While doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows obtain their advanced scientific training by conducting research, many Ph.D. graduates move on to positions outside of academia — and even outside of research.
According to Career Services data, more than half of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Ph.D. recipients at Penn who obtained their degrees last year did not elect to continue training as postdoctoral fellows — a necessary step toward a tenure-track faculty position in most scientific fields.
In addition, less than 25 percent of science Ph.D. recipients in the country hold tenure-track positions within five years of completing their degrees, according to a 2012 report by the National Science Foundation.
Co-Chair of the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council Rohinton Tarapore, a postdoctoral researcher in Penn’s Department of Periodontics, said the days when most Ph.D. graduates would spend a couple of years as a postdoctoral fellow before settling into a tenure-track professorship are “certainly long gone.”
This diversification in the paths followed by science Ph.D.s is due in part to an increase in the number of degrees awarded, which now far exceeds the number of available positions in academia, according to the NSF report.
But rather than feeling forced to procure “alternative” careers, scientists are increasingly recognizing that there are many ways for their high-level skills to be of use to society and to fulfill their own interests and goals.
Senior Associate Director of Career Services Julie Vick said that at Penn, some people who embark on doctoral or postdoctoral training already know their eventual career goals lie outside of academia.
However, she added, most still initially vie for faculty positions as a way to combine working at the forefront of research with interests in mentoring and being of service.
For those interested in academia from day one, “some begin to identify one particular aspect of being an academic that they identify as most fulfilling, or get turned off of the academic environment altogether,” Vick said.
Vick also explained that it is important to consider that the path from beginning a Ph.D. to becoming a tenured professor often spans close to 20 years, and it is nearly impossible to predict what the job market — and the individual — will look like at the end.
For Anita Pepper, a former Penn postdoctoral researcher who left academia and is now director of the Pew Programs in the Biomedical Sciences, the decision was definitely not black and white.
“I still loved research, but when I reached the end of my training I was geographically restricted and limited by the scarcity of academic jobs,” she said.
In Pepper’s case, having a strong background in science research is “absolutely necessary” in her work reviewing grant proposals from young investigators.
“I know what it feels like to need funding, and to have your grants be rejected,” she said.
But more than just recognizing potentially transferable skills that stem from a long research background, trainees must also “stick their heads out of the lab” to proactively hone marketable skills that can set themselves apart in the job market, Associate Director of Career Services Joseph Barber said.
Caleph Wilson, a Penn postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Pathology who is also a co-chair of BPC, has actively followed this advice by mentoring students and fellow postdocs.
“Academic track or not, you can’t stumble through a Ph.D. or a postdoc,” he said.
Similarly, fifth-year Perelman School of Medicine doctoral candidate and former Vice Chair of Operations for the Biomedical Graduate Student Association Nick Francella has been continually developing his public speaking and interpersonal skills outside of the lab.
Through his membership in the Penn Biotech Group, Francella identified a career focus in management consulting.
“I knew I wasn’t fulfilled by bench work,” he said. “I found I really enjoy applying my problem-solving acumen in the business side.”
The importance of acquiring and developing communication, writing, teaching and business skills was underscored in June by a report from the National Institutes of Health, which proposed ways to reform the science Ph.D. curriculum to formally include training beyond research alone.
But while scientific training is still only beginning to adapt to the changing needs of the workforce, “your strongest resource is still yourself, doing the legwork to figure out how to make your best contribution,” Francella said.