12 thoughts on “How pervasive on your campus is the view that the graduate degree is a pathway to multiple careers?

  1. When I started my PhD training in the mid-2000s in the biomedical sciences I can honestly say that no other career outcome, except the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty position was ever discussed by anyone in my graduate program. As I was wrapping up my PhD training though, there began a trickle of discussions and events aimed at graduate students thinking about exploring “alternative careers”. During my postdoc training the trickle turned into small lapping waves and more and more faculty (and even postdocs and students themselves) began lifting their heads out of the sand and realizing that graduate and postdoctoral training needed to be reformed and expanded so that trainees would obtain the skills and experiences needed to be competitive in the real world, diverse market for PhDs. In my current role as the Director of a Postdoctoral Affairs Office at a large research University, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of faculty and administrators who “get it” and are worried about the same career issues that keep students and postdocs up at night. Some of these faculty members and administrators have even taken the lead to expand their department’s career development offerings and have open discussions with students and postdocs about the job market. Some even tell trainees that they can be successful and happy in a number of career sectors including but not at all limited to being a tenure-track faculty member at a research intensive institute. More work certainly needs to be done though, as there are still a lot of “old guard” faculty and administrators who have their head in the sand on the career outlook and outcomes of their University’s trainees. Some of these “old guards” are even still trying to limit career development discussions, programs, and opportunities for their trainees. It is critical that funding agencies such as the NSF and NIH take bold action to ensure that Universities, Faculty members, and Administrators with innovative and expansive training programs for their trainees be encouraged, rewarded, and given the resources necessary to continue on this path. It is equally as important that these same funding agencies put in place policies, mandates, and penalties to force “old guards” to reform their ways and allow, or even dare say participate, in expanding training programs to meet the current and very real career and professional development needs of their trainees.


  2. It depends on who you ask. My graduate program is trying to foster career development outside of academia with a seminar-type class with lectures given by former graduates that now have jobs in industry and K-12 education. But that is pretty much the extent of it. Many of the PIs seem to think that all of their graduate student and post-doc trainees will go on to run their own labs. For my field, this is objectively not feasible, as the number of open faculty positions is dwindling (at an alarming rate). So what was once considered an “alternative” career is now the norm, and some people have seemed to accept that fact more readily than others.

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  3. I agree with “Changes afoot” that many students consider too late the variety of options available to PhDs. I feel, in part, this one-track mindset comes from the inexperience of the students: many graduate students have been exposed to academia exclusively during their formal education. Many university professors (for better or worse) have no experience outside of academia, and many academics believe that a transition to industry is an irreversible one. If we want students to consider all the options for a PhD, we need to facilitate these interactions.
    One possible change is perceiving industry experience as a positive for hiring new faculty at every institution. Students could then have professors with academic and industry experience who could offer advice and mentorship in both arenas.
    As a new graduate student, I may have a naive, romantic view of graduate education, but I believe that a graduate education is a rigorous experience that should empower a PhD to do just about anything they want. While being a PI seems like the most exciting avenue for my future, if that doesn’t work I anticipate doing something else that will benefit society. And I’ll be able to do that because I’ll still have a education that I developed during many years of formal education, whether or not there is a faculty position waiting for me.

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  4. I have been told so many times that a PhD is a great way to become overqualified and un-hire-able. It seems for the most part my university holds an expectation that the majority of PhD’s will end up in academic positions. I receive numerous communications for workshops on enhancing teaching skills, but rarely any for workshops related to non-academic careers.


  5. Our campus has programs to expose graduate students to different careers. We have a quest for careers seminar where professionals with PhDs are invited from outside of academic research to discuss their careers. This seminar series occurs on a monthly basis during the academic year and is student/postdoc driven and has been for several years. We also have a new career development office with a PhD director who is working with students and postdocs to develop their careers through seminars and one on one meetings, regardless of if they want to stay in academia or not. I think that there is a good understanding by the administration that not every student will stay in academia and the school is developing support for this.

    With that being said, many PIs are still not very supportive of their trainees striving for anything other than an academic faculty job. This can lead to trainees being afraid to discuss their *actual* career goals or ideas with their mentors for fear that their mentors will not support or help them. A lot of faculty are realizing that the percentage of current trainees who will get faculty jobs is very low, so I think this tide may be turning.

