New recruits for 2019

Opportunities for Ph.D. students entering the workforce go beyond just academia

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Every autumn before the leaves turn, senior undergraduates and Ph.D. students come to me for career advice. They are seeing a light at the end of a tunnel and are yearning to breathe free (also known as “getting out”). I’m not sure that anyone in their eighth decade has much to offer, given the changes since I formally graduated.
I caution them to not graduate prematurely, or ever. If you do let those neurons go on vacation, you are doomed.
For the undergrads, the choices today are fabulous, given full employment. At the height of the great recession, graduate school in science or engineering was a job, a placeholder. This is no longer the case. “So, go see what’s out there and apply to graduate schools as well. You can keep more options open. Are you tired of school? Do you like the idea of a gap year?” This group of young professionals has nothing if not a choice, but many do not have the courage to explore. They get anxious. That’s stressful, but nothing like in 2008 when there was worry about rent and food. I encourage them to “ready, fire, aim” as an alternative to a carefully mapped plan.
Options are more complicated for Ph.D. students in (we hope) their last year. They tend to see a bimodal choice of cultures between “industry” and “academia.” I first remind them of government labs and nonprofit research institutions as further options. We are now up to four. For each of the four, there are large, medium and small environments. That’s now a dozen without even counting geography.
The other day, our FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, noted the “excessive desire for certainty.” Patients want it, regulators want it, regulated companies want it, investors want it and voters want it. These students want it too. Their career trajectory will be lumpy, likely with more leaps forward and setbacks than for their grandparents. I encourage them to read bio sketches for their heroes—of the Jobs, Musk, Zuckerberg and Bezos sort. The career pathways for these notables were anything but clear.
Besides the traditional academic “majors,” there are employment opportunities in neighboring environments. Science majors don’t often consider public health, laboratory medicine (a.k.a. clinical chemistry), forensic science and the FDA itself. The contract research industry is still growing apace. The life-sciences instrument business is also very healthy—with so much more data to be acquired, as reflected in these DDNews pages.
There are some new challenges today with older students, delayed by the recession or having invested a bit of time in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve not seen as many in this category since the Vietnam period, when my fellow students left for training and a tour and came back to grad school later.
Then as now, some compensating financial benefits ensued for veterans, but the stress of age builds, contrasting themselves with colleagues five years younger. How can this anxiety be relieved? Many of these students have leadership and management skills far beyond their years. They operated under stress, often with responsibilities for many tens of millions of dollars in assets and the lives of dozens of comrades. In my experience as an employer, that maturity can be advantageous when seeking people ready to perform day one. Traditional graduate students have not led a team of 120 or even 40.
Academic careers have added discouraging stressors over the last several decades. Time in service has been seriously impacted for many by rotating through lengthy postdoc positions. Establishing independent funding and tenure has pushed many near the age of 40. The students I meet with are aware of this. I’d not recommend entering the grind of building an independent research group at a large university without a lot of confidence and resilience in the face of inevitable disappointments. There are other choices where inspired teaching is the larger expectation and brings satisfaction. A faculty life at a liberal arts college comes with many rewards. Without those liberal arts mentors of my own, I’d have never made it to either academia or entrepreneurship. I didn’t have the maturity to handle the undergrad experience at a large public university. A private college got me on track.
In the end, I couldn’t decide between business and academia, and jumped into both simultaneously. Retrospectively, both suffered from my indecisiveness. My own teachers convinced me that academia was a worthy activity. Their flexible lifestyle seemed to fit. On the business side, I knew very little. Academia allowed for experimentation, as in learning by doing (more realistically, learning by making mistakes). I still love teaching, but innovating in ways that went beyond publishing papers had a very strong pull on me. Most of all, I found it fun—and still do.
In the ‘70s, this was truly odd. Today, universities are fully engaged in encouraging entrepreneurship, but the environment is in other ways tougher. It’s more challenging to get grant funding. Universities compensate better today, but they expect results. A 40- or 50-hour week is an illusion. I advise focusing to be proven capable. The older students will be better at time management, but by now may have family responsibilities that I did not have at all. In summary, academics provides for flexibility and independence to a degree that would be illegal in the real world. If you are predisposed that way, nothing is lost by taking a shot. Moving out of academia to other environments is common.
Ready, fire, aim will build experience that ready, aim, aim, aim, will not.
In the business environment there likewise are positives and negatives to consider. When our graduates join a business, they are obligated to carry out the mission of the business. Some of them believe they are paid for something else, such as a reward for having graduated. I explain, “That’s not going to work for more than a week or two.”
While early academic positions focus on the individual, businesses accomplish their goals through teams with disparate skills. The convergence of these skills enables more to be accomplished faster. Resources are in place and experienced people (decades, not semesters) know how to use them. We can take on bigger tasks, but those tasks are constrained a bit by a plan and by a regulatory framework (FDA et al.) that is understood. The bigger the task, the greater likelihood of a serious disappointment. Risk vs. gain tradeoffs apply in all environments. The transition from student with a GPA to a business with collective earnings/losses per share takes some time.
Many of the readers of DDNews will soon be the mentors to our 2019 graduates in companies or government labs, or research institutes. Interviews are underway. Help them prepare for the assignment you have for them, but also to continue their education for their next assignment in other venues. The freshly minted Ph.D. may well be among a top few with respect to knowledge narrow and deep. Give them a hand to broaden and encourage them to do so. We have a life-sciences ecosystem reeling with excitement, but anxious over risk.

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