It’s time to get real about non-academic job training for biomedical PhDs and postdocs

Last week, Dr. Sally Rockey put up a post on the NIH’s Rock Talk blog clarifying allowable training activities for the different types of NIH postdocs.

Two things stood out to me about this post:

1. It appears that teaching is a supported training exercise for postdocs on NIH fellowships but not for those supported off of research grants.

Someone else in the comment section was surprised by this too so maybe Rockey will clarify this distinction in a later post. Personally, I think teaching should be an NIH-sanctioned activity for all postdocs. A few years ago I went to a career seminar by a new prof at an elite liberal arts college. He said that he thinks he had an advantage in the job search because he had taught a course at a nearby university, but he did this by moonlighting (teaching at night). For postdocs already working long hours on evenings and weekends, or those with families, this kind of moonlighting might be unrealistic. I’d also hazard to say that many grad student and postdoc advisors are already against having their trainees spend signification time on teaching (a job they will eventually do if they become professors of any sort) since it takes time away from research. If the NIH says that significant teaching is not sanctioned for postdocs on research grants (as most postdocs are), this adds credence to those advisors’ views.

2. There is absolutely no mention of career development for non-academic positions.

Can we get real for a minute? We know that we’re training way too many PhDs for them all to be eventually employed as professors (see the NIH’s own report).  What does that mean? It means that a significant number of PhDs and postdocs are going to have to find non-academic jobs. And what does getting a non-academic job require? Time and skills.

The working group report recommends that the NIH create grants for “training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options,” but as far as I know those are just pipe dreams at this point (these recommendations were also made in 1998). What about current grad students and postdocs? What do they do when they decide academia isn’t for them, or that they’re not competitive, or that they just can’t land a TT job after three cycles? They. Need. To. Find. Jobs.

Non-academic jobs (just like academic jobs), do not simply fall from the sky. They require skill building, networking, informational interviews, resume writing and rewriting, job applications, and actual experience (sometimes in the form of an internship). Inherently, all of these things take time away from the research enterprise, but they are necessary. Really. You could argue that grad students and postdocs should be doing these things on their own time, but graduate and postdoctoral training is called TRAINING for a reason. Postdocs are by definition temporary jobs, so career development (not just for academic jobs) should be part of the training. It would be great if the NIH realized this–unless this “alternative career” language they used in the recent report is just a scam.

Is the solution a culture shift?

I think there’s a larger cultural problem with the idea of non-academic careers. Throughout grad school, we’re officially or unofficially trained to become singularly focused on our research. Unfortunately, that means we lose out on the ability to diversify our skills or network with people outside our immediate fields. This is an enormous opportunity cost that really makes it a struggle to find a job once the PhD is in hand. I’ve seen several colleagues struggle with the leap to a non-academic career (as have I).

Yes, grad students and postdocs are wholly responsible for navigating our own careers. We need to be the ones finding opportunities to expand our skill sets and to make connections with people outside academia. But grad program directors and grad student/postdoc advisors can help make their trainees more competitive by encouraging them (many of whom are introverts) to do these things or at the very least not discouraging them when they want to teach a class, participate in outreach activities, or start an internship. I understand there is an inherent conflict of interest here–research papers are the currency of academic science and research output is what creates this currency. But trainees are people–not data-producing robots. They have bills to pay and hopefully futures to plan for.

What can trainees in the pipeline do now? Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule

If you are a grad student or postdoc, the time to start thinking about your future is now. And if you’re in the biomedical sciences, it’s probably prudent to prepare plans A, B, and C given the numbers and the state of the economy. It’s hard to pull yourself away from the bench when you think you need a glamour journal publication to even have a shot at an academic career, but it’s also important. I highly recommend Peter Fiske’s 80:10:10 rule. You spend 80% of your work week working your ass off on your research. 10% goes to personal development and 10% goes to bragging about yourself/networking.  Seriously, read his advice here.

I wish I had put more effort into planning my career as a graduate student. I went to just about every seminar offered by our career center. I participated in three teaching seminar programs. But I didn’t spend nearly enough time doing active career development–like talking to people outside the university, writing articles, or doing an internship. Part of this was out of guilt and the feeling that I should only be focusing on my research. Part of it was fear. And part of it was time simply slipping out of my hands.

I’m making up for lost time now by doing an internship and trying to network on top of a full-time postdoc. But, honestly, this is difficult and exhausting (way more so than writing and defending my dissertation with a 6 month old). I’m thankful to have an incredibly, incredibly understanding and supportive advisor and a husband that picks up my slack with childcare and chores. I know others aren’t so lucky and some are struggling to do these things while unemployed, which is even more difficult in some ways.

