Some people work outside academia, so we must be doing it right

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.

Deep breaths.

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!


12 Comments on “Some people work outside academia, so we must be doing it right”

  1. Alex says:

    First, I find it hilarious that preparation for a PUI/SLAC career is considered “alternative.” Yeah, because getting a PhD and becoming a professor who teaches and does research is really a deviation from tradition…well, OK, I guess it is kind of a deviation from tradition, statistically speaking, given how rare it is to find a TT job these days.

    Second, about that certificate: It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not really necessary either. If you happen to get one in the midst of doing things that will actually prepare you for a PUI/SLAC career, there are some people who might actually be glad to see it (some PUI/SLAC folks really need to be convinced that you truly care about teaching), but it will hardly make or break things.

    Here’s what most PUI/SLAC search committees seem to want to see:
    1) Teaching your own lecture class. Not being a TA. I’m talking about teaching your own class. One where you are responsible for designing it. An advanced lab might count, if you can show that you weren’t just handed a lab manual, that you actually designed and taught it yourself.
    2) Teaching your own lecture class.
    3) Some documentation of innovation and/or accomplishment. You don’t have to redesign the entire class and show some world-beating accomplishment, just some evidence that somewhere along the line you did something clever, and/or you “assessed” (that’s a buzzword) student learning. If you’re teaching an introductory class in just about any discipline, odds are that some pedagogical researcher somewhere has some “assessment instrument” that you can use.

    Maybe you think these standardized tests are bullshit. Or maybe you think assessment of learning outcomes is a baseline professional responsibility. Either way, if you do it, you will be seen as “getting it.” And if you don’t want to do “assessment”, just talk about some sort of activity or demo that you designed. Something, anything, to show that somewhere along the line you went above and beyond to put yourself into it.
    4) Teaching your own lecture class.
    5) Some familiarity with progressive pedagogical lingo and ideas, and some evidence that you at least toyed with it a bit in your own teaching. Again, maybe you think it’s bullshit, or maybe you have whole-heartedly embraced these new progressive visions. Either way, show some level of awareness, as evidence that you care enough about teaching to pay attention to trends. I think a lot of the progressive stuff is creepy kool-aid, myself, but I think it’s important that we at least be aware of these trends so that we can adopt the best and respond to the rest.
    6) Teaching your own lecture class.
    7) Some evidence that you can teach more than just your subfield. If you are in a department of 8 faculty, you won’t just be teaching Special Topics in Neuroscience. You’ll be teaching Biology 101, or Psych 101, or Chem 101 (if you’re a biochemist going to a chem department; I don’t know your background). So, what do you remember about photosynthesis, or educational psychology, or inorganic chemistry? (Whichever is relevant to the 101 course you’ll teach.) And you might even teach the occasional upper-division class outside your specialty.

    You don’t have to teach 6 different classes to address this. If, between your solo teaching and your TA experience you have a broad portfolio of a 101 class, and an intermediate or advanced class at least slightly removed from your field, you’re fine.
    8) Some experience mentoring undergraduate research. A summer student or senior project is good. More than one is better. If they are co-authors (middle author is fine) on a paper, even better. If they are under-represented in some way, you have an easy answer if a search committee has a question like “Do you have any experience that is relevant to teaching diverse populations?” (Such questions come up. You can also address that question by picking up a course in a community college, since their students tend to be non-traditional by a number of measures.)
    9) Teaching your own lecture class.
    10 Teaching your own lecture class.

    Notice any common themes?

    Bonus points: Some experience in a similar environment. At a SLAC, that means that you were either a SLAC alum or you taught in a SLAC (part-time or visiting full-time). At a state PUI, that can mean that you were a student in one, or you taught in one, or you at least have a lot of experience with non-traditional students. We also count community colleges, since we have a lot of transfer students.

  2. DrugMonkey says:

    Nothing is going to happen until the cheap labor exploit is recognized and dealt with. Comes from the top, the NIH which purchases the output.

  3. kdel09 says:

    Alan Sved was one of my professors at Pitt. I wish that I’d had more of a “what can I do with a neuroscience PhD?” perspective as an undergrad. Instead, it still seems to be the mentality that if you are one of the top students in your department you go on to do an MD or PhD. The face-to-face time I’ve had with post docs as a graduate student is where I learned the most in terms of career prospects.

  4. iGrrrl says:

    This is a really interesting post, and I’m glad you took the time to write it. It’s so easy for people at that level to forget what it was like when they were younger, or to fail to realize that the landscape has fundamentally changed.

