Jo Downes Bairzin
It’s a familiar question to many of us in graduate school: what am I doing with my life? One might think that a bunch of PhD trainees in their 20s and 30s would have figured that out already, but if anything, grad school makes the question even more pressing. How many of us started grad school hoping to become professors, only to change our minds partway through?
With recent NSF data showing that only 1 out of 5 PhDs in health, science, and engineering will land a coveted faculty position—and that number is even lower for other fields, like biology (1 in 10)—reality is dictating that academia isn’t a feasible option for most grad students, and we must look elsewhere for a career. For many other students, our experiences in grad school taught us that we’re interested in things beyond the topics of our theses and motivated us to learn how to do those things as careers.
Despite this, most PhD programs still train students to become academic researchers and often don’t encourage them to spend time on teaching or other “extracurriculars”. Students rely on their advisors and professors to train them, but these professors are fully entrenched in academia. They may be unaware, or even dismissive, of the need for trained PhDs outside of academia. They might be supportive, but lack the time or resources to help their trainees. This means they may not talk to their students about career paths outside academia, and students may not feel comfortable asking for their advice. So instead, the grad school existential crises persist.
Non-academic institutions certainly benefit from employing PhDs, and there are actually plenty of career options for PhDs outside of academia: the tech industry is booming as the engineering, genome editing, and data science fields grow, and everyone from consulting firms to nonprofits want experts on staff. The issue for PhD students is learning about them and preparing for them. At UC Berkeley, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and researchers have taken matters into their own hands by organizing the Beyond Academia conference, which recently took place for the fifth year. While originally conceived to introduce some STEM PhDs to industry careers, the conference has grown in scale and popularity, and now covers a range of topics for both STEM and the humanities, from panels with PhDs working in different fields to seminars on how to optimize your LinkedIn profile.
Diya Das, one of the directors for this year’s Beyond Academia conference, says that expanding the reach of Beyond Academia is an ongoing goal. “We’d like to be bigger, do more, and it’s a question of resources. I feel like we have a lot of support. We always sell out. Even a lot of our smaller events [during the rest of the year] are reaching capacity in some context.” Das, a fifth-year grad student in molecular and cell biology, started grad school planning to become a professor but now wants to pursue a career in data science. She said that one thing she was most surprised by in organizing the conference was just how willing people are to talk to you about their jobs and their background, as well as to give advice and connect you to other people they know. “It’s a little bit of a shock to grad students that people really want to help you for free,” she says, “One panelist I was chatting with said to me, ‘I’m trying to think of who I should connect you with. I know I have friends and colleagues who would love to talk to you.’ I think that’s a lot of what we hope our attendees learn, is that you can get a lot just by asking, and to many people it’s not as much of an imposition as you think it is.”
As a fifth year molecular and cell biology graduate student planning to pursue a career in either science policy or science communication and outreach, I attended Beyond Academia to learn more about these career paths and how to prepare for them as a graduate student and to network with speakers in these fields.
Over the two days of the conference, some themes emerged throughout all the seminars and panels. Everyone was talking about “transferrable skills”—things like project management, mentorship, and the ability to think intelligently about complex issues. These are the qualities that make PhDs attractive for non-academic jobs. According to Das, “You really focus in on a particular area but what you have really learned to do in grad school regardless of your academic background is learn and learn very fast.” Many speakers stressed the importance of highlighting these skills on a resume or in an interview. This might be one of the key takeaways from Beyond Academia: as PhD students, we spend a lot of time creating and consuming deep knowledge of a subject, but employers know that we’re well equipped to understand broad knowledge as well. Supporting PhD students in this transition is part of Beyond Academia’s core mission.
In this article, we bring together perspectives from Berkeley students who attended the Beyond Academia conference. Each student will talk about their motivations for attending the conference, along with the key things they learned in the events they attended.
I’m a fourth year chemistry grad student, fully committed to a non-academic path but torn between industry research and science communication. I attended the conference to absorb as much information about these two directions as possible.
The first day of the conference kicked off with a keynote address from Alexandra Zafiroglu, a Principal Engineer at Intel with a PhD in Cultural Anthropology. Alexandra began with a warning to only expect a “modest motivation message”. She went on to recount giving birth to her first child the day after her PhD thesis defense. The abdominal pain that she had attributed to defense stress had really been the onset of labor! Within a 24-hour period of going into labor, defending her thesis, and delivering a baby, she also received a job offer from Intel and had to quickly decide if she wanted to accept it.
Alexandra described how she used to have back pain from writing, which then led to sleeping on the floor for rigidity (a predicament I can relate to myself). She was terrified she wasn’t doing fieldwork correctly. She didn’t talk about what she wanted to do after receiving her PhD out of fear that her advisors would lose interest and she would lose funding. Let’s face it—most of us won’t go into labor during our defense. Some of us won’t even have a defense. Imposter syndrome and financial woes, however, are typical problems that any grad student can relate to.
