Industry Training Must Become the Norm

With simply not enough academic careers for the high numbers of Ph.D. graduates, universities must equip students for a variety of careers outside higher education, argues Amy Loriaux.

March 7, 2019
 
 
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A shift is occurring in academe -- more and more STEM graduate students and postdoctoral trainees are considering leaving their fields. In one particular study, just under half of such graduate students reported that they wanted to follow a traditional academic career path, and a quarter of respondents wanted to leave higher education altogether. Those students’ lack of “soft skills” and their ignorance of how to navigate the job search, however, have made such a transition daunting. And that has resulted in longer stints in postdoctoral positions, which turn into low-paying research jobs with few prospects of any further progression.

It all started with the best of intentions. After World War II, the federal government pushed universities to conduct the bulk of scientific research. Higher education institutions created programs to drive more undergraduate students, especially women and minorities, into STEM fields. And, until about the 1970s, a reliable pipeline moved graduate students from postdoctoral trainings to professorships. But that pipeline no longer flows as smoothly due to a stopgap at the transition from postdoctoral position to tenure-track faculty. There are simply not enough academic careers for the high number of recent Ph.D.s.

As a result, trainees have been forced into a so-called holding pattern. Indeed, the length of postdoctoral training has increased from about one to three years to five to eight years. Accordingly, the average age of newly hired assistant professors has also climbed. In 1980, roughly 16 percent of biomedical academics had earned their professorships while they were under the age of 36; in the most recent reports, only 3 percent had. Finally, the number of tenure-track positions has dropped, as universities increasingly depend on non-tenure-track faculty and adjuncts.

The result of these dismal numbers is a decline in interest in the pursuit of traditional academic positions. While that is discouraging for the future of biomedical research in the United States, it is also disenchanting for the young investigators themselves. Factors such as poor work-life balance, low compensation, stress related to funding and the slow pace of research have motivated larger numbers of Ph.D. trainees to look outside academe for work. In fact, according to one review, since 2012 only about 17 percent of Ph.D.s in science, engineering and health-related fields have moved into tenure-track careers in three years. Indeed, the “alternative” careers that some Ph.D.s seek are now becoming the new normal.

Unfortunately, however, Ph.D. graduates seeking industry positions have had little training to prepare them for the world outside the ivory tower. Oftentimes their own adviser -- the person who should be the most invested in their trainee’s career prospects -- cannot (or will not) provide much help. They are simply products of the once airtight pipeline designed to pump out tenure-track-ready scientists.

Furthermore, those who leave academe or research for the corporate world are often stigmatized and seen as failures of the system. That leaves a sting for trainees who cannot realize their own potential to apply their Ph.D.-trained minds to companies that would be glad to have them. Many are too timid to attempt management jobs and apply for entry-level positions instead, sacrificing their hard-earned and well-deserved value as a Ph.D. for a job that requires only a bachelor’s degree.

In my experience as a voluntary career adviser, I have seen many people who do not know how to navigate the job search process or are even unaware that a curriculum vitae is not the same as a résumé. Many institutions do have career advising offices, but whether or not their services are well advertised depends on the attitude of the university.

Programs geared toward training Ph.D.s on how to transition into industry have only recently been implemented, either through federal funding mechanisms or other programs. This is a welcome indication that the old attitude of academic institutions towards “alternative careers” is beginning to shift.

The recommendations of the Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report from the National Institutes of Health include, for instance, creating a program to help institutions provide additional training and development experiences that equip students for a variety of career options. This training would include courses in project management and business skills, particularly geared toward the business of pharmaceuticals. It also recommends creating teaching internships for those looking toward teaching-intensive positions at smaller, teaching-based colleges. The report also includes recommendations for changes in postdoctoral training mechanisms, such as 1) increasing dependence on funding through training grants and less on research grants, 2) doubling the number of transition-to-independence grants, and 3) granting benefits matching those offered to faculty members, such as paid time off, maternity leave and retirement plans.

The federal government has implemented several other programs to a lesser degree, such as Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE), funded by the NIH’s Institutional Research Academic Career Development Award. This program has seen increased retention of postdoctoral trainees on the standard academic career path. For Ph.D.s who are still unsure of their career prospects in academe, private programs such as acceleronlearning.com and From Science to Pharma are also available to help them discern their career goals and provide a path to industry.

Such educational programs can be a wake-up call for jaded trainees. It is not surprising that recent reports indicate an increase in mental health disorders among postdocs and graduate students. When we feel as if the system has failed us, we forget our value as a Ph.D. To awe our nonscientist friends by having those three letters behind our names, only to realize that they make three times our salary with only a bachelor’s degree, can be maddening.

But the true thorn in our paw is the idea that we did not fail the system -- the system failed us. If we are to correct this problem, we must leave behind this mentality of “academics beget only more academics” and really take stock of where our graduate and postdoctoral students end up after leaving the lab. It would behoove universities to incorporate required industry training for their graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Furthermore, mentors could also attend seminars or workshops to teach how to properly advise their mentees on scientific careers outside academe.

Bio

Amy Loriaux is an independent consultant working for biomedical start-ups and has more than 10 years of academic research experience.

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