Meeting the Moment

As graduate school deans, we should do more to prepare Ph.D. students for multiple career paths -- not only for their own sakes but also to help manage crises like COVID-19, writes Ambika Mathur.

July 30, 2020

Discussions regarding the variety of careers pursued by U.S. doctoral students beyond academe have been growing since the publication of the first National Academies report followed by the 2012 Biomedical Workforce Working Group Report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While some studies attributed this shift from academic to nonacademic careers to a decline in tenure-track faculty positions, others reported that graduates were preferentially choosing careers outside the academy.

Given that almost 75 percent of doctoral graduates are pursuing nonacademic careers and yet are not being prepared for this rich diversity of careers, federal and other national agencies and organizations quickly arrived at the conclusion that doctoral students should be provided with exposure to and training in these career pathways. The NIH established the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) grant program, an experiment in which awardee institutions were required to provide exposure and professional development opportunities to prepare students for careers in industry, science policy, government and nonprofit organizations, to name a few. Similar initiatives followed, such as the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship by the National Science Foundation for STEM areas, as well as programs by organizations involved with the arts and humanities such as the National Endowment for Humanities.

It is essential for our highly accomplished doctoral graduates to be engaged in those diverse employment sectors, and this need has never been greater than in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. We need experts with deep understanding to appropriately manage this crisis. We need well-trained doctoral graduates across career types to work together. We need academics to conduct research as tenured and tenure-track faculty members. We need industry and big pharma to work with academic researchers to translate the bench research to clinical trials for treatments and vaccines.

We also need scientists in government agencies to efficiently determine the efficacies of these treatment modalities. We need science writers to disseminate accurate reports of the research and therapeutics. We need science policy analysts to work with our elected officials in Congress and the White House to process and understand the value of this research, as well as craft policy that supports evidence-based science without regard to personal or political bias.

Finally, we need scientists appearing in the news who can accurately portray all of this in language that the public can easily understand. Instead, in the 24-7 media barrage, we often hear from so-called experts who share loudly and eloquently opinions and biases not necessarily based on evidence yet passed on to unsuspecting audiences and readers as fact.

The COVID-19 pandemic experience exquisitely emphasizes the precise reasons why America needs a highly qualified cadre of individuals to be engaged in such diverse careers and to be well prepared for these jobs. Why are doctoral graduates distinctly suited for these tasks? Because in the process of conducting dissertation research, doctoral students learn essential skills such as critical thinking and reasoning. They also acquire transferrable skills such as communication, data analysis and data management. Thus, doctoral graduates are best prepared not only to understand but also to process and communicate to stakeholders the most reasonable scenarios and outcomes.

What better way to make that happen than to expose students to different careers and prepare them for success in these fields during the course of their traditional doctoral training? Results from the BEST grant experiment have already shown that students who engage in these career exploration and preparation programs fare just as well as their counterparts who choose not to do so; the academic outcomes are nearly identical. Other studies have shown that these successful diverse career outcomes cut across all disciplines: biomedical, other STEM areas, social sciences and education.

Why then do we still persist in looking down our academic noses at these important societal careers? Instead, we as graduate training faculty and graduate school deans should strongly encourage our students to pursue and be successful in the careers of their choice. We owe it to our doctoral students to support and equip them for success in their chosen paths, whether or not that path is academic. Let’s transform our graduate training so we are prepared to defeat the next crisis that is certainly lurking around the corner.


Ambika Mathur is vice provost and dean of the Graduate School and professor of biology and chemistry at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


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