Despite how honest she was about the challenges of grad school, Alexandra did end her keynote with a modest amount of motivation, as promised, by saying that there is a whole world of career paths waiting for us once we graduate. To close, she imparted her wisdom about non-academic careers: do an internship and actually show up for it; do informational interviews with companies that interest you before applying; think beyond the hiring description about what the company is really looking for; get used to having to check your curiosity because industry is all about deliverables and the “so what”; be flexible to adapt to change so that you are okay with thinking, “That’s not what I was hired to do”.
After the keynote, I attended a range of sessions focused on science communication and education and STEM research in industry. While every session I attended was engaging and informative, the “Science Communication & Outreach” panel was the most memorable for me. I really had the sense that the panelists were truly happy about their career paths. They seemed genuinely passionate about their work and more than content with their work-life balance—most of the panelists work from home either full-time or partially.
A refreshingly candid portion of the session was when Kishore Hari, the moderator, asked if the panelists could really financially support themselves, especially in the Bay Area. A few responses were along the lines of, “I work much less but get paid more than a postdoc”. That sounds nice, but common academic wisdom suggests it doesn’t take much to make more than a postdoc! Kishore added his own two cents on the reality that there is not enough money in communication and outreach. He said it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, so it is important that we first recognize it.
With the end of this session, the first day of Beyond Academia came to a close. I went home with an overall feeling of optimism about my future and zero regrets about attending the conference. At this time, I’m not much closer to deciding what path I want to embark on, but I am equipped with more knowledge on which to base that decision.
I am a third year physics graduate student who is starting to pursue a career in science communication. I hoped the Beyond Academia conference would advise me on how to step off the path to academia and blaze my own trail.
Two sessions stood out as particularly beneficial to me, both taught by professional presenters: Peter Fiske’s “Putting Your PhD to Work” and Lura Dolas’ “Improving Your Presentation Skills.” The charismatic Fiske focused on the PhD—both the process and the title—as a tool. The tool’s range of uses stems from the presumed intellect of PhD holders. Since others assume PhDs are brilliant, they offer a panoply of opportunities. He notes from experience that PhDs’ self-imposed limitations often prevent them from taking advantage of such opportunities. PhDs tend to be stifled by limited information and seldom take risks on their ability to learn, whereas the golden rule of the real world is to default to action. Fiske encouraged PhDs to adopt a growth mindset on all human skills, even humor and creativity. He introduced the “80:10:10 Rule”: 80 percent of one’s time should be spent on only the most valuable tasks, 10 percent on personal professional development and expanding one’s knowledge and skills, and 10 percent on networking and bolstering one’s reputation.
Dolas’ evocative session was a taster of a more extensive presentation skills workshop she runs independently, but even such a snippet worked wonders. She started with a speed-dating sort of exercise during which the audience took turns introducing themselves with a continuous minute of speaking. At first, the room echoed with “ums” and “ahs,” but after 3 introductions, everyone spoke with significantly improved clarity and articulation. “Rehearse!” Dolas exclaimed before driving home her main point: presenters all too commonly think their content itself is compelling enough to retain, but it is the emotions they incite in the audience that are remembered long-term. For the remainder of the session, we practiced using inflection and generalized aspects of presentations to evoke the emotions that carry the message. Anyone who may ever find themselves on stage, in front of a camera, or in an interview should seek Lura Dolas’ workshops in Berkeley’s theater department.
In addition to the sessions, the conference hosted networking lunches each day, gathering students and speakers alike. I found immense value in conversing with other attendees, as we traded the ideas and experiences of our pursuits, the names of job coaches and other workshops, and fostered camaraderie grounded in our mutual struggles as grad students.
Overall, the anxiety of sneaking away from my research experiment for a few hours was far outweighed by the discovery of a future outside of academia, fulfilling the conference’s titular promise. While I only managed to be there for part of one day, the engaging sessions and streamlined networking opportunities will attract me again in the coming years. Leaving the conference, I am heartened to explore my horizons in the later years of my PhD.
I am a first year undergraduate student here at UC Berkeley. I decided to attend Beyond Academia because as a first year, I know there is a long road ahead of me. My primary concerns are the paper due next week or cramming for that midterm I should’ve started studying for a week ago. However, I know that somewhere along the line, these concerns will start to become more trivial—a mere hill to cross as I see the mountain of an unknown career path looming ahead of me. Having been a student for the majority of my life, I realized that I don’t really know a world beyond academia. This is my “mountain”; what do I do after my degree? Though I’m young, I wanted to step into the shoes of an older version of myself and learn more about how to cross the bridge from academia to the real working world.
The second day of the conference began with a keynote speech by Dr. Tanya Moore, the Interim Vice President of Human Resources for Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo Counties. She delivered a light-hearted, humorous speech about the transition out of academia. She began by describing her love for school throughout her life. As she talked about the system set up by school and the fact that it was her driving force throughout her early career, the whole room seemed to fall into mutual agreement. She continued to explain that school had always conveniently created a goal that was easy for people to set their sights on, achieve, and move on after.
