Friday, July 11, 2014

Alt Careers Aren't the Answer

The PhD pipeline discussion is going around on the Twitts again. We talk and talk and talk but does anything change? Sort of. The NIH started the BEST grant (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) and started implementing some of the suggestions of the 2013 Biomedical Workforce Group.
The purpose of this FOA is to seek, identify and support bold and innovative approaches to broaden graduate and postdoctoral training, such that training programs reflect the range of career options that trainees (regardless of funding source) ultimately may pursue and that are required for a robust biomedical, behavioral, social and clinical research enterprise. Collaborations with non-academic partners are encouraged to ensure that experts from a broad spectrum of research and research-related careers contribute to coursework, rotations, internships or other forms of exposure. This program will establish a new paradigm for graduate and postdoctoral training; awardee institutions will work together to define needs and share best practices.
Helping students find a career they love and can actually, you know, be hired for is great! And yes, people with PhDs have transferable skills and will kick ass at these jobs because of their PhD experience! But I agree with DrugMonkey and rxnm on this one: the NIH is really just covering it's ass and trying to get the most bang for their buck. "Let's keep accepting tons of students (who are cheaper than staff scientists) to graduate programs even though they won't end up in research careers! Use them while we can and don't provide the data, like other graduate programs do, on how many will actually get their dream job!"

Changing PhD programs to provide more information and opportunities for students to explore "alternative" careers is great for the current crop of PhD students. We need to know early what's out there and what we can do DURING our PhD studies to be competitive for those positions. The earlier in our programs the better.

But I don't think programs like BEST are a long-term solution to the PhD pipeline problem. Frankly, as a taxpayer, I think there are better ways to train people for "alternative" careers than using research grant dollars to train people who won't end up doing research. The argument I always see is the transferable skills thing. Yeah, of COURSE people with a PhD have great transferable skills that make them competitive for a whole host of careers other than "academic professor". But I like to daydream about a program for undergraduates or those recently graduated to explore their options and choose a program most specific to what they want BEFORE they commit to a PhD program. Imagine a few months where you broadly explore science careers. I tried to explain the breadth of careers in science in one of my xBio posts back in April.
The most common career sectors include academia, industry, government, and non-profits. Each has advantages and disadvantages which Google can help you explore. Within these sectors, there's a plethora of sub-categories: teaching, benchwork, science writing, science policy, consulting, etc. And within each of those, there is a ton of variation.
For example, in academia, there are universities, medical schools, and small liberal arts colleges, and as a faculty member your focus would be different at each venue. Industry has bench positions, lab manager/research coordinators, medical liaisons, marketing, writing, and more. Science writing can be freelance, for a society, the government, companies, members of congress, scientists, or for the public. Policy positions can be interacting directly with politicians, writing summaries of research for politicians to understand current science to inform policy, outreach to the general public, or positions at the state or local level.
In my mythical program, you would spend a couple months learning about the broad areas, do some assignments similar to real projects you would do if you were in that career: translating current scientific findings into a newspaper article for the lay public (7th grade reading level), do a lit review and writing up a short summary of the state of a field for a politician without bias, or some activity that administrators at universities and medical schools do (coordinate and chair mock meetings related to curriculum maybe?). Then you get to specialize and enter a program (Masters?) where you learn how to interpret science in the context of the career you want to be in. Sure, the skills we learn in a PhD program are transferable but can you imagine starting a position in science policy having been in a program that taught you both about science AND about politics? How awesome would that be for our country in terms of getting politicians and the public to be more supportive of science funding?

As some of us were discussing this week, and Scicurious talked about a long time ago, it's hard to find/make the time to explore "alt" careers while in grad school and many of our PIs don't want us to do it. In most labs we're expected to work more than 40 hours per week and pump out as many papers as possible while we're there (and the bar for what papers get accepted keeps rising*). I said in a comment the other day that these papers won't necessarily help us when we go searching for "alt" careers. People disagreed. I understand that skills learned in a PhD program are transferable but I can't help but think, as a 4th year grad student and a taxpayer, that it's a bit overkill for the types of jobs we'll end up in where we'll have to learn as we go anyway. (Yes, I realize the academic track is also very "learn as you go" but it's not quite the same thing as suddenly jumping into politics, for example.)

