Written by Pailin Chiaranunt
Universities worldwide award PhD degrees in the life sciences at an increasing rate, yet the number of tenure-track positions remains relatively constant (1). It is no surprise that pessimism about the oversupply and employability of PhDs has become an important talking point among graduate students. On top of that, as the PhD degree grows increasingly valuable in the job market, trainees face the decision of whether to pursue careers in industry and, if so, how best to prepare themselves within their academic environment.
The LSCDS and the Science Career Impact Project (SCIP), a volunteer organization aimed at the career development of science trainees seeking careers in industry, set out to understand how science trainees can prepare themselves effectively for the job market. Their findings were published recently at BioRxiv(2). By surveying University of Toronto life science PhDs, postdoctoral fellows (PDFs), and young professionals in the non-academic sector, SCIP/LSCDS found that engagement in career development activities, such as internships, mentorships, and consulting experiences, were perceived to have the highest impact on success in the job market. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of trainees had engaged in these activities that were deemed highly important by professionals for securing their respective jobs. Furthermore, almost 50% of trainees reported facing barriers to pursuing these experiential learning activities, primarily due to their workload. Thus, there is a clear need for trainees to participate in career development experiences beyond the laboratory, and for academic administrators and faculty to support that participation.
I recently sat down with two of the co-authors, Dr. David Sealey and Dr. Sharon Wang, whose deep insights and inspirational career paths will surely motivate those seeking industry positions.
David Sealey, PhD is Associate Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson and holds an appointment as Adjunct Professor, Graduate Professional Development in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. He completed his PhD in Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto. Dr. Sealey has also mentored students through LSCDS and co-founded the Science Career Impact Project (sciencecareerimpact.org) – a volunteer organization with a mission to deliver transformational experiences to sciences trainees seeking careers in industry.
Sharon Wang, PhD is a Medical Science Liaison at Novartis. Dr. Wang completed her PhD in Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto. She was extensively involved with LSCDS during her time in graduate school, serving as Co-President and overseeing multiple networking and mentorship programs.
Their development of this project as well as advice for trainees on how to prepare effectively for industry careers can be summarized into 4 key points:
1. Explore, find mentors, and discover your passions.
“My path to employment in industry was not straightforward,” Dr. Sealey began. “Before and after completing my PhD, I applied to several roles without success.” But after accumulating experience as a consultant, he landed a position in a healthcare company. Furthermore, by watching his peers navigate the job market with varying degrees of success and mentoring students, Dr. Sealey began to see what strategies were working, and what were not. “There was a clear need for data on the training opportunities with the greatest impact on employability,” he asserted. Dr. Wang added, “There was such a lack of reliable, detailed, and actionable data in this space. Without these data, we were operating blindly.” Given this unmet need, coupled with prior collaborations between SCIP and LSCDS, particularly on the highly successful Industry Team Case Study initiative, this research project was a natural progression for these organizations.
Speaking to the paper’s findings, Dr. Sealey was surprised to see that despite the shift among PhD candidates and PDFs towards wanting to work in a non-academic sector near the end of their training programs, only a minority had participated in high-impact career development activities. The authors believe both trainees and their institutions can address this disparity As Dr. Wang suggests, in light of this paper, universities can provide guidance on the availability and effectiveness of different career initiatives, and how to secure those opportunities despite potential systemic barriers. Importantly, Dr. Sealey advises, it is “up to us as individuals to define where we want to go in our careers, and to pursue the skills and experiences we need to go in that direction.”
As this paper has found, many students find time and workload to be the biggest barriers to participating in career development activities. Therefore, during the career exploration stage, it is also critical for trainees to develop time management skills, as this will impact time to completion and potentially employability. Reflecting back on his PhD days, Dr. Sealey mused, “When I was a trainee, I attempted many experiments that seemed like good ideas but took up a lot of time and had no impact on my projects. What can trainees do differently? If you want to have a one-hour coffee chat on a Wednesday afternoon with a professional who has a role you are interested in, can you arrange your key experiments around that time, and agree with your supervisor that you will make up the time after hours? Not every Wednesday afternoon will work, but some of them may be essential.”
It is imperative, then, to go out and explore. “Treat this like one of your PhD projects,” Dr. Wang advises. “Troubleshoot it and collaborate until you find a way that works for you. Graduate students should feel empowered to explore this aspect of their education.”
2. Seek out opportunities in your chosen field that can positively impact your employability.
Once you have set your career goal, it is important to seek out opportunities and gain experience towards fulfilling that goal. The career development activities rated by professionals as having the highest importance towards employment outside academia included internships, interview training, consulting, engagement in non-profit organizations and student groups, resume training, and mentorships, all of which include elements of experiential learning and effective self-marketing. As an industry professional, Dr. Sealey was not surprised by this finding, although he remarked, “in my first few years of graduate school, this list would have been eye-opening, because I was not doing any of them.” Similarly, Dr. Wang agreed that having this paper available as a graduate student would have helped ease her anxiety about the future and direct her training more effectively and efficiently.
In addition to lab work and publications, trainees can discuss their development goals with their supervisors and work together to define opportunities to enable that development. Dr. Sealey brings up a few ideas, such as delivering a non-technical presentation to the general public, leading a team, securing new funding, initiating a collaborative project, and transferring an advanced technique to the laboratory. All of these potential activities benefit both trainee and supervisor.
3. Learn how to present your experience tailored to each opportunity.
Effective self-marketing is crucial to securing a job, whether in industry or academia. Successful trainees know how to present their experiences and activities, both in and outside the laboratory, in ways tailored to each opportunity.
After gaining relatable experience, one tip is to place yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. “Hiring managers are likely to look for a reason to believe that the candidate can be productive in the role,” said Dr. Sealey. “Considering a candidate who has not done the job before (as would be the case for most new graduates), what experiences does he/she have that would predict success?”
4. Start early! Prepare yourself for your career now.
With this paper’s findings and tips from the authors, trainees interested in preparing themselves for the non-academic job market should be off to a good start. Both authors offered some concluding remarks:
“For new students embarking on their graduate school journey, an open and frank conversation early on with their PIs and lab mates on this topic may shed light on how they can work together to prepare for the job market. It may not be realistic to expect all PIs to be knowledgeable about job markets and training opportunities beyond academia,” said Dr. Wang.
Dr. Sealey added, “Start early; don’t wait until the year you plan to graduate. Find a way to differentiate yourself from any other PhD graduate, and find a way to convince hiring managers you can be productive in their organizations.”
As reported in this paper, over 80% of professionals who completed a PhD and/or PDF reported that the PhD helped secure their first position, increased long-term potential for advancement, and contributed to an ability to perform at work. These ratings, combined with the range of professions into which PhDs enter, indicate that doctoral training is sought after in the job market and thus should alleviate any fears about the employability of PhDs. Rather, as with any other field, it is up to trainees to prepare themselves for the job market. With these key insights in mind, we urge our PhD readers to start early and get out there!
Read more about the LSCDS / SCIP project here: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/12/04/485268
- Kolata G. 2016. So many research scientists, so few openings as professors. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/upshot/so-many-research-scientists-so-few-openings-as-professors.html.
- Her S, Jacob MD, Wang S, Xu S, Sealey DCF. 2018. Non-academic employability of life science PhDs: the importance of training beyond the bench. bioRxiv. doi: 10.1101/485268.