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The alternative career is no longer alternative

It’s time to rethink STEM graduate education and align it with the real job market.

In a webinar earlier this year, Sean Sanders of AAAS put it bluntly: “A majority of PhD graduates do not, and will not in the future, obtain bench research positions in academia or industry.” Webinars such as this, active LinkedIn groups such as PhD Careers Outside of Academia (45 000+ members), and the recent plethora of articles on post-PhD careers demonstrate interest in training opportunities for what were previously thought of as alternative careers.

The rising interest in alternative careers could also, paradoxically, help students remain in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. A new American Institutes for Research report, The Nonacademic Careers of STEM PhD Holders, states that “connections to and retention in STEM, particularly for underrepresented groups, may improve if PhD training and career guidance were more relevant to the nonacademic career sectors that most students will enter and the common work activities in which they will engage.”

In light of these articles and rising demonstrated interest, students need resources for forging nonacademic and nonresearch careers. However, providing these resources requires change at nearly every level—from funding agencies, to institutions and departments, to individual PI and graduate student.

Funding agencies

The National Institutes of Health’s new Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program is a step in the right direction. BEST provides funding for projects that expose graduate students and postdocs to a diverse set of career options. According to the program’s objectives, “the training period for biomedical careers is already lengthy, and these activities should be integrated with traditional training so as not to increase the time to degree for predoctoral students or the length of the postdoctoral period.” As the roster of currently funded programs demonstrates, NIH clearly understands the need for concurrent training for different career paths during the course of academic studies.

The National Science Foundation is following suit. The former Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program is transforming into the NSF Research Traineeship Program (NRT), which “is designed to encourage the development of bold, new, potentially transformative, and scalable models for STEM graduate training that ensure that graduate students develop the skills, knowledge, and competencies needed to pursue a range of STEM careers.” Additionally, the 2013 Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge demonstrated NSF’s commitment to listening to the voices and needs of graduate students. The winning proposals from the challenge focused on providing resources for students to gain exposure to nonacademic career pathways and to develop social media and communication skills.

While the above examples show innovation in offering graduate students with nonacademic career training, NSF’s previously existing mechanism—the broader impacts criterion—could also be used to develop and integrate career training into grants: According to NSF, one type of broader impact activity focuses on “advanc[ing] discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning.” In describing broader impacts, NSF states that benefits to society, “may occur, for example, when results of research and education projects are applied to other fields of science and technology to create startup companies, to improve commercial technology, to inform public policy, and to enhance national security.”

To produce those societal benefits, graduate students need to receive training in or exposure to science communication, technology transfer, and science policy. The emphasis on career training by the NRT is a welcome development. But NSF grants awarded in the future could also foster career training through robust broader impacts sections. These should, I suggest, devote funding to realizing the benefits to society that NSF has identified.

Changes at the institutional and individual levels

Fortunately, several universities are demonstrating their commitment to diversifying graduate student training by offering certificates that STEM graduate students can pursue in tandem with their PhDs in order to expand their career options. The following list is not exhaustive, but it indicates the types of opportunities available.

More fundamentally, however, institutions and individuals need to change underlying attitudes in STEM disciplines. As L. Maren Wood recounted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, students may be fearful of expressing the desire to explore the entire career landscape (academic and nonacademic) to their peers and PIs. In a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education, human development professor Robert Sternberg warns of the “transmission of a tribal value system to students.” If the culture in a lab or department preaches academia as the only pathway, students may feel uncomfortable pursuing nonacademic careers, and may not know how to build the skills they will need for those careers. In a perspective for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws,” Bruce Alberts and his coauthors state that when it comes to the broken pipeline for the biomedical workforce, “little has been done to reform the system, primarily because it continues to benefit more established and hence more influential scientists and because it has undoubtedly produced great science.” Combined with recent negative quotes from senior faculty featured in a piece on Vitae, these reflections demonstrate the friction and barriers that many graduate students experience when choosing to leave academia.

Principal investigators must recognize that not all graduate students will be pursuing academic careers and should promote cultures of acceptance in their own labs and in their respective departments. While it is certainly not the case that all (or even a majority) of PIs discourage graduate students from pursuing nonacademic careers, the above readings indicate that this attitude still remains for some PIs. Understanding where these attitudes develop at the personal, departmental, and institutional level is important. Pressures placed on PIs around results, publications, and the tenure process may create inhospitable cultures for PIs and, by extension, for graduate students. Removing or reforming these institutional or funding constraints that enforce or create cultures that do not value nonacademic job training remains as a next step in combatting the perpetuation of “tribal” attitudes. One method to unpack these constraints and to hear the concerns of the graduate students for future training is through a dialogue where all parties (departmental representatives, individual PIs, and graduate students) come together as equals to discuss and develop plans that reflect the needs of all three.

Ultimately, graduate students are responsible for developing their own career plans and trajectories. However, their career choices will be wider and more diverse if they receive career training and support during the course of their doctoral work. Changes in funding agencies have been promising, and demonstrate a commitment to post-academia training, but the change and commitment must occur at all three levels—funding agency, institution, and individual—and those levels must dialogue to provide students with the skills, experiences, and opportunities necessary for today’s job market.

Stephanie E. Vasko is currently a senior research assistant at The Rock Ethics Institute at the Pennsylvania State University in State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @stephanievasko.

The opinions and views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the opinion, views, or policy of the Pennsylvania State University, the Rock Ethics Institute, or NSF.

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