By Tomasz Bakowski and Anusha Mookherjee
The average graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. spends around six years of his or her life working towards obtaining a doctorate. After expending such tremendous time and effort, newly minted doctors often find themselves asking, “what’s next?” With a lack of structure and appropriate advising within the graduate departments at Stony Brook University, for many, the answer remains muddled.
Many graduate students do not seriously consider what their employment opportunities would be during their graduate studies and often find academic positions unavailable, alternative careers that they are unprepared for, or worse still, unaware of entirely. A significant part of this disconnect stems from the deficiencies in academic advising, that are reinforced by the structure and culture of graduate school.
When one decides to join a department as a new graduate student, one works independently to find a position within the department. Generally, prospective students, if they come for a visit before they accept the offer, are advised to have in mind two or three professors or principal investigators (PI) who they would be interested in working with and contacting them before accepting an offer of admission. Most departments at Stony Brook offer funding for the first nine months of one’s graduate career, starting when you arrive until around the first week of June. At that point, one needs to have found a PI willing to take on and pay a new graduate student in their lab.
It is often advised among graduate students that one picks a lab/PI with a good or mediocre project, but a helpful and concerned PI rather than a possibly amazing project with an uninvolved PI. In the end, the exact content of one’s thesis does not matter as much as the “fit” between student and adviser given the close working relationship necessary over the course of a five-plus year project.
However, advising goes beyond getting help in obtaining a degree. Any degree is useless if a student does not have a place to apply his or her education. In terms of career advising, there is no assigned “mentor.” Rather, one’s PI serves a multi-functional role as your thesis adviser, employer and mentor all in one.
Discussing future career opportunities with one’s adviser can be hit or miss. Professors are trained to be good academic researchers, and, as a result, typically are only capable of advising and training their students to pursue a similar academic career path, however, the number of available academic jobs has been steadily diminishing for decades. While many PI’s take a vested interest in the employment outcomes and placement of their students, others play an absentee role in their advising roles. Others still do not entertain discussions of careers outside of academia, with an academic culture still occasionally viewing such paths as “lesser.” Furthermore, every department within the graduate school is independent of the others, so the requirements for and quality of advising and mentorship in each program varies widely as well.
During the course of a Ph.D., graduate students are either unaware of or unable to pursue internship opportunities. There is little incentive for PIs to allow their students to pursue internships. While they can directly broaden and improve career prospects for current students, internships pull students from their primary job: research. That puts pressure on PIs who would face an economic and productivity loss.
Many newly minted Ph.Ds go on to postdoctoral positions. In theory, one utilizes a postdoctoral position to broaden one’s research experience and potential by working in a new institution and laboratory, and after two to three years finding a tenure track academic position. The reality of the situation is much more dire, with many young researchers toiling away for over half a decade through multiple post-docs for barely twice the pay of a graduate student, in what many have recognized as form of disguised unemployment. Fewer than one in five Ph.Ds in postdoctoral positions find tenured faculty positions.
The National Science Foundation compiles data highlighting the employment problems of Ph.Ds in the sciences through their Survey of Earned Doctorates illustrating that less than 40 percent of students have committed jobs at graduation with large increases in the percentages of students either pursuing post-doctoral positions with unclear results or worse, remaining unemployed.
A significant part of the problem regarding Ph.D advising and employment rests on prospective students themselves. Many incoming students do not have a clear career goal as to why they are seeking an advanced degree. When asked, many students claim that they will either pursue a career in academia or “industry”— an ambiguous term that fails to appreciate the many distinct career paths outside of academia often titled as “alternative careers.” This results in unmet expectations and unclear answers.
The importance of preparing oneself for a broad range of career opportunities has started to become more obvious to many graduate students, with students beginning to work together to educate themselves on the possibilities out there.
One graduate student club, The Graduate Career Association, has organized dozens of seminars, panels of alumni and networking sessions.
The Graduate School and Career Center at Stony Brook have only in the past few years began to truly recognize the depth of the advising and employment problems faced by graduate students, starting to attempt to address them.
These initiatives include organizing more events catered specifically to graduate student career opportunities, highlighting resume building and starting a new office within the graduate school, the Integration of Research, Education and Professional Development (IREP). The graduate school also hopes to have all students begin to plan and fill out their own Individual Development Plans (IDP), modeled on those available at http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/, to help students set short and long terms goals related to their professional careers, whether they be inside or outside academia.
Such initiatives led by both student organizations and the Graduate School should be applauded. However, much more needs to be done to start setting career expectations for graduate students.
One recommendation would be to have graduate students have additional mentors, not associated with their thesis advisers, focused primarily on discussing professional and career goals. This would allow students multiple perspectives and help guide students more effectively during their studies.
Another important change would be to require graduate students to take writing courses focusing on writing for non-expert audiences. Going one step further, including broader communication courses in the curriculum for all graduate students would be a boon for all involved parties.
These courses could be modeled after those offered by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science’s curriculum. It would help students not only become better presenters of their own scientific work, which bolsters their lab’s and the university’s reputation, but also better communicators to non-experts and future employers.
Finally, the university should establish a centralized way to track student employment outcomes and placement post-graduation. Publishing this data for the use of current students, and even advisers, would be of immense value. Currently, any tracking of outcomes is done at best at the department level or at the level of individual labs or groups. At worst, not at all. This is a huge untapped resource for potential networking for current students and resource for hosting more career events on campus.
Changing the academic culture is also important. Faculty and administrators must come to appreciate the fact that according to the NSF’s own statistics less than 14 percent of Ph.Ds will end up in tenure track positions more than five years after graduation.
“Alternative careers” is a misnomer. Non-academic career paths are not the alternative, but rather what the majority of graduates will pursue. Academic careers are the alternative, and in many places they are very hard to even obtain. Incoming and current students must also more seriously ask themselves why they want to obtain an advanced degree and how it will benefit their careers.
If we intend on being a top tier research university, we cannot maintain the status quo when it comes to graduate education, training, and advising. The realities of the job market demand that students are prepared to tackle a wide range of career opportunities outside of traditional academia. Expectations need to be set, programs need to be improved and information needs to shared more widely.
Tomasz Bakowski is a fifth year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering. Former Speaker of the Senate and Vice President of the Graduate Student Organization. For his PhD work, he is working on better understanding the physics of DNA molecules under confinement on the nanometer-scale.