Creative Commons

The sad state of professional development programs for scientists

What do aspiring scientists look for as they choose a university for graduate school or a postdoc? The adviser’s research and scientific standing, the department’s reputation, and the university’s prestige likely top the list. The amount of remuneration doubtlessly gets attention too. But the quantity and quality of the institution’s career development offerings? For many people, this probably hardly counts at all.

That’s a narrow and possibly self-defeating approach, however. Scholarly and reputational criteria are crucial for landing a tenure-track faculty job, but, as a new report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) observes, “the majority of PhDs gain employment outside the academy.” What will really matter for these doctorate holders is how well they understand and navigate the quite different processes that lead to nonacademic employment. Yet, “too often PhD candidates receive little or no preparation in skills and competencies needed to thrive in non-academic careers,” the report continues. This “misalignment between the narrow preparation PhD candidates receive and the broad array of careers they pursue” can seriously complicate their efforts to land a suitable and satisfying nonacademic job.

Underdeveloped professional development

“Professional development programs that prepare graduate students for a broad range of careers beyond academic research vary in their availability and content,” the report states. Some institutions offer ample opportunities for graduate students and postdocs to learn how the world of nonacademic hiring and careers works, but others provide very few.

In a CGS survey, which produced answers from 857 deans, directors, and chairs representing 226 institutions, 62% of respondents “indicated that their institutions and/or graduate programs offer some type of formal professional development program for graduate students in research degree programs to obtain skills beyond core academic research skills,” the report states. This number might seem encouraging. But, the report continues, “[a] third of these respondents described programs that focused exclusively on preparing graduate students with additional skills for academic careers, such as teaching and academic job search preparation. Fewer than half (375, or 44%) of respondents representing 134 institutions (59% of the total) reported having existing formal programs for graduate students to develop skills for non-academic careers.” Of the programs that do exist, “the majority were created on an ad hoc basis, formed with scarce resources and little or no coordination with other university programs, and informed by limited research about what works and what doesn’t.”

The report, though primarily intended to help university administrators establish or improve services for science students, includes resources that canny graduate students and postdocs—and even forward-looking undergraduates—can use to explore and evaluate various institutions’ offerings. The project’s searchable online database provides access to the professional development programs for scientists at scores of universities across North America. In addition, the report highlights several programs whose particular strengths can provide insight into features that young scientists might want to look for or ask their universities to provide.

For scientists wanting to improve their qualifications for jobs outside academia, the report also includes ideas about the attributes that employers seek, but do not often find, in Ph.D.s fresh from campus. According to interviews and workshops with employers, these include “[e]xperience in a team and … with addressing a difficult challenge,” the report states. (Teams in nonacademic workplaces differ from laboratory work groups, organizational experts note.) Other in-demand skills include the ability to communicate effectively—orally and in writing, with a variety of audiences, ranging from fellow scientists to lay people—and “project management and business acumen, including the ability to deliver on schedule and on budget and an understanding of schedule and budget pressures.” Also sought after are “attention to safety” and knowledge of how to work safely—which many universities do a poor job of inculcating—and “passion for the [employing organization’s] mission,” which generally involves focusing on real-world results rather than publications.

Well-designed professional development programs can help scientists acquire many of these attributes. But, given the disappointingly uneven picture of available professional development resources that the report paints, scientists who want to emerge from their graduate school or postdoc years ready to find and take advantage of nonacademic career opportunities must adopt an entrepreneurial approach to their own professional development and take the fullest advantage of all the chances they get to learn about the world of off-campus work. Universities that don’t give high priority to professional development are unlikely to change their ways in the near future, the report makes clear, but early-career people don’t have the time to wait around for institutions to catch up with their needs.  

Misaligned incentives

There’s no mystery about why so many universities do so little to prepare their Ph.D. graduates for the futures that realistically await them, or why this lack has, until recently, received very little attention. For decades, the educational needs of students and postdocs have taken a back seat to universities’ need for cheap, skilled workers to perform grant research. In service of that institutional need, academic culture has fostered the misleading narrative that graduate school and postdoc positions are solely intended to prepare young scientists for academic research careers rather than for a range of nonacademic and even nonresearch endeavors.  

In recent years, however, as the true nature of students’ and postdocs’ future opportunities has become too obvious to ignore, the disparity between what young scientists learn on campus and what they need to know in order to build their own professional futures has also become obvious enough to cause “widespread criticism and calls for reform,” the report says. Since reform costs money and requires culture change, however, it has been slow in coming to many places.

The report further cites a “lack of faculty support” for professional development activities at many institutions. “Many students tell us they are afraid to tell their faculty advisor that they are considering a non-academic career because they fear their advisor will not be supportive,” one survey respondent wrote, as quoted in the report. “Many students do not even want anyone to know they are coming to a workshop/program related to non-academic careers for fear of retribution.”  

Some respondents also reported an apparent lack of interest among students in attending professional development programs. Others, however, argue that this “perceived lack of student demand in fact resulted from a perceived lack of support by their advisors or other program faculty.”

Factors that “clearly play a role in faculty attitudes” about students spending time on professional development activities include “[p]ressures … for scholarly productivity” and the need to produce usable data, the report notes. These demands are real, but it’s important for faculty members to realize their influence and make an effort to advocate for trainees, the report emphasizes. “Just as a lack of faculty support can be a source of discouragement, their support and encouragement can be key to advancing graduate student professional development.”  

Law, medical, and business schools fastidiously prepare for and proudly track the careers of their graduates because they see their purpose as—and make their money by—educating students. This is not so for the great majority of Ph.D. programs, whose funding and perceived raison d’etre come from doing research. But it’s time for the young researchers whose labor makes that possible to assert their own long-neglected needs. This means getting the knowledge and skills that will advance their careers and demanding that their universities do a better job of providing them. The CGS report gives some information that can help.

Read more Taken for Granted stories

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers