Yes, we can: A positive outlook on PhDs’ job perspectives

By Claire Oldfield for Beyond Academia

Yes We Can

We started organizing the first Beyond Academia conference in late 2012 as a small group of PhD students and postdocs: the Beyond Academia conference aims to educate PhDs on the many of career options that are out in the world for them. We bring together professionals from companies around the Bay Area from sectors varying from entrepreneurship to science policy and tech. After the resounding success of Beyond Academia 2013, we are so excited to be putting on the second annual conference in February!

We are the first to know that the academic job market is going through harsh times. We have observed a growing number of articles and blogs describing the plight of PhDs searching for professorship positions and the difficulty of succeeding in academia. We also hear resentment from PhD students who feel universities are not preparing them for their future careers, that PhDs are overqualified and that their skills are not recognized in the business world.

The Beyond Academia Approach

At Beyond Academia however, we strongly believe in a more optimistic approach. Bright days are ahead and here are some reasons why:

  • There are signs that university culture is slowly shifting to view careers outside of academia more positively and even encourage graduate students to explore their options. While the old generation of professors has been heard to say “I am training my graduate students to become exactly like me,” I have a friend currently applying for faculty positions who boldly included non-academic career development in his teaching statement. It will be slow, but it will happen! Graduate programs were designed to train future professors, but the PhD professional landscape is changing. We just need to give them a bit of time to catch up!

  • For many, the only role model that students are exposed to in grad school is their adviser. No wonder it is difficult for PhDs to pursue something else if they don’t know what else is out there. The ensuing stress and frustration explains the resentment expressed by some. We saw how eye opening Beyond Academia 2013 was for attendees when they realized the plethora of interesting, rewarding jobs available to them. We are committed to spreading this experience as far as we can, and we are very hopeful that other initiatives such as ours will continue to sprout.

  • In 2013 the National Institute of Health itself made a call for proposals for Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training grants. It is very encouraging that the gap in PhD professional development is being recognized at a governmental level. Awareness is also growing from below as PhDs recognize that a tenure track position is not the only career success story for them.

  • PhDs may have technical, esoteric knowledge but our graduate training also prepares us remarkably well for the outer world: we have to lead our own projects, manage students and present our work at conferences. We are masters at power point, we have excellent critical thinking and the list could go on. We do have the skills; we just don’t have experience in conveying this to non-academic employers.

There ARE interesting, rewarding jobs for PhDs beyond academia. We PhDs need to increase our competitiveness and visibility in the business world by identifying our strengths, work on our networking skills and take a couple of classes in business speak. The good news is Beyond Academia is here to help do just that!

Claire is a co-organizer of the Beyond Academia conferences and a neuroscience PhD student at UC Berkeley. She feels strongly about empowering PhDs to transition to other horizons if they so decide. She likes to travel and to eat macarons. Find her on Linkedin.