Why professors do not train you for the non-academic job market - title

Why professors do not train you for the non-academic job market!

About 97% of all young researchers find a job *outside* academia. However, most professors focus on academic success and scientific excellence. Some professors are afraid to transform young scientists into “slaves of the market.” Others simply do not feel qualified. 

Most universities invest a lot of money and effort to train PhD students and postdocs well for the non-academic job market, but most young researchers do not feel well-prepared. 

Why is it so difficult for universities to fulfill these needs of young scientists?

Universities have contradictory tasks

guidepost representing contradictory tasks of universities

One of the biggest challenges for universities is combining contradictory tasks such as preparing PhD students and postdocs for the job market on the one hand and producing fantastic research for the greater benefit of all. 

PhD students and postdocs are funded and hired to generate excellent science. Many funding bodies allow only a minimal amount of non-research activities, such as teaching or following courses. 

The aim of every funding institution is to foster scientific excellence.  This is their societal task. The scientific community has to generate new knowledge to produce new diagnostic methods and more efficient therapies, develop new technologies for business and pleasure, and gain a deeper understanding of human nature. 

In other words, from the perspective of scientific excellence, every minute not spent on producing scientific results is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

On the other hand, there is an increasing demand from political stakeholders “to prepare students better for the job market” – especially in economically challenging times. Thus, bachelor and master students should finish their studies quickly to get jobs, contribute to the economy, and pay taxes. 

From this perspective, PhD students are a luxury. The science machinery needs them as a “necessary evil,” but they should finish in time and – again – quickly find a job to contribute to the economy and pay taxes. 

In other words, from the employability perspective, every unnecessary minute spent on scientific output is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

What should you do to handle this problem? 

Be prepared to get contradictory messages from your supervisor and the university. Decide early what kind of job you aim for after your PhD or postdoc. Reflect well on how to find your dream job in science and whether you should become a professor.

Scientific excellence versus employability training

Universities struggle to handle this dilemma because combining scientific excellence and employability training is not easy. 

Focus on scientific excellence produces young researchers who are perfectly prepared to lead an academic research group and pursue an academic career. 

Thus, focus on employability training costs time and money not spent on research.

What should you do to handle this problem? 

Be proactive and find a good mix of both. When the output of your PhD or postdoc work is good to excellent, your supervisor will much more readily accept participating in courses and seminars on employability skills. 

Professors are punished when they train young researchers for the non-academic job market

When professors give too much time to PhD students and postdocs to prepare for the non-academic job market, they invest less time in their research projects. In other words, the publication output and the professor’s career will suffer. 

This is particularly relevant for young professors who still have to survive their tenure-track period. To my knowledge, no functional system in any university successfully rewards professors to prepare their staff members for the non-academic job market.

However, even when professors are willing to prepare young researchers, there are only a few role models and blueprints for doing that. Therefore, this task has been delegated to career centers and doctoral schools.

What should you do to handle this problem? 

Be aware that professors get rewards primarily for scientific excellence. This is their task. Choose a supervisor who feels responsible for the career of their PhD students and postdocs and supports them.

Creating “slaves for the market” is evil

Sometimes there is considerable resistance in the academic world to train young researchers for the industry sector. Some professors do not want to transform their students into ‘slaves of the market.’ 

This attitude is honorable but does not help young researchers to be well-prepared for their later careers if they are not part of the lucky few who become professors with a permanent contract until retirement.

Training for the non-academic job market is a waste of resources

In some institutions, there is resistance to focus on the employability of young researchers. One colleague told me: “PhD students should stay in the lab 24/7 and publish a Nature paper and not waste their time with this doctoral school rubbish”. 

In principle, young researchers are paid to produce scientific excellence. “Training in employability skills should be the task of the future employers.” 

This attitude is in sharp contrast to the demands of the political stakeholders. In addition, there is good evidence that PhD students and postdocs who are trained in transferable skills are much more productive.

Similar is the notion that time and money should be invested primarily in staff that stay at the university. “Why train young researchers in employability skills when >90% leave anyway?” 

There is even the danger that the best people become aware of other options, and the university loses the best people to the industry: “We train the best – and keep the rest.”

What should you do to handle this problem? 

Select a supervisor who understands that transferable skills training of their staff members will immediately benefit the research group. 

Similarly, there is good evidence that supervisors and their postdocs benefit from leadership skills training.

