When asked if she uses much of her scientific experience at work, Ari Krakowski excitedly replies, “All the time! My experience at the bench taught me a lot about the practice of science, which is a really important piece to incorporate when developing a science curriculum.” These days, rather than doing research in the laboratory, Krakowski spends her time sharing her love of science with students. “I want to help students think about ‘how we know what we know’ and become curious about their world. Hopefully in this way we can get more people interested in science and also grow students’ critical thinking skills.” Krakowski received her PhD in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley and she is currently a senior curriculum developer at the Learning Design Group, a science curriculum design organization affiliated with UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Hall of Science.  She puts her scientific expertise to work developing science curricula for young learners, and has been instrumental in designing an innovative curriculum for classrooms around the country.

Click to Enlarge. Design: Leah Anderson, with elements adapted from work from US Navy in Public Domain

Click to Enlarge. Design: Leah Anderson, with elements adapted from work from US Navy in Public Domain

While Krakowski’s story is a departure from the traditional tenure-track path of academia, it is increasingly common. Though the role of the doctoral degree has historically been to train the next generation of university professors, only 20 percent of PhDs today will obtain tenure track faculty positions within four to six years after graduating. Graduate students often feel this imbalance acutely as they navigate an increasingly saturated academic job market while immersed in their highly demanding research schedules. The lack of academic faculty positions for new PhDs means those graduate students interested in academic careers have to work even harder to win precious few professorships. But for the majority of graduate students the more important question is this: if they do not become professors, what else can they do? As it turns out, PhDs can do quite a lot. And though many academic institutions remain focused on training academics, a growing number of graduate student organizations and institutional programs are working to ensure that PhDs can realize their full potential, within the ivory tower and beyond it.

A widening gap

Henry Sauermann of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Michael Roach of the University of North Carolina explored this trend last year with a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE. In “Changing Career Preferences,” the authors surveyed 4,109 PhD students from 39 top US research universities. The students surveyed were at various stages of their degrees in chemistry, biology, and physics, and the survey aimed to understand how factors like the level of advisor encouragement and field of study shape the career preferences of PhD students.In one particular survey, students were asked how they perceived departmental and advisor encouragement to pursue non-academic careers, from “strongly discouraged” to “strongly encouraged.” The results revealed that although most advisors and departments were not outright dismissive of non-academic research careers, they were most often neutral regarding the subject or unable to provide their students with significant guidance. The authors speculate that active discouragement of non-academic careers may even be contributing to the oversupply of science PhDs fighting for a scarce supply of academic jobs. With many advisors unable to help or quick to discourage student involvement in non-research activities, trying to balance personal career interests with those of the research program can be exhausting. Exploring careers outside of academia on one’s own requires more time than many graduate students have. For these reasons, graduate students who decide to leave academia often find themselves with a valuable set of skills but little understanding of how to turn those skills into a fulfilling career. At the same time, graduate students seem to appreciate that the traditional academic path is no longer desirable (or possible) for every doctoral candidate in the current job market. In their surveys, Sauermann and Roach also gauged PhD students’ interest in various career types. Students were asked to rate five career types as being “extremely unattractive” to “extremely attractive.” The authors found that the number of students rating a faculty research career as “extremely attractive” dropped from 57 percent to 50 percent as they progressed through their degree in the life sciences, from 45 percent to 32 percent in chemistry, and from 60 percent to 53 percent in physics. A significant interest in faculty-track research positions remained in all cases. Over time, interest in non-academic careers increased for students across all disciplines.

These trends have put graduate programs in a difficult position.  On one hand, tradition dictates that universities must train the next generation of academics; on the other, universities want to do what is best for their students.  As university programs attempt to evolve and adapt to the changing job market, many graduate students feel that academia is leaving them behind.  As Gabriel Dunn, a graduate student in physics, said recently: “I had always thought a PhD would open doors, but in my experience it has more often closed them.” In the face of these challenges, some of the most compelling efforts to move beyond academia have come from the students themselves.

