A Road Less Traveled… Exploring Career Options During the PhD

For 12 weeks at the beginning of this year I was fortunate enough to participate in a fellowship at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. What’s even more exciting is that I was able to do this while still in my graduate program. My decision to take 12 weeks away from the bench may seem to be taboo in the current culture of graduate school training but I knew that this experience would be beneficial to me because it was an opportunity to try something new. During my time there I was able to work on projects all related to reforming higher education for college and graduate students. The topics ranged from increasing diversity in STEM to improving career preparedness at higher education institutions. As a graduate student it was exciting to see that many agencies were invested in solving these issues. Within our institutions we know these issues exist but there has been little change to many collegiate and graduate studies in STEM to address the problems, and as a result it can feel like nothing is being done. After 12 weeks working in an environment where change in graduate education seemed inevitable and re-entering a school environment in which that same change seemed impossible, it sparked a lot of thoughts in my mind.

I know taking time away from my graduate studies seemed to perplex many of my peers and honestly probably some of the faculty too. Within biomedical research, where time to graduation is already too long, funding is stagnant, and labs are fighting to sustain and earn grants, who would ever take time off? When I returned every peer I encountered asked me, “How did you get your PI to let you do this fellowship?” This question was often followed by, “I wish I could do something like that,” or “I wish I had the courage to ask my PI to do something in addition to my bench work.” To an extent, I wondered if I should feel guilty about having this experience. Was I given a privilege that no one else would have the ability to receive? I realized that there is a stigma against non-academic PhD training not only among the faculty but also the trainees. Many trainees feel guilty for doing things outside of the lab and most of my peers feel more like employees than students, and here lies the problem. When the President Emeritus of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, was asked to serve on a working group to evaluate the biomedical workforce, she stated that as the numbers of students and postdocs supported by research grants increases, graduate students and postdocs are increasingly viewed by their PIs as “worker bees” rather than trainees. Perhaps this is true. It could be the reason why students turn away from wonderful professional development opportunities offered by professional societies and universities.

It is disturbing that due to the low number of tenure-track positions, the majority of graduate students will not go into academia, despite our focused training for that outcome. Former CEO of AAAS Alan Leshner wrote an editorial piece regarding rethinking graduate education. He mentioned that, based on available evidence, over 60% of new PhDs in science will not have careers in academic research and, because of this, the system is failing to meet the needs of the majority of its students. One of the major takeaways in this piece is that what is needed is a fundamental system analysis and reconfiguration that results in graduate training programs that are better designed to meet the diverse career needs of today’s students. Leshner noted that the first report to do this was in 1995: “Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers,” by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Twenty years ago the demand for scientists and engineers remained strong, but there were indications that there was a slowdown in the growth of university positions and there would be huge changes in science and engineering employment. There was growing frustration among new PhDs regarding tenure-track position availability while many non-research/applied research/development positions remained open. Graduate students and postdocs today might find it disturbing that this report came out in 1995 and many of these issues still persist today. Two recommendations from this report were to offer a broader range of academic options and to provide better information and guidance in order for trainees to make better informed decisions about professional careers. Since 2012, nine reports have been published with similar recommendations. In the nine reports there were eight consensus recommendations and one recommended that institutions and federal agencies should train students and postdocs for the breadth of careers available to them. NIH has made some strides by expanding training with the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program and by requiring the individual development plan (IDP) for all NIH-supported trainees. Despite the few changes that have been made, it’s apparent institutions and agencies should continue to increase opportunities for students to explore careers outside of academic research, while maintaining their rigorous scientific training. Without substantial change in biomedical training, it’s easy to see how this problem could persist for another 20 years.

Despite the minimal changes in graduate education in the past 20 years, I hope the next 20 years can be more dynamic. Modernizing graduate education to train students and postdocs for the workforce that is available today has the potential to solve many problems within biomedical research and boost the morale of trainees. I hope for a time when seeking career development and professional skills for jobs outside of the traditional academic track are more valued by students and faculty. Perhaps this will not be a road less traveled, but a path that most students take to find their way to their future careers.

About the Author:

Nicole Parker is currently a PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department. Her research involves investigating the mechanisms that control spermatogenesis within the mammalian system. Email: nparker1013@gmail.com
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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