Many professors are not qualified to train you for the non-academic job market

One of the biggest problems in this context is that many professors have never – ever – worked outside academia. 

After a successful career as a postdoc with several key publications and considerable networking, they get a tenure-track position in a university that sees some potential in them. 

After surviving the tenure-track procedure, they “end up” with a lifetime position in academia and stay there until retirement. 

Some professors may have an arrogant attitude and a lack of respect for non-academic work.  In the best case, they have collected some experience in the industry or public sector and came back to academia. Others have at least some industry collaborations and know some of the decision processes from a distance.

What should you do to handle this problem? 

Do not expect your professor to give you reliable information about the non-academic job market. 

Professors are not qualified – but career centers are

Universities want professors to strive for scientific excellence. It is NOT their job to train you for the non-academic job market. Consistently, they are not systematically educated to do that. 

The task is delegated to career centers and doctoral schools, which often do a great job.

What should you do to handle this problem? 

Make sure that your supervisor is happy with your productivity, and use as many of the training events as you can get. Most transferable skills will also make you a more productive scientist. 

They may also pave the way for you to develop leadership skills to lead your own research group, which will probably be helpful in every other job later. 

Academia-industry collaborations are great for training – but there are many caveats

Joint projects with the pharmaceutical industry are a great way to expose young researchers to the non-academic labor market. Young researchers gain their experiences by working on industry projects in an industry environment. 

Unfortunately, these collaborations are difficult to get funded; collaborations between academia and industry have to grow over the years and be based on mutual trust. 

In the best case, such a collaboration leads to industry funding of academic research

Some young researchers find nonacademic scientist jobs via academia-industry collaborations.

The disadvantages are that industry projects often do not lead to high-impact publications. There are always IP issues that may even prevent a publication. 

Furthermore, industry interests in specific research domains may suddenly change within months. 

Finally, only a fraction of young researchers want to work in a pharmaceutical company.

Thus, academia-industry collaborations are a great model for exposing young researchers to the job market. 

Young researchers do not want to be prepared for the non-academic job market

Finally, the attitude of young researchers is also a reason that they are not well enough prepared for the non-academic job market. 

Interestingly, many young researchers do not think about their postgraduate careers until they are in the last year of their PhD. Data from ECOOM in Belgium indicate that about 30% of young researchers in natural sciences, engineering, and life sciences continue their career in academia – mostly as postdocs. 

A survey we performed in Belgium about a decade ago showed that nearly 80% of all postdocs hope to pursue a career in academia, although only about 10% really end up in higher education. Thus, the success rate of becoming a professor is about 3% for PhD holders and 10% for postdocs in most academic fields.

As a result, they may only follow skills training and events such as job fairs half-heartedly, which are essential for making contact with the non-academic job market.

Sleepy scientist not prepared for the non-academic job market

What should you do to handle this problem? 

Make a very clear decision whether you want to stay in academia or actively get information about the non-academic job market. Do not wait until the last six months of your contract – start early!

Academic career centers are a good first solution

Typical PhD or postdoc training leads only to peripheral contacts with the non-academic job market. During the last decade, most universities have added a second layer of training to the systematic education of PhD students (doctoral schools and career centers). 

Transferable skills are now an accepted part of the PhD training and increasing numbers of postdocs participate in courses on leadership skills

There are now multiple initiatives and events that bring young researchers in contact with the industry, introduce them to the “entrepreneurial mindset”, help them create better resumes and CVs, prepare a brilliant job interview, have 1-on-1 discussions with HR consultants, and learn about careers in companies and the public sector.

Please use these possibilities – and become an ambassador for a well-balanced education (technical and transferable skills) of all scientists when you continue your career!

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  1. I have to say that I’m somewhat bewildered by this series, not the least by this entry. I trained postdocs who stayed in academia with clinical and basic science appoinments (two deans), two who eschewed chairs (and a deanship) to move into responsible positions in Big Pharma, and one who went first to industry and later returned to the academic fold well before the usual retirement age.

    I’m aware of some reasons for that, two being my age (82 years) and the distance I’ve traveled since my postdoc days and the fact that I’m a physician and a scientist as well. My postdoc years were spent first in a clinical residence program (surgery) followed by advanced training in physiology and biophysics as a USPHS trainee following the same course as the PhD students.

