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As the job market evolves and becomes increasingly challenging to navigate, higher education faces a critical dilemma. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023 highlights the urgent need for key skills including adaptability, versatility, technological fluency and multifaceted thinking. However, these in-demand skills remain alarmingly absent from traditional doctoral training, which often prioritizes a deep, yet narrow, focus on specialized knowledge. This disconnect underscores a fundamental mismatch between the preparation Ph.D. programs offer and the evolving demands of the professional world.

Traditional doctoral programs excel at cultivating deep subject-matter expertise, research proficiency and a thorough understanding of the current state of knowledge within a specialized field. While the rigor of these programs distinctly prepares students to advance research, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report underscores a clear need for broader skillsets among job seekers, essential for addressing the complex challenges facing tomorrow’s world.

Today’s employers seek individuals who can combine analytical rigor with innovative problem-solving, technological fluency and an openness to continuous learning—skills not sufficiently emphasized in traditional doctoral training. This widening gap demands urgent action from higher education institutions. They must create cross-disciplinary approaches, foster digital literacy and cultivate a culture of lifelong learning to better prepare students for the ever-evolving career landscape. Experiential learning and internships have the potential to revolutionize Ph.D. training and address this gap. By offering opportunities to apply knowledge beyond traditional academic settings, such initiatives directly equip graduates with the critical skills they need to succeed.

The findings of a recent internal survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University underscore this potential. One of the most interesting findings was that 70 percent of Ph.D. students in humanities and social sciences fields, and 80 percent of Ph.D. students in STEM fields, are more interested in industry careers than academic positions. That aligns with data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Survey of Earned Doctorates, which found that a majority (56.8 percent) of all Ph.D. graduates work outside of academia, with industry being the largest employer at 43.2 percent.

At Johns Hopkins, this interest, however, is not always matched with an equal feeling of preparedness. Survey respondents reported feeling only moderately ready to enter their top careers and industries of interest, citing a lack of practical industry experience and difficulty translating their Ph.D. skills into attractive résumés as their main barriers. In response, students overwhelmingly suggested that experiential learning opportunities would significantly increase their preparedness and career prospects.

While several universities have made noteworthy strides in incorporating experiential learning into the Ph.D. training experience, with activities such as full-time internship programs and career treks, significant roadblocks still prevent widespread adoption throughout doctoral education. Perhaps the most fundamental challenge lies in the time constraints inherent to a rigorous doctoral program. Balancing the demands of coursework, research projects, and teaching while juggling to gain industry experience through internships can feel like an insurmountable task for students. This issue is compounded by the possible lack of faculty buy-in, as some faculty members may view internships as a distraction from academic pursuits, failing to recognize the valuable skills and real-world insights these experiential opportunities can provide.

Furthermore, the administrative workload associated with creating and managing robust experiential learning programs can stretch the capacity of small doctoral career offices, often understaffed and under-resourced. Developing meaningful internship opportunities at scale while also managing application processes requires a significant upfront investment of time and resources. All of this is on top of razor-thin budgets, making it difficult for institutions to access valuable resources that could help streamline outreach and employer engagement efforts.

Additionally, the landscape of experiential learning often favors STEM fields, where internships are more readily available in technology-driven industries. This leaves Ph.D. students in humanities and social sciences with limited choices potentially misaligned with their research and career goals.

Furthermore, the financial constraints often faced by nonprofit, arts and cultural organizations make it difficult to provide competitive stipends for internships. That limits opportunities for students, making such experiences less attractive and sometimes financially unfeasible, especially for students who should not be expected to trade their valuable time and expertise for little to no compensation.

Finally, international students encounter distinct challenges due to complex visa restrictions. These regulations severely limit the types of internships eligible to them while also complicating their search and application process. Those challenges create yet more barriers to their full participation in experiential learning.

To overcome these significant hurdles and unlock the full potential of experiential learning for Ph.D. students, higher education institutions must pursue multipronged strategies. We’ve listed some practical approaches with relatively low barriers to entry that offer the most immediate opportunity for positive impact.

