Image: Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, Khartoum, c. 1920
Plenty of science Ph.D.s wind up in nonacademic careers and Vitae columnist Viviane Callier has been interviewing some of them for a series. This month, she talks with Melanie V. Sinche about her recent book, Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science. Sinche, director of education at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, discusses job-market challenges in the sciences and shares highlights from her research.
Tell us about your research tracking the career outcomes of science Ph.D.s. How did you get interested in the topic?
Sinche: I’ve been following developments on this for many years. There have been some major studies undertaken. One of the best was done by Geoff Davis at Sigma Xi in 2003-04. Over the years, we have seen professional associations tackle this topic. The National Science Foundation has the largest, most robust dataset in the country about Ph.D.s in science. It was through studying past surveys and identifying gaps that I was motivated to conduct my own survey.
I was also motivated by conversations I’ve had with Ph.D.s and postdocs, serving as career counselor for this population for more than 20 years. In my counseling appointments, I’d hear the same themes emerge repeatedly — “I’ve been unsuccessful on the job market and I feel frustrated,” or “I know what a PI does and I know I don’t want to do that, but I’m not sure what else is out there,” or, “I’m not sure how to go about finding jobs outside of the tenure track.” Hearing the same themes over and over informed my survey and also motivated me to write the book.
I was just about to leave Harvard University, where I was director of the FAS Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, when Richard Freeman offered me a research associate position in his group. He is an economics professor at Harvard and director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and he studies the science and engineering workforce in the United States. I was able to work remotely with him as I started to construct my survey. I sketched out my research questions, identifying which sectors Ph.D.s are employed in, what their primary activities at work are, and whether they are satisfied in their jobs. I also wanted to measure the skills people believe they develop during the course of their graduate work, and which of those skills were required for success in their current occupations.
The results were striking: About 80 percent of respondents said that discipline-specific knowledge was necessary for success. But they said other skills developed during their graduate training were more important — such as the ability to make decisions and solve problems (93 percent), the ability to communicate orally and in writing (93 percent and 91 percent, respectively), and the ability to gather and interpret information (92 percent).
After interviewing 10 recent Ph.D.s in jobs other than postdocs, I put together a pilot survey and administered it to 20 Ph.D.s. Then I used those results to reframe the final survey that I launched nationwide. I leaned very heavily on social media to get the word out. In the end, I had 11,000 respondents. Of those, only 8,099 were usable. The majority of the unusable ones were people who had graduated outside the date range that I had identified in the sample, which was 2004-14.
One of the things I discovered was that, across all occupations — academic and nonacademic — more than 80 percent of respondents indicated that they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” in their jobs. So not only were people in tenure-track jobs happy, but also Ph.D.s in science policy, technology transfer, university administration. Even those in occupations I had never heard of were, by and large, satisfied in their work.
That was a key finding for me. My hope in sharing this in my book is that people would recognize that there are so many options that are fulfilling to science Ph.D.s. I want to encourage people not to abandon hope that they can find a job that is satisfying to them.
You have many years of experience in career counseling. What inspired you to write this book now?
Sinche: I have wanted to write this book for about 10 years, but this was the first time that I actually had the time to spend on it. Writing it was a full-time job and I knew I’d have to leave my job at Harvard and spend a year writing full time.
I think the time was right also because of what was happening in the national conversation. The NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report came out in 2012, and the National Academies came out with The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited in 2014. Given those seminal reports on how we’re training Ph.D.s in the sciences, where we’re missing the mark, and how we’re not paying attention to labor-market conditions, there was so much movement nationally that it was a good time to release the book.
As much movement as there has been on the national front to enhance career services for Ph.D.s and postdocs, there remain many institutions that still don’t have targeted career services for these populations. I wanted to create a resource that would be available to anyone, anywhere, who had ever considered earning a Ph.D. in science, who was in the midst of training, or who had come through the other side of it and was looking for a job.
There are still so many people who feel isolated and who need help. Serving this group was my goal in writing the book.
What do you think all graduate students need to understand about career development in STEM fields?
Sinche: The National Postdoctoral Association has grown significantly in the last few decades. The other group I belong to is the Graduate Career Consortium, and that group has also seen explosive growth from the early 2000s. It now has over 167 member institutions that are focused on the career and professional development of graduate students and postdocs.
That said, there remains work to be done in terms of the culture of the academy. There are still vestiges of the historic perspective that Ph.D.s are being trained solely to move into the professoriate. That simply is not a tenable model right now because we have seen exponential growth in the number of Ph.D.s conferred in the past three decades, but the number of tenure-track positions has remained flat.
So we need to continue to share career-outcome information with grad students and postdocs as well as with our faculty, and try to encourage the faculty to share career resources with the grad students and postdocs. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect our faculty to be aware of any occupations outside of their own, but I do think it is reasonable to expect them to be aware of career resources available on their own campuses.
Did you discover anything unexpected in your research?
Sinche: I was also shocked by the number of professionals — total strangers — who were survey research experts, who took time to help me. As much as I have taught that same lesson to Ph.D.s for years — don’t hesitate to reach out to people about careers, because most people are happy to help — I was still surprised when I emailed strangers and they were so quick to help.
I was also surprised by some of the job titles that came up. Some of them were so amazing — job titles I’ve never seen, occupations I’ve never heard of, such as aerospace physiologist, zoo nutritionist, and nanofossil biostratigrapher! Even at the Jackson Laboratory, we’re currently hiring Ph.D.s to work in computational science, a burgeoning field required for conducting high-level analysis of genomic data. These types of jobs and the skills they require did not exist even a decade ago.
It was a real treat to pore over the data in my sample and learn more about the current labor force in science. That kind of granularity does not exist in the NSF datasets.
What career advice do you have for women and underrepresented minorities, who face particular challenges both inside and out of the academy?
Sinche: Find multiple mentors. The truth is that I would give everyone that advice, but in particular for women and underrepresented minorities, it’s critical to build a strong support network regardless of the occupations that you’re targeting. That support network will help you through the career-development process and connect you with potential job openings through advocacy (making a case for your candidacy). It’s critical to have support.
I would also choose mentors who take on different roles. You might have a scientific mentor, but you may also want to have a career-development mentor who may or may not be a Ph.D. And you may meet peers who end up being peer mentors to you. Building strong mentorship relationships is one of the best things I think that people can do to develop as a professional in science. That is key to moving your science forward and moving forward in any occupation.