Future of research: Career awareness

Academia is the alternative career today for most young scientists. That message became clear during a discussion among graduate students and postdocs during the Future of Research’s (FOR) workshop on career awareness at Naturejobs Career Expo on 20 May in Boston, Massachusetts. The Expo was a day-long careers conference organized and presented by the Naturejobs department of Nature Publishing Group.

The workshop’s ambience was similar to that of a bar on a Friday night—it was noisy and standing-room only. Attendees were eager to address the problem that most early-career researchers face: what are the alternative career paths beyond academia, and how can they be reached?

It is not that early-career scientists consider academic research to be an undesirable profession. Instead, they are coming to understand how difficult it is to obtain an academic post. Graduate students are surrounded by academics who believe their students are guaranteed successes if they just stick to it and keep applying to positions, yet many faculty members, academic advisers and mentors still do not realize that the landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. Data exist on the fact that the vast majority of graduate students who do an academic postdoc end up leaving academia entirely. What is not known is where they end up.

After a brief presentation on the roadblocks – lack of funding and of faculty positions, inconsistencies in postdoctoral training – that face PhD students today, presenters divided the room into four groups. Each group’s task centered on discussing the obstacles that prevent young researchers from exploring alternative careers, and brainstorming potential solutions to those problems. Initially, the group seemed reluctant to share their ideas, perhaps worried about revealing their desire to leave academia, but, armed with felt-tip markers and post-it notes, attendees eventually opened up.

Graduate students said that the biggest stumbling block for them is a lack of exposure to non-academic paths. Other than seeking research positions in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, students said that they simply have no idea what else they can do once they earn their PhD. From the students’ point of view, experimental design and performance comprise their skill set. Many campuses lack a career-development office or adviser that can offer guidance or exposure to careers in which these skills would not be utilized.

Insecurity was high on the list of obstacles that attendees identified. In addition to the fear of the unknown (what else is out there?) and the oft-heard worry about telling one’s principal investigator that one does not wish to follow in her or his footsteps to the Ivory Tower, the group said that they worry about how the skills that they learned in an academic environment would transfer to another scientific discipline. While graduate school trains students well in bench skills, it does not provide them with specific training for non-bench careers.

Workshop attendees also debated whether it is necessary to do a postdoc. Rather than use it as a time to develop independent investigator skills, many graduate students view the postdoc period as a default stop after graduate school, and use it as a time to figure out their next career step.

Attendees identified solutions that ranged from finding outside mentorship to setting aside dedicated time each week for career development. A non-academic mentor can help a graduate student or postdoc to define her or his career interests, while ‘career development’ can entail developing a network of contacts in that field – once it is identified – and hone any additional or non-bench skills that might be needed in that field or discipline. Informational interviews were suggested as a way to meet professionals in disciplines outside of academia. Attendees also talked about developing an alumni network that would provide information for current students on where former students and postdocs from their university ended up. Such a network would also enable students to contact alumni to discuss their current position.