    I can’t argue with DM’s comment, but I have a couple of perspectives. I’m not in a traditional PhD job, but there is no way I could do my job without the training. By this I mean a great journal club where we really dissected the papers across a breadth of neuroscience fields(what hypothesis were they testing? Did they do the right experiments to test it?, etc.). I mean teaching experience in front of a classroom of uninterested non-majors. I mean presentations and a tough intellectual environment. I also mean dealing with jerks, wooly-headed professors, and Frank Sinatras. And, IMO, there is no other way I could have the tool kit I need without what is pretty much standard academic training. So, yeah, I parroting what you imply that you don’t want to hear.

    I helped found an alternative careers series while in graduate school. The approach was to get a panel of three people in the same (alt) career at different levels (recent transition, a few years in, seasoned pro) so people could get different perspectives on the same career. Mind you, this was about 15-20 years ago, and at that point, faculty did judge each other and their own students by whether they went academic or alternative routes. I remember after about the third or fourth such panel that one of the regular attendees said to me, “But I still don’t know how to take another career path. Most of them didn’t set out to do what it is they’re doing now. How do I follow in their footsteps?” At the time I was dismissive; I thought the point was that you never know what options life may hand you, or may even be possible. Now I understand better. The only thing standard academic training trains you to do is be an academic. Except…

    In a good grad program, they train you how to think, analyze, problem solve, and for most of also just persevere. You’ll have heard and read that many times. A lot of physics PhDs have gone into finance. The current Security Architect for Microsoft has a doctorate in Environmental Engineering. The last time I went statistic hunting, the unemployment rate for PhDs was less than half the rate for the general population. But no, you are correct that cookies and a monthly speaker don’t train anyone for other careers. It’s not ever going to be like business school used to be, with recruiting fairs waiting at the end of the senior year, seminars on interviewing, etc.

    It’s very easy for me to sit here and say that if you don’t get that TT job you want that things will work out somehow. But that doesn’t change what you want, what you trained for, and what you want to achieve. Academic research is like a disease, or being an artist. You have to *have to* do it. And the current situation has a grave impact on young talent. But those department heads? It’s almost an academic question to them, but it’s life to you.

  5. rxnm says:

    Thanks, iGrrrl, I agree with a lot of what you say. I think there is a structural career path problem here that cannot being addressed just by looking at the back end. Instead of addressing the root problem — the bloated trainee/cheap labor pipeline built on the big lie that we need more biomedical PhDs — there is instead this “alt career” scam to pretend that these jobs are legitimately what people do a biomedical PhD to prepare for, or that postdoctoral work is “training” for anything except a PI job. And there is certainly almost nothing that could actually be considered training for other careers going on in any PhD program I’ve heard of (and if there were I would object to taxpayers paying for it — NIH’s mandate does not include providing value-added labor to McKinsey). Lip service like this to “alternative” careers is a lazy justification for the current cannon fodder approach to students and postdocs. It is frustrating that this is something cannot even be articulated by those in power.

    I am not worried about being unemployed, and I do recognize that in doing a PhD and/or postdoc you can acquire skills that will serve you in life no matter what — confidence, organization, speaking, analytical skills, working with other people. But I don’t think there is anything particularly special about this. I worked outside academia for 6 years before starting my PhD. These were entry-mid level, data-heavy jobs in the dotcom boom. I had to quickly acquire a lot of those same skills (which conversely gave me a boost in managing my own projects and presenting my work when I went back to grad school). If anything, these jobs required that I develop these skills better and faster than academia would have, and the experience would be at least as good as graduate work at improving my career prospects outside academia, if not more.

  6. iGrrrl says:

    “NIH’s mandate does not include providing value-added labor to McKinsey”

    Quote of the day!

    And by naming them “alternative” careers, it’s pretty clear that there isn’t any other path than academic or industry science that perfectly aligns with the training paradigm. As you noted, we bring everything we have to everything we do. I knew how to solder and handle tools because I’d worked as a roadie, so when I got to grad school electrophysiology didn’t scare me, and I happily built a Faraday cage and repaired the Gieger counter or power supplies. But the one thing the paradigm did give me, that I doubt I would have gotten anywhere else, was the depth of thinking and the habits of scientific thought. I don’t think you have to get a PhD to get those skills, but you do have to immerse yourself in day-to-day science. And it isn’t always enough just to be there. I could feel a difference between how I thought when working as a technician and how I thought after the first year or two of graduate school. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there came a certain difference in rigor, probably because the expectations of me changed.

