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Non-Academic Career Prep for STEM Grad Students
January 28, 2014 - 9:21pm

Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter at @erinellyse.

If you’re currently doing a PhD in a STEM field and don’t intend on staying in academia, you’re not alone. In many fields, the number of graduates from PhD programs is growing faster than the number of tenure-track positions, to the point of many questioning how long the current system will last. Governments and universities are realizing this and are working to help get PhD students the skills they need to be successful outside of the ivory tower, but it’s important for you to take charge of your career path and to take advantage of what’s offered.

Getting a PhD gives you a spectacular set of skills. In addition to becoming a specialist in your field, finishing a PhD demonstrates that you know how to think, to reason, to express your thoughts, and to fully dedicate yourself to a project. On the other hand, if you assume that having a PhD means that you’ll be able to easily fall into a non-academic career, you’re in for a big surprise. Despite your years of research, employers may look at your resume and only see a lack of industry experience. For this reason, it’s important as a grad student to start preparing now.

Non-academic career options

First, take a look at what kinds of careers you might be interested in. This will vary widely by field, so if you’re not sure what’s available, talk to people in your area—profs, the career service center at your university, even other grad students can offer some useful advice. A great list of careers specific to STEM grads is offered by Columbia University’s Center for Career Education and some suggestions specific to bench scientists can be found on the Nature jobs blog. (Our last post on alt-ac careers gives some tips on figuring out what you might be interested in, and some more resources can be found at phds.org and jobsontoast.com.)

A great way to figure out if you might be interested in a given path is to conduct informational interviews. Watch for our post on conducting informational interviews later this week, but in short, this involves talking to someone who works in an area that you may be interested in to find out what’s involved and whether or not it would be a good fit for you. They can also help you figure out what specific skills you need to enter that field.

Industrial experience

Getting some industrial experience while in grad school can both help you figure out what you’re interested in and show employers that you know what’s required to succeed in a non-academic environment. In continental Europe, industrial PhDs are becoming increasingly common; these involve doing research that is partially or fully guided by an industrial partner. For those looking for PhD opportunities that will lead to non-academic careers, they can be a good way to gain experience and make industrial connections. If an industrial PhD is not an option, look into programs that help support these types of opportunities; in Canada, for example, the Mitacs-Accelerate program connects PhD students with industrial partners and provides funding for 4-month internships. Some may have to convince their advisers that these opportunities are worthwhile, as they can take time away from your primary research project, but remember that you’re doing a PhD to learn, so if you believe you’ll learn something valuable from the experience, go for it.

Talk to your adviser

Early on in my PhD, my adviser asked me what I was interested in doing after graduation; even though I wasn’t sure at that point, he gave me some great suggestions on what I could do and how to pursue different paths. When I expressed an interest in writing, he gave me opportunities to build some of these skills. If you’re lucky enough to be in a similar situation, make the most of it, but otherwise, take the initiative to discuss your future career with your adviser. Depending on your situation, talking to your adviser about your career goals early on can be helpful in finding a non-academic career later. While some advisers may not be supportive of their students pursuing alt-ac (alternative academic) or non-academic career paths, many realize that not everyone wants to follow in their footsteps and will encourage you to pursue what interests you. As experts in the field, they can help you with networking, setting up relevant collaborations, and directing your project in a way that will be relevant to your chosen path. While I’m sure they’d love to keep you around forever, your success—wherever it might be—is also theirs.

Pursue relevant interests

If you aren’t sure what you might want to do post-PhD, get involved with things that interest you. You think you might like to write? Start a blog or write for the school newspaper. Many fields outside of academia place great emphasis on communication and “people” skills. You may be the most charismatic person around, but if you can’t prove it on a resume, it means very little. Get involved with your grad student organization or other committees that can help build your communication and leadership skills. Diversify your skill set. Show the world—and yourself—that you have the skills required to succeed.

Do you have any other tips on preparing for a non-academic career path? Share them with us in the comments or on twitter @GradHacker!

[Image by Flickr user Eye - the world through my I used under creative commons licensing.]

 

 

 

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