The Changing PhD: How Can Higher Education Institutions Prepare Science PhDs for Alternate Careers?

Lori Carron, Stony Brook University


Given the increasing trend of the competitiveness and shortage of tenure track faculty jobs, today’s PhDs in the sciences are finding that the non-traditional careers outside of academia are becoming increasingly attractive. How are higher education institutions addressing this shift? What programs and support services will help today’s PhD graduates find jobs and be adequately prepared for careers in government and industry? I will argue that support services and programs targeted to graduate students can provide supplemental professional development opportunities that offer creative ways to supplement the PhD curriculum, particularly in the science disciplines. A key challenge I will discuss is how to supplement, not dilute, the core PhD curriculum, giving PhDs the transferable soft skills required in today’s business environment. I will also examine the role that the professoriate plays in providing meaningful ways to mentor their students to better prepare them for the non-faculty jobs, including eliminating the negative connotation of the term alternate careers. Lastly, I examine case examples of programs such as Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California, NIH’s Oxford-Cambridge Scholar program, and the University of Illinois’ Certificate in Entrepreneurship and Management (CEM) and Certificate of Business (CIB) programs. If we believe that future of our economic and world prosperity will depend on the pipeline of new young scholars that embark on a PhD degree, higher education needs to address this shift and adequately offer graduate students the opportunities to hone in on additional soft skills that will enable these scholars to compete in a dynamic business world.


The job market facing today’s PhD graduates has changed dramatically over the last two decades. The number of PhDs who have received their degree has grown significantly over this past decade; over 30% since 1991 (Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2011). This demographic statistic, coupled with the fact that universities are meeting their faculty needs by hiring an increased amount of part time adjunct faculty, paints a complex picture for new PhD grads. Universities all over the country are feeling the economic crunch of tight budgets and decreased federal and state funding. According to Philip Altbach, post World War II, the professoriate field rapidly expanded as well as student enrollment among all higher education institutions from community colleges to research universities. However, from the 1980s to present day, even though there continues to be increasing enrollment, the bulk of the growth is among part timers and non-tenure track faculty (p. 232). To further complicate the faculty hiring crisis, senior faculty members are not retiring as in previous decades, creating fewer job openings for new graduates. According to Masterson, the sluggish economy has not only adversely affected the creation of new jobs in academia, but also the financial security of long-term retirement benefits. “Older faculty members are delaying retirement because the economic crisis took a bite out of their retirement portfolios” (Masterson, 2010). In addition, we as a society are living longer and perhaps a large proportion of faculty are finding no reason to give up the research that has become their passion in their life, even as they approach and pass the typical retirement years.

This trend in faculty hiring directly affects the career prospects for new PhD graduates. “According to Georgia State University Professor Paula Stephan, the recent data on science PhD graduates depicts a mixture of dismay and hope. The data shows that fewer than 1 in 6 are in tenure track academic positions — smaller than the number still stuck in post doc positions” (Weissman, 2013). This statistic would lead us to believe that a vast majority of students will have to prepare for the reality that alternate career options are the logical and pragmatic answer to this question. I argue that higher education institutions will need to adjust their curriculum and provide services for their graduate students to prepare for these non-traditional career choices. If we believe that the pipeline of incoming scholars is critical to not only the future of the field of academia, but for industrial and economic growth as well as the needs of society, then further research on this trend is critical. I believe that that academia and corporations alike both need experts in their fields, either from a teaching and research perspective or to provide new talented leadership and innovation to corporations, and that it is higher education’s responsibility to react to the changing PhD job landscape by examining support services that develop transferable skills that can help them compete and succeed in alternate careers.

Job Market Trends

According to Altbach, there has been a shift in thinking about research and its role. Due to declining external funding in most fields, and the fact that competition for the limited remaining funds is so competitive, there should be an orientation toward more applied research, with closer links between industry and universities and more service to the private sector (p. 239). This statement begs the question: how can corporations and universities work closer together to mutually benefit one another, without compromising the integrity, importance and strength of academic freedom? Why should universities and corporations work closer together in ensuring that graduate students are best prepared to enter into the non-academic work force? Universities gain graduates who succeed after graduation and build up the reputation of their programs; corporations gain a pipeline to the future leaders of their organizations who are at the cutting edge of their field research to develop their next generation of products and services.

