Some people work outside academia, so we must be doing it rightPosted: December 22, 2012
The NOLA-spurning society that shall not be named recently held its annual conference of departments. I pity your poor ass if you hold whatever departmental shame seat requires you to attend something like this. Anyway, I had the poor judgment to click into the transcripts, and the following sentence seemingly leaped off the screen, crawled up my nose, and optogenetically stimulated my amygdala [emphasis added]:
Increasingly it is becoming the choice for freshly-minted graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to opt-out of the academic research/education track.
OK, from the top. There is a speech from Steve Hyman in which the problem is acknowledged:
So this* is a really serious threat to our ecosystem so you know it’s something that I’m working on and SfN is working on, lots of people are talking about but I think we all have to think about this.
*Oldz not retiring, fewer jobs, research budgets, loss of pharma interest in neuroscience.
And, the solution? Is it that we should change one tiny little fucking thing about the way the academic research career is structured? No:
We all make sure that societies put enormous pressure on these companies to stay interested in neuroscience.
Ah. Hat in hand: please, corporations, keep hiring our discarded labor when we’re through with it.
Alan Sved starts speaking some sense in one of the panels:
Careers, Steve talked a little bit about careers, but they have choices. And when I first started in this business, students would come to graduate school expecting to be like us and have research positions in academic settings and that isn’t so true anymore. We used to be role models for all of the students. That isn’t so true anymore. Now, there have been some recent surveys in biomedical sciences, including neuroscience as to what students are expecting to do when they come into PhD programs. Coming in they expect to be PIs in academic labs at major universities. Going out, only about a quarter or a third thinks that that’s their future. And if you look at when did they start questioning that decision, when did it go from 100 percent down to a quarter or a third? It’s somewhere around the end of the first year, so it’s early on. And what that tells us is that we need to expose them to lots of career choices early on in their training and make it a real part of their training so that they see what those choices are, they see where they might be going and what they might have to do to get there. Now all of this — and for years we’ve run a very active careers program, careers over lunch, careers late in the day where we parade past them lots of people that have chosen different careers and give them real time to talk to them. Now the next to last thing on the list is costs. Unfortunately the university that has been very helpful in supporting this, when they look at the kinds of things they now have to do to cut costs, this is one that they always question. Why should we be spending money in this? Well this is an important thing for them to be spending money on and it is something that needs to be maintained though I don’t know how we’ll maintain the support for it.
This last is key, and a point I’ve raised before. There is no payoff to the PI or the institution into meaningfully investing in “training” for other careers when what students and postdocs are really doing is performing biomedical research (not “practice” research) at the behest of their PI. Certainly where I work and I think at most R1s, faculty are in no way judged by the career outcomes of their trainees, they are judged by the published scientific output of those trainees while they are being “trained.” This is the fundamental conflict: the world does not need more biomedical PhDs, but universities need to train more because they are its research workforce, a workforce that turns over every ~5 years because it has to be called training to justify its low cost.
Never mind that I have been to many of these “career” type events, and they are deeply pathetic gestures. Having cookies with a panel of 5 people who don’t work in academia for an hour every few months is not “training” for a career outside academia.
The next panel looked promising: Providing Opportunities for Non-Traditional Career Choices. Here’s what went down, starting with the first speaker:
So, I’m specifically here to talk to you about certificate programs in university teaching meaning certificates that graduate students can earn that prepare them for teaching at the college or university level.
Hmmm… tempting. Instead of a PhD, I can get a PhD and a teaching certificate? Throw in a puffy star sticker with googly eyes and we’re talking. I find it hard to believe such a certificate would really matter for a TT position at SLAC or PUI – jobs that are just as competitive as more research-oriented faculty positions. Maybe it would help you get in an adjunct pool somewhere, where you’re being hired by an HR type instead of a faculty committee.
Next up, an editor and writer for the Journal of Neuroscience. Pretty much the classic “alt-career” for biomedical PhDs:
And I think that’s all I had to say. I don’t have a whole lot of advice on how people can help because again, I, training them to be a good scientist will train them for a career in writing or journal editing.
Phew! We’re doing everything right. And, as in the past, some vanishingly small percent of PhDs who do not get research jobs can work at journals.
OK, what’s the next alt-career prep strategy? TEACHING. AGAIN.
I think most would agree that effective teaching is really relevant for any career path a graduate student might follow.
For real? Because I can tell you now that the big 3 alt-careers for PhDs leaving my department are these: management consulting, pharma, and full-time parenting. Maybe patent law now and then. What the fuck does teaching have to do with any of these? I get no sense that anyone even knows what careers their graduates are ending up in, or have any interest or knowledge in what skills those jobs might entail.
Moving on: someone from some kind of marketing company, who relates the (very) specific path he took from working labs to be some kind of business person. This is a common trope at “career events” – here’s what my job is, and here’s how I got here. In this case, what really helped in school as alt-career preparation: journal clubs. OK. That’s cool. Also, communication and presentation skills. Again, the take home: you’re doing everything right.
So, here’s your checklist. In your graduate program, do your students: A. Have the option to sometimes go to some kind of panel/seminar about careers? B. Ever have to write things? C. Ever have to present things? D. Attend a journal club?
CONGRATS! You are doing your part to prepare them to Choose an Alternative Career. Not once was the possibility raised that we might be “training” more biomedical PhDs than this country needs. So the cheap-labor-disguised-as-training ship sails on, and we will pretend we give a shit what they do afterwards by trying to get a dean let us spend $200 on cookies and an alt-career panel once a year. Recruit the fuck away!