    I don’t think there are easy answers, and the problem has been around for a while. We were worried about it in the late 1980s, and again in the 1990s (where we got the helpful advice, “Cream rises.”), but I do think it is worse now. I also wonder if the cheap trainee model for doing science actually has a negative impact on the quality of the science. Most of the grunt work is being done by people who are learning how to do it, rather than those that have highly developed skills. I have to wonder what the comparative ROI would be for research dollars in terms of productivity if there were well-supported jobs for PhD-level scientists who don’t want to be PIs.

  7. rxnm says:

    “I also wonder if the cheap trainee model for doing science actually has a negative impact on the quality of the science. Most of the grunt work is being done by people who are learning how to do it, rather than those that have highly developed skills. I have to wonder what the comparative ROI would be for research dollars in terms of productivity if there were well-supported jobs for PhD-level scientists who don’t want to be PIs.”

    I think this is EXACTLY right.

  8. Alex says:

    Be careful not to think about this exclusively in terms of one field, or the policies of a single funding agency. PhD over-production is an issue all across STEM, and way beyond STEM.

    As tough as it is for STEM PhDs, console yourself with this thought: At least you don’t have a PhD in English Literature.

    My point here is that there are bigger factors that cut across all of academia, and if we only look at this in terms of a single field or funding agency, we’ll miss a lot of what is going on. I don’t claim that all fields are exactly the same (some physical science sub-fields seem to have it somewhat better than some biomed subfields, and biomed seems to have it better than humanities), but most fields are facing similar issues.

  9. katiesci says:

    Gah! Rage!

    Great points already made in previous comments!

    I think cookie career sessions are fine in graduate school but I agree they don’t really prepare us for entering those careers. Our sessions are great in that the organizer always encourages us to follow-up with the speaker if we’re interested in that career so we can build contacts, get more information, and figure out how to get into it.

    But I’m conflicted because I think we need to think about how much money is being spent on PhD students to enter other careers. Careers that you don’t NEED a PhD for. Sure, it’s helpful, it teaches you to think more critically than you ever thought possible and gives you needed communication skills, blah, blah, blah but it’s not necessarily NEEDED. And how much government money is being spent, through NRSAs and R01s, to train these students? Couldn’t that money be used to support long-term employment options for PhD trained scientists? Someone already pointed out that most science is completed by graduate students who are just learning the techniques and skills – this isn’t the most efficient system.

    But I can bitch all day long, right? What’s a solution? Well, why don’t we provide undergraduates with this kind of information? Instead of constantly bombarding undergraduates (or even pre-college students!) with the message that there’s a STEM SHORTAGE, we need to explain the type of shortage in each field. For example, there’s evidence that in tech there is a need for more hands, hands that have been trained to the Bachelor’s or Master’s level… not the PhD level. In science, at least biomedical science, I actually wonder if the overwhelming number of PhDs are picking up some of these jobs that they’re actually overqualified for. Are those the kinds of jobs that are keeping the unemployment rates in our field so low? It would be great to know but, as far as I know, we don’t have that data. In any case, it’s the undergraduates that need to know what kind of careers await them at the end of the road and what the demand is for those careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t seem to help matters; they list both Biochemists and Medical Scientists (PhD level) as careers with an outlook “Much faster than average”. This might be true compared to all employment opportunities but it’s also misleading.

  10. iGrrrl says:

    I think PhDs probably are picking up jobs they’re overqualified for, and thus slowly changing the baseline for qualifications. I don’t think this is a good thing. But I have a question for you: Okay, so the *degree* isn’t needed for some of these other jobs outside the academy, but the skills are. How do you propose people get those skills other than through the training in a degree program?

  11. rxnm says:

    Thanks, Katie… I think one problem with advising UGs is that if they take, for example, an academic biomed track, the job market they are preparing for is 10 years away… who knows what it will be?

    But the main driver is PIs and programs need PhD students as labor, and because that is completely independent of the students’ job prospects, there is no incentive for programs to know/care about it.

    While I agree there should be meaningful and substantive programs in place to provide REAL training opportunities for non-research careers (by which I mean a substantial amount of the students’ time and effort (>25%) and significant funds spent on them by the PI/program/uni…I have never seen anything remotely like it), spending R01/NRSA funds on training people on things other than being a research scientist is tricky, accountability-wise. NRSAs are explicitly for training scientists, R01s are explicitly for conducting research.

  12. rxnm says:

    “How do you propose people get those skills other than through the training in a degree program?”

    I think you pick up generally useful skills in a graduate program, but I think they are by no means unique to graduate programs. Project management, writing, presentation skills… I had all of these before I started grad school because I spent a long time outside academia. It was a big advantage having them already, just as it is an advantage when going from academia to some other industry. Not necessary to get them in grad school.

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