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Q&A: Life After a Ph.D.

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Mikkel Ostergaard/ESOF2014

COPENHAGEN—Two of the first career sessions held at Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2014 last week explored the employment situations of Ph.D.-holders. Those attending were invited to express their concerns and describe the challenges they face as they seek a place in today’s scientific workplace. The sessions were organized by an emerging initiative called CARE, which aims to act as a platform for helping professional career advisers offer more consistent support to Ph.D.-holders around Europe.

The initiative is spearheaded by Sarah Blackford, the head of education and public affairs for the Society for Experimental Biology in London, and Barbara Janssens, Ph.D. career manager for the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany. Science Careers was invited to take part in the CARE events. Afterward, Blackford and Janssens explained in joint answers what prompted them to launch CARE and what their ambitions are for the project. This interview was conducted by e-mail and edited for brevity and clarity.

[A]s career professionals, we can advise and guide researchers to make informed decisions about their short- and long-term career goals.

—Sarah Blackford and Barbara Janssens

Q: What is CARE?

A: CARE stands for Careers Advisers supporting Researchers in Europe. Our long-term aim is to build capacity by creating a hub where career advisers in Europe can share resources and best practices.

Q: How did the idea of CARE come about?

A: The two of us first met as we attended ESOF 2012 in Dublin. We started to discuss the current state of the career support offered to early-career researchers around Europe. It seemed to us that career advisory support and information are very patchy and can be a bit of a lottery, depending on the institution and country where the researcher is based. Our idea to set up CARE evolved over the following year, culminating in our ESOF 2014 sessions.

Q: What gaps in career support does CARE mean to fill?

A: University career services tend to focus on undergraduates, and to a lesser degree on master’s degree students. In some countries, graduate schools cater to Ph.D. students, too—but even there, postdocs do not always have access to the same level of support. Yet, for many scientists, the postdoctoral phase is a make-or-break point in their academic careers.

Having said that, there are examples of excellent provision in some universities, and policy frameworks and awards such as the European Charter for Researchers and the HR Excellence Award set out guidelines for institutions, including career support for postdoctoral research staff.

Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford

Courtesy of Sarah Blackford

CARE will help career-guidance professionals to work together in order to provide consistent support to early-career scientists, and postdocs in particular, across Europe. Newly established researcher-support services and professionals, who often have no alternative but to reinvent the wheel, can benefit from the experiences of a Europe-wide network.

Q: What is the employment situation for early-career scientists today, and how does this fit with CARE's vision?

A: During the first CARE session on Saturday 21 June, EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organization)  Deputy Director Gerlind Wallon cited a 2010 report published by the Royal Society, which shows that of those who complete a Ph.D. in the United Kingdom, only 3.5% will realize a position as permanent research staff and 0.45% will become professors. The situation in other countries is similar. Presentations from Lidia Borrell-Damian, director for research and innovation at the European University Association, and Vincent Mignotte of ABG-L’intelli’agence in France, offered statistics showing a 50% to 100% increase in the number of Ph.D.s undertaken in Europe over the past decade. Therefore, researchers in training need to consider and prepare for careers outside, as well as within, academia because “alternative” nonacademic careers actually represent the vast majority of career destinations for researchers nowadays. This was reflected in the talk given by Denisa Cupi of Eurodoc, who referred to a Eurodoc survey in which doctoral candidates expressed a need for more information about career options, and support in making their next career transition.

Barbara Janssens

Barbara Janssens

CREDIT: Nick Kepper/DKFZ

Q: Does this mean that we should scale back the number of people we are training at the Ph.D. level?

A: The so-called oversupply of researchers is an issue for funding bodies and policymakers. We see our role as raising awareness among students of the reality about opportunities after a Ph.D. While research training primarily prepares scientists for academic careers, it also allows young researchers to develop skills that are valued by a range of employers beyond academia. Career guidance, information, and coaching play important roles in helping researchers take more control of, and make informed decisions about, their careers. However, very often they do not have access to such resources, and the impact on their professional and personal life can be serious.

Q: In a second session on the following Sunday, where Science Careers helped facilitate a roundtable, you asked doctorate-holders what they need to progress in their careers. What were the key findings?

A: We wanted to hear from young scientists from many other countries about their needs, and we wanted to hear from researchers who hadn’t engaged with careers services before, as these groups may have perspectives different from the ones we are used to. As you can imagine, a real variety of issues and concerns was raised by researchers in our nine roundtables. Some themes emerged, including:

  • practical assistance and information relating to careers outside of academia, in particular those in industry
  • how and when you should start job hunting and where to look for opportunities
  • help writing CVs for nonacademic applications
  • self-awareness and how to recognize and promote your skills and strengths
  • mentoring and internships
  • how to network effectively to find a job
  • how to get your supervisor to support your career development

Despite a wide range of nationalities represented across the researchers, we found remarkable consistency in the topics they felt they needed help with.

Q: If many young scientists have to look for alternative careers, shouldn’t we also look into giving them the specific skills they need to enter other sectors, like a course in python and database theory or journalism skills? Is this something that CARE envisions doing?

A: Professional skills courses are already offered in some countries, by universities, funding bodies, learned societies, and other organizations. Members of CARE are aware of, and involved in delivering, some of these. We can raise awareness of such courses, and more importantly, as career professionals, we can advise and guide researchers to make informed decisions about their short- and long-term career goals.

Q: What’s next for CARE?

A: At ESOF, we gathered 22 advisers from nine countries—Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Iceland, and Denmark—so this is a good start. Ahead of ESOF 2014 we made every effort to track down career advisers all around Europe, some of whom joined us remotely on our LinkedIn group from the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, and Portugal. As the makeup of the group suggests, there is a strong community of advisers based in northern and Western Europe, but less so in southern and Eastern Europe. So we will look to reach out to these regions as well. We are already sharing resources and building relationships. The next stage will be to consider the best mechanisms to sustain the group, to identify our priorities, and decide what outcomes we will focus on.

Q: With a self-conscious effort to expand career counseling in Europe, and with an awareness that it is lacking in some places, do you anticipate expansion of Ph.D.-level science career counseling as a profession? If so, how would one enter?

A: We see a growing interest, with more and more scientists asking us, “How can I become a career adviser like you?” One can enter this profession as many of the CARE advisers did, from our personal experience as a scientist—which varies from a degree in psychology to a Ph.D. or a postdoc in the natural sciences. An interest in communication is a plus; we, for example, both worked in publishing after our research careers. To our knowledge, there is no specific training for science, or academic, career counseling available in Europe, per se. However, master’s degrees in career education and guidance in higher education are offered to professionals by universities such as Derby and Warwick (as for Blackford) in the United Kingdom, as are privately run career-coaching courses. Part of CARE’s work in the future will be to demonstrate and promote the value of investing in the recruitment and training of specialist career professionals. In the meantime, for those interested in taking up this career, our advice is the same as for any position: Talk to people who do this! We in the CARE group certainly enjoy our jobs.

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