A harebrained scheme for science careers training

Last night, I left you with a brief rambling about the point of Ph.D. training in science (tl;dr – to be a scientist; not a PI or a researcher, but simply a scientist) and a flurry of questions on expanding Ph.D. training to become more career-oriented. As promised, here is the continuation: my modest, quite possibly harebrained proposal to make Ph.D. training something more.

Element I – Exposure

As a grad student, I was perilously naive about the state of Ph.D. production and career tracks. As far as I knew, research was the primary way of life for one with a science Ph.D., and the other major option was teaching. I might hear about other career tracks about once a year, during a career development session at a conference. I seriously doubt that I was alone in my limited view of science careers. Early in my postdoc years, when I waded into the online science community, I discovered many scientists whose paths had taken them out of academia and/or research, and I realized that life off the tenure track was the norm, not the exception.

Students should be learning about career paths and job market trends early in training. It should be part of their introduction to grad school. Josh Drew is a faculty member in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University and director of Columbia’s MA in Conservation Biology program. All first year students are required to take a thesis development seminar. Last semester, Dr. Drew covered a wide range of topics: committee selection, research resources, grant writing, and ethics (you can find some of his lecture slides on FigShare). He also thought it important to, per his syllabus for the course, “explore the realities of funding and the post-graduation job market”. He included a lecture on the job market and used social media to invite outside perspectives on science careers.

An intro seminar could easily be done in a single lecture of 60 to 90 minutes a week for one semester. From day one, be honest about the job market. Show the relevant statistics for your field. Use the data available! Professional societies (like American Chemical Society) and funding agencies (see NIH and NSF) have Ph.D. completion and employment data. If your own department has complete data for graduates, put it out there. The point is not to scare new students but to say, “Here is the lay of the land.” Now you get to tell them about the exciting opportunities outside the tenure track or industry research. Bring in 2 or 3 locals and alumni to talk about their careers for a few meetings. In a month, you can cover a lot of possibilities.

Element II – Planning

In terms of career advising in academia, it seems the default assumption is that trainees plan to pursue research careers, and that assumption is often not challenged until late in the game – like around the time you start discussing dissertation writing and defense dates. Although not often fully utilized, completing an individual development plan early during the Ph.D. (say in the second or third year) and revisiting it annually is one way to initiate the discussion of career plans with mentors.

For an IDP to be effective, though, departments and mentors must create an environment where trainees can be honest about their career goals. Too often students and postdocs feel that any path outside tenure track is mocked and disdained, and the truth is, many reactions and behaviors, both subtle and direct, that reinforce this impression. Mentors should be ready and willing to discuss the pros and cons of career tracks but need to remove themselves from the equation. Statements like “I don’t really think you’d be happy doing…” or “I’m not sure that’s what you really want to do…” can shut down discussion pretty quickly.

We also need to be open to talking about alternatives, by which I mean an alternative to whatever your primary career goal may be. Plan A is necessary but not sufficient. The training process in science is long – 4 to 8 years for a Ph.D. then maybe another 2 to 6+ years as a postdoc… We can easily hit a decade of training between completing our undergrad education and beginning a job search. Oh how things can change in a decade – the economy, the market, the funding climate, and the life we have outside the lab. The job we thought we wanted might not be there. Or it might be beyond our reach. Or it may simply not be the job we want anymore. Things change, that’s all. But when things change, we need another plan. We should start thinking about Plan B and Plan C and Plan Q now. We should be able to talk about those plans with colleagues, advisers, and mentors without having our commitment to Plan A questioned.

Of course, the careers for which we’re planning can very quickly expand beyond the experience of our mentors. Most people engaged in training scientists have held one or maybe two types of career positions, i.e. most academics have been academics most of their careers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they’re not going to be the best source of advice for other careers. Guess what, mentors? It’s OK to admit that. It’s simply one reason why we need Element III.

Element III – Network

If you’ve been in science for a few years, you’ve probably been beaten over the head about the importance of networking. Networking can be a difficult thing, though, especially if you’re like me and find it difficult to walk up and talk to complete strangers or worry about whether you’re annoying someone with that email or wonder how you’re supposed to maintain connections when you don’t have a specific reason for contacting them at the moment. Another challenge is that networks can be very insular. As you’re training at an academic institution, it’s likely that most of your connections will be within the academic research community. How we can we enhance the breadth and career diversity of our networks?

In some ways, it’s easier now than it was a decade ago because of the vibrant online science community. Via blogging and Twitter, I’ve connected with new and established faculty members, editors for society publications, policy fellows, and science communicators. I would never have interacted with people in some of these positions if I’d had to rely on face-to-face introductions.

At the same time, it’s valuable to have more direct connections through institutions, departments, and mentors. You’re the coordinator for a graduate program. About 15% of your graduates have tenure track positions, and I’d wager you have a pretty good idea where they’re at. What about the 25% who are doing research outside of academia? What about the 25+% who have careers outside of research? Programs could potentially help trainees with career planning and development by building an alumni network to tap into. Plus there’s the benefit of data and potential speakers in Element I.

Element IV – Opportunity

As trainees, we need to remember that we have the largest stake and investment in our careers, and ultimately, our career is our responsibility. With the aid of mentors and advisers, we should identify courses and activities that will benefit our career goals. Activities could include writing courses, pedagogy workshops, guest lectures for an undergrad course, outreach activities for an elementary school class, mentoring high school students, grantsmanship workshops, writing for a department blog or a journal spotlight, or courses on law and science. For career development, there is no one-size-fits-all. We have to tailor a plan to our interests and plans. We have to figure out what matters for our career and how to strengthen weak points and improve our strengths.

