Preparing Ph.D.s for non-academic careers

By Jennifer Nguyen

As more Ph.D.s are turning towards careers outside of academia, it is important for universities to equip them with the training and skills necessary to succeed. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health launched the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program to encourage universities to explore methods focusing on professional training of Ph.D.s in various alternative fields. Most of these institutions offer seminars and workshops to students throughout the year that either focus on career choices or professional development skills while others offer credit courses. Some even offer opportunities to shadow or intern, providing students with hands on experience.

But how are universities that did not receive BEST program grants training their students for the variety of careers available to them? Many universities across the country are pressing ahead with broad training programs without BEST support. One example is the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. In 2013, the UK offered a course called “Preparing Future Professionals” that provided students with professional development opportunities and exposed them to various career paths. These efforts relieved some student stress around career decisions and alleviated the burden on advisors properly preparing students for certain career paths.

“The exemplary Preparing Science Professionals course at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine eases the confusing and ambiguous process of exploring career options beyond academia,” said Sarah Martin, Senior Regulatory Science and Policy Analyst at the American Association of Cancer Researchers and former UK Ph.D. alumna. “This program provides opportunities for them to interact with professionals in diverse careers and gain appreciation for what preparation is required to transition into those careers.”

Institutions across the nation and internationally are implementing similar programs. The University at Alabama Birmingham’s EXPERIENCES program and the University of Toronto’s Science Careers course are just two other examples of schools investing resources in broadening the training of graduate students. Altogether, these types of initiatives are important for creating professionally competent Ph.D.s entering the workforce.

One of the most important aspects of these programs is to evaluate the outcomes, to determine which methods are effective and how the programs can be improved in the future. Another important aspect is to share the knowledge gained from these programs to better build a consistent training regimen for PhDs across the nation. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has formed a working group to develop a repository that will serve as a central hub for career development such as lesson plans that can be distributed and used by institutions. Additionally, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund offers institutional grants to facilitate the implementation of career development programs.

Expansion of broad training programs are critical to guide Ph.D.s to the jobs they are most interested in at an earlier stage in their career and provide them with the necessary tools and skillsets to get there.

nguyenJennifer Nguyen advocates for better training programs for young researchers and is interested in raising awareness of scientific research to the general public and making science accessible to everyone. She received her PhD in Biology at Tufts University and is currently a Science Specialist and Instructor at the Innovation Institute in Newton, MA.

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