Engaging Employers Early in Grad Student Training

Anne Meyer-Minor describes the mutual benefits that occur when company managers collaborate with academics in the career development of advanced-degree trainees.

November 29, 2021
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Fewer Ph.D. graduates, especially in the life sciences, are exploring academic career trajectories than in the past and are instead looking outside higher education. The desire to leave academe, however, is frequently coupled with the real struggle of getting a foot in the door of the nonacademic sector. As a recent Ph.D. graduate in molecular genetics, I know this struggle firsthand. Although there are more and more opportunities outside academia that advanced degree holders could fill, graduates often find it challenging to land them.

This difficulty is partially due to the inability of many universities to meaningfully alter their curricula to offer professional development programs that set graduate students up to gain industry-relevant skills and successfully market themselves for nonacademic positions. But this is not just higher education institutions’ issue; employers have also been slow to adapt hiring practices to accommodate this wave of highly qualified doctorates with little work experience. Part of the problem is a lack of employer engagement during students’ graduate training.

Professors and department administrators encourage students to focus solely on classes, research and writing publications. These academic milestones are, of course, important parts of a graduate degree but not particularly relevant if a student is looking to leave academe upon completing their studies. Meanwhile, Ph.D. students realize the need to broaden their experiences and skill set, but they do not reach out and connect with company workers and organizations until the end of their degree.

Although career centers are invaluable for providing resources to aid this transition, their help can be too little, too late. They commonly bring industry executives into their universities’ orbit for career panels or large-scale networking events that students only attend as they near graduation. Additionally, such events rarely provide employers an opportunity to truly interact with trainees.

I was lucky enough to find ways early in my Ph.D. to engage with nonacademic professionals, which helped me establish connections, develop skills relevant to industry settings and ultimately land a job outside academe. Building that network and related experience did, however, require taking on extra responsibilities and commitments outside my graduate courses and research. I had the privilege of being at a well-resourced institution with options for various extracurricular activities and was in a position where I did not have demanding personal responsibilities, such as taking care of family. That flexibility allowed me the time and energy to pursue supplementary volunteer opportunities that aided my professional marketability.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case with other students in graduate-level programs. But my situation does not have to be unusual, and I strongly support university administrators finding ways to encourage and integrate employer engagement opportunities into the graduate experience. I have seen firsthand the mutual benefits that occur when company managers collaborate with academics in the career development of advanced-degree trainees.

For two years, I helped run a job simulation program in which teams of graduate-level trainees worked through pharmaceutical-based challenges while mentored by a seasoned expert. Many of the trainees were apprehensive about their ability to become fully conversant in industry workflows and concepts, but in the end, they realized that their Ph.D. equipped them with the skills to handle business-related tasks. The experience also opened their eyes to how to position themselves to successfully obtain a corporate job.

For their part, the industry advisers were skeptical of the progress a researcher could make on topics unrelated to their thesis. By the end, though, all of them were impressed with the caliber of critical thinking and ingenuity that the trainees possessed and their capability to grasp complex business challenges and propose viable solutions. The advisers not only guided trainees through the intricacies of the pharmaceutical world, but they also provided feedback on the professional knowledge needed to thrive at a company, such as email etiquette. The experience made clear to both trainees and professionals the benefits of working together.

Developing employer engagement by supporting such experiential learning initiatives is a way for faculties to enhance graduate students’ career development and increase their career readiness. Job simulations, work-integrated learning, internships or co-ops, and site visits are great ways for trainees to get ready for the job market, identify transferable skills and increase career path confidence. And they are opportune programs for graduate departments to include employers and allow them to help shape the curriculum.

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More employer sponsorship and programming support would contribute significantly to such programs and the students who participate in them. The expansion of employer involvement in professional development that is integrated through all stages of graduate students’ training can greatly enhance the hiring potential of advanced degree holders. Business leaders are familiar with the corporate environment and can offer input into curriculum design and competency qualifications, as well as general career advice.

Meanwhile, the companies also benefit by having access to a highly qualified talent pool that they can play a role in educating early on, giving potential hires the relevant knowledge and practices they need to succeed within their organizations. Managers can see firsthand the value of advanced degree holders and the contributions they can make to a company, even if the trainees initially lack direct work experience in the industry.

Companies are missing out on untapped potential; academics are missing out on educational resources. I would encourage administrators and faculty members to include employer-supported professional development activities in the graduate experience. They should reach out and extend a hand to executives interested in becoming involved in the skills growth of graduate students and look for ways to include them in experiential learning initiatives and other training opportunities that Ph.D. programs offer. Industry partners can provide mentoring to students during their degrees, share input on skill and curriculum development that will help graduates as they look for employment, and offer resources for internships and hands-on programs.

I would also encourage companies to recognize the transferable skills honed during a Ph.D. and offer more entry-level Ph.D. positions that utilize the advanced knowledge a graduate student possesses while providing further industry-specific training on the job. Universities provide a highly educated pool of applicants who have learned to work hard, think creatively and take on big challenges, and industries should use these skilled minds to their advantage.

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Anne Meyer-Miner recently obtained her Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the University of Toronto. She has served as an executive member of the Life Sciences Career Development Society and organized events to collaborate with industry professionals and prepare graduate students for transitioning out of academe. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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