Last week, Terry McGlynn wrote a post with a list of things he wishes other people would write posts about. I read this minutes before heading to the airport, and this was like catnip given my #airportblogging habit. So, I sat in the airport thinking about this topic Terry suggested:
How PhD students and postdocs are getting professional development to do things other than become a tenure-track faculty member
This is something I’ve been discussing a lot on seminar trips, with prospective grad students, and with colleagues, but I hadn’t thought about writing a post on it before. So, with thanks to Terry for the prompt, here’s the story of how one of my students has explored career interests outside academia.
As I’ve written about before, each of my grad students (and postdocs and technicians) have mentoring plans, which we update three times a year. One thing I love about the mentoring plans is that they provide a regular prompt to discuss career goals and to make sure that the things the students are doing align with those goals.
While updating the mentoring with my student Camden a couple of years ago, he indicated that he was most interested in a position somewhere like the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). This led us to re-evaluating the projects he was working on, including having him stop working on one project (fortunately another lab member was interested in taking this project on, so it worked out really well for everyone). It also led us to emphasize developing other skills/projects that would better prepare him for a job at the CDC (e.g., network models of infectious diseases).
Later, I visited the University of Georgia to give a seminar. While there, I learned about their IDEAS program, which is funded by NSF. All students in that program do an internship at a non-academic institution, which seemed like a great idea to me. And, given Camden’s interests, it stood out to me that one of the places where IDEAS students can potentially do an internship is at the CDC. Based on those discussions, I realized that we should think about whether/how Camden might do something similar.
Fortunately, the way my department’s graduate student funding works made this pretty easy. Graduate students are supported on department fellowships in the summer. (Update based on a question via twitter: the departmental fellowships cover health and dental benefits, so students receive a stipend and full benefits during this time.) Since I wasn’t paying Camden off a grant (which would require that he work on a project closely aligned with the grant) and since he didn’t need to teach in the summer, we realized we had the flexibility to allow him to explore other options. With help from a few folks, we were able to connect with a lab at the CDC that aligned with Camden’s interests and he set up a summer research visit.
Camden spent a few months at the CDC in Summer 2017 and it went really well. He got great experience, and is working on a paper based on his time there. He really enjoyed the experience and will be going back this summer. So, I consider this experience a huge success.
In my opinion, my department should encourage more students to take advantage of having fellowship support in the summer to explore non-academic careers. One student might want to spend the summer in DC working on science policy, while another might want to work at a conservation organization like The Nature Conservancy, while a third might want to work as a science writer (perhaps working with UMichEEB alumna Liz Wason, who is now a science writer at Michigan). One role the department can play is to have information on the sorts of unofficial internship options that might be available for students to explore.
My hope is that Camden’s experience will end up being a model for other students in my department who are interested in exploring non-academic careers. My guess is that the hardest part of setting this sort of thing up would normally be the financing. But, since we already have that in place (thanks to our summer fellowships), my hope is that it will be relatively easy for others to do something similar. I’ve proposed this to my department, which is in the process of looking into it.
I realize that this option won’t be available to everyone. It only works because we have what is, in my opinion, a pretty impressive support package for our graduate students. In addition, some students will have other obligations or factors that might make it so that they cannot move elsewhere for a summer internship opportunity. But my hope is that, for some students, this will provide them with an opportunity to explore non-academic positions and gain experience that will help them after they get their PhD.
The data are clear that most biology PhDs do not go on to a career in academia. We need to think more about how to train students for non-academic careers and about how to help them gain experience that will help them launch themselves on those career paths. I’m glad that we’ve found one mechanism to allow students in my lab to explore non-academic careers!