Career guidance does not come easily to advanced degree programs, and in particular to doctoral programs. Their faculty can serve as outstanding mentors to those students who are on academic tracks. For quite some time, however, academics has hardly been the “traditional” career path it once might have been. Getting good advisement on non-academic careers has been hit or miss. But that is beginning to change.
As a general rule academics don’t understand non-academic careers very well simply because they have little such experience. Students who pursue non-academic careers have been left to their own devices to discover the myriad ways they can utilize their degrees in the workforce outside of the academy.
The impact of the Great Recession, however, might be changing the neglect by programs of the student’s appetite for non-academic career guidance. For the past several years the job market has tightened significantly even for recent advanced degree graduates, who in better economic times tend to do very well. Alert programs are noticing and some are doing something about it.
Over 400 PhD students are currently enrolled in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (GDBBS). The GDBBS has trend-setting history as one of the first interdepartmental biomedical graduate programs in the US. Today, the GDBBS may again be on the vanguard in career guidance for graduate students, at least in the field of biomedical science. For some time the GDBBS has sponsored or organized symposia and networking functions, for and by students, featuring speakers and guests from non-academic fields. Many of whom are Emory graduates.
We spoke briefly with Keith Wilkinson PhD, who is both the Director of the GDBBS and a professor of biochemistry, about the responsibility his doctoral program has in career guidance:
Which of your career guidance initiatives in GDBBS do you think is most effective or innovative, and why?
Prof. Wilkinson: Of course, we have had a long standing seminar program where alumni and friends of the GDBBS have taken the time to visit Emory and talk with our students about specific careers and how they prepared for these careers. But the BEST program (an NIH funded program entitled “Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training”) is having a bigger impact. Only 17 of these programs exist nationwide. Our program focuses on six general career tracks. It exposes a cohort of 30-50 students and postdoctoral fellows per year to the skills needed in these careers and provides opportunities to hone these skills. Workshops, informational interviews, internships and career mentors help the student to decide if this is a career that interests them.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this program is that it supports and involves dissertation advisors in this training. Too often advisors know nothing about the career goal of a trainee, much less how to advise the trainee in preparing for this career. BEST enables the necessary networking and formal training that will allow the trainee to compete for top positions in the career of their choice.
What do you hoping to accomplish for your students with these programs? What kind of feedback have they given you?
Prof. Wilkinson: On hearing that we are offering such career guidance the universal response is, “Its about time.” And it is! When less than a quarter of our graduates go to tenure track academic careers we must train the other 75% to take on careers we know nothing about. The only moral alternative would be to train fewer students and postdocs. We hope that every student graduating from Emory is prepared for a satisfying career. This is the trade off between us and them; students and postdocs apprenticing at substandard wages should get the experience and skills they need to thrive when they leave.
The challenge is convincing advisors that such activities are productive. We are convinced (and data supports) that students who take control of their professional development are happier, more engaged, and more productive that those who are simply jumping through the hoops we hold up.
In what ways do these initiatives help you with recruiting?
Prof. Wilkinson: The best recruiters are our students and graduates. If we facilitate their success then they will sell Emory. And most students look at Emory for graduate training because an advisor or friend recommend us.
Click here for more information about the Best Program. Emory’s nine GDBBS programs subscribe to Gradschoolmatch. Sign up today to connect and learn more about them. Please contact us if you run a graduate program and would like to spotlight its innovative or noteworthy career guidance practices.