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Aug 27 / Kristine Peterson

“Alternative” Careers are the New Mainstream: BEST Program Gives Students Guidance while Challenging Outdated Beliefs

by Lauren Tanabe, Ph.D.

A report published in PLoS ONE last May provides evidence that the academic community should embrace all careers, including nontenure track ones, for its doctoral trainees. Co-authored by Dr. Ambika Mathur, Dean of the Graduate School, and a team of researchers affiliated with the Graduate School and the BEST Program, this report analyzed 15 years’ worth of data regarding career trajectories of WSU biomedical doctoral alumni. The authors note that while academic institutions have long held the belief that most biomedical doctorates go on to find positions as tenure-track/tenured faculty, in fact almost 75 percent are working in a variety of other sectors, including for-profit and nonprofit business, industry, and government.

Mathur et al. (2018) calls for the importance of transparency in accurately monitoring and understanding the full range of careers in which PhDs are engaged so that policy makers, taxpayers and congress, students, and faculty can truly “appreciate the impact of our biomedical graduates on biomedical science nationally and globally.” And yet most doctoral programs fail to collect career data on alumni.

In an effort to rectify and encourage other institutions to follow suit, WSU tracked and classified the outcomes of 91 percent of the biomedical doctoral alumni who graduated between 1999 and 2014. Of note, 92 percent of alumni are employed in careers related to research and science. The researchers also found that certain demographics gravitated toward particular fields. For example, Black alumni pursued government careers at higher rates whereas Whites pursued for-profit careers. Asian alumni and non-US citizens spend more time in training positions than others. Women were more likely to be employed in teaching and healthcare sectors, while men are more likely to pursue faculty and research. Across the board, however, the majority of alumni reported high satisfaction with their eventual careers.

The authors state, “We must embrace these careers as successful outcomes of doctoral training and make it acceptable for students to explore and identify their career interests in programs developed by the graduate training community.”

That’s encouraging to read, because in 2016 when I attended the NIH-Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) conference, frustration with academia among young scientists was palpable; so was confusion. How could institutions founded on the pursuit of knowledge ignore such a fissure in the rigorous curriculum of doctoral students? I’m speaking, of course, about career guidance, and more specifically about exposure to careers outside of the so-called “traditional” faculty route.

I wrote about this conference for the blog back then, but it is worth reiterating some of the more poignant thoughts of the attendees. Natalie Cain, then a postdoc at UC Davis, spoke of how she waited and waited (and waited) for the desire for an academic career to blossom inside of her. It never did. “The people above you are telling you that this is what you’re supposed to do and you’re just hoping that at some point the switch will flip and you’ll say, ‘Yes, I do want to work in a university.’ You might wait a long time for that switch to go and then when it doesn’t, you’re playing catch-up.”

Heather Clancy, a graduate student from the University of Colorado, said exasperatedly, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And Ada Weinstock, a postdoc from NYU, made a universal appeal to academic institutions: “Give people tools to help them make a decision [about their careers].” She believed that too many scholars were putting off making life decisions for fear that it would be the wrong one: “We are so afraid of failing that we don’t want to make a decision.”

It’s no wonder so many graduate students go on to do postdocs (sometimes multiple postdocs) despite being unsure of wanting to continue along the academic arc. When positions beyond academia aren’t just considered different, but rather, lesser, it is hard for innate overachievers to let go.

 

Baby steps, big aspirations

In 2012, the NIH took steps to not only try to offer doctoral and postdoctoral trainees career guidance, but also to lessen the taboo associated with choices beyond academia. At the time, not only was so-called “alternative” career guidance sparse (in most cases, virtually non-existent), but even if an opportunity could be found, it came with a heavy price tag. Openly admitting that you were searching beyond the hallowed academic halls invited ostracism, being branded a “not-so-serious scientist,” or even worse, being labeled an outsider.

As a postdoc on the brink of leaving academia at the time, what I found most upsetting was hearing from students that even though their mentors appeared outwardly committed to the tenets of the BEST program, they did not, in fact, make these opportunities available to their own mentees —an important reminder that even if opportunity is available, it requires a turning of the cultural tide to have significant impact. It is not so easy to amend pervasive, stale mindsets, even when the beliefs on which they hinge are inherently flawed. Here I am referring to the misconception that serious graduate students are destined to become serious faculty, and any deviation from that path is indicative of a lack of fortitude, intelligence, or creativity.

WSU was one of 17 US institutions to be awarded the $1.8 million, 5-year, non-renewable BEST grant, in 2013. Designed to help faculty find time to build a sustainable program that educated students about employment sectors beyond academia, at WSU, this led to the development of a three-phase program that culminated in a career exploration experience or internship in one of five sectors: business/industry, communication, government, law/regulatory affairs, and undergraduate teaching. Program activities were open not only to doctoral students, but also master’s students, postdoctoral trainees, faculty, and students from other area institutions.

In the early days of the BEST program at WSU, Dean Mathur said in a 2014 press release that “The long-range goal is to institutionalize these practices so that our students become the next generation of innovators and leaders in science. The extended outcome of our program is to place students in diverse careers in addition to academia, and to educate the biomedical community that such diverse careers are viewed as desirable and successful outcomes of doctoral research training.”

