Two very different articles and an unsettling conversation came across my radar this month.
The first is an article in the July 2015 issue of Nature Biotechnology, “Emerging network of resources for exploring paths beyond academia,” written by postdoc Fanuel Muindi and doctoral candidate Joseph B. Keller, both from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They explain, “…some trainees may simply lack the information necessary to make an informed decision about their post-training careers.” The second article is “A hidden start,” by Trisha Gura at the Science Careers website. Both articles offer guidance on finding information about non-academic jobs. As if it’s a underbrush-choked trailhead.
The unsettling conversation involved a staffer who was unaware of the makeup of the biotechnology workforce and the job prospects for doctoral level scientists. The perception that NIH, NSF and HHMI funders care only about PhD attainment is still rampant throughout training program staff rank and file. It’s no secret I think each and every biomedical training grant PI should know (by heart) the data from the 2011 paper in which Cynthia Fuhrmann and coauthors write, “Since 2001, fewer than 20% of PhDs in the biological sciences have been moving into tenure-track academic positions within 5–6 yr of receiving a PhD. In fact, the most recent data (2006) show only 14% of these PhDs in tenure-track positions.” (Where do the other 86% end up? Are they considered failures…really!? What are you doing to prepare or mentor the 86% for life-long learning?*)
CSUPERB faculty and leadership know that 80% of the jobs in the biotechnology sector (the life science industry) are filled by professionals with degrees at the masters degree or below.** I am continually surprised (and – yes – shocked! shocked, I tell you!) to find out administrators, program officers, professors, postdocs and graduate students – who are part of this biomed/biotech ecosystem themselves – are unaware of this workforce reality. Perhaps paths to non-academic biomedical careers remain hidden because mentors, program officers and administrators themselves cannot see the trailheads through the trees on campus.
These workforce facts underpin CSUPERB’s ongoing efforts to offer Career Networking Sessions (CNS) and Graduate School Information Sessions for the 375+ CSU undergraduate and masters-level researchers attending the CSU Biotechnology Symposium each year. We’ve organized these two sessions the last seven years. As much as we’re tempted to tinker with the formats, they remain unchanged because alumni, mentors, and students all agree it works best for them.*** We are determined to build a mentoring network for our students. We don’t want to point them into the woods without a flashlight.
So in answer to Muindi and Keller – yes – the CSU has been doing our level best to “engage undergraduates about the various doors a PhD degree can open.” But there is another communication point that can be made at that same time in a student’s career. They should also know there are many rewarding, great-paying life science career options that do not require a PhD degree.
Despite the very good intentions underpinning the article, Muindi and Keller fall back on well-trodden and tired “non-academic” options and emerging resources in their article. They un-ironically mention science policy fellowships, graduate data science programs, academic job boards like Vitae, and science conferences of interest to academic researchers. Perhaps science policy is an oft-cited, non-academic career example because academic researchers understand what program officers at NIH and NSF do.
I would have liked to see Muindi and Keller place more emphasis on the variety of career paths and employers in non-academic settings and point to established network opportunities and websites offered by professional societies like RAPS, ASQ, DIA or PMI. In my opinion no article on non-academic careers is complete without a nod to preclinical research, regulatory affairs, clinical or product development. See “Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development,” by Toby Freedman, for the wide range of options available to academically-trained researchers. Researchers aiming to understand the world outside academia should find conferences attended by life science industry professionals, like BIO, DIA or the Personalized Medicine World Conference.
When approving CSU I-Corps travel requests, I look at conference programs to see that 50% (or more) of the speakers are from biotech or pharma companies to make sure teams will be able to network with and gain perspective from non-academic researchers, regulatory professionals, and commercialization experts. One CSU I-Corps faculty participant explains, “…it introduces you to the business world and forces you to actually meet with industry people. It really changes your perception of things, and [reveals] how different academia [is from] industry.” Without question CSU I-Corps reduces the gap between academic research and industry practice.