Graduate Experiences Decrease the Appeal of Academic Careers

Click to Enlarge. Design: Leah Anderson

Taking charge

Meet Anna Goldstein, a PhD candidate in UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry. While her passion for science led her to university research, her ambitions and interests have evolved to go well beyond the bench. “I’ve learned that you don’t have to be a researcher to facilitate innovation,” Goldstein says. This realization led her to begin considering options in governmental work and policymaking. However, Goldstein quickly understood that management and leadership skills would be essential for success, no matter which career she chose. Knowing that her graduate training would not teach her to supervise teams of people, a crucial skill for such jobs, she took matters into her own hands. Working with Department of Chemistry Professor Robert Bergman, Goldstein, along with four other graduate students, co-organized a graduate student seminar in 2012 called Science Leadership and Management (SLAM). SLAM invites guest speakers to teach graduate students about which of their skills are applicable to non-academic positions, as well as general principles of leadership, communication, and management. Developing this set of skills is beneficial regardless of whether students stay in academia or choose a non-academic path instead (it is an often-overlooked fact that academic research consists of equal parts mentorship, management, and bench work).  Last year, 60 graduate students and post-docs were enrolled in the course. This year, SLAM will be organized as a drop-in seminar course for anyone who wants to improve his or her leadership and management skills. Goldstein was not the only UC Berkeley student inspired to organize career support. Last year, Els van der Helm took a class called “How to Finish Your PhD and Find a Job,” which focused on how to pursue an academic career. Feeling unsatisfied with this narrow perspective, she decided to do something to help the other graduate students who, like her, were uninterested in academic careers and wanted to explore alternatives. She discussed the idea of holding a conference that addressed questions of career prospects outside of the realm of academia with fellow psychology graduate student Bryan Alvarez and vision science student Mariana Garcia. They both expressed their support and soon became co-organizers. The team sent a survey to gauge interest, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.  It turned out that graduate student and post-docs from a wide range of disciplines were similarly concerned about career options outside of research. The team then contacted a diverse group of PhDs with successful careers outside of academia to serve as speakers and panelists at the conference. Many of the invited speakers responded that they were excited to participate and several even expressed their wish that such a conference had existed while they were in graduate school. In March 2013, the first annual “Beyond Academia” conference was held with a sold-out audience of nearly 300 graduate students and post-docs.  It offered attendees the opportunity to hear that their skills were useful outside of the academic laboratory. It included workshops on career paths like management, consulting, data science, and government research, and gave students a forum to connect with members of the business and non-profit community.  The conference was widely praised by its attendees, with one speaker noting that “one woman I spoke with had just gone through a year’s worth of research trying to transition to industry.  She said that if she’d had a conference like this when she was starting it would have saved her three months.” The skills demonstrated by the students behind the SLAM seminars and the Beyond Academia conference—resourcefulness, communication, problem solving, leadership, and management—are often those that companies covet. They are also useful in professional academic research, which involves navigating the political and bureaucratic world of a university in addition to managing a team of graduate students and post-docs.  The overwhelming popularity of these events suggests that for many graduate students, the idea that they possess such skills is a novel one. However, through efforts like SLAM and Beyond Academia, many students are feeling a shift in their identity: from science lab rat hell-bent on getting tenure, to a highly flexible and intelligent thinker that can tackle problems from many angles and with highly specialized skills.

Swimming upstream

While many graduate students are beginning to shift their priorities towards non-academic careers, this doesn’t mean that their advisors—the professors that mentor, train, and fund them—will see eye to eye with them. This problem can arise when a student feels pressure to spend all of his or her time working on research, despite obligations to do otherwise. A former graduate student from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology (who asked to remain anonymous) explained how she was excited to be granted a 50 percent “Graduate Student Instructor” appointment by her department. This is a common appointment that allowed her to split time evenly between research and teaching instead of focusing all of her efforts in the lab. Unfortunately, her advisor didn’t see it that way. “I was told not to spend 50 percent of my time on teaching, and to continue to spend 100 percent of my time doing research,” she said.  When she insisted that teaching students was important to her, the professor told her that the only option was to figure out how to do it on her own time. “This meant that I had to essentially do at least 150 percent time.  I could not let down my students and I certainly could not upset my advisor.” Economics may be partly to blame for this misalignment of priorities. Dr. Paula Stephen is a labor economist specializing in science labor markets. In a recent book, How Economics Shapes Science, Stephen argues that the short-term, competitive grants (the primary funding mechanism for scientific research) create “perverse incentives” for universities and professors to expand labs while simultaneously cutting costs. This imbalance leads to an increasing dependence on a temporary and inexpensive workforce including non-permanent research associates, post-docs, and graduate students. This model has encouraged PhD programs to grow faster than the academic job market on both the supply and demand side. Rather than increasing the number of faculty track academic positions, many universities now recruit adjunct faculty and lecturers to teach students. These incentives also encourage professors to think of their students as sources of labor rather than mentees to be trained. Under this system, hours spent by a graduate student exploring career options and developing non-research-specific skills are seen as wasted time. Stephen and others have singled out this model of research funding as the main contributor to the imbalance between university training and the reality of the job market that we see today.  In effect, funding agencies have encouraged an expansion in PhD programs without creating more academic jobs. British scientist Jenny Rohn recently explained on her blog that in the UK (as in the US) the availability of academic research positions can be likened to a distorted pyramid. “With the lack of mid-level permanent positions,” she wrote, “it’s more like a spike on a flat plane.” Ultimately, economic incentives are the driving force behind any academic institution, as are the wills of funding agencies, which determine the priorities that a university and its professors must set. Unfortunately, in a rapidly changing world, it is difficult for large bureaucratic funding agencies to keep up with trends in student preferences.  However, as the cry for help from graduate students grows louder, some agencies and universities are starting to listen.