I won't even get into the discussion about low stipend levels for grad students, low starting pay for post-docs, delayed saving for retirement, delay of starting a family, etc, etc for people pursuing PhDs. All of these discussions are connected. The writing has been on the wall for a Long Time and many people have proposed solutions but the institutions that could make the most difference (NIH and universities) are too invested in propagating the current pyramid scheme. Graduate programs, especially in the biomedical sciences, are still growing their programs and bright-eyed busy-tailed applicants to these programs are still told they're special snowflakes who will "be the ones" to get that academic job. By year three, some of us (not all, unfortunately) learn the reality of the situation and can't help but feel sick when we think about our future. Change our career plan completely during one of the most stressful times in our lives?? Thanks, universities, for not being straight with us from the start.

* There was an opinion piece a few years ago from a big name or nobel laureate who explained this very well but I can't find it. Essentially, publishing your work today requires more data and thus more figures per paper sometimes including years of work in one paper. But we're supposed to publish more of them. If you've ever read the classical papers in your field you've seen the stark difference between the amount of data need to publish then vs now.


  1. A bunch of my opinions based on admittedly little experience.
    I strongly agree/support the idea of separating Master's degree coursework (funded with TAing) from PhD research/dissertation work (funded by fellowships).

    Here's the thing I think gets lost in these convos - STEM training is one of the few areas where students from marginalized backgrounds have even the possibility of catching up in college and grad school and being competitive based on actual merit. It's definitely not as ideal as it should be, but it's so much better than politics, finance, arts/culture, basically every other industry that supports middle-class labor and some that don't.

    I'm getting pretty tired of people complaining about stipends that are more than my (single) mom ever made when I was growing up. I know daycare is $2k/month or more, but how do we think the lower 50% by income gets by? That said, we should put a stop to grad programs that can't be considered reasonable temporary jobs in their own right, meaning with a basically reasonable stipend (~3-4x rent of cheap 1bd apt in the area) and health insurance.

    One more speculation - I think it's possible we (as a society) need more people who have scientific skills as well as more basically middle class jobs for those people.

  2. As a prof, I'm mostly opting to train MS students, but research MS, not only coursework. That in my mind gives people more skills that they can use in other areas than course work only, but is less of a commitment than a PhD, and provides a good place to move towards non-academic careers before taking the PhD plunge. At my U, and at many others I think, people doing coursework only degrees pay - no stipends at all. It is considered a professional degree like pharmacy school. TAships, fellowships, and grant funding are only for people involved in research.

    I agree w/ J Goya that typically the pay isn't terrible. It is generally a living wage and so doesn't lead to debt, and it is a living wage that comes with education. Most education in the US is something that must be paid through the nose for, not something that pays - that is a huge benefit of a STEM education. And I also agree that it enables students from marginalized backgrounds to get in - you don't have to have cash up front to do science like you do for medicine, for example.

  3. Yes, the pay isn't bad. Yes, we all knew (or should have known) what we were getting into. Yes, most people land on their feet when they exit academia. The big lie is calling it "training". What is it training FOR exactly?

  4. I just lost a huge comment here on my own site. Sigh. I'll summarize:

    Yes, Jonathan, stipends aren't so bad.

    The NIH could use those magical training fellowships they want to increase to pay for people to do a Masters program similar to what I proposed. They just need to quit pretending that people going into non-research-based science careers NEED a PhD. Separate the funds for research-based and other careers and dole out accordingly. Or, instead of increasing training funds why not make R01 awards larger so PIs can actually pay staff scientists who could be more productive than a temporary, unskilled graduate student and provide continuity for the (hopefully fewer) students cycling through labs.

    Casey, I would argue that MANY people starting PhD programs have no idea what they're getting into. We're told that we're special snowflakes who will, of course, have a job when we're done. The unemployment rate is only 2.5% for people holding PhDs! Except that doesn't explain WHAT careers they end up in, PT or FT, adjuncting? Living on food stamps?

  5. Oh, here's my post on financial privilege in regards to the stipend comments:

    I do find it interesting that most of the comments I've received, here and on Twitter, focused on the fragment of a sentence that mentioned stipends and was completely not the point of the post.

    1. For me, the reason money comes up, is the mythical program has to be paid for by someone. That program at my U would be a professional degree that students pay for, probably at least 20K per year. If being charged 20K for the education, is that what you would do? There would be career opportunities down the road, but nothing concrete like for most professional degrees. I personally would choose a different field (accounting, pharmacy school, business, vet/med, physician's assistant etc etc) if I were going to have to go into debt for my training. I'd want something where I'd be more certain I'd have a job when I come out.

      I wish the US were more forward thinking, and actually supported education with taxes, but it does very little of that.

