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As a new Ph.D. trainee in the early 2000s, I entered graduate school assuming that the vast majority of Ph.D.s go into tenure-track faculty positions. It didn’t take long for me to realize that that assumption was inaccurate, but then I was left to wonder: Where do alumni go for jobs?

At the time, any responses to that question were only anecdotes and guesses. But ask it now, and you will find the answer within a few mouse clicks, thanks to a national movement to transform the landscape of Ph.D. career training.

The last 10 years have brought about many calls for change in the way we train rising scientists in academe, which has resulted in a boom in trainee advocacy and career development resources. A significant step forward came with the publication of the National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report in 2012. Among the recommendations in that report is the following: “Graduate programs must accommodate a greater range of anticipated careers for students … and offer opportunities for students to explore a variety of options while in graduate school without adding to the length of training. Graduate programs also should openly communicate the career outcomes of their graduates to potential students.”

One immediate outcome of the NIH workforce report was that the NIH T32 training grant review criteria were amended to encourage and reward institutions that provide career and professional development programming and resources for their graduate students and postdocs. That benefited all trainees, even those not funded by the T32 mechanism, since most graduate programs in the United States compete avidly for these prestigious training grants.

In 2013, the NIH Office of the Director announced a new five-year grant program called Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST). The program funded 17 public and private institutions across the nation to test novel methods for encouraging “bold and innovative approaches to increase student and trainee exposure to multiple research and research-related career options.” The first BEST awards were announced in 2014, the same year that the federal government officially noted that any student or postdoc funded on any federal research grant must be allowed work time to engage in their career and professional development. No longer could research advisers require lab members paid by research grants to devote 100 percent of their time to research activities.

The final phrase of the quote above from the NIH workforce report, stating that career outcomes should be transparently and clearly communicated, became the rallying cry in 2017 of a newly formed collection of 10 institutions called the Coalition for Next Generation Life Sciences (CNGLS). The coalition has since grown to include 39 institutions, all of which commit to publicly report Ph.D. trainee matriculation and demographic data, time-to-degree data and completion rates for graduate students, time in training data for postdocs, and detailed career outcomes for Ph.D. and postdoc trainees. CNGLS members have created interactive dashboards so that anyone can peruse their training data in detail. The list of CNGLS institutions includes many Research 1 institutions, and the positive peer pressure that this group exerts on its members extends far beyond the current signatories. It is now common for graduate programs to share these data with applicants during interview weekends, and perhaps more impactful, when they are not shared, applicants now request the information.

The recent efforts of the NIH BEST awardees and the CNGLS have catalyzed a rate of academic culture change unparalleled in any other period in the last century. Although higher education institutions can still reform many aspects of training of rising scientists, some concrete benefits to trainees as a result of these calls to action include:

  • Career exploration is being normalized for trainees at all levels.
  • Dozens of institutions have now quantified the breadth of their students’ career outcomes. People can now see what percentage of graduates follow different tracks instead of assuming, as was once common, that most trainees go on to tenure-track positions.
  • Graduate career educators encourage a multipronged career exploration strategy and can do so with data to back up the possibilities.
  • Positive institutional peer pressure, as well as competition for training and research grants, has led to the creation of many new trainee professional development offices and expanded resources for existing offices.
  • The granular tracking of trainee career outcomes has enhanced the ability to connect current trainees with program alumni. Those alumni can participated in informational interviews, present workshops and serve as internship hosts and even full-time employers.
  • Data collection is adding to a body of peer-reviewed publications that describe trends and best practices in graduate training. These data and publications further catalyze culture change. (See, for example, these publications from the BEST awardees.)

One example of research made possible by rigorous training data collection is a 10-institution collaborative study (currently under review and available at this BioRxiv preprint), that seeks to answer the question, will time spent in career exploration and professional development negatively affect trainee productivity? The authors did not find any negative correlations between time to degree or publication productivity of doctoral students across the 10 institutions who participated in career and professional development compared to those who did not. The take-home message from this study is simple: the numerous benefits that come to graduate students when they participate in career and professional development opportunities do not come at any significance expense to trainee productivity.

Advice for Trainees

If you are a trainee, here are some ways you can take advantage of the positive changes that have occurred in graduate training in the past decade.

Give yourself license to devote time to career exploration throughout your training. Schedule an hour or two every week so that you can make steady progress along your career path. Don’t think of this time spent as a distraction from your research training but rather an essential part of your education as a rising scientist.

Use the growing number of career exploration resources on your campus and online. There are too many to include them all here, but if you are not sure where to start, ask your director of graduate studies to point you to resources. Most scientific societies also have professional development resources they develop for members. Here are some links to get you started:

Ask your career office or graduate school for introductions to alumni who are available for informational interviews. Then read articles on informational interviews and how you can set one up.

Take advantage of LinkedIn to connect with and contact alumni from your institution. Concurrent with the changes in graduate training mentioned in this article, LinkedIn has grown as a professional social media platform, digital rolodex and job board. In large measure trainee outcome tracking has been made possible because scientists have widely adopted it.

Use your time in training to determine if your desired career path(s) would benefit from a postdoc or require additional training. Even if a postdoc is not necessary, you could still look for an internship to build needed skills and make you a more competitive job applicant directly out of graduate school.

To conclude, I want to share an actual trainee success story that encapsulates how trainees benefit when universities track training metrics and outcomes. Eliana (name has been changed) participated in career development events at the University of North Carolina early in her Ph.D. training and decided to pursue a career in regulatory affairs. She met with me for career coaching, and I connected her with recent alumni in that field whom she could talk with to learn more about the skills needed to transition into the regulatory affairs field. Near the end of graduate school, she did a one-month internship supervised by one of the UNC alums she met in her networking. After graduation, her internship supervisor hired her! A year later, another UNC alum she met during graduate school recruited her to another company.

Now Eliana supervises current graduate student interns looking to follow in her regulatory affairs footsteps. My hope is that stories like Eliana’s will become more common as we continue to increase the focus on graduate training outcomes and on staying connected to our program alumni.

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