Graduate science training pays dividends in and out of the lab

In a study published in PLOS ONE, UNC School of Medicine researchers found that skills developed during science PhD programs translate to success in a wide range of fields.

Graduate science training pays dividends in and out of the lab click to enlarge Beka Layton, PhD

Contact: Jamie Williams, 984-974-1149, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

Sept. 20, 2017

The path from doctoral training to a faculty track academic position isn’t as direct as it once was. The number of PhDs awarded in scientific disciplines has greatly increased, creating a larger pool of applicants for a relatively stable number of tenured jobs. So, new science PhDs are entering fields outside of academia in higher numbers, yet the perception still exists that graduate science training only prepares graduates to enter the faculty ranks. A new PLOS ONE study from the UNC School of Medicine shows that skills developed during graduate training programs has wide application across industries. It also points to gaps in training that graduate programs could work to bridge.

“Nationally, there is a large movement to broaden the experiences available to trainees. We know that people don’t always want to go straight into research, yet many people still assume that science PhD programs don’t prepare you well for anything other than faculty positions,” said study author Rebekah Layton, PhD, Director of Training Initiatives in the Biomedical and Biological Sciences at the UNC School of Medicine. “We wanted to take a look and see what skills are developed in training and how we can best serve students as they move forward in their careers.”

The researchers surveyed more than 8,000 science PhDs from across the United States, asking them to rate how skills developed during their training transferred to their current work. Respondents were placed into two categories based on their career path – research intensive versus non-research intensive. Research intensive careers are defined as careers where the scientist is primarily engaged in research, non-research intensive careers require scientific knowledge, but are not solely focused on research. Examples include teaching, science writing, consulting, policy, etc.

Previous studies have noted the trend of fewer graduates entering tenure-track faculty positions, but this study is the first to survey graduates from across a wide variety of STEM  disciplines and careers to gauge their transferrable skills as well as their job satisfaction.

A number of skills were valued across both career categories, including oral and written communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, and the ability to gather and interpret new information.

“Almost all of these skills are applicable across a wide range of fields,” Layton said. “So, even if you aren’t sure exactly where your career will take you, we should be promoting the development of these skills in graduate training.”

In addition to reporting a high number of transferrable skills, the survey showed a high level of job satisfaction across both research intensive and non-research intensive career paths.

“As our students begin to explore careers in places outside of academia, they often don’t fully realize that the skills they have developed in their PhD training – critical thinking, teamwork, project management, communication – are as valuable and marketable there as they are in faculty positions,” said Patrick Brennwald, PhD, one of the study’s authors and the leader of the UNC School of Medicine’s Immersion Program to Advance Career Training program.

Researchers said skills gaps between what PhDs learned in their training and what they found necessary for career success should be seen as a roadmap for improvements to graduate training models. The skills that saw the largest gaps were the ability to work with people outside of your organization, time management, the ability to manage others, and career planning/awareness. Among both the research and non-research intensive groups, PhD scientists rated career planning and awareness skills as the least developed during their graduate training, indicating a need for more career preparation during their training.

“Even our graduates who go into academic careers are noticing that you have to deliberately plan out your career,” Layton said. “And we need to make sure our graduates are prepared for all that goes into becoming a scientist.”

One way to do that, Layton said, is to help graduates understand the ways their skills are transferrable and how to apply the language of other disciplines when discussing their skills.

“If you are in a lab managing several different experiments at once, then you are a project manager,” Layton said. “Our graduates need to think of all of the different ways that their skills apply beyond science.”

Jean Cook, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate Education, agreed. Students, Cooke said, may not always appreciate the range of skills they’ve gained during their graduate training.

“As students are focused on the work of their dissertation research, they may not even realize the special skills that they are developing. But, we know that rigorous research training provides graduates with a unique skillset that is broadly needed and valued in the workforce,” Cook said.

Layton said graduate education departments should place a greater emphasis on career awareness (e.g., availability of career counselors, coaches, and mentors) and make specific career development opportunities available to trainees.

The program Layton leads at UNC, Training Initiatives in the Biomedical and Biological Sciences, is one example of such an initiative. Students benefit from career coaching, professional development opportunities, and then have the ability to be placed into an internship where they can apply their skills in a research setting outside of the University. Many work in established companies and biomedical startups around the Research Triangle Park.

“This is the type of training our students now want,” Layton said. “We have students who choose to come to UNC because they know they will be able to get these experiences and that they will help them to succeed down the line, in any career they choose.”

Other authors contributing to this study include: Melanie Sinche, Patrick Brandt, Anna O’Connell, Joshua Hall, Ashalla Freeman, Jessica Harrell, Jean Cook, and Patrick Brennwald.

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