This Christmas I went to Denmark to spend the Holidays with my family and friends. I caught up with a bunch of my old university friends, and now – in our mid-thirties – most seem to have found their career path. What struck me was that basically nobody was on the traditional tenure-track career path within academia that we were all trained for. That might seem like a triumph for the University of Copenhagen Biochemistry program that the students are able to embrace all sorts of careers, but reality is that most of us scrambled and improvised and taught ourselves whatever we needed, to get to where we are today.

Granted, we would be nowhere without the scientific training we received, but the skills it takes to make it outside academia are not taught in the science programs of most traditional universities.

Is lab work and lab-related activities the only thing graduate students in science need to learn?
We pretty much all did Masters and PhDs, and of all the people I studied with, only one has made it into a tenure-track position. One started his own company (after extensive business and project management training in his own time), several became high-school teachers (after further training in pedagogy and biology or chemistry, since a PhD in biochemistry does not qualify one to teach biology and/or chemistry in a Danish high-school), one studied patent law on top of his PhD to become a patent advisor, and the list goes on and on. I am not saying that once a person has an education there is no need for further training ever, but I do think that after more than 8 years in university, it should be possible to get a job without having to immediately look for more education.

This picture is as true for Danish science academics as it is for Canadian. My involvement in the postdoctoral association at University of British Columbia has given me the opportunity to connect with many different postdocs. A few are aiming at becoming tenure-tracked in academia and consequently put all their time and effort into bettering themselves at what they have been trained to do (lab work, research, publishing papers). Those few are however, far out-numbered by the many postdocs who are unsure of what to do next, feeling that they are just ‘parking lot’ed’ as postdocs until they can get together the experience (doing volunteer work and taking courses an workshops) to qualify for a non-academic job.

If the norm is no longer the tenure-track position, are we training our science PhD’s all wrong?

Should we be training students for the jobs that they will likely end up with, or should we train them for the traditional professor job that very few will get? The hardcore academics will argue that PhD degrees and postdoc positions were designed to train the traditional tenure-trackers, and that we should therefore continue to train them for what they were ‘meant’ to become. But, if reality no longer fits the program, is it not time to change our education to actually teach the students what they need to know for a successful career?

Richard Wiggers of the higher Education Quality Council of Ontario recently encouraged (as printed in 24hrs Vancouver) that we “be more candid with the PhD students about their prospects”. Graduate students (in the life-sciences at least) are only trained according to the possibility of becoming tenure-track academics.  Other options are not mentioned and not accounted for, and as a result, a ton of PhD graduates have no clue what to do when they graduate.

Training to become an academic professor can be compared to training for a spot in a symphony orchestra
Genegeek recently wrote a blog post comparing the training to become a scientist to that of becoming a professional classical musician. Very few musicians make it to the big symphony orchestra, but the training still focuses almost exclusively on that possibility. I still think there’s a place for that specialized form of education, training the very few to excel at something very specific. But it should be presented as exactly that: a specialized education for the few. Not as a general training program for all scientists.

As a side note I would argue that many traditional tenure-track scientists would benefit greatly from a bit of training in project management, technical writing and conflict resolution. I'd further argue that science in general – and the public understanding of science in particular – would benefit enormously from scientists having a bit more training in science communication (as I have exemplified in this article about knowledge translation as a powerful means to more funding).

As a very important start, I agree with Richard Wiggers that we need to be more candid with the students about their prospects. They need to know what reality looks like when they graduate, and they need to be given opportunities to prepare for that reality while in grad school. Some might decide that they don’t actually need a PhD degree to pursue a particular career or that they need to turn it in a different direction. Overall it will give the students a chance to educate themselves for the careers that they will likely end up with. As a result, they will be better at their jobs, they will start their careers sooner (as they don’t have to spend years after graduating figuring out what to do now and how to qualify for it) and they will likely be less frustrated in the process. As a side bonus, the young scientists, of which many have families with children, will have more time to spend on those families instead of hunting down workshops and courses and volunteer gigs while desperately networking themselves into the unknown space of non-academia.

Anne Steino.  



08/19/2013 7:10am

Its related to science and technology. In all project management systems the science methodologies are helpful.

09/16/2013 4:00pm

pmp training: I agree that science methodologies are very helpful for many different career paths, and I am not saying we shouldn't teach science anymore - quite the contrary. However, I think we are failing at teaching the students that they have other options than academia, and that they will likely be forced to chose some other career path. They can practice aspects of science and science-related skills (e.g. project management or mentoring) during university to be ready for the post-university reality check.

02/02/2014 6:59pm

Good blog post !!
Hi Anne ! also share some useful info !!pmp preparing: I concur that science techniques are extremely supportive for numerous diverse vocation ways, and I am not saying we shouldn't show science any longer - a remarkable opposite. Notwithstanding, I think we are coming up short at showing the scholars that they have different choices than the scholarly world, and that they will probably be compelled to picked some other profession way. They can drill parts of science and science-related abilities (e.g. venture administration or coaching) throughout college to be primed for the post-school rude awakening.

02/03/2014 10:07am

Hi Jack,

Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that science teaches so many skills that can be transferred to other careers with just a little extra training. I hope the educational institutions will realize this soon and start making some changes to their graduate programs and potentially also their undergraduate programs. At the very least, young students should be informed about the challenges and possibilities of the career paths they are about to embark on, so they can shape their choices based on that.

02/03/2014 10:34pm

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02/07/2014 10:01am

Hi Lipozene,

Thanks for your nice comments. Part of the problem for researchers to move into alternative careers is that we are not trained to think of careers outside of academia and research. Most of us were never told that we might - or even probably would - end up working outside of academia. So acknowledging that fact is a very important first step. Unfortunately, this realization often comes too late, when we are well into our postdocs and our careers "should be" taking off. To go back and continue training at this point can be devastating, financially, family-wise, and emotionally. I think we owe it to the students to make a well-informed decision about their futures before they commit years of their lives and society commits thousands of tax-dollars to something they might not even want or have any chance of achieving.

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    I am a biochemist, currently working for a start-up biotech company in Vancouver. After hours I write and edit science stories for a variety of magazines, newsletters and health authorities throughout Canada. In this blog I mainly write about the challenges and debates that permeate the research community within academia and in industry.
    As coordinator for the ScienceOnlineVancouver meetings, active member of the Canadian Science Writers' Association, and participant in the Banff Centre Science Communications program 2013, I am also deeply involved in the Canadian science communications community, and often blog about matters of #scicomm. 
    Opinions are my own.


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