Interdisciplinary projects. Encouraging collaboration across different fields of study fosters the broader perspective, innovative solutions to complex issues and multifaceted thinking that the World Economic Forum report emphasized. By working with peers from other disciplines, Ph.D. students gain exposure to diverse methodologies and approaches, expanding their problem-solving toolkit and communication skills. These projects also create a greater sense of community, helping students build valuable relationships outside their fields of study that they can leverage later in their various careers.

To facilitate such transformational projects, career offices can work with faculty members, employers and alumni partners to develop a range of project opportunities, including business-case competitions, policy simulations and community-based design challenges. These experiences allow students to work in teams of three to four people, applying their knowledge to real-world problems, gaining hands-on experience, valuable feedback and industry connections. Additionally, interdisciplinary projects can enhance dissertation research by exposing students to new perspectives and methodologies relevant to their own field, potentially leading to richer insights and more innovative research contributions. Alumni networks and industry partners can offer not only mentorship but also potential funding for student projects, supporting innovative research that aligns with their interests.

Part-time internships and project-based engagements. These short-term opportunities minimize student time commitment, integrating seamlessly into a Ph.D. student’s busy schedule. Part-time internships with industry partners or project-based work with nonprofit organizations provide valuable, problem-solving experience in a manageable timeframe. That allows students to develop career-relevant skills without facing setbacks on their academic progress, making such experiences attractive to both students and faculty.

The university can support both domestic and international students by offering micro-internships and project-based engagements designed to fit within their schedules and visa restrictions. This includes providing guidance on potential visa requirements and identifying suitable opportunities through career services, the international student office, and departmental resources. A centralized internship and project database, accessible through career hubs could streamline the process for students to find suitable opportunities and for university staff to manage them efficiently.

Gamification. Time-efficient and engaging, gamified experiences can offer a valuable alternative, or supplement, to traditional coursework. Incorporating elements such as competitions, challenges and simulations can significantly enhance engagement, motivation and knowledge retention for Ph.D. students. These interactive experiences not only encourage student engagement, but they also directly contribute to the development of critical skills highlighted in the World Economic Forum report. Problem-solving, teamwork and communication are all fostered through well-designed gamified learning experiences. What’s more, gamification can continue to drive community building by connecting students with other disciplines, fostering collaboration and interpersonal skills.

Augmented and virtual reality integration. By providing immersive, interactive environments, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) experiences allow students to develop career-ready skills and gain exposure to cutting-edge technologies. When well-designed, such experiences enable students to experiment in simulated work environments aligned with their research interests, practice technical procedures in a safe and repeatable way, and develop communication and collaboration skills in realistic virtual settings. As global collaboration becomes the norm, particularly in research-intensive fields, AR/VR offers opportunities to practice those essential skills in a way that transcends geographical boundaries.

A pilot program with industry partners in the biotech sector, for example, could enable Ph.D. students to participate in virtual drug discovery simulations, fostering real-time collaboration with scientists worldwide. Such experiences not only prepare students for the workforce, but can also lead to exciting research breakthroughs within the university itself. While a full implementation of AR/VR experiences would require substantial investment, piloting such engagements with strategic partners offers a feasible first step toward integrating this transformative technology into doctoral training.

To create a truly transformative learning experience, universities must address the evolving demands of the workplace with a wider range of solutions. The disconnect between traditional Ph.D. programs and the skills valued by employers represents a missed opportunity for both institutions and students. By embracing experiential learning, universities can equip Ph.D. graduates with the critical competencies needed to thrive in a dynamic and interconnected world. These competencies include not only deep disciplinary expertise but also strong communication, collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

The proposed transformation of Ph.D. training transcends the immediate benefits for graduates. Universities that embrace experiential learning will position themselves as leaders in innovative education, attracting top students, fostering groundbreaking research with the potential to address global challenges, and cultivating a skilled workforce that drives economic progress. By empowering our graduates with in-demand skills and real-world experience, we contribute to a more dynamic, knowledgeable workforce capable of tackling complex problems and fostering a better future for all.

Roshni Rao is assistant vice provost of doctoral and postdoctoral life design at Johns Hopkins University, and Tyler Sluder is director of employer partnerships and experiential learning at the university.

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