Mandatory non-academic internships: A solution to the problem of PhD surplus?

New labs have rows and rows of open labs to promote collaboration, but does it? Photo by Mason Posner.

Perhaps graduate students should spend a little less time at the bench to make room for more career exploration. Photo by Mason Posner.

The scientific community has been grappling with an over-supply of trained PhDs for some time now. The economic slow-down and major funding cuts have only exacerbated this problem. In the current environment, less than one in five successful PhDs manage to secure long-term academic positions. This leaves over 80% of PhDs without any realistic academic prospects. Although a number of ideas have been proposed over the years to deal with this problem, most are limited to encouraging students to highlight the soft skills (e.g., analytical, problem-solving, project management skills) that a successful PhD student normally holds and how these skills can be applied to various non-academic careers. Many academic institutions now actively organize targeted-training sessions for PhD students to expose them to non-traditional careers being pursued by PhDs (including their alumni) with similar backgrounds as theirs. These training sessions are often run either by career advisors or by alumni who are themselves pursuing some of these non-academic careers after PhD.

Notwithstanding such initiatives, students still find it extremely difficult to navigate uncharted waters outside of academia. I believe that the problem here is not the lack of awareness about non-academic careers but students’ lack of hands-on experience with any of these careers. While it’s one thing to have a swimming coach give someone a day-long lecture on swimming (full of colorful PowerPoint slide-decks!) and hope they will be able to swim by the end of the lecture, it’s quite another to encourage and actually get someone to jump and swim in the swimming pool. This is exactly what is happening to current efforts on exposing PhD students to other careers. It is important not just to read and hear about the “real world careers” but to be actively encouraged to try one of these careers first-hand before taking the full leap. Informational seminars by so-called “career advisors” via PowerPoint presentations and group discussions on alternative careers cannot be a substitute to real world first-hand business experience! I propose that PhD students be encouraged to take up non-academic internships during their PhDs to get exposed to other careers where their skill-sets could be applied.

Most PhDs today, who are not headed for academia, will have to “choose” to move to non-academic fields by default, not necessarily as a result of an informed choice. This is especially true for students in engineering and natural sciences. In practice, however, most students are rather apprehensive of taking the leap out of academia and end up postponing this by taking up a string of postdoctoral positions. This only delays the inevitable and they hang around academic corridors knowing full well that they would be better off outside. This happens for a number of reasons, but I believe the most common is the proverbial “fear of the unknown.” Years of having been in the ivory tower only reinforces this. I believe this is where the universities and research institutions training these PhDs can save the day by making non-academic internships a formal part of the PhD training process. These internships could be in a number of fields that actively seek people with a scientific mindset and training e.g. research industry, management consulting, patent law firms, communications, policy, etc. This would allow students to “try” the non-academic atmosphere during their PhD training. I recommend that students be allowed to devote at least two to three months to ensure any meaningful gains. The students themselves would be exposed to some real career choices and would be more open to taking up non-academic careers rather than dragging themselves through grad school or ending up doing a postdoc upon graduating just because it was the easy way out! In my case, I followed my PhD in Nanobiophysics with a short stint in Strategy Consulting. This experience was extremely valuable in introducing me to a completely new way of thinking and exposed me to a bunch of exciting industries (automotive, chemicals, oil & gas, pharma etc.). Most importantly it made me realize that my true calling was actually in scientific research.

Although most master’s and bachelor’s students around the world are required to participate in internships as part of their curricula, this is completely missing in case of PhD students. It is of paramount importance that students, who spend anywhere from four to eight years doing their PhDs, are encouraged to see the non-academic side as well. Although most (technical) universities boast of industrial interactions with regards to collaborations and transfer of knowledge, direct contact between students and companies remains limited to what is required as part of the specific research project. One of the possible factors causing this is that the PhD students are often paid by grants of their mentors (PIs) or from financial support from research institutes, and understandably the PIs might not be terribly excited if the PhD student decides to take three months off his/her PhD project for an internship that will neither contribute to the project nor to the mentor’s publication count! This problem becomes all the more apparent for foreign students who might have complicated work permit/visa issues to deal with before taking up voluntary internships (those not officially part of their PhD). This would therefore require an open discussion among all stakeholders—universities, PIs, and the grad students.

A few universities have already taken the lead in formally initiating such internships (e.g., the aptly named “Graduate Student Internships for Career Exploration Program” at UCSF). I hope that the experience by these pioneer institutions will encourage other institutions to follow suit. The advantages of exposing students to non-academic environments early in their academic training will be especially advantageous in developing countries where the high-quality scientific research industry is still in its growth phase and the need for science and technology PhDs cannot be understated. I trust that this will also help improve the overall quality of students earning PhDs. Although such moves are bound to face some initial inertial resistance from the status quo, long-term benefits to PhD students and the society at large can hardly be underestimated. In conclusion, I believe internships would be a win-win for all parties: Companies will get early access to highly skilled talent without the hassles of providing long-term employment contracts, and universities will benefit from direct contacts with companies as well as possible financial contributions. Although it might appear to add extra short-term costs to the PIs, they have everything to gain in the long term, as this will help graduate students make informed choices as to whether they should continue via a postdoctoral position. I would argue that most postdocs who decide to continue in academia after these non-academic internships will stay because they want to and not because they have to.

About the Author:

Shashank Shekhar is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, France. Prior to this, he was a consultant at the Operations and Strategy Group at KPMG in Amsterdam. He holds a PhD in Nanobiophysics at University of Twente in The Netherlands. While in the lab, he is interested in understanding how molecular reactions occurring at the single-molecule level get integrated to enable cellular as well as organismic motility. Outside the lab, he is interested in advocating on behalf of young scientists and has been a board member of the Dutch National PhD Network (PNN) as well as the European Doctoral Network (EURODOC).
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.