Training Students for Non-Academic Careers

What should faculty members do to train their students for non-academic paths? This is something I’ve thought about a lot recently. Thus, I was interested when Katie Mack recently asked on Twitter

She has storified the whole discussion, which apparently started with a tweet from Sean Carroll (not the evolutionary geneticist Sean Carroll) on whether we should limit grad admissions (as Johns Hopkins has announced it will do).

My quick tweet in response

is included in the Storify, and I figured I would explain more.

In my experience, most students enter grad school with plans for a tenure track position. But the data are clear that most people who receive science PhDs do not go on to tenure track positions. (If anyone knows of ecology-specific data, I’d love to hear about it. UPDATE: The Hansen et al. article in this ASLO bulletin has ecology specific data. Subscription/membership required to see the bulletin. The brief summary: 1) a 77% increase in ecology PhDs awarded from 2003 to 2010, 2) the median time elapsed between earning a PhD and getting a TT position has actually decreased since the 1980s (when it was 4-7 years); with it taking about 3 years now (as it has more-or-less since the 90s)).

I feel like it is part of my job as an advisor to make sure my students 1) are realistic about the odds of getting a tenure track position, and 2) have a realistic match between their career goals and their other goals. I don’t view it as my responsibility to figure out what is their perfect career – that is each student’s responsibility, in my opinion – but I want to do as much as I reasonably can to make them aware of different options and to help them think through different possibilities and figure out what they want to explore.

How have I done that? At lab meetings, we discuss things like this Nature graphic showing the trends in PhDs awarded per year vs. new tenure track positions per year. I bought a copy of the book Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower for my lab after a couple of people I know told me they found it really helpful when considering non-academic paths. I made sure everyone in my lab knew about the Individual Development Plan website, which can help people figure out what careers might be good matches. I continue to seek out people who are using the skills they learned during a PhD in a non-academic position to write guest posts for this blog (such as this one by Joe Simonis), so that my students and others can read about the paths others have taken. I joined LinkedIn so I can have a better network of professionals in different careers. I have put students in touch with a staff member in the graduate school here at Michigan who specializes in helping students figure out non-academic careers. And, whenever possible, I ask people about how they ended up on the path they’ve taken, what they think worked, and what they think didn’t work.

I’m sure there’s more that I could do, though, and I’d love to get feedback and ideas from readers.

For the PIs: what, if anything, do you do to try to prepare your students for non-academic positions?

For the grad students and postdocs: what do you wish your advisor was doing? What is s/he doing that you have found helpful?

For readers who are currently in non-academic positions: what advice or resources did you find helpful? What do you wish you had been told or known about?

21 thoughts on “Training Students for Non-Academic Careers

  1. Thanks for the post, Meg.

    Here are a few papers on the topic that might be of interest. I hope the help.

    Blickley et al. 2013. Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers. Conservation Biology 27: 24-34.

    Muir & Schwartz. 2009. Academic research training for a nonacademic workplace: a case study of graduate student alumni who work in conservation. Conservation Biology. 23: 1357-1368.

    Perez. 2005. What students can do to improve graduate education in conservation biology. Conservation Biology. 19: 2033-2035.

    Campbell et al. 2005. Looking beyond research in doctoral education. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3: 153-160.

  2. Meg,

    In response to your question about ecology specific stats on academic vs non-academic careers, I’d bet a survey of ECOLOG-L or twitter hashtag campaign would provide a decent response to be able to say something interesting (although not sure how representitive ECOLOG-L/twitter is of non-academic v academic ecologists…) Just a thought.

    And for one data point, I am a non-academic ecologist who decided fairly early on that the academic path was not for me. I like my cushy fed job!

    Thanks for a nice post.

    • I wonder how representative ecolog or twitter would be for this sort of poll. I suspect both would be biased, but it could still be interesting to see what it showed.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Question Meg: how much do you talk to prospective students about these issues? I make sure prospective students who are interested in academia understand the odds of success. Though I also make sure to avoid discouraging them from going to grad school for that reason (that would require more knowledge of the alternatives, and a prospective student’s background, values, and goals, than I or any prospective supervisor has). See here: and here: EDIT: see also the first link here:

    I also emphasize to prospective students that I don’t value academic over non-academic careers and I’ll happily do my best to help them pursue their chosen career whatever it may be. While also emphasizing that, being an academic myself (and one without many contacts outside academia), I’m best able to advise and support them in pursuit of an academic career. (Though in future I’ll hopefully accumulate more contacts outside of academia, as some of my own students go on to non-academic careers).

    Thank you for the tips, good to have some additional resources for students who want to pursue non-academic careers.

    • I haven’t talked to prospective grad students about this yet — though lately I’ve taken to sending prospective students relevant blog posts, so maybe this could be one. 😉 But I agree: I don’t want to discourage students at the outset (and I worry about the possibility for that discouraging some groups of students more than others).