Top-down solutions

An awareness of the need to prepare PhDs for a wide range of careers has begun to expand to all sectors of academic research, including forward-thinking funding agencies and academic institutions. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund has developed a grant called Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) as part of its “Strengthening the Biomedical Research Workforce” program. Launched in September 2013, BEST intends to prepare students for a diverse set of career options by investing in new university programs that will implement a more interdisciplinary approach to graduate training. The NIH is especially interested in programs that will foster collaborations between medical schools, business schools, law schools, policy programs, government, and other non-academic institutions that often overlap with the interests and skills of academic research. “The future of biomedical research depends upon a sustainable and robust workforce, in which talented, well-trained scientists are best prepared to make significant contributions in academia, industry, government, business, and other venues,” said NIH director Francis S. Collins in a press release for the program. Graduate students in programs that receive these grants will have a wide range of experience in worlds inside and out of academia, making it easier to explore these career options in the future. Another model for institutional support is the creation of small organizations with the explicit goal of encouraging interaction between academia and industry.  The Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at UC Berkeley is a group that focuses on a number of biomedical applications for research going on at the university. Interdisciplinary training is central to QB3’s mission, focusing on building “creative partnerships with industry and support for entrepreneurial scientists [to] bring the fruit of research to market and bring benefit to society.” Importantly for researchers with career interests outside of academia, QB3 facilitates relationships between entrepreneurs, academic researchers and industry through site visits by members of the biomedical industry and the development of formal partnerships with companies. Larger companies help provide seed capital to the most promising startups, which QB3 helps to launch with its “Startup in a Box” program. “Startup in a Box” prepares qualified startup candidates with legal resources and training to successfully apply for a “Small Business Innovation Research” grant to launch their companies. To help entrepreneurs pilot commercial products, QB3 rents out “incubators,” the biotech equivalent of the garage made famous by IT startups. Incubators include laboratory bench space and equipment, and are located in buildings on the UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco campuses, as well as several other locations in the Bay Area. By utilizing the resources of university organizations, aspiring UC Berkeley entrepreneurs may pursue their business ideas in a familiar, low-risk environment while maintaining a close relationship with the university at which they trained. Multiple startups work in close proximity to one another and must also share equipment, which further advances collaboration between scientists of many disciplines and backgrounds. Initiatives like QB3 are examples of a new model that provides economic incentives for academic institutions to be partners in the expansion of career opportunities for their graduate students.  Not only do universities benefit from a more satisfied graduate student body, but they also retain a portion of the intellectual property associated with each participating venture.  If a startup company succeeds, the university’s coffers see a direct benefit. However, incubators are just one part of a very complex academic system and startups are only one among myriad non-academic career options available to graduate students.  Ultimately, change will have to come in the form of a cultural shift at multiple levels of academia.

Explore Your Opportunities

Click to Enlarge. Design: Leah Anderson.

Time to break the taboo?

After participating in outreach events and doing a lot of networking, van der Helm eventually found a job at McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm. While interviewing, she leveraged her experience taking business classes on the side to demonstrate that she could excel at working with clients in industry, government, and the non-profit sector. Her advice for graduate students contemplating a job search: “Finding a job, particularly a job that really suits you, requires a lot of networking, no matter the setting. You want to make sure you have all the information you need in order to know that that is the job you want to apply for.” What can you do if you’re a graduate student? It is never too early to start thinking about careers that fit your specific interests and talents. It is also extremely important to keep abreast of the skills that employers outside of academia find desirable. “If you are in graduate school, keep track of the practical skills that jobs will require,” says Arnau Tibau-Puig, who earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan. “By the time I realized what skills [employers] needed, it was too late for me to learn.” Finally, taking time out of your schedule to do these things will improve your chances in the long run. According to van der Helm, “I started orienting myself for jobs about seven months before finishing my PhD and it took up all seven months. You should have space during your PhD to prepare for your next job.”


Click to Enlarge. Design: Leah Anderson, with elements adapted from US Dept. of Defense in Public Domain

Students like Krakowski, Goldstein, and van der Helm were open to non-academic careers early in their graduate careers.  They managed to cultivate valuable experiences while they were graduate students, including teaching, organizing conferences and seminars, blogging, and networking. While some may see those activities as distractions from precious time that could be used for research, it may have meant the difference between landing a career-track job and floundering after graduation. These students recognized the importance of exploring all of their options.  However, as indicated by the surveys conducted by Sauerman and Roach, they also represent the exception, not the rule. If trends in the academic job market continue, their stories may spell out an alternate pathway for PhD candidates. While these students forged a path beyond academia on their own, they hope that future students will be met with adequate university assistance and support.  This includes curricula that expose students to various career options, departments that support students’ many career interests, and counselors to help guide students in attaining those careers. Whether academia will adapt to the changing realities facing its graduate students remains to be seen.  However, the remarkable ability that many graduate students have shown to recognize this need and craft their own solutions gives us hope. For the benefit of graduates, universities must meet their career needs in a complex and changing job market.  For the benefit of industry, society, and universities themselves, higher education will have to provide an experience that no longer closes doors beyond the ivory tower, but opens them.

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  3. Molly Sharlach

    Thank you for reporting so thoughtfully on this important trend. A recent graduate of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley, I am now a student in the one-year Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz. I wrote two short pieces for the BSR, but would have liked to devote more time to exploring science writing during graduate school. This article enlightened me about institutional issues that make this a challenging situation for graduate students who do not want to pursue traditional academic careers. Two resources not mentioned here that were very helpful to me are the Molecular and Cell Biology 295 course “Life After Grad School” and the Integrative Biology Department’s Women in Science group.

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