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Formation and Career Guidance for PhD Students

Following an external review of the Cawley Career Center, the Office of the Provost has decided to separate the activities of career advising for undergraduates from those for graduate students. Cawley will in the future focus on undergraduate services for career counseling. We have appointed an implementation team to tackle the problem of building career counseling services for graduate students.

Masters programs seem to have distinct needs from PhD programs. The issues for career guidance of PhD students are changing as universities change. By definition, PhD programs are designed to educate the next generation of scholars in a field. They will be the ones who will generate new insights, building on the work of the current generation. They will be the ones to expand knowledge domains.

Most PhD programs were established to create the next generation of academics. Indeed, national studies suggest that most PhD students begin their studies with the goal of entering a tenure-line academic career. They aspire to follow in the footsteps of their undergraduate faculty who encouraged them to enter a PhD program. As their studies proceed, they seek out role models among their graduate faculty in order to shape their desired blend of research, teaching, and service. They imagine themselves 10 years hence as living very similar lives as those who mentor them.

In turn, the faculty guiding the studies of PhD students themselves are quite familiar with the nature of academic job markets, with the protocols for vetting job candidates for new assistant professor positions, the culture of job talks, and visits to a candidate campus. They know what departments are strong in their field and, often, what departments have strong supportive cultures and which departments are exhibiting internal conflicts. Good mentors of PhD students convey these features of academic life in many informal meetings and conference introductions over the years of the student’s experience. For many, they are replicating the very same experience they had as a PhD student.

Unfortunately, there is no system in the US that calibrates the supply of completed PhD’s with the demand for their knowledge and skills. In some fields, the likelihood that a PhD student eventually achieves a full professorship with tenure is small and declining. In these fields, the supply of newly minted PhD’s vastly exceeds the demand for new assistant professors. Hence, it is common that, within a few years of observing the job outcomes of more senior PhD students, a good portion of PhD students begin considering nonacademic career options.

Some PhD programs have altered their focus to a more nonacademic direction. The best such programs develop ties with commercial entities or nonprofit institutions that require PhD level staff. The faculty of the program thus take on the same career counseling role but for nonacademic careers. When some of the faculty in the program have real-world experience in such organizations, they can offer valuable advice about what the course of a career might be, how to translate research experiences on campus to the needs of the organization, etc.

At Georgetown, we pride ourselves on careful attention to the formation of our students. For the good of their graduates, faculty where increasing portions of their PhD graduates enter nonacademic careers necessarily assume new obligations for helping their students find their way in the nonacademic job market. Some issues are common across fields (e.g., how to translate a curriculum vitae into a commercial résumé, the anatomy of a private sector job interview). These might be ripe for common services at Georgetown for all interested PhD students. Others are quite specific to the types of nonacademic organizations hiring PhD’s from a particular discipline. These are worth discussion and deliberation among our faculty, asking the serious question of how well we are serving our PhD students, as they enter the nonacademic job market.

4 thoughts on “Formation and Career Guidance for PhD Students

  1. I applaud the University for making transformation in the career development of Graduate students.I hope the Graduates will be happy for the Efforts of university.I believe that it is important to develop programming that introduces students to the various careers that are out there, and that need their training.

  2. It is wonderful to see that the university is looking to make transformative changes in the career development of graduate students! I’d like to emphasize the efforts of our satellite graduate career offices around the campus that formed in response to this need. Notably, our Office of Career Strategy and Professional Development at Biomedical Graduate Education is the only career center on campus that supports three tiers of training- Masters students, PhD students, and postdoctoral research fellows. Indeed the career development needs of these distinct populations is quite unique but we have developed ways to cater to their distinct professional phases as well as scale our efforts toward any nodes of overlap. We also develop programming to allow these populations to interact with each other, recapitulating the peer mentoring or matrixed cross functional interactions that may take place between these different training levels in various settings of the biomedical science enterprise.