Five years later, the BEST program is, by most accounts, a success that adhered closely to the original vision voiced by Mathur. Stories from graduate students and postdocs who excelled and found internships, jobs, and new experiences (including myself) can be found through this blog site. Now the results go beyond the anecdotal: in another PLOS One report published this past June, lead authors Ambika Mathur and Christine Chow report on data analyzed from BEST participant surveys distributed at events held at Wayne from 2014 through 2017. They found robust participation in the program, including by women and underrepresented students, with no adverse effect on GPA or time-to-degree.

And it’s not just that the BEST program didn’t negatively impact students’ performance. The authors argue that professional development activities are associated with faster degree completion times, suggesting “that focused career planning by students may be more efficient in securing a job than individual haphazard job searches.”

This is not surprising. It is widely accepted that until very recently graduate students received little to no career guidance regarding alternatives to the traditional academic path. And this may, in part, relate to the so-called overabundance of postdocs. The postdoc position may require grueling hours and little pay, but it is extraordinarily enticing in that it allows for the impending decision regarding careers to be delayed by a few more years. Therefore, many postdocs remain in an ostensible holding pattern until pushed out because grants run dry.

 

Disassembling the myth of the “alternative” career

In reality, data presented at the 2016 NIH-BEST meeting showed that despite the disdainful colloquialism “alternative path,” careers outside of academia are increasingly becoming the path more traveled. Melanie Sinche, director of education at The Jackson Laboratory surveyed over 8000 PhDs and found that 65 percent were in “alt-careers.” Only 28% of those employed outside of the tenure-track felt the postdoc was critical for employment in their current position. The postdoc is absolutely an important part of training—except when it becomes the default, a crutch, enabling unsure young scientists the opportunity to put off starting their careers (especially when it’s unnecessary).

Not only did the authors find that the BEST program satiated the long-awaited desire for more career guidance (the surveys revealed that participants are eager to learn about careers in a variety of sectors), but the authors report that BEST seems to have jump-started overall interest in career exploration across campus. The data reveal that nearly half of WSU biomedical students participated in career development since the establishment of the program, a nearly three-fold increase when compared to just before it began. It also “led to self-perceived gains in knowledge…, skills required for jobs in these sectors, and the ability to find resources to assist them in obtaining further information about careers.” But the real proof is in the numbers—although the authors acknowledge that it was a small sample size, 72 percent of students who completed Phase III Experiential Learning (internships) ended up finding a career in the sector they explored.

An often overlooked benefit of the BEST program was also reported: by participating, students were able to rule out careers they were not interested in pursuing. And while it may be a concern that exposure to other careers could siphon talented young minds away from the academic pool, in actuality, it helps to ensure that those who are a good match for academia remain there. At the 2016 NIH-BEST meeting, a UCSF postdoc related how being a part of BEST reinforced her desire to pursue a tenure-track faculty position.

 

Cross-pollinating disciplines and relationships

A pleasant side effect of the program seems to be that meaningful relationships were formed during the process. It’s reported that the alumni and faculty who helped to develop and present course material often act as career coaches beyond the duration of the event, remaining in long-term contact with students and advising them on job-related concerns.

Relationships seem to be key to the BEST experience. Not only does it foster mentor-mentee relationships, but Mathur and Chow describe how it cultivates a “halo effect.” From their article: “Doctoral students from a wide variety of departments participate in BEST events, demonstrating the wide impact of our program beyond biomedical sciences. This inclusivity enhances cross-disciplinary interactions between students who otherwise may not have an opportunity to collaborate within the contexts of their doctoral research projects but who might work together in future career environments.” Just such a collaboration can be read about on the blog, here.

 

Not lesser, just different

All of this is surely enough to make you wonder why it took so long for the powers that acknowledge and (perhaps begrudgingly) embrace the innumerable benefits that come from offering students more information, more opportunities, and more relationships came to light. Something delightfully symbiotic emerges as students find their true calling and can do their best work. In this vein, perhaps the most significant finding of the May 2018 report was that there was hardly any difference in performance (GRE scores, GPA, time-to-degree) between those who stayed in academia and those who went on to do for-profit work, debunking the myth that those who leave simply “can’t cut it” or are just “settling.” The article ends with the following: “These data should empower students entering doctoral programs to have honest careers discussions about their career aspirations with their research advisors and to explore careers outside the professoriate, if they so choose.”

The academic system is still far from perfect; change takes time. But it’s clear that the revamping of the graduate school training paradigm has begun. So student and postdoc readers, wear your career aspirations clearly on your sleeves, faculty-bound or not. If anything, you’ve been trained to rely on the data, and the data say this: There is no one career that’s better or worse; your fulfillment is what determines its value.


Note:  The BEST Program officially ends on August 31, and it is a nonrenewable NIH grant.  However, the Graduate School will continue to offer a full slate of career and professional development activities, including three LinkedIn workshops in 2018-19, and much more!

See https://gradschool.wayne.edu/professional-development

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