Professor Paula Stephan, who has broken down NSF data on biology Ph.D.’s five or six years post-doctorate found that fewer than one in six are in tenure track academic positions. The remaining are less than 20% on the non-tenure track, 20% in a postdoc, 10 % out of the labor force or working part-time, around 10% in government positions, about 22% in industry positions and the remaining 10% categorized as other. (Weissman, 2013). “The rise in postdoc employment after graduation over the past decade has increased from 20% to almost 30%. Postdoc jobs had been previously known to be jobs in which budding scientists honed their research skills for one to two years, and now it can stretch on for a half decade” (Weissman, 2013). Since many view postdocs as cheap scientific labor, the growing number of postdoc statistic is quite troubling. This data leads graduates to wonder, if these trends continue, and PhD grads are just as likely to work in non-academic fields as much as in academia, to what extent are graduate students being adequately prepared for these careers?

Essential Support Services

According to the 2001 Chris Golde and Timothy Dore study, despite a decade of attention, there is a mismatch between the purpose of doctoral education, aspirations of the students, and the realities of their careers – within and outside academia (p. 5). Their research showed that graduate programs persist in preparing their students for careers in research universities, despite the well-publicized paucity of academic jobs and efforts to diversify their career options. “If doctoral education is to remain viable in the twenty-first century, universities must tear down the walls that separate fields and establish programmes that nourish cross-disciplinary investigation and communication” (Taylor, 2011). Dr. Alfreda James, Assistant Director of Graduate Student and Post Doc Career Services at Stony Brook University agrees:

A key challenge for today’s universities is to break out of the department silos and provide more of a systematic approach to responding to the needs of the market and of our students. The traditional model of a terminal degree leading to an academic position confuses society’s need for creative solutions to long-standing problems with the availability of positions at universities/colleges. Graduate schools produced generations of highly-trained individuals for teaching and research while those very positions shrank in number. At the same time, translational research opportunities, especially in the life sciences, grew. So we have an awkward, contradictory, situation where the university–an institution designed to advance knowledge–becomes a place hobbled by its own traditions. The scholarship that ought to improve our lives becomes lost in its lack of application or utility. (A. James, personal communication, April 18, 2013)

Given the diverse careers that PhD graduates will likely embark on, what different skill sets do PhDs today need to be competitive and realize their full potential? Important to note first is the concept that it is necessary that the PhD curriculum not be diluted, just enhanced. Agarwal and Sonka state that “There is an explicit recognition that the goal is to enhance the science-based core rather that to dilute it” (151). Vanderford corroborates this point, arguing that “Broadening PhD curricula will produce multiskilled individuals who will be highly competitive and sought after in the job market” (Vanderford, 2012). Research from experts suggests that the types of skills that seem to be most beneficial range from project management, forming teams, communication and presentation skills, networking, financial management and entrepreneurial skills, just to name a few. “A 2002 review of UK higher education by physicist Gareth Roberts recommended that the government should fund training for PhD students in transferable skills such as forming teams, managing people, and communicating effectively (Sanderson, 2010). “Academia might do well to look to the private sector for a model that broadens the soft skills of the PhD holders and expands their prospects. Many businesses offer their executives short, intensive training programs that stimulate their professional development in key areas such as leadership, innovation and management” (Fiske, 2013). I acknowledge that one needs to be cautious here as the science research and theory are the core components of the PhD curriculum, and supplemental development should do just that, supplement, not dilute the core curriculum. Faculty alone should not have the sole responsibility to prepare PhDs for their jobs. Additional professional development, support services and skills training could be the leverage that PhDs need to compete successfully, having the science, research and business skills to market themselves in today’s highly competitive non-academic job market. “Although the advisor is ideally suited to guiding students through the rigorous training necessary to become an independent researcher, he or she may be ill-equipped to help them to develop skill to succeed in other fields” (Fiske, 2013). This leads us to believe that supplemental programming offered by the university may be the optimal method by which higher education institutions can offer their graduate students the opportunity to gain this competitive edge in non-academic fields.