    As a funny anecdote, I noticed on a recent career seminar flyer posted on the seminar board in my department titled “Exploring Alternate Careers” someone had scratched out the word alternate. I was struck at how thoughtful this really was.


  6. In our department in a college of engineering, there is definitely a negative attitude toward non-academic careers among the faculty. I heard one professor describe a particularly talented graduate as a “sell-out” for deciding on a consulting career instead of an academic career. The professors who do have professional experience in industry often say that they left industry because it was boring. I have had professors tell me that I would be squandering my intellect by accepting a job as a professional design engineer instead of as a researcher. As an MS student, I was encouraged to obtain a PhD because I had a knack for research. We have a seminar every week, and the speakers are almost always professors, post-docs, or advanced PhD students who discuss their research. When we do have a non-academic speaker, they usually hold a PhD degree and talk about professional research rather than engineering projects. I should also mention that the majority of students in this seminar are first-year masters students who have no intention of pursuing an academic career. In an event for graduate students on choosing a career in which a faculty panel answered student questions, one of the deans warned against choosing a “dead end” career in industry. When the faculty do talk with students about non-academic jobs (a rare occurrence), it is almost always in a negative light. All the explicit and implicit messaging tells graduate students that academic careers are noble, important, and rewarding whereas non-academic careers are routine, mundane, and unimportant. The message is almost that anybody who has some potential to make a valuable contribution to academic research has a moral obligation to become an academic. Those who choose an “alternate” career are either unqualified for academia or are greedy/selfish.

    At the beginning of my PhD program, I did not think much about how difficult it might be to find a job afterward. The attitudes of the faculty and the political emphasis on promoting STEM education because we are “falling behind” gave me the impression that doing advanced graduate research at a leading engineering university would ensure that many jobs would be open to me. Only advanced PhD students and post-docs who are actually looking for work talk openly about the job market. Two post-docs I know said that they were considering going to medical school. I was shocked. I have discovered that in my field there are only a handful of faculty openings, and competition for these positions is fierce because of the large supply of brilliant and qualified PhD graduates and post-docs. Even competition for post-doc positions is surprisingly intense even though the pay is usually about two-thirds of what graduates could make at in an engineering job that requires only a BS. The preferred candidates for most of the industry jobs in my field will hold a BS or MS degree. I have found that the industry jobs open for people with a PhD are specific to candidates who have some niche expertise. Most of them want statistical/computational/modeling experience, whereas my research has been entirely experimental/lab oriented. I wish that I had a frank discussion with somebody about job prospects at the beginning of graduate school. If somebody had then told me what I now know, I probably still would have pursued a PhD, but I would have chosen a research topic that would provide me with a skillset that would be more marketable outside of academia. I would like to see universities make it a policy to have these honest discussions with students at the beginning of graduate school or before they begin graduate school. I also hope to see a shift in the culture of academe so that it will be less biased against non-academic jobs. I never had the impression until I approached the end of my degree that it would be so difficult to find a good job after graduating.


  7. I recently was fortunate enough to be able to do an industrial internship, and only because I was on a funding source from NIH that required an industrial internship. There were also other peers (from various labs and diciplines) on this funding source who were looking to land internships as well. From this experience, I observed that many professors:

    -Saw this as “wasting time” and “delaying graduate research”
    -Only believe in allowing internships when they are required (or when experiencing funding trouble)
    -Would try to find loop holes to prevent their students from leaving for a while, even when the internship was required
    -Would encourage the student to do minimal time away at the company
    -Would accuse the student of not having the right priorities

    This is clearly the wrong perspective if the majority of students who graduate with a PhD will go on to “alternative” careers, such as industry. A great way for students to find these non-academia options is to experience them while in school, which then helps the resume for after graduation. Perhaps NSF can help by first giving workshops for professors that can help integrate this value, and second offering requirements or incentives for professors receiving NSF grant funds, or encouraging departments to change their standards.

