In a global market with diverse job opportunities, few PhD graduates ultimately become university professors. In fact, the Conference Board of Canada reports that only 18.6 per cent of PhD graduates become employed as full-time university professors.
Few have embraced this reality more than Dr. Nana Lee, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier, former chair of U of T’s biochemistry department. Lee and Reithmeier have created a professional development program that will cater to the vast majority of graduate students who will not continue in academia after getting their degree.
For Dr. Reithmeier, it all started when he was compiling outcome data for the graduate students in his department. Of the students who graduated while he was chair, only 15 per cent became professors. The remaining 85 per cent were engaged in an astonishingly broad range of careers, including constituency, law, policy, and communications.
Most faculty and administrators are unaware of the breadth of opportunities available to graduate students. “Some professors — not all of them, but some of them — have sort of a narrow view because… the only grad students that they see or hear about are the ones that go onto [postdoctoral fellowships] or become faculty,” says Dr. Lee.
Dr. Lee completed her PhD in biochemistry in 2000. She spent the next few years in the biotechnology industry, where “it’s not just science,” she says, “but how well you work with people, your communication ability, all these – what we call – core competency skills.”
In 2012, the pair established U of T’s Graduate Professional Development program, a credit course which trains graduate students to be ‘real-world ready’. The program prepares students for the transition between graduate school and the workforce, be it within academia or beyond. During the program, students develop an array of soft skills, including presentation skills. They participate in a Three Minute Thesis, in which they are given three minutes or less to articulate their research to a panel of non-specialists. Through this exercise, students are challenged to grapple with how their research ties into the rest of the world.
Students are also encouraged to extend their networks beyond their supervisors and committee members. They are taught to use social media, cover letters, and résumés to tell coherent stories about their skills and experience.
Dr. Lee says, “We briefly go over the importance of LinkedIn and I check their profiles. We discuss the best way to write the cover letter and résumés using CAR [Context / Challenge, Action, Result] statements for a real job opening or a created opportunity.”
She explains, “Let’s say you tutor high school students… if you implement CAR, you would write something specific such as customized individual lesson plans for three high school students over two years, resulting in a final grade performance increase of 10-15 per cent.”
Dr. Reithmeier now serves as special advisor to the dean of the School of Graduate Studies for graduate skills development and engagement. He says his goal is “to ensure that all U of T graduate students and postdoctoral fellows develop a broad skill set and network to be able to take advantage of the career opportunities available to them in academia and beyond.”
Dr. Reithmeier hopes the postdoctoral fellowship will become a plan B for science PhD graduates.
How to build the ultimate LinkedIn profile:
Dr. Nana Lee, director of the Graduate Professional Development program, lists the following as the three characteristics of a successful LinkedIn profile.
1. Profile picture
The profile picture doesn’t need to be taken professionally, but it should be a headshot -— nice and inviting. Ten percent of students use their Facebook profile pictures, which aren’t appropriate for the work environment.
The summary should have three components: research program, interests and career goals. Dr. Lee says, “I encourage people … to use [all of the headings] to their full advantage and list everything that a potential employer might search for. Because some people just do the bare minimum – PhD student, department of immunology – and that doesn’t give a head hunter any information.”
Dr. Lee recommends students use CAR (Context / Challenge, Action, Result) statements to describe their accomplishments. They should write about the impact they’ve made and the initiatives they’ve created. LinkedIn profiles should tell stories, not just résumés.
What can science PhD graduates do that’s not teaching or research?
For those of you considering a PhD, there’s good news and slightly less good news. The good news is that at 85 per cent, PhD graduates boast one of the highest employment rates in the country. The slightly less good news is that only one in five PhD graduates become full-time university professors. In an increasingly globalized market, most PhD graduates pursue employment in diverse fields such as law, management, health, and communications.
These past few weeks, The Varsity interviewed graduate students, post-docs, and professors to give you five non-research, non-teaching jobs held by science PhD graduates.
1. Data scientist
Data scientists collect and interpret large volumes of data. Hailed the “sexiest job of the 21st century” by the Harvard Business Review, the birth of the data scientist reflects the need to organize and to make sense of the 2.5 quintillion (that’s eighteen zeros) bytes of data we create each day. IBM estimates that 90 per cent of the data in the world was generated in the last two years.
Government agencies are responsible for creating and enforcing standards that ensure our health and safety. PhD graduates are often hired as technical experts or advisors in healthcare, resource management, education and environmental policymaking. They work for organizations such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which draws on ecology research to provide access to safe and effective pesticides.
Scientific research is not always accessible; we need science writers in the media and in scientific journals to interpret research for policymakers, investors, and the public. Medical writers, for example, work with medical professionals to document research and product use in clear, concise ways.
The ubiquity of social media has given rise to digital strategy managers – executives who develop their institution’s digital brand. Science PhD graduates have found work in this vein at the Institute of Cancer Research, among others.
Medical science liaisons are employed in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and other healthcare industries to bridge the gap between businesses and medical professionals, who apply the technology. U of T PhD graduates provide environmental and statistical consulting in a variety of firms, including resource management and software companies.
At committee meetings, PhD students are challenged to present their data in ways that highlight the significance and validity of their research. It turns out that the skills required to do so are sought after in the practice of law. Many PhD graduates in the sciences or engineering find themselves as technical specialists or scientific advisors at law firms that deal with intellectual property. If all goes well, the firm might even sponsor them to pursue part-time studies in law.
Correction (February 27, 2016): An earlier version of this article listed Dr. Nana Lee as the coordinator of the Graduate Professional Development program. In fact, she is the director.