My hopes are that people at the NIH, graduate program directors, and grad student/postdoc trainers start to realize the precarious position many biomedical PhDs are in right now. Let’s start encouraging grad students and postdocs to pull their heads out of the sand and to stick them outside the windows of the ivory tower.

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8 thoughts on “It’s time to get real about non-academic job training for biomedical PhDs and postdocs

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Summer!

    We postdocs have to fend for ourselves in this inhospitable funding and jobs climate. I’m not sure if it’s denial on the part of the tenured professoriat or that they’re simply too busy securing their own funding to be concerned with a lost generation of biology PhDs. Even the well-meaning senior professors with whom I interact are too consumed with their own careers to volunteer even a minimal amount of mentorship. I can’t really blame them though because they’re not in a position to give practical advice on non-academic careers.

    I used to get really upset thinking about this mess, but then one day I realized being angry and disillusioned won’t change anything. We have to help each other channel our creative energies and smarts in new directions. Another world is possible!

    1. Thanks for commenting Ethan! Yes, it is probably unrealistic to expect mentors who have spent their entire lives in academia to give practical advice about non-academic careers. That being said, individual advisors can help change the culture by being realistic about their trainees’ prospects and open to them exploring other career possibilities. And I definitely agree that this is a time that calls for directing positive creative energy in new directions!

  2. While I do believe that the NIH should implement a stronger career development clause for funded trainees, the universities themselves should provide more/better opportunities. I have had experience, both as a grad student and as a postdoc, at 2 established universities in programs that focused on biomedical research. During these training periods, I was pretty much under the impression that I needed to keep the head down and do my experiments. However, toward the end of my postdoc, I noticed a shift in the mentality and both institutions are now working on helping students and postdocs find suitable career paths. This includes an emphasis in a number of areas, such as building strong resume/CV/cover letters, networking, and getting experience in their area of interest. While things are at relatively early stages, I am optimistic that we will continue to progress and more training institutions will follow suit, NIH status notwithstanding.

    1. Jeanne, I think you’re totally right. Universities need to do more (the impetus really does need to be on them since they admit the students to begin with), and I think they’re starting to get the message. A sea change is afoot that I hope will make the transition easier for current and future trainees.

  3. Summer and others are lucky to have a supporting PI, which I experienced during my PhD training as well. But as a postdoc that support goes down the drain if you want to move on before they (PIs) want you to go. If you are a hard working postdoc that has generated data to be published in a high impact journal in less than two years, their intention is to keep you for at least another project, that is all good, but what if you don’t want to stay and decide to venture out of academia.
    First, that is not a good news for your PI, therefore they’re not that thrilled to make some phone calls/ emails on behalf of you. Another big question is when, if you can even say to them, that you will not pursue the other project to the end but that you will “stick around” till your next job offer?
    I this case I am talking about industry jobs within your field, where a phone call from your boss to a CSO of a company can help land you a job. Instead we are alone to calculate the next move just because you need to not retaliate your PI against you for a supportive reference letter

    1. Thanks for your comment. It made me think of this PhD Comic: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1527
      It is tough when grad students and postdocs are so dependent on their advisor for a strong letter or phone call that the PI may not want to make. I think for most people it is hard to tell your PI that you wish to pursue a different path. But from watching my colleagues it seems that even if a PI isn’t thrilled that you want to go into industry, they do want you to succeed and will make that call. Of course there are always a few bad apples that will refuse or damn you with faint praise, but I bet they’re rare. I imagine a call/letter from a PhD advisor or even fellow postdoc or alumni could help in these cases. It would be interesting to get someone from industry to weigh in on this.

  4. Another interesting article, Summer. I’ve been thinking about how to convince grad programs to invest more in non-academic training, and maybe it comes down to concentrating on the bottom line. That is, if PhDs go into industry right out of grad school, they are likely to have a higher-paying job than their postdoc counterparts. So, when it comes time to squeeze out donations from alumni, the school is likely to get a bigger check out of an industry professional than a 6th year postdoc. That’s of course not the reason why broad career training is necessary, but maybe this argument could be a means to an end…

    1. I think you’re right to look for a monetary incentive to change the system–money talks! I was just talking to D about how a certain university didn’t/doesn’t? solicit donations from PhD alums because we don’t have any money! Then I thought to myself, how do Reed and Carleton make any money with all their PhD alums?

      If institutions aren’t going to change the numbers they admit then students will need to decide it’s not worth going to grad school (this is happening for law school). The thing that has shocked me is how many students have blinders on when they enter grad school (admittedly, I did too). I don’t remember a single student asking about career outcomes in all the recruitment years I participated in. I suppose that could be because they realize the postdoc is really the most important stage.

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