Plant Science Careers: Survey Summary and Infographic

In 2015, the traditional academic path remains the default and desired path for plant scientists. Further, there is a high degree of uncertainty for current early-career researchers who wish to pursue that traditional path. Those are two big takeaways from the ASPB career survey carried out earlier this year.  Worldwide, over 800 respondents from many career paths responded.

Survey data were analysed by Bear Analytics. Here we present the results of that survey to the ASPB community to further discussion and place it in the context of careers in the broader life sciences community. We hope this data opens up discussions about the many career paths available to plant scientists within and beyond the academy. In the fall ASPB is launching, a networking platform for plant scientists that will provide career and skills resources as well as a forum for discussions about careers in plant science (and much more). We also hope these data demonstrate that studying plants can take you in many different career directions.

ASPB Career Survey Infographic

Most plant scientists reached by ASPB are focused on molecular biology, physiology, genetics, biochemistry, cell biology and genomics. Though these were the top foci of research reported by survey takers, there is a broad representation of research fields including botany, ecology, evolutionary biology, agronomy, and plant pathology.

Plant scientists are motivated by scientific ambitions, personal goals, and the influence of mentors. This underscores both high internal motivation of respondents to pursue science, technology, engineering or math and the critical roles mentors play in sparking mentees to pursue (and stick to) studying plant sciences. Implicit in the latter finding is the need for diverse mentors as one factor in pursuing/persisting in a career is seeing someone similar to you doing it already.

A majority of survey respondents want to pursue research careers, mostly academic research careers. Respondents showed a huge preference for top tier institutions over primarily undergraduate institutions, perhaps reflecting a bias towards ‘name brand’ and large institutions that have greater access to research resources and the perceived ability to make more prestigious scientific contributions at R1 level institutions.

We asked whether survey respondents thought is was realistic to pursue a career in academia and 94% of current tenure track PIs responded in the affirmative. This is not that surprising, as they have direct experience that it is indeed possible. Respondents at other career stages, particularly those in PhD programs and postdocs show the least confidence in being able to achieve that goal.

The stark contrast between current PIs and early career plant scientists suggests different generational views. To many present PhDs and postdocs, peer competition is fierce, funding tight, and succeeding on the tenure track seems the equivalent of winning the lottery. It is fiercer and tighter than in previous generations. It is notable that 46% of PhDs and postdocs still do think the Tenure-track is possible, despite the fact that less than 25% of PhDs are in Tenure-track positions 5 years after their PhDs. From the survey results:

“This vast difference in the perception of a realistic long-term career in academia amounts to a confidence crisis in the next generation of plant biologists.”

Decadal Vision
Unleashing a Decade of Innovation in Plant Science – A Vision for 2015-2025

The survey results underscore The Plant Summit decadal vision (pdf) call for a T-training model that incorporates a breadth of skills as well as depth of study, to improve guidance of early career scientists to better prepare them for a wide array of career paths. Such an approach is likely to take both different, diverse training and better partnerships with non-academic career fields to expose early career scientists to the range of possibilities.

We’re aware that the world needs more plant scientists, but those careers fall mostly outside of academia. Making PhDs and postdocs more adaptable to a rapidly changing career landscape is as important to the future of plant science as investment of research dollars.

The idea that “anything but the tenure track” is failure is a cultural norm that has to end. Johnna Roose talks about this in a blog post sure to resonate with many early career academics.


From early in her post: The elusive career path of many PhDs seems to be filled with the same question as the Velveteen Rabbit in the tale by Margery Williams. “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.

There has been much discussion about what this means for a career in science these days. It used to only mean one thing- a tenure-track position at a research university. However, more often that path is less traveled, only the fantasy of whispered voices among labs of senior members who were fortunate (?) enough to be raptured away to the ranks of assistant professors. The majority of us are still working out what it means to be real in terms of career and still live with ourselves as human beings. I am still on that path, but the way seems to be clearing.”

This blog post, and the idea for this survey originated from two members of the plant science community, Molly Hanlon and Ian Street, a PhD student and a postdoc, respectively, who are currently investigating the career paths that plant science PhDs follow. They are both very active in the plant science community and are working with ASPB to provide input on new programs, activities and tools for that community.

 If you are interested in opportunities to help ASPB & the plant science community grow and thrive – feel free to contact Susan Cato, Director of Digital Strategy & Member Services.

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