    2. It seems to me that the career opportunities for someone coming out of a program like this would be concrete. With all the "we need people in alt careers!" talk, it sure seems like they would be absorbed into the workforce quite easily though they would be competing with people holding PhDs at least for a few years.

      Would I do it if I had to pay for it and I were starting all over again? I can't answer that but I can say that my focus has always been benchwork and research. Initially, I wanted to just get a Masters and a lab tech position somewhere but I was convinced by faculty that I'm a special snowflake and had to do a PhD to have a career in science.

  6. i'm a student in a clinical psychology PhD program, which is a funny field of study because it does provide for an "alternate" career (bit of a misnomer because most graduates go into it instead of a research career) in treating mental illness. Also, because graduate programs in the field are so competitive (3-5% acceptance rates are the norm) it is common to take time between undergrad and grad school to work to get more experience. Anecdotally, most of the people I knew who graduated undergrad wanting to be clinical psychologists changed their mind while working, mostly to go for MSWs/counseling MAs instead. So in a way, clinical psych has stumbled into the solutions you recommend. However, i don't recommend it- requiring more experience after the bachelor's expands the already long time to independent research/practice, and getting clinical as well as research training adds a LOT to the workload. you're essentially doing two degrees.

    Overall, I agree with you that all this alternate career stuff is a whole lot of CYA by the nih. Where was this discussion when paylines were 2-3x what they are now? for some reason, it didn't seem to be as big of an issue then. strange.

    Also rather incongruous that the NIH is funding these BEST programs while in the same breath expecting their fellowship (NRSA) awardees to unquestionably be pursuing a "traditional" research career- they even ask for placements of previous trainees of your sponsors to check on this.

  7. Ok, I'm in an 'alternative' career. It was always my plan. I'll summarize what I think:

    I think that a PhD Plus would be the way to go.
    My bosses (in industry) were faculty at some point. They are firm believers (as am I) that there are non-quantifiable benefits to doing a PhD that you just wouldn't get with a specialized program. You learn how to critically think, you learn how to budget (assuming that you help with the grants), you see an idea to fruition, you're competitive and driven, you know how to troubleshoot (boss told me today that he wouldn't interview someone who did a bio phd in a short period of time b/c they likely wouldn't have dealt with failure), and how to get things done. In a PhD you learn the process just as much as the specific protocols you learn, basically you are learning how to learn in a very specific manner.

    Where the plus is: Ok, you are going to be an instructor: take an overview of a teaching course. Learn the buzzwords, learn the high level concepts. Or maybe you are going to go into industry R&D, maybe you take a business overview class, things like stage gate development process and some high level finance education with some IP law and how funding works at this level (something from VC to internal voice of customer driven product development). I kind of did the latter, and while it doesn't always apply to my job, I can do one hell of a market justification and I can tell when something would be valuable to protect IP around.

    As a PhD student, I actually took a pedagogy class. It was useful. I don't necessarily use it now.

    How I think that this would work is that someone enters a PhD program and they pick a class track. They have 2-3 electives in addition to their normal course work and lab stuff (which I'm not suggesting is changed), they can take business, teaching (a la SLAC), research, or something I'm missing. They have targeted electives (business, pedagogy, NIH grant writing etc) that fall in that category. Grad programs can differentiate themselves by what types of alternatives they offer that don't necessarily have to be in their department.

    NIH is still getting the SAME work done for funded grants. Hypothetically it takes a student a semester longer. This might even be better with departments requiring that student publish is IF factor journals above a certain IF factor (they can take the electives while writing/publishing). Might even be better for retention and transition purposes to take the electives later.

    1. This idea is surprisingly similar to where I started in my thought process that led me to the Masters idea. In fact, we discussed it as a way to structure our revamped PhD program on a curriculum committee I served on in the last year. I agree there are non-quantifiable benefits to a PhD program but I came to the conclusion that those benefits aren't worth the downsides. It's all a matter of opinion, of course.

      One of the main issues with widespread implementation of something like this is the PIs who have the attitude linked in my post, "MY students aren't going to take time out of the lab for something like that", etc. But either idea, PhD-Plus or Masters for other careers, is a paradigm shift that would take at least a decade to phase in and see if they "work". The incremental changes NIH is implementing now tell me this discussion is going to go on for a long time before we see real change.

      I think IF is mostly BS so that part I don't agree with. :p

  8. Forgot to mention: This idea of a track (or a PhD minor, if you will) doesn't even have to apply to bio-sci phds. With the right marriage between subject and future goals this could be specially tailored.