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?