    During all of my education and training, I knew that my career would be in research and teaching, primarily on the basic science level, and my first job was as an instructor in a physiology department, followed in five years by promotion to associate professor with a dual appointment, medicine added to physiology, and I taught at both levels.

    From what I have learned here as I’ve followed this series I see a world that I do not know. My people were trained in both basic and clinical medical sciences, most establishing laboratories similar to mine for studies ranging from systems physiology in intact animals to isolated, perfused organs to isotopic techniques in membrane transport studies. They were a mixed group in that some were clinically trained MDs who earned the PhD while others were PhDs who had then earned the MD and came for advanced training and experience.

    Yes, those were simpler days from the technical standpoint and in all probability funds were easier to come by as money poured in to the race to the Moon (one of my projects had to do with the Apollo Program and was funded by the US Air Force and by NASA). In addition, most of my postdoctoral fellows had applied for and received grants form clinical societies and industry; other were paid less generously from departmental funds.

    For the sake of full disclosure, I close with the following: The period of my operating my research program and training postdocs was but 15 years. At the age of 47 years while overseas as a visiting scientist, I was struck by major depression, my research career ended, I was placed on disability retirement, and I moved on in academic administration. Perhaps had I been able to continue for another 25 years, my current point of view would be different.

    1. Thanks a lot for this comment. I think the key element here is that MDs in science are a different story (I am an MD + PhD as well). MDs have always a clear ‘standard outcome’ of their studies (being a medical doctor) and an obvious career path. In contrast, 90-97% (!!) of PhD holders in sciences WITHOUT an MD find a job OUTSIDE academia and the majority of them has no clear career path in mind – see this post for details: https://smartsciencecareer.com/become-a-professor/

  2. Thanks, Sven. Your comment is very well taken. As I think back, at any given time, I had working with me PhD students and PhD postdocs as well as MDs, and I can think of only one whom we did not place in an academic role.

    I must admit that my program was not a very large one turning out multiples of people all similarly experienced and trained. There were such programs at my institution run by people senior to me who until the last years of my run had larger facilities, better funding, and more student-technicians. Then, receipt of an NIH Specialized Center grant changed things for the better in funding and the ability to renovate space in a different building. Unlike others more focused than I who spent their research lives seeking answers to one question (and whose perseverance I admired), my own lazy-minded curiosity had me working on at least three projects throughout my active period (all related to the function of one organ system), so a trainee’s forte was shaped by the program he/she elected, although the introductory phase was similar for all.

    Perhaps, Sven, I should consider myself an anachronism come from the days when technology was so limited that most of those were, in effect, generalists. Why, I first measured arterial blood pressure using a U-tube mercury manometer writing on smoked paper. Then came a huge jump to pressure transducers and a multichannel recorder, eventuating into analog and the digital computer modeling. Chemical analyses became automated, and hormone bioassys were replaced by radioimmunoassays. Each technological advance opened new doors, and rather than standing outside the subject animal (sometimes a living human mammal), we were able to see inside to a certain depth.

    I have always believed that just as the child should outdo the parent, the student should outdo the teacher. I chose those who would work with me with care, and indeed they have had fine academic careers with one exception, a man who rose to power working for a biomedical book publisher.

    I apologize for this product; I had intended it to be shorter and more circumscribed, but sometimes an 82 year-old man can be forgiven for verbal excess. In some respects I long for simpler days and hope that the questions raised in these columns can be answered by those in positions to do so.

    Frank Nash

  3. “YOUNG RESEARCHERS DO NOT WANT TO BE PREPARED FOR THE NON-ACADEMIC JOB MARKET” I am coming to the conclusion that may currently be the biggest barrier to getting Ph.D. students well prepared for the job market, but I would not say just “non-academic”, I would say the “job market” full stop. Those going into the academic job market should be aggressively pursuing grant writing training, teaching opportunities , pedagogical training, etc, however a vanishingly small percentage of grad students sign up for these things when offered. I have long been fully committed to training young scientists for industry, and this is a major focus of my current position, but at best 10% of eligible grad students ever even sign up for workshops (usually much fewer than that) to prepare them for industry careers, and only 1/2 of those who register bother to attend. I have tried to figure out the sociological reasons for this, but research in this area is nearly non-existent. The good news for those of you reading these articles is that you are so in the minority that you have a huge advantage in getting that first job…..

    1. Have you considered the possibilty that current students are finding it harder to balance education and work? I’d love to sign up for these things but I’m working full time on top of studying.

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