maybe we can even come up with some other suggestions for getting around these barriers…

    • March 29, 2011 9:08 pm

      Kelsi, I think you’re definitely right — professors often don’t know how to advise students interested in other careers, and students are (rightly) hesitant to ask about them.

      One great and local source of information about alternative careers is the graduate school office on every campus and the programs that they put on each year. There’s also university career centers, chock-full of information and books on careers in all kinds of fields — and alumni that will happily give “informational interviews” about non-academic careers.

      And yes, of course professional organizations like AGU and AIP, the books Matthew mentioned, online resources like Science Online, and here occasionally as well. Would it be helpful to have a list of these from the top tab?

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