For decades, scholars have juxtaposed academe with industry as though they were completely different entities. When the opportunities within the two sectors are understood, however, it becomes clear that the skills necessary for success in each are more similar than they appear. Management skills, in particular, are relevant to the primary investigator (PI) role, a fact even our faculty miss. As a result, most graduate and postdoctoral training programs lack significant opportunities to properly prepare their trainees for one of the most competitive jobs for Ph.D.s, academic research.
I delineate “academic research” from “academe,” just as I typically specify “biotechnology research” or “biotechnology business” in place of the word “industry.” The terms “academe” and “industry” are both broad terms, which makes their typical juxtaposition erroneous.
Historically, the two terms have meant “faculty jobs vs. all other jobs,” which naturally preferences one option over another, as did “academic vs. nonacademic” for some time. However, it also implies that the skills gleaned from graduate training are completely separate from those of any other job. We now know that is not true.
The top five skills that employers seek, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, are: 1) leadership, 2) working on a team, 3) written communication skills, 4) problem solving and 5) strong work ethic. As graduate students and postdocs, developing your own research agenda to solve a scientific quandary, communicating this agenda and publishing findings, and completing your training all translate into myriad job options.
Jobs within academe alone include: student/academic services at universities, academic research (often called R-1), university teaching and, perhaps, teaching at private high schools. “Industry,” if taken to mean “everything else,” most commonly includes: biotechnology/government research, policy, law, biotechnology business, finance, consulting and science communications. The papers your alumni peers wrote, the presentations they gave and the problems they solved likely translated into a position at one of the sectors above. They did so by knowing their career of choice well and by understanding specifically how their skills would transfer when they were ready for the job market.
Publishing in top journals, for instance, is important in consulting, because it shows a dedication to excellence, but your entire publication record need not be listed. Likewise, managing a classroom of students from various backgrounds may be relevant to project management within biotechnology, but it is not imperative to list all the various assignments you gave.
The best way to transfer your training is to know what the job is so that you may adequately hone and communicate relevant skill sets for it -- which is why it is so important to steer clear of vague terms like “academe vs. industry.” But what about academic/R-1 research jobs? This doesn’t apply there, right, because it’s obvious what faculty do?
Not necessarily. I encourage you to look more closely at what your PIs do, as well. While developing a lab and research agenda seems an independent process, it also requires university support and that of lab staff and funding agencies. While labs are a part of a larger university, the development and management of budgets and staff mean the labs are more like small businesses within a larger entity. Finally, while the science in the lab may be of high quality, touting this publicly via publications and talks is imperative to making that known. When speaking to most research faculty members, I find them immersed in these activities far more than I find them at the bench. Though cultures vary, academic research is as much a management position as many positions in biotechnology business.
At Stanford University, as with other universities, we are beginning to create programs to develop and hone sector-specific skills and to help trainees define and transfer the skills they already possess. Such programs, however, neglect the ways in which the PI role differs from graduate and postdoctoral training at large. Knowing that role clearly, then, entails more specialized training in staff development beyond mentoring (such as making good hiring decisions), strategic planning, project management and financial planning. To maximize your success on the academic research job market, a solid publication record and references will do. To maximize your success on the job, however, I recommend garnering strong scientific management skills along the way.
Stephanie K. Eberle is director of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs and M.D.s in the medical and biosciences. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco.
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