Relativity, M.C. Escher. (1953) All M.C. Escher works © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

What screws us up the most in life is the picture in our head of what it’s supposed to be.”
– Socrates

As we move forward through our graduate training, our idea of what it means to be a scientist is perpetually evolving. Given the small number of faculty positions and the growing number of PhDs entering the market, it seems risky to assume that we will each have our own lab one day. Along these lines, a recent University of California San Francisco (UCSF) survey found that while about 90% of first year graduate students consider the principal investigator (PI) career track, this number drops sharply as students enter their upper years; by the end of their graduate training, at least one third of students have confidently chosen to leave academia. Although 15-20% of PhDs in the biological sciences do move on to academic or tenure-track positions within 5-6 years of receiving their degree, the remainder are left to find success in non-traditional science careers.

One of the main concerns cited by graduate students is not knowing what alternative careers are out there. In a recent post from NatureJobs, readers had the opportunity to choose a question to “Ask the expert”. The expert, in this case, was Sarah Blackford, an academic and science career specialist. Perhaps not surprisingly, people chose to ask her: What other jobs can bioscience researchers and PhD students consider if they want to leave academia? To answer this, she compiled an extensive list of opportunities (see list at end of article).

A list is always good, but it does not necessarily lead to the next step. Luckily, there are numerous online resources that can help narrow the field. One interesting resource called myIDP (my Individual Development Plan) is a free, interactive, career-planning tool developed to help trainees understand their options. Following a thorough assessment of specific skills, interests and values through a series of questions, the module calculates the top science career matches specific to the individual. For example, based on my specific skills, interests and values, I was matched with a career in scientific or medical testing, which I learned includes forensic science – surely a career to get excited about (at least for an eternal X-files fan). With 20 scientific career paths to choose from, as well as a set of resources describing each, this is a great tool for learning about new careers. Another resource called TheVersatilePhD contains a PhD Career Finder link with an extensive description of potential opportunities, job listings, internships and MeetUp groups, including one in Toronto. These provide an excellent opportunity to discuss current affairs while networking with like-minded individuals.

It may seem daunting to think about networking during a PhD, especially for those who are unsure of exactly what they want, but this is the prime time to practice; the worst that can happen is that they forget you! A great start is creating a LinkedIn™ account to establish a strong and professional e-persona. The next step is face-to-face. Organizations like the University of Toronto’s Life Science Career Development Centre (LSCDS) exist to allow graduate students to explore diverse career paths. Their mission is “to bridge the gap between academia and industry by providing opportunities for academics to network with professionals and build their career knowledge”. Through this organization, students can attend annual events such as Career Day, networking receptions and year-round seminar series, which invite speakers from pharmaceutical industry, consulting, project management, biotechnology, clinical research, and others. A similar setup exists for the now mandatory Graduate Professional Development course run by the Departments of Immunology and Biochemistry at the University of Toronto, where students meet with professionals and are challenged to practice the skills required for both academic and non-academic careers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, exposure to these careers during a PhD is an excellent way to get ahead of the competition. Some universities in the US are now incorporating internships directly into graduate programs, giving way to a graduate training curriculum that allows students to develop transferable professional skills. Here in Canada, there is a resource called Connect Canada™ that matches students with an industry partner for an internship. During this six-month program, the student, company and academic supervisor solve an R&D issue proposed by the company or by the student themselves. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows can also undergo training through MITACS Accelerate, which is a similar industry internship.

Unfortunately, participation in these collaborative projects is by no means the norm. Graduate training is still primarily structured as preparation for a career in academia, which is certainly not within reach for everyone. And although students recognize the need to prepare for non-academic careers, they also realize that this means taking time away from the primary goal of their program and of their PI, and are often afraid to speak up. Fuhrmann, the lead author on the 2011 study of graduate student career choices, suggests, “One way to alleviate this conflict of interest is to give thesis committees, rather than individual PIs, the responsibility for overseeing student career development”. It would also help for PIs to be honest about what type of students they are willing to support and train; not all labs are suited for industry-related research, nor should all PIs be forced to train only non-academics. Overall, whether it is up to the student, the PI or the university, it is only fair to ensure that proper career development support is in place for students who have made this choice during their graduate training.

If a half-year internship proves too difficult to work into a PhD, there are also opportunities after graduate school. Since postdoctoral fellowships are no longer reserved for academia, another potential stepping-stone between academia and industry lies in acquiring a postdoc directly with a company. For example, MITACS Elevate is a two-year postdoctoral fellowship with industry, and companies like the Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD) also offer postdoctoral placements. Alternatively, if patience, time and finance allow for more education, there are specific programs, such as Professional Science Masters (PSM), to help students learn the skills that industry professionals are looking for. Another newly accredited degree, which has received some positive attention from Science Careers, is the Postdoctoral Professional Masters (PPM). Based out of the Keck Graduate Institute in California (KGI), the program offers an advisory council, comprised of over 40 leaders of companies. According to James Sterling, vice president for academic affairs at Keck, “95% of graduates from [their] PSM and PPM programmes find employment in industry within eight months of graduation. PSM graduates usually have starting salaries of about US$70,000, and Keck PPM graduates about $80,000”.

It seems that now, more than ever, the road to a flourishing scientific career is curvy, long and riddled with exits. The growing opportunities to succeed scientifically in public and private sectors have left the graduate training curriculum behind, in dire need to evolve to match all the potential career outcomes that students may pursue. For now, the smartest thing that we can do is truly understand ourselves, and be honest about our strengths, weaknesses and goals. By developing the transferable skills imparted by a PhD, like written and verbal communication, critical thinking, mentorship, and networking, a genuinely committed student will have no trouble moving forward to a career, academic or otherwise.


Paths Post-PhD

  • Academic research (Postdoc, Faculty, Research Associate)
    • universities, research institutes
    • government
  • Industry and business 
    • technology companies, bioindustry, food technology
    • policy think tanks, media
    • entrepreneur or consultant
    • freelance consulting or self-employment
  • Scientific services 
    • advisory, sales,
    • data management
    • technical specialist
  • Commercial careers 
    • technology transfer,
    • patent examiner, patent attorney
    • regulatory affairs, marketing
  • Teaching and communication 
    • university, colleges, schools
    • publishing (editorial, commissioning, production)
    • press officer, science advocacy/outreach
    • scientific or medical illustration and writing
  • Administration and management (General Professional Careers)
    • conference organisation
    • science administration and policy
    • finance and project management
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Jelena Borovac

Jelena is a PhD student in the Department of Molecular Genetics.
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One thought on “The Many Paths Post-PhD: Preparing for Non-Academic Careers during a PhD

  1. Great article. Graduate students and post-docs need to become aware of the opportunities available to them and to develop the skill set and network to take advantage of them. Graduate professional development needs to be part of every graduate student’s training. A great place to start at U of T is with the GPS program run by SGS: is a useful on-line resource, free to all graduate students in Ontario.
    Finally, have a free and open conversation with your supervisor about your career path -after all, it’s your future.

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