Opinion: Encourage alternatives III

PhD programs should integrate relevant non-laboratory work experience into their curricula

Nathan L. Vanderford
Sep 27, 2010

I have written about some of the barriers preventing PhD scientists from transitioning into non-research positions, including lack of support from mentors and lack of formal education related to these positions. I have also suggested that PhDs in alternative career fields linkurl:should do more to support others who are interested in following in their footsteps. My recent interaction with prospective employees and hiring officials has raised another important, although seemingly obvious point to consider when attempting to obtain a position: the importance of paid work experience.

Image: Wikimedia commons, Luckow

Particularly in tough economic times, competition for each vacant position is increasing exponentially, and to identify suitable employees, employers are beginning to painfully scrutinize every detail of an applicant's education and work history. In many cases, I'm seeing that employers are placing more emphasis on work experience rather than on education levels; employers want to fill positions with individuals that...

New graduates are educated but inexperienced, and thus, can be stuck in a classic "catch-22": they may struggle to obtain a job without experience and they can't gain experience until obtaining a job. Alternative career-seeking PhDs have translatable skills that would enable them to effectively contribute to many non-research careers, but, in most cases, they simply don't have significant non-laboratory work experience. Unfortunately, this not only affects their ability to obtain a position, but it also affects a salary recommendation if they manage to procure a job offer.

The job climate today highlights the importance of how more on-the-job training opportunities/work experience should be integrated into educational programs. If employers continue to focus primarily on work experience and higher education fails to address this, then the benefits and importance of obtaining a quality education will go by the wayside as individuals will begin skipping out on obtaining an advanced degree in lieu of entering the workforce.

This is a difficult problem to fix in terms of conventional PhD programs, which are, for the most part, designed to train future academic mentors and researchers. However, the fact is that an increasing number of students and fellows are not pursuing academic research careers, but rather are opting to pursue alternative careers. In fact, greater than 50 percent of science and engineering PhDs already work outside of academia, according to the National Postdoctoral Association, and the American Federation of Teachers reports that tenured and tenure-track faculty positions have recently declined by nearly 6 percent. As such, I predict that the number of alternative career-seeking PhD scientists will begin to dramatically increase in the near future as a greater number of PhDs realize that more opportunities exist outside of academia.

The question then is whether PhD programs should identify those not interested in academic research careers and persuade them to leave in order to circumvent the increasing number of PhDs entering the job market, or should programs adapt to this growing trend and help these students obtain work experience?

I believe that educating and training PhDs for careers outside the laboratory is a worthy and useful pursuit. PhDs can provide a high level of skill and knowledge, which can be beneficial to employers. As such, PhD programs should reevaluate training programs to include requirements of completing an internship in an alternative career field for those who are interested in pursuing a non-research career path. This step will not only benefit students, as it will help them obtain employment after graduation, but it will ultimately improve the track record of degree-granting institutions.

It is time for PhD programs to begin addressing the increasing number of individuals seeking employment in alternative career fields. Adding formal educational components and internships to PhD programs specifically for this cohort would be a good place to start.

Vanderford earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Kentucky, completed a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University, and is now pursuing a career in research/science administration.

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