Faculty Bias Toward Academia

As quoted in the Golde and Dore 2001 study, this English student statement showcases the sentiment that students have toward their professors in terms of their role in giving career advice and guidance:

Faculty members in my program acknowledge that there is a job shortage and make this clear to incoming students, but do precious little else to encourage students to consider just what else they might be good for outside the ivory tower. I wish I had done more to prepare myself for alternatives outside of college/university teaching. (Golde & Dore, 2001, p. 8)

There seems to be an overwhelming consensus that faculty tend to have a stigma toward talking to graduate students about career options outside of academia. PhDs who take on jobs outside of academia may know very early on in their graduate career that they want to go into an alternative career, but feel the pressure of their faculty to not discuss it. “Not only did PhDs take a variety of jobs outside the Academic Ladder route, but many of them know when they completed their degree that it was not the intent to become a professor” (Maki & Borkowski, 2006). As noted in the Sauermann, Roach study in 2012 where they conducted a large-scale survey among PhD students in the sciences, “It is sometimes argued that advisors exacerbate labor market imbalances by encouraging students to pursue faculty careers”. One of the conclusions of their study was that they found that administrators, policy makers and professional associations may have to complement their career guidance to students and not rely on the student’s advisors alone. According to Dr. Jerrold Stein, Dean of Students at Stony Brook University, the faculty advisor and student relationship would benefit both parties if faculty felt more comfortable talking to them about all aspects of student life, including career placement.

The graduate student and faculty advisor relationship is critical. We need to create more opportunities and provide training programs for faculty to be more fully immersed in the lives of our students and for them to go outside their comfort zone of academia. Once developed, we find that faculty actually enjoy this role and find it fulfilling. (J. Stein, Personal communication, April 2013)

Faculty training and education on how to support their students, allowing the free exploration of different career paths would be beneficial to their students, and subsequently, since student placement is a direct assessment of the strength of the graduate program, beneficial to the graduate program and its university. Advocates towards this progressive way of thinking argue that some doctoral students do not view non-academic jobs as an alternate career, or as a second-class status, but as the work that they’ve always wanted (June, 2001). According to a Council of Graduate Schools published study “professors don’t talk enough to their graduate students about possible jobs outside of academe, even though such nonfaculty positions are of interest to students” (Cassuto, 2012). Given this perspective, I ask: What is preventing us from giving our graduate students all of the advice, guidance, perspectives, opportunities, skills and support that help them achieve their goals, no matter what field they choose?

Case Examples of Professional Development Programs within Higher Education

In this section I examine some case examples of institutions that have made a commitment to offer opportunities to provide various transferable professional development skills for their graduate students. I chose these examples because I believe they demonstrate new, innovative and creative methods within higher education; incorporating supplemental programming without watering down or taking away the main substance of the core curriculum.

Keck Institute

According to Beryl Benderly, Keck Institute in Claremont CA is a pioneer in developing the Professional Science Master’s degree (PSM). The PSM degree curriculum combines the science or engineering component with business management or other industry-oriented courses, and is a growing trend among some institutions. “About 250 PSMs currently exist, up from 80 in 2006. In the academic year 2010-2011, 173 graduates received PSM degrees, and about 5500 students were enrolled in programs at the beginning of the current academic year” (Science Careers Blog). According to Nathan Vanderford at the University of Kentucky, the Keck Graduate Institute has been very successful at creating new programs and integrating science and professional development into their coursework. “Certainly, PhD programs could be restructured to maintain the rigor of the education and training needed to produce scientific experts but to also formally train PhD recipients to be multifunctioning to the degree required by their varied job functions” (Vanderford 2012). For example, “KGI offers a PhD in Applied Life Sciences, is designed to educate technically competent, broadly trained, highly original scientists for research and development positions in both bioscience and industry environments” (KGI PhD in Applied Sciences). This interdisciplinary program not only prepares future scientists for a career in research and academia, it incorporates transferable skills such as bringing new products to market, intellectual property protection and writing business plans. KGI has even offered a “Bridging the Gap” Summer Boot camp to provide engineers and scientists who are working on or have received their PhDs an introduction to the transferable skills and industry experiences not afforded during their graduate studies but required to obtain positions in the life sciences industry” (Benderly, 2013). This program is a solid example of how the core science curriculum is not disturbed or diluted; essentially it is supplemental in nature. A challenge to be continually addressed is that these supplemental skill development methods must not take away from the core science curriculum, just complement it.