The challenge with stepping outside academia and into the “real world” was that no one defined a goal for people to come and grab. There are endless possibilities and no right way to achieve success outside of the academic world. As I listened, I could see the graduate students around me vigorously nodding their heads and letting out sighs of relief—they weren’t the only ones to feel this way. As an undergraduate student, I couldn’t completely relate to the atmosphere of the room, but I understood the fear that comes with the lack of a plan. I could see the worry on the faces of students who worked so hard in school for something they felt passionate about only to feel lost at the end of the process.
Dr. Moore stepped in to give advice and reassurance. She admitted that after finishing her postdoctoral fellowship, she was hesitant about leaving academia because she just didn’t know what to do or what professions were open to her based on her skill set. But by exploring her connections and putting herself through different experiences, she found that the world outside of academia was the one for her. She encouraged students to reach out and try anything that interests them, even if it doesn’t completely overlap with their major. Sitting among students who were at least four years older than me, I realized many people don’t know what they want to do, and the only way for us all to figure it out is to allow ourselves the freedom to go with the flow and experience different things.
With that sentiment, the rest of the conference was broken into four sessions that offered a variety of panels and tutorials to help students improve and experience different branches of the non-academic world. The session I enjoyed most was one hosted by Jared Redick called “Four Strategies for Building Your Professional Brand on LinkedIn”. Redick’s seminar covered lots of insightful ways to make your LinkedIn profile stand out and receive the attention of companies that could hire you. Redick gave practical tips for those wishing to give their profile an extra boost, from headline to summary—and even suggested creating your own group. This session showed me how important connections really are. Even as an undergraduate, forming connections will allow me to make more empowered decisions, gain access to new opportunities, and learn about new experiences. When I’m older, these tips will allow me to stand out and hopefully get a job that I’m interested in. Reddick guided us through the process by putting us in the shoes of an employer and designing a profile to catch their eye.
I can empathize with the pressures of leaving the academic world. I know that leaving the academic setting will be a difficult journey and that I will have to step out of my comfort zone to find something that feels right for me. By attending Beyond Academia, I learned that it’s normal, and even beneficial, to struggle. Struggling pushes you to really try new experiences. Going forward, I will approach new opportunities with more of an open mind and take on new challenges even if they don’t completely relate to what I’m doing now. Beyond Academia opened my eyes early on and offered valuable sessions that are useful to know in any stage.
Jo Downes Bairzin
Since I’m a fifth year graduate student, I started planning my transition out of academia before I attended Beyond Academia. I wanted to learn about different career paths as well as network with speakers working in career fields I was interested in. At the end of the conference, I felt like I had a clearer picture of how to pursue my non-academic career goals. It was reassuring to see the many different paths PhDs can take, and particularly how satisfied many of the speakers seemed with their careers, since a constant worry of mine throughout grad school has been whether I made the right decision getting a PhD—did I pigeonhole myself into a career path that will never make me happy? But most of all, I was relieved to learn that the non-lab activities I’ve been involved in at Berkeley are good preparation for finding a job after I graduate. We spend so much time in grad school questioning if we’re “doing enough” or “doing the right thing”, and it was validating to hear that yes, in fact, I am.
After five years, Beyond Academia is gaining popularity, and the organizers are planning how to shape the conference in the future. “Now that we’re starting to make a name for ourselves, companies are coming to us and saying, ‘Can I recruit at the conference?’ And that’s not really what we want to do. The conference started out for educational purposes and we want to keep it that way,” said Das. What the organizers do want, however, is to expand the role of Beyond Academia beyond just an annual conference. “Last year [the Beyond Academia organizers] started doing a series of workshops and panels throughout the year. We’ve done a national labs panel, we’ve done ‘WIWI’ days, which is ‘what I wish I did in grad school’, [where we] got late stage PhDs to give advice about what they wish they had done.” Beyond Academia also regularly Tweets about networking mixers and career seminars, and they’re currently running a crowdfunding campaign to facilitate future events and bring in more speakers from outside the Bay Area.
As it stands, Beyond Academia is a grassroots effort by PhD students to explore non-academic careers and to help other students do the same. While the university provides some support for these sorts of student-led efforts, the fact that most PhDs will leave academia isn’t always acknowledged by PhD programs, and curricula have been slow to accommodate the realities of the shifting job market. As the years go on, the organizers hope that more people with PhDs who have found careers outside of academia will come back and introduce current grad students to these opportunities. And slowly, as efforts like this expand, and as more PhDs leave academia, the culture might shift to fully embrace the many roles for people with PhDs. Perhaps PhD programs will change their structures to acknowledge that there is a need for PhDs in private industries, in government, and in nonprofits; perhaps they will even build in training for students to pursue these career avenues. Until then, and continuing afterwards, Beyond Academia aims to fill the gap.
Featured image: The crowd listens to a talk at Beyond Academia. By Ryan Forster, BSR Design Team.