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Oh, the Places You’ll Go with a PhD in Science!

“The current graduate education system in many countries is based on an apprenticeship model, wherein lab heads train younger researchers in the craft of research.” 1 Thus, the priority for most PhD programs is for research scientists to train their mentees in “their own image.” In the United States, more than 12,000 students obtain a PhD in the life sciences each year. Of these, however, only 15 percent acquire a tenure-track faculty position in academia with an additional 18 percent matriculating into non-tenure track jobs in academia.2 The vast majority of students who obtain a PhD do not follow an academic career path.

In spite of this trend, graduate programs and faculty mentors are firmly grounded in an academic culture that promotes a research-training regime and a mentor apprenticeship model that focuses almost solely on skills useful for the academic researcher. Most graduate training programs fail to recognize the post-graduate reality that these PhD students face and neglect to provide the training and mentorship for their students for nonacademic careers. As a result, PhD trainees are ill prepared to successfully transition to a wide array of nonacademic careers. Nevertheless, the critical thinking skills and independence that PhD students in the STEM fields develop are highly desirable and transferable to diverse careers where they can be very competitive and highly successful.

To help address this issue, Professor Maitreyi Das developed a seminar series and graduate course that introduced and promoted the exploration of nonacademic career opportunities for BCMB doctoral students. Das applied to NSF-MCB to obtain an “Improving Graduate Student Preparedness for Entering the Workforce, Opportunities” as supplemental support ($18,000) to her current NSF-MCB research grant award to facilitate this new initiative. Last spring, BCMB opted to use the department-wide seminar series for this effort with the associated course named “Oh! The Places You’ll Go with a PhD in Science!” The seminar series and course featured 11 expert speakers representing diverse PhD fields with an emphasis on non-academic career paths. Examples included professionals with a PhD in science who have followed career tracks in patent law, scientific writing and editing, start-up companies and entrepreneurship, business and life science consulting, science policy, STEM jobs in the government sector, and pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. The seminar series also included careers at primary undergraduate institutions as well as a new investigator at an R1 research university.

The course consisted of a discussion about each career track ahead of the visit, a seminar by the speaker and an open forum with the speaker to discuss their career track, life events that affected their careers, as well as how to get started in each nonacademic specialty. Apart from obtaining valuable information, students had the opportunity to network with the speakers and several speakers even extended internship invitations to interested students. In addition, Das and two other BCMB professors – Dan Roberts and Gladys Alexandre – worked with the students on developing their soft skills, providing tools to plan and prepare for the career of their choice. Topics discussed included networking, crafting an elevator pitch, creating and maintaining an individual development plan for goal setting and career planning, postdoctoral training strategies in various settings, and an assessment whether a postdoc is required for a specific career. The students also engaged in group activities where they had to role-play various career tracks as part of the discussion exercise.

1”How to build a better PhD,” Julie Gould, Nature 528, 22-25, 2015.
2 “Addressing Biomedical Science’s PhD Problem,” Catherine Offord, The Scientist Vol 31