[alert type=”info”]Note: The online version of this article is expanded from the one that appears in print. The graduate alumni survey form and compiled, anonymized raw data can be found at the download links located at the end of this article.[/alert]

Career preparedness and vocation of our alumni

Over the last few years damning reports have surfaced over the academic career conundrum: far more life science PhDs are being produced than can possibly be employed in academic positions. A recent fact-based IMMpress article delved into the history and current state of this predicament, in which the paucity of career data on Canadian MSc and PhD graduates was highlighted. Simply put, the provincial and federal governments, universities and most academic departments at the University of Toronto do not track alumni post-graduation.

This lack of data raises a number of questions on graduate education direction. Recent US and UK reports suggest that academia is now the alternative career path for PhDs. If this is true, then should universities alter, adapt, or completely overhaul graduate student training?  In the midst of this discussion and speculation on careers and training, the opinion of our alumni is seldom represented.

In this article and corresponding infographic, we present the results of the Department of Immunology graduate alumni survey, an initiative undertaken to identify the career trajectories of alumni from our infancy as an institute to our current state as one of the leading health science departments in North America.  Further, the survey asked our alumni to identify the strengths and weakness in their respective graduate educations.

Department of Immunology Graduate Alumni Survey Data. Data collected and analysed by Eric Gracey. Illustrations and design by Yi-Min Chun.
Department of Immunology Graduate Alumni Survey Data. Data collected and analysed by Eric Gracey. Illustrations and design by Yi-Min Chun.

The survey collected information on 70% of our 288 alumni spanning over three decades. The results highlight striking career trends.  A third of PhD alumni and a fifth of MSc alumni are currently employed outside of Canada. For MSc graduates, the most common career is medical school with almost half of alumni in that profession. For newly minted PhDs (1 to 5 years post-graduation), academic post-doctoral fellowships are the most common choice, however they only account for 40% of all doctoral graduates. Interestingly, few PhD graduates in midlife careers (6 to 15 years post-graduation) hold faculty positions. In fact, graduates in midlife careers were much more likely to have left academia altogether. On the other hand, 50% of our doctoral alumni who graduated more than 16 years ago, currently hold academic professorships.

In addition to gathering information on career trajectories, we also asked our alumni to evaluate the quality of their graduate education. Alumni unanimously agreed that the necessary skills for their first job post-graduation were acquired through lab work. Courses, on the other hand, were not viewed as a source of skill acquisition. In addition to this, alumni strongly agreed that transferable skills were far more important than subject specific skills and techniques, despite the latter being heavily emphasized in graduate school.  Regardless of the career trajectory of our alumni, most are very satisfied with their graduate education, with some proclaiming that it was second to none. As a whole, this data has helped to identify both the shortcomings and merits of our current graduate education. So, how can this information be used constructively?

The benefit to the graduate student of having such information on hand is clear: the academic job market has changed and individual training needs to reflect this reality. Graduate students, now more than ever, need to place themselves in an environment which will support realistic career goals. This notion is supported by recent reports describing record numbers of Canadian university graduates re-training in colleges.

How the academic institution might benefit from having career data on hand is not as obvious, especially given their unwritten mandate to produce independent scientists. Under the current academic research model, Canada relies heavily on graduate students to do the majority of work in research labs. However, if graduate students are leaving academia en masse – as the survey would suggest – there is no incentive for future students to keep enrolling in traditional graduate programs. This will be a major problem for academic intuitions as the quality and quantity of students will drop in the coming years. The conducted survey supports the idea that academic institutions need to offer more than the implicit promise of an academic career if they wish to attract and retain the best and brightest.

We sincerely hope that the results of this survey will provide evidence that graduate education needs to adapt to the needs of the student. The Department of Immunology is already taking initiative in improving graduate education through the creation of the Graduate Professional Development course. We also hope that such a survey will provide evidence for the merits of tracking alumni; an endeavor we believe is required for the survival of the academic institution.

Graduate alumni also provided comments and suggestions during the survey – selected responses can be found here.

Thanks to the following people for aiding in the design and execution of this survey: Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, Alessandra Ferzoco, Elisa Porfilio, Kieran Manion, Korosh Kianizad, Natalia Pikor, Nichole Escalante, Nyrie Israelian, Patrycja Thompson and Yuriy Baglaenko.

A special thanks to Lynne Omoto at the Department of Immunology office for assistance in compiling alumni lists.

A complete list of Department of Immunology alumni, their year of graduation and degree graduated with was compiled with data from the Department of Immunology offices and the Faculty of Medicine. The survey was sent to all alumni with an email address on record with a reminder email sent after a month. For those with no contact details on record and for those who did not complete the survey, career data was obtained through personal communication or internet searches. Information was only recorded if graduation from the Department of Immunology at U of T could be confirmed. Of the 288 Department of Immunology alumni, 73 responded to the survey and 131 were found using the described methods.

Survey form and raw data
We have provided the original survey form and anonymized raw data in the interests of openness and transparency. Please click on the buttons below to download the respective files.
[button link=”http://www.immpressmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/alumni-survey.pdf” size=”medium”]Download Survey Form[/button]

[button link=”http://www.immpressmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/2013-DoI-alumni-survey_anon.xlsx” size=”medium”]Download Survey Raw Data[/button]

Recommended reading

Gracey, E. The Expendable PhD. IMMpress Magazine. 2013. (1):25-6. http://www.immpressmagazine.com/the-expendable-phd/

Schillebeeckx M, Maricque B, Lewis C. The missing piece to changing the university culture. Nat Biotechnol. 2013 Oct;31(10):938-41.

Katsnelson A. Life sciences: industrial immunology. Nature. 2013 Aug 15;500(7462):367-8.


Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral Graduates from Canadian Universities.

Biomedical research workforce working group report (NIH). http://acd.od.nih.gov/biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf

Career patterns and competences of PhDs in science and engineering in the knowledge economy: The case of graduates from a UK research-based university. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048733310001150

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Eric Gracey

Contributing Editor
Eric is a PhD student with the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. He did his undergraduate degree at the University of Auckland, New Zealand where he investigated the effects of diet on gout. He currently studies the role of the immune system in arthritis, specifically an arthritis of the spine called ankylosing spondylitis. When not in the lab, Eric likes to run and has taken up backcountry canoeing.

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