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Early Career Planning in a Changing Postdoctoral Climate

Hannah Martin Lawrenz

Amidst a national decline in the availability of postdoctoral fellowship positions, focused career development is extremely important, even in the early phases. Career planning expert, Cynthia Fuhrmann, shared some tips on making specific career goals during training. Read more...

After completing more than 8 years of higher education, the prospect of transitioning out of academia may seem daunting or confusing to a new PhD. Professors often feel dissatisfied with students who express interest in leaving, and when they are supportive, they have little advice to give since their experience is tied to the “ivory tower.” Jobseekers may also encounter negative attitudes from potential industry employers about the value of a PhD on a resume.

The varied landscape of postdoctoral work leaves many students conflicted about what role to pursue and where. Although graduation delays are a stark reality for many PhD students (in the United States, the average PhD graduate is 33 years old), graduates previously expected increased earnings and decreased unemployment with their greater educational attainment. Unfortunately, the number of U.S. postdoctoral fellowship positions have been decreasing steadily—a trend that is likely to continue after the enactment of a new federal law regarding overtime pay for postdocs in higher education.

With fewer postdoctoral fellowship opportunities available in the U.S., some students are looking for positions in locations like Europe, Asia, or Canada. Americans who successfully secure these positions often rave about the unique cultural experience of working in a new country, and many international students are excited to return to their home countries for their postdoctoral work. However, these individuals are often forced to spend much of their time looking for their next job, which can compromise their work focus and increase their uncertainty about the future.

In Canada, most PhD graduates work outside academia. Although nearly 40% work in postsecondary education, according to a recent report, fewer than 1 in 5 PhDs (18.6%) are employed as full-time university professors, including tenure- and non-tenure-track positions. Over 60% work in sectors such as industry, government, and non-governmental organizations, but after graduation, they often have difficulty transitioning out of academia and locating other avenues.

Thankfully, many institutions have started implementing programs to motivate and equip students to take early ownership of their career directions. Cynthia Fuhrmann, Assistant Dean of Career and Professional Development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, also founded and directs the Center for Biomedical Career Development. She discussed some of the challenges faced by science students, detailed recent grant-funded initiatives in career planning, and explained the importance of proactively incorporating specific career goals into academic and postdoctoral training.

How can students make the most informed career decisions early in their graduate training?

It’s easy as you enter graduate school to feel like you won't need to worry about your career until later. This sentiment can extend late into graduate training, in part because deadlines and graduation dates tend to vary so much from student to student.

The problem is that exploring career options can take a fair amount of time. For example, developing a professional network in a career area of interest isn’t something that can happen in a month, or even six months. Students may need practical experience beyond their thesis research. They should expect to take small steps throughout their training. Our approach is to get students thinking about their careers early in their training so that they can decide which strategic steps they want to take in the most time-efficient manner.

You’ve written extensively on career preferences of doctoral and postdoctoral scholars in basic biomedical science. Can you describe the current scenario facing U.S. postdoctoral candidates?

In recent years, the number of postdoctoral training positions in the U.S. has been declining. The new federal law regarding overtime and the NIH’s corresponding announcement of increased NRSA fellowship stipends are likely to continue this trend. This serves as a reminder of the importance of students taking early action towards career planning. This can empower students to identify whether postdoctoral training is even the right choice for the career they want to pursue, and if so, whether to do so in an academic or industrial setting, in the U.S. or abroad.

Historically, it has been relatively easy to attain a postdoctoral training position after getting a PhD. Knowing that postdoctoral training may benefit a number of different research-intensive career paths, and assuming that postdoctoral training won’t hurt other types of career potential, it’s not uncommon for graduate students to figure, “Well, I don’t know exactly what I want to do in my career, but a postdoc might be a fine default next step.” For some people, this approach simply ends up delaying what they really want to do in their future careers. It's difficult to find yourself in your 30s, maybe even early 40s, in a temporary training position, trying to figure out where you want to go next.

Scientist trainees could be more satisfied if they had a clearer vision of where they will go after training. And, by developing a culture that encourages students to take more strategic career steps, we will optimize our federal investment by more efficiently moving them into long-term careers that contribute to the strength of our scientific enterprise. At the end of the day, we want to train scientists who quickly move into fulfilling careers that apply their scientific skills to benefit society.

How can students and recent PhD graduates determine whether an industry or academic postdoctoral fellowship is best for them?

For basic biomedical scientists, this depends on an individual’s interests—both short-term and long-term. If a student wants to pursue a research career in industry, then a postdoctoral position at a company can help them acclimate to industry culture, develop a professional network within industry, and develop expertise in an area of direct relevance to companies. On the other hand, some companies value hiring academic postdocs because of their ties to the academic sector. Still other companies prefer to hire students straight out of graduate school. Talking to scientists who have already navigated similar career steps is extremely valuable for helping current students become more informed about career possibilities, and ultimately to discern what their own best option is.

What career development programs do you use at UMass?

Our approach at UMass Medical School is to integrate career development into the graduate curriculum, from the first week of classes to senior years of training. We focus on professional skills development, exposure to career options, and strategic career planning. We’ve launched and are testing this approach through funding by an NIH BEST grant, a funding mechanism born out of the 2012 NIH Biomedical Workforce Report to catalyze new approaches to career development. Our goal is to develop a culture where graduate students are thinking about their career interests and skills from the beginning of their graduate training and are taking small steps throughout to progress towards their next career goal. We’ve built discrete lessons into the graduate curriculum to enhance skill development and lower the energy barrier for career planning. Teaching career planning skills in the classroom setting creates an open dialogue about careers and career decision-making. Students as peers can further motivate each other and foster a culture of open conversation about career interests.

Our program is not about how to find a career outside of academia; it’s about how to prepare for any type of career—academic, industry, science policy, science writing. We are careful to treat all careers equally and empower all students to move forward towards their own interests.

Have your students and faculty been receptive to these changes?

Many students love that career-related lessons are required. Sometimes students feel concerned that their advisors or other faculty mentors might see them as less dedicated to research if they take action to explore career options, such as doing informational interviews or attending career panels. By making the initial steps of career development a requirement, we take away that concern, opening the door for students to take further action on their own. In reality, our faculty have been very supportive.

Is this career-planning perspective becoming the climate of academia in general, or is it still largely localized to the BEST grant schools?

I’m a scientist by training, and I transitioned to career development about 10 years ago. Since then, I feel like things have shifted a great deal. Career development used to be seen as extracurricular. Now, I see faculty and administrators considering career development as more integral to graduate education and the core preparation of PhD students. That’s been an exciting and important transition.

Creation of the BEST grants--and of earlier grants by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund--helped catalyze this change. Whenever you have grant funding tied to an initiative, it catches the attention of university faculty and leadership. Many universities applied for these grants, and the act of developing proposals prompted thinking about how they can better prepare PhD students for their careers. Even among institutions where proposals were not funded, I’ve learned of initiatives moving forward that have the potential to be transformational on their campuses.

Do you think this change will be permanent?

In just the past year, I’ve been to three summit-style meetings about how to enhance graduate education, and each included career development and planning as major components of the meetings. To me, that’s symbolic and fantastic news.

On our campus, faculty are already mentioning that they notice differences in their students' openness about career interests. Some faculty express relief because they’ve wanted to help in a more specific way. Now they feel empowered to do so because their students are more comfortable talking about career interests.