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An advanced degree in higher education is no longer a one-way street to professorship.

There has been a recent increase in the number of Ph.D. students who choose to go into career fields outside of academia, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Groups such as the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association recently received $85,000 grants each to expand their efforts to help graduate students find non-academic jobs.

In the past, people chose to get their doctorates largely in hopes to get a fellowship, to conduct research and to eventually serve as a professor at a college or university. More recently, Ph.D. holders have been looking for work outside of higher education, especially in the private sector. At Penn, however, Career Services has been helping graduate students look into both academic and non-academic jobs for the past 30 years, according to Patricia Rose, director of Career Services.

“Every year we do two series of programs, the Academic Career Conference, as its name suggests for those seeking academic positions, and a number of ‘Leveraging your Ph.D.’ programs, focusing on positions outside of the academy,” Rose said.

In 2012, an estimated 36.7 percent of Ph.D. holders who graduated from the Annenberg School for Communication, the School of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Perelman School of Medicine or Wharton accepted faculty positions, of which only 58 percent are on tenure tracks, according to a Career Services survey.

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Career Services has an Academic Career conference today and on Sept. 18, and the last Leveraging Your Ph.D. conference was held on Sept. 30.

Some attribute this change in job shifts to cuts in research funding, while others attribute it to the monetary benefits of working in the private sector.

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“Watching so many scientists struggle and even personally being affected by this, along with fearing deeply for the future of biomedical research, has only pushed me further away from a career in academia and towards a career that does not rely, at least directly, on government funding,” Rebecca Windmueller, a first-year student in the Cell and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program at the medical school, said.

Windmueller said that non-academia career options are in the spotlight right now in her field due to the fact that there are fewer faculty positions available than there are people being trained in the biomedical sciences. She also attributes this change to cuts in the National Institute of Health’s funding for research projects due to sequestration.

She emphasized that she has noticed a change in attitudes toward careers outside of academia.

“I really never planned to pursue a career in academia,” Windmueller said. “But while this used to be something I felt I had to keep on the ‘DL,’ I now feel that it is something I can talk about and not be looked down on.”

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When looking at Ph.D. programs, Windmueller looked for programs with more positive attitudes toward “accepting this changing trend” that make efforts to “educate and expose biomedical Ph.D. students to the many opportunities they can pursue.”

Emily Schrag, who received her master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education in 2011, said that while she and many of her friends did go into academia after they graduated, some also ended up working at for-profit companies.

“You not only want to get this degree and learn the basis of these subjects that you’re studying, but also to have the practical application of [those subjects],” Schrag said.

Both Schrag and Windmueller appreciate the exposure to opportunities to not only work in academia.

“I feel very confident that through these opportunities I will be able to learn about all of the different options available to me and will be well guided in how to best prepare myself to pursue whatever career path I chose,” Windmueller added.

A previous version of this article stated that Career Services recently added programs to fit the shifting career choices of graduate students. They have hosted something similar to the two programs they offer now for the past 30 years.


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