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  8. People on this forum should become aware of what is being done through the NIH-BEST programs – Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training. The first 10 awards made under this program were in fall 2013 and 7 more were awarded fall 2014. These programs are working as a consortium to study different models for how to expand the career discussions between students and mentors and provide opportunities such as internships and externships that allow doctoral students and post-doctoral trainees gain a greater understanding of non-academic career tracks. Students learn how to use the transferable skills gained during the pursuit of a doctorate in jobs beyond the laboratory. Making these programs successful requires several things. First, students have to be self-reflective and honest with themselves about their own values, their skills and what they are looking for in their careers. The process of making an IDP (an individual development plan) is a great step in this direction. Second, students and faculty mentors must be willing to have honest conversations about the career goals of the student. People pursue their doctorates for a variety of reasons and not all students enter graduate school seeking academic positions. There must be a safe space for students and mentors to discuss career goals and aspirations and faculty must recognize that graduate education is about the students’ personal, professional and intellectual development in addition to the research/scholarship being produced. Finally, faculty must empower students to pursue their goals and seek out the developmental experiences that help them grow professionally such that they become productive in whatever career track they choose to pursue. The BEST programs are experiments in institutional change and we will be sharing these experiences with the community as we learn more about what has worked and the additional challenges we encounter. Please stay tuned.


  9. The more I hear from other students or speakers from the academic world, the more I realize how fortunate I’ve been to be in a program where the physics PhD has always been seen as the door to whatever career you might want to pursue, the degree that really gives you the most freedom and flexibility in choosing your career path. It has probably helped that our department has been involved with a number of programs encouraging collaboration between academia and industry (e.g., the NSF ERCs) and also strongly encourages tech transfer and professors with spin-off companies.


  10. In my experience, in the (biology) graduate program that I currently attend, the view is that a graduate degree is a pathway to academic careers if you succeed and non-academic careers if you fail. Those who have shown an interest in non-academic careers, or actually left to pursue non-academic careers, are seen as sell-outs or mostly just not good enough for academia.

    There is a small amount of surface attention given to “preparing” students for non-academic careers – the director will mention them once or twice a year, and we get e-mails about seminars describing non-academic careers or helping students enter those careers (e.g.. how to put your CV in resume format). But in several years I’ve yet to meet anyone who has actually attended any of those optional seminars. I can’t say for every PI, but in my case, my PI would be very unhappy if I spent valuable lab time learning about a non-academic career. And, while I do want an academic career as my first choice, I’m open to other careers if academics doesn’t work out; but I haven’t actually said as much to my PI because the strong impression I’ve received is that it would make my PI much less interested in helping me progress in my education.

    Suggestions: first, I think that non-academic career experiences and knowledge should be required, not optional. Government funding agencies like the NSF should strongly encourage and incentivize real education about non-academic careers – say, perhaps a required weekly seminar class for one semester, with industry speakers? – as well as experiences within industry. Programs should find ways to either require industry experiences for students or to make it worthwhile for the PI to encourage the industry experience. Even for students who do go on to become tenured faculty, I think an industry experience could be very valuable in broadening their perspective and laying the groundwork for industry collaboration. More generally, I think it would be an improvement to have more interaction between industry professionals and academics – I agree with the suggestion to occasionally hire faculty that have extensive industry experience. Finally, the “worth” of a PI certainly seems to be partly measured by how many academic careers come out of the lab. That’s good in and of itself, but so long as top industry careers are invisible or denigrated, PIs will continue to discourage their students from anything but academia. It is a culture change as much as anything else.

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  11. I’ve heard talk about trying to change the perception that a PhD means you need to be an academic scientist or you’re a failure, but I’m not convinced there’s been any real structural changes. Courses are designed based on academic priorities, there’s no (apparent) collaboration with scientists outside of academia, and the career-based training provided is geared a lot more towards writing a grant or a journal article. I really would like to see talk about patents, both how to read them and how to file them, as well as training on how to be an effective supervisor. In fact, both of these are abilities which can benefit academic scientists as PIs are supervisors and there is an incredible amount of information available within patents.


  12. It is employers, not academics, who need to be persuaded of the employment value of the PhD. If it were to become common to hear about PhD holders being preferred candidates for non-academic jobs because of their PhD, the prevailing view on campuses would quickly change.


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