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Want to avoid a ‘default postdoc’? Try an internship

When Bertram Koelsch landed a job as a product scientist at 23andMe—the Mountain View, California, company that offers personalized genetic testing—after finishing his Ph.D., he was excited to apply his bioengineering expertise in the “real world.” But just a year earlier, he didn’t know that such a job even existed. Key to his discovery—and career satisfaction—was taking a 3-month hiatus from his doctoral program to do an internship.  

Koelsch, who currently works as a senior product scientist at 23andMe, pursued the internship through a career exploration program for Ph.D. students at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The program, designed in part to help students avoid so-called “default postdocs,” encourages reflection about career goals and creates opportunities for real-world experiences. It helped Koelsch choose a postgraduation path that he’s happy with, he says. He’s not alone: Of the 32 students who completed an internship and responded to a postgraduation survey, 94% said that the internship helped them decide which career trajectory they wanted to pursue, according to a recently published study about the program. And, crucially, doing an internship did not extend their time in graduate school beyond that of their peers, according to an analysis of 66 students who completed internships.

Internships and other hands-on experiences are important because it’s hard to envision yourself in a career, says Kimberly Griffin, a professor of education at the University of Maryland in College Park who wasn’t involved in the research. “You have to test drive it,” she says.

The program, which started at UCSF in 2009 and was replicated at the University of California, Davis, starting in 2014, was spurred by a 2008 survey of biomedical students at UCSF, which found that only a quarter of fourth-year Ph.D. students wanted a faculty position at a research-intensive university. “Students were expressing interest in a variety of careers, and yet they had low confidence in pursuing those careers,” says Theresa O’Brien, associate chancellor at UCSF and corresponding author of the study. “We saw a real need” for programming to help students make informed decisions.

O’Brien and her colleagues developed a two-pronged program. First, a 10-week course, which met for 2 hours per week, covered topics like how to find a career that makes you happy, tips and pitfalls when looking for a job, and best practices when working with people outside of academia. Then, students could pursue an internship outside of academia, in fields like business, industrial research, policy, and communication. Students were responsible for seeking out internships themselves, but the program sometimes played a supporting role, for instance by finding funding for students who wanted to intern at nonprofit organizations.

Between 2010 and 2015, 217 students participated in the program, which represented approximately 10% of eligible students, the authors estimate. Approximately 35% of participating students went on to pursue an internship, either during their Ph.D. program or soon after graduating. Students who bypassed the internship still found the coursework helpful, with one telling researchers, “I had never really thought to acknowledge that just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I’m interested in it.”

Students also reported that being surrounded by like-minded peers who wouldn’t judge them for thinking about options beyond academia helped them feel freer to explore career options. Dave Evans, a lecturer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who developed a similar career exploration course for Ph.D. students, says that—especially for graduate students—having a supportive environment “can be just huge, absolutely transformative. We’ve seen lives really deeply affected by creating that support system.”

Many students who did internships halted their Ph.D. research entirely for 3 months to do so. That’s been a concern for some skeptics of internship programs, who say that students will take longer to graduate. But despite taking a leave of absence, students who did internships didn’t take any longer to complete their degree—both compared to program participants who didn’t complete an internship and compared to students who weren’t in the program. Jodi Yellin, director of science policy at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C., says that statistics like this are key for convincing skeptical faculty members that internships don’t necessarily affect how long students are in training.

And that’s important—because some faculty members need convincing. A minority—12%—of students who did an internship during their Ph.D. program had trouble persuading their faculty mentor that it was a good idea. O’Brien advises students who have skeptical mentors that communication is essential so that “the work gets done in the lab, you get to have the experience that you want to have, and you’re not hiding.” There’s likely to be a way to work it out so that everyone’s happy, she says. She also stresses that it’s important for students to be thoughtful about what timing will work best for them. “When you’re writing your dissertation and trying to get your publications out, it can be hard to navigate trying to take a leave of absence.”

Irena Tartakovsky, AAMC’s director of constituent engagement, hopes that the data on the program’s success will encourage “more and more institutions [to] adopt this kind of approach” to help students who are on both academic and nonacademic career tracks. Susi Varvayanis, the executive director of a similar program at Cornell University that is part of the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training network, agrees. “Having it written in a publication allows us to cite something official that documents the importance of these experiences,” she says.

In the end, career exploration programs are critical for helping students make intentional decisions, Varvayanis says. “We do that in our research. We don’t just randomly do an experiment. Why should we randomly go down a career path?”

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