NIH’s Oxford Cambridge Scholars Program

Based on the concept to combine the best elements from the US and the UK, the NIH’s Oxford Cambridge Scholars Program is an elite doctoral program. It is an accelerated, biomedical PhD degree program where students have at least two advisors, from different disciplines, one in each country. “Interdependence is stressed – students devise and write their own project plan. Because no adviser has full control, students learn how to operate independently says Michael Lenardo, creator of the program” (McCook, 2011). “The NIH-Oxford program has allowed me to develop as an independent scientist more quickly than would be possible in a typical graduate program. By coordinating research between 4 laboratories in 3 countries, I’ve learned both scientific and personal skills that will be important for my career… and it has been a lot of fun!” says a student in the program (NIH Oxford Cambridge Scholars webpage). Since students travel back and forth between countries, this program cannot be achieved at all institutions due to complex logistics and its cost component. However, the concept of incorporating the student writing their own business plan, encouraging global travel and having multiple advisors, with vast diverse career backgrounds and perspectives are some best practices that universities can build upon.

University of Illinois’ CEM and CIB programs

According to Agarwal and Sonka, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has two interesting programs that were created in response to the need for an enhanced education experience for graduate students in the sciences. The CEM is a 90 contact hour program offered over an academic year designed “for entrepreneurially minded MDs, DVM and PhDs in the life sciences and other disciplines who are interested in understanding the business, economic and legal issues in biotechnology ventures” (Agarwal & Sonka, p.152-153). The related CIB program, a much less intense alternative, is the 10-session program designed to provide business skills related to topics such as marketing, leadership, financial management, negotiation skills, business ethics and project management. It is intended to expand their business knowledge without reducing their primary field of study (CIB website). These examples of supplementing the PhD curriculum show how additional skills are valuable for career placement and advancement while also able to be added to the student’s graduate career with minimal overhaul and disruption to their core curriculum and study. According to Agarwal and Sonka, this university shows a great example of what programming can be offered to address the inequities in graduate education and varied career paths. “The system that currently provides advanced degree education appears not to have adjusted to best prepare individuals for the dynamic career path that they will likely face” (Agarwal & Sonka, p. 159). Clearly there is a lot of further work to be done in the professional development arena for graduate education.

Conclusions and Future Study

PhD graduates in today’s economic climate are likely to explore vastly different opportunities than their predecessors. Alternate career paths open up a whole new dimension in today’s graduate program responsibilities in preparing their graduates for successful careers. Careers in government, business, biotechnology and other science industries require a broad array of skills development for those graduate students who seek to be competitive and to succeed in these careers. Management, communication, networking, entrepreneurial, presentation, financial management and other skills will need to be addressed and incorporated into the new PhD in order for them to be competitive in these non-academic fields. Faculty can help their students if they demonstrate that they do not have a stigma towards these fields and discuss other alternate career options. Student services and supplemental programming efforts should incorporate skill development, such as mentorship, networking, communication, financial management, presentation skills, how to write a business plan, etc. These supplemental services and programming will better prepare the increasing numbers of PhDs who will likely consider careers in government, industry and other non-tenure track jobs. PhDs during their academic career should seek all professional development opportunities, especially when they are not completely sure that a tenured track job is in their future. Attending networking events, skills workshops and any other opportunity to speak publicly about their research are all ways that graduate students can take the initiative to develop key transferable skills throughout their graduate study.

Another area of concern with this topic is who will pay for these services as university budgets continue to tighten. Future studies could also explore if it is necessary to incorporate the soft skills training in all PhD curricula, regardless of student’s desire to go into teaching or industry. Since the focus of this paper was on the sciences, further studies could also address how skills training could make an impact on the non-science disciplines. Additionally, perhaps the transferable skills that we discussed are not only a necessity to the PhD graduate in industry, but also just as critical for a new professor heading toward a tenure-track position. “Students, administrators, trustees and even people from the public and private sectors must create pressure for reform” (Taylor, 2011). Significant research points to the fact that this topic is not likely to be resolved in the short term, but will continue to be discussed and explored as new supplemental programs evolve and are refined in the future.


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