Happily Gura’s article pulls back the curtain on rewarding research jobs at start-up biotechnology companies. The premise – that these jobs are hidden – is what I take issue with here. Boston, San Francisco and San Diego are blessed with vibrant communities of biotechnology employees and companies – early-stage start-ups to big pharma companies. Gura focuses on the boundary-spanning functions of incubators and entrepreneurship centers as a way to discover new and growing companies. While these organizations host fantastic events, you can also stumble into a critical mass of start-up founders, employees and boundary-spanners at regional biotechnology industry organization meetings, breakfasts, networking events and workshops.
Here in California organizations like SARTA, San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange, BIOCOM, OCRA, California Life Science Association and many others, host events weekly and post calendars for all to see. All you have to do is Google “biotech event (your city/state).” (You’ll also see that many very early-stage start-ups advertise jobs on Craigslist!) Go ahead try it – it’s just that easy to unmask non-academic biotech and biomedical activities all around you…if you’re willing to get off-campus. Admittedly this exercise works best if you live near a biotech/biomed industry hub. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) most biotech industry hubs are also regions dealing with a glut of biomedical postdocs.
Educators and mentors should open doors for their students, not herd them into a chute toward professorships. There is no question we need more female faculty members in engineering and computer science, more Latino/a faculty across the board, and an academic workforce that reflects our demographics. Any and all efforts to level access to academic careers is good, essential and very important work from where I sit. However, both underrepresented and well-represented researchers also deserve information about and access to careers – at all degree levels – in companies, national labs, government agencies and non-profit institutions as well. Research mentors and policies should view non-academic employment as a desirable, normal (86%!), expected and worthwhile outcome.
Get out the energy bars, machetes and compasses!
*I’m thinking a lot about research mentoring this month. CSUPERB is organizing a session on the topic for our August 3 Faculty Consensus Group meeting at the CSU Chancellor’s Office. Key personnel from the three NIH-funded CSU BUILD projects will present their approaches to research mentoring (CSU Long Beach, CSU Northridge and San Francisco State University). In addition I’m hearing back from our Howell-CSUPERB Research Scholar alums as part of our annual reporting – they are doing great things nationwide! Look for a blog post about them in the future!
**It is important to understand that the life science industry is defined as including companies, businesses, research institutes, universities and national laboratories – the entire “ecosystem,” as we say. The best report I’ve seen about the life science industry workforce is the 2014 Talent Integration report issued by a group of California biotechnology industry associations and the California Community Colleges last year.
***When a CSU student chooses to attend the symposium two years in a row, they report it’s usually to attend one or both of these two sessions. These students report they were overly-focused on presenting a research poster the first time they attended the symposium. They admit that they skipped out (...or spaced out) on these crucial programs the first time they attend. The CNS format, in particular, is challenging for students. At the students’ request back in 2009, we do not organize a panel of talking heads or alumni telling career stories. Instead students must engage in several rounds of roundtable discussions with alumni and professionals working in the industry. I think Muindi & Keller would agree this session format models the behavior they recommend to readers, that is, that trainees “must be active participants in their future and use all available resources to learn about available career paths.”
Muindi, F. & Keller, J.B. Emerging network of resources for exploring paths beyond academia. Nature Biotechnology 33, 775–778 (2015). doi:10.1038/nbt.3282
Published online 08 July 2015.
Gura, T. (2015) A hidden start. Science Careers. Published online 01 July 2015. http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2015_07_01/caredit.a1500167
C. N. Fuhrmann, C.N., Halme, D.G., O’Sullivan, P.S. & Lindstaedt, B. Improving Graduate Education to Support a Branching Career Pipeline: Recommendations Based on a Survey of Doctoral Students in the Basic Biomedical Sciences. CBE Life Sciences 10, 239-249 (2011). doi: 10.1187/cbe.11-02-0013
Photo credit: hawaiianforest.com