  4. Important topic

    In my experience, this varies a lot from institution to institution. At University of Arizona, just the fact that I didn’t have an attitude that choosing the non-academic track was a failure was unusual. Whereas here at University of Maine (in a resource-use intensive state), half the students have a non-academic on their committee (which by the way is a great tool to think about using for students targeting non-academic tracks). Somebody who works for the state or federal government (or an NGO) is much more tuned in to what those job markets look like. More than once I’ve heard a non-academic say something non-obvious like “you have to take this course as its a job requirement for federal wildlife jobs” (e.g. a botany class). And in general the perspective about what kind of research to do, connections, etc are enormously valuable for students who know that is the track they want.

    Other than that, like everybody has said, talking about it early and often is the real key. I ask my own students every 6 months what their career plans are (they do of course change) and ditto for every committee meeting for somebody else’s students that I sit on (I think my colleague’s get tired of it!).

    • Asking about this at committee meetings is a good idea (and, indeed, seems obvious now that you say it), but I mostly haven’t done that. I should start! Thanks for the idea!

      • Grad student here. I have had my committee ask questions about my career goals. I realize now that they most likely had good intentions and just wanted to help me get there, but at the time I felt like I had to say that I wanted to be academic researcher. The same is true in my grad school applications. I felt like if I didn’t say I wanted to be an academic researcher that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or accepted. I think it is important to make clear early on that we will help you in what ever path you choose. I think if that was more apparent I would have more honestly considered my career goals and been able to seek and receive the much needed advice much earlier.

      • Hi Wendy – you make an excellent point. As I noted in my comment there are lots of places where the only really acceptable answer is “I want to be a professor just like you all” – I don’t think you were off about that.

        I think that is an incredibly stupid idea for faculty to have given the job market/numbers (not to mention it is narrow minded, provincial and egotistical). I do think things are changing and that is becoming an increasingly rare attitude except for the premier programs.

        All I would say is I hope you (or others in this position, sounds like you may have already finished) can find some committee members (assuming its too late to find an advisor) who supports this. Often faculty from the natural resources (wildlife, forestry) are much better at this. Also, as I noted, people working at government agencies (state or federal) or NGOs CAN be on committees (at some universities they have to have a PhD or there is a limit on the number of non-PhD committee members, and often a limit on number of non-home-university members so check rules). But I’ve never heard of a place where you can’t get somebody who is a non-academic to be on your committee. I strongly recommend this if it is a route that you have even a 50% chance of following..

  5. A quick note on courses for credit – if your student may be interested in government or agency jobs (USFWS, USGS, NOAA, EPA or more local), advise them to take grad classes for credit. My advisors (Gene Likens and Bobbi Peckarsky) were fantastic but the general wisdom at Cornell at the time (more than 10 years ago, so this may be dated) was to focus on research. If you wanted to sit in on classes that was OK, but don’t spend time/effort taking classes for credit or a grade. The intent was great – focus on getting your research done and out rather than any unnecessary hoops – and with that they were expressing their confidence that PhD students could learn what you need to learn on your own. The only downside of that comes when applying for agency research jobs, in which at least part of application requires so many credit hours in specific coursework. If applying for a limnologist position, it sure is handy to have credit in a course called limnology. Just auditing the class, or even having a dissertation that is related, may not get them passed some strict HR screen. Any good job will want your student to be able to figure things out on their own too – but having those credits may be what gets them in the door. This may apply most for students going straight from an undergraduate degree to a PhD program – masters programs seem to have different expectations about coursework. But for PhDs who would like the option to work for agencies, be aware that some hiring processes do still count those credits and look for key words.

    • And you will often notice this even in agency jobs located at universities (e.g. USGS Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Units, which are graduate faculty at the cooperating university) – be expected to have to add up credit hours in the subject area they’re hiring for when you apply. Auditing classes or being a self-taught (and highly published) expert in an area may be be adequately evidenced to them.

  6. Following up on Kate’s comment. For my wildlife biologist / disease ecologist job I needed to have several plant ecology classes. So applicants for these federal jobs need to make it obvious for the non-scientist HR folks that they meet the requirements for the job series. I was deemed ‘not qualified’ in my first application. (They didn’t count a forest ecology class as plant-related). I’d recommend that folks try to talk to someone in that agency prior to applying just to learn a few of the things that may help the application make it past the first cut.

  7. When I was an undergrad studying ecology, my adviser (Tim Maret, Shippensburg University) asked me every meeting what I wanted to do when I grew up? I met with him right before accepting a position as a PhD student and he asked me the same question. I really appreciated the consistency of this question as it helped me shape in my mind what “stars to shoot for” in a realistic world.

    • I like the idea of asking this question repeatedly, because it helps get across the message that it’s okay for these goals to change. I think I need to start asking this sort of question more often!

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