    Moreover, I’d like to comment specifically on the developing paradigm of PhD career intentions based on my own trajectory as a microbiology PhD turned academic administrator, and on recently published data that corroborates my own story on a more macro scale. The idea of correlating a pivot of PhD students to nonacademic careers with a bottleneck in opportunities toward the professoriate majorly underscores the divergence in motivations and career intentions of these students throughout their training. I believe that it is important to develop programming that introduces PhD students to the various careers that are out there, and that need their training, so that these students that diverge from the academic track are better prepared to transition into the career of their choice.

    A quick anecdote– Toward the end of my postdoc, I was prepared to write a K22 transition award, but I had an inner turmoil. It wasn’t that I was struggling to see myself GET a faculty position. I struggled to see myself in that path. My PI at the time was not familiar with career paths outside of her own (as is usually the case), so I appreciate the fact that she let me explore my options toward the end of my training. Therefore I was very fortunate at NIH to have a chance to do an internship in our NIAID Office of Training and Diversity with my PIs permission. This internship showed me the ins and outs of a career in doctoral Training and Development. At this point, I knew this field was right for me, and I became more energized and productive in the lab now that I had this clarity in purpose. Soon after I completed my program management internship at NIH, Biomedical Graduate Education welcomed me to Georgetown to pursue my dream job leveraging my story and experiences to build career development programming for our biomedical graduate students and research trainees.

    Recently, a study came out in PLOS ONE from Cornell University that puts numbers behind my story. That study is summarized very nicely in this Inside Higher Ed article:

    Briefly, a longitudinal study was conducted of PhD students across STEM fields to gauge their interest in academic careers. The authors saw a divergence of students interested in academic careers. This divergence was not due to a bottle neck to academia, but instead reflected a broad range of factors that shape a diversity in career goals. The usual comparison of the number of graduates to the number of available faculty positions may overstate the number of students who ASPIRE to become faculty, which can exaggerate imbalances in the academic labor market. As we’ve recognized in our BGE Career Strategy office, and we’d like to emphasize as a major source of momentum for the initiatives stated here, PhD career development programming needs to be centered on helping students understand the scope and utility of the skills they gain from their training. Furthermore, we are building more industry partnerships to provide opportunities for our students to learn about the scope of careers available to them, to align their skills to those enterprises, and to build their professional networks. Not to deter them from academic careers due to some perceived notion that academia is increasingly unattainable, but instead to help them clarify their goals and make truly informed career decisions.

    Thank you for reading all of this! That’s my two-cents.


  3. I applaud these efforts to make career services for graduate students more robust, as I’ve often heard from graduate students that their needs are too different from undergraduates for Cawley to serve both populations well.

    But I’d like to hear more about what is envisioned for MA students. In the past decade or so, this university has vastly expanded the size and number of MA programs. We have not simultaneously put into place institutions that help those students connect their education here to career prospects after graduation.

    Perhaps even more than with the PhD student population, the sheer diversity of MA programs makes meeting the needs of all these students challenging. In addition, however, they have needs that would seem to be different from both PhD students and undergraduates. Where will they fit into these envisioned changes in career services?

  4. Very thought provoking post, thank you. With regard to Ph.D. mentorship however, my own experiences are at odds with the implications found within :

    “Some PhD programs have altered their focus to a more nonacademic direction. The best such programs develop ties with commercial entities or nonprofit institutions that require PhD level staff.”

    I debate “best”. My laboratory has successfully graduated 19 Ph.D.s, most in chemistry, some in infectious disease, one from our M.D. / Ph.D. program. We stay in touch, and best I know, all are thriving. About 1/3 are pursuing careers in academia (a recent grad just began as Assistant Prof. of Chemistry, Univ. of CT), about 1/3 in gov’t, and about 1/3 in industry. Which is arguably as it should be in today’s job market. However, in all of these cases (as well as for all the successful students currently completing their degrees in our group) nowhere along the line were “ties with commercial entities or non profit institutions” necessary. Other factors were (and remain) much more critical to their success. We should examine those factors.

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