Even though we must take responsibility for our careers, we still need support from our mentors and institutions. When engaged in activities outside of the lab, scientists – and especially those in training – are often confronted with the attitude of “Why are you wasting your time on __________ when you could be doing things that matter?”, and what’s implied by “things that matter” is research or writing papers or grants. Research and papers are imperative for Ph.D.s and postdoc training. They’re necessary to keep labs funded. Honestly most of us wouldn’t stick around if we weren’t engaged by the research. But papers are not the only things that matter for our careers, especially if we’re considering careers outside of research.

There are tons of career development, education, and outreach activities in our institutions, local communities, professional societies, and beyond. The opportunities are there, but sometimes we hesitate to take advantage of them because of implicit and/or explicit pushback from advisers and administrators. In other words, sometimes we feel like we need permission to participate in these activities, regardless of whether it takes an hour a week or 3 hours once a month or whatever the time commitment might be. Programs might help trainees carve out that time by recommending certain number of hours for “career development activities” per year. Maybe one day, the value of such activities will be widely accepted, but until then, I think it might take some extra encouragement.

Closing Notes

Regardless of what career we pursue, whether it be research or science policy or teaching, our successes will reflect back on the places where we trained. The point of the Ph.D. is to train us as scientists, a very broad goal, but I think programs and advisers should be invested in the career training of their students and postdocs. I don’t think that it will take a complete reinvention of training programs, but rather a few tweaks and additions to existing initiatives to change Ph.D. training into career training and to leave trainees feeling a little more prepared for that great, big, exciting world of science careers.

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11 Responses to A harebrained scheme for science careers training

  1. “We should be able to talk about those plans with colleagues, advisers, and mentors without having our commitment to Plan A questioned.”

    Exactly. This sentence, to me, really highlights one of the biggest hurdles any graduate student or postdoc considering a career outside of academia encounters. It continues to amaze me how ingrained the idea that a non-academic career is somehow “less than” is.

    I think it also speaks to the guilt a student or postdoc can feel when they make the decision to leave academia. A guilt that stems from the idea that you are letting someone down, or that you’re not contributing in the way that you “should”, or that you wasted the time and effort they put into training you.

    • biochembelle says:

      Katie, so right. Despite the frequent protestations to the contrary, there are often subtle comments and reactions that suggest many in academia still see have their conceptions of the best path. It’s really tough when it’s turned around as though they have your best interests in mind. “I don’t think you’d be happy doing X” even though they have no real basis for saying it.

      The other aspect of talking about Plans B & C is admitting that, whatever your first plan is, it might fall through – you might fail, or you might get there and find it’s not what you want. And imagining anything other than success is gut-wrenching and terrifying.

  2. Dan says:

    You two are spot on. It’s hard to find a PI that considers options outside academia as entirely valid. Personally I’ve had trouble getting academics to write letters of recommendation for non-academic pursuits. Even grad students with no interest in pursuing an academic career sometimes have to fein interest to appease their PI’s thirst for academic glory.

  3. Thank you Biochembelle for writing this. I am only about a semester and a half into my program but I have noticed that talking non-academic careers (oh and god forbid a non-academic job that isn’t government!) is taboo. The fact that there are not a lot of TT jobs available is mentioned often, but the conversation stops there. In fact, we had a professor visit to give a talk and during the grad student lunch he asked what our post grad school plans were. About half of us answered academia. He laughed (literally!), said that there really aren’t many jobs out there, but then quickly changed the subject to something else.

  4. biochembelle says:

    I think there is still a bit of ‘taboo’ in academia re: non-academic jobs. However, I think some of it is mistakenly inferred. Some may seem uneasy when the topic comes up or nervously laugh it off and change the subject because they’re acutely aware of the situation. They know the problems but don’t have good answers, and they don’t really know how they’re supposed to prepare trainees for other career paths. Add the current publishing and funding pressures, they may not have much time or headspace to really think about these issues and possible solutions.

    This is why I think the focus for training changes needs to be on creating open environments, in terms of discussion, networks, and opportunities. I think small programmatic changes could benefit trainees without adding more burdens to advisers.

  5. AmasianV says:

    Don’t think this is a harebrained scheme at all. I’d just add that students looking into PhD programs should exercise due diligence to learn “about career paths and job market trends” before applying.

    • biochembelle says:

      Great point, V. I think prospective students need to carefully consider what they want and how getting a PhD would contribute. I also think that both undergrad advisers and recruiting grad programs need to have more open discussions with students about these issues before they take the plunge.

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  7. Shery Campbell says:

    I find this extremely interesting in that your ‘harebrained’ (not!) scheme seeks to make career investigation an important focal point for individuals wanting to work in the science world . I know a number of brilliant young science freaks who are taking the path but don’t have quite the same expectations that you echo. While science rests on evidentiary , empirical proof, there must be a creative role in how this data is uncovered – there has to be! Shouldn’t those in science be urged to enhance their creative nature as a way to improve their scientific approach? I know, a little off the topic here but if you explore things creatively your path will be a rewarding one. Here in Alberta we’re AGAIN facing provincial budget cuts which impact every aspect of our world – my work is impacted and so will be those in the science realm.

    Thanks so much – really liked this piece! I wrote a publication for three years about career paths and labour market information. Cheers!

    • biochembelle says:

      Interesting. I think there’s a very important role for creativity in science. And I think that interacting w people outside our small academic circles & encouraging participation in activities outside the lab can help nurture creativity in a directed manner. (And I also think it’s important to have outlets that don’t involve science, though that will never be a formal part of training.)

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