In 1995, Sheila Tobias and Daryl Chubin co-authored the book Rethinking Science as a Career. The book was written at a time when the PhD job market was looking bleak, and many were turning to the world of industry. Without knowing it, Tobias and Chubin started a whole new way of teaching scientists about the world of business. Their book started the Professional Science Masters (PSM), a post graduate degree that prepares science students for the world of industry. But it’s been almost 20 years since they wrote this book, which gives advice on the skills needed to work as an industry scientist, there has been a lot of change in the job market. Where there hasn’t been much change is in the skills needed to make the move. The PSM’s that were born from these ideas were targeted to post-graduate students, but the post-docs of the world don’t seem to have the opportunity to go back and take these courses. In this interview with Tobias and Chubin, Naturejobs finds out what the PhD’s and post-docs of today can do to help their transtition.
Since you co-wrote the book Rethinking Science as a Career in 1995, how has the outlook for academic jobs changed?
The decline in tenure-track academic appointments is pronounced: fewer than one in three postdocs land a faculty position. Senior faculty who care about the career paths of their students provide better advice, more diverse leads, and an enhanced sense of “job realpolitik.” The term “alt-ac” is now recognized as a legitimate option to be contemplated and pursued. There is no shame to spurning an academic position. Indeed, the academy has spurned much of a generation by producing scholars who will not receive research support and either must postdoc indefinitely or turn away from research altogether. This is sad given many students’ expectations, but broadens the possibility that talented scientists can and will contribute to innovation and the economy in a variety of ways.
Do you feel graduate students are more prepared for a transition into Industry now?
Yes and no. In departments that offer traditional degrees in science disciplines, not much has changed. The paradigm is “supply-driven” and decoupled from market realities. In the more experimental departments that offer PSM and PhD degrees, attentiveness to employer needs is higher. The PSM in particular is a “demand-driven” degree, with industrial (large and small company) employment a prime target. For those enrolled in such programs, the training is bent on transition to the workforce and reducing the distance between classroom and workplace. Internships are especially useful for this purpose.
What skills are industry employers looking for in young scientists?
Versatility, flexibility, and habits of mind that can apply knowledge and technique to new contexts and problems. In short, the young scientist must be more than technically sound. He/She must excel at communicating, working with others not similarly trained, relish teamwork that is inherently multicultural. The emphasis is as much on process as on outcome—product, solution, innovation. Jim Sporer at IBM Almaden calls these “T-shaped Skills” with “boundary-crossing competencies” and deep knowledge of at least one discipline and one system.
How soon do you think young scientists should be thinking about developing extra skills to prepare them for a jump into industry?
As undergraduates, if not earlier. Students recognize the artificiality of boundaries that separate disciplines. They intuit if they do not yet know from personal experience that problems originate or persist in the interstices. Young scientists thus must rely on colleagues’ knowledge and skills—or be prepared to acquire them on the job. Competition between students has been overplayed. In the “real world,” teamwork, communication, networking, and a global perspective are found to directly contribute to analytic thinking and problem solving.
How would you suggest that the young scientists develop these skills?
Experientially. That’s what coaches and internships are for. If the university program cannot simulate what they need to do on the job, then it must offer opportunities to acquire skills through partner organizations, some of which are prospective employers. On their own, students can expand their awareness (through reading, auditing courses in management and/or public policy) of cutting-edge technical issues facing private and public sector employers.
There is still evidence that many PhD and post-doc students are unsure as to how to approach a transition to industry. What advice would you give them?
Demand of the university that non-academic career counseling and placement be made available to graduate students who wish to prepare for nonacademic careers. We know of two university graduate programs (Northern Arizona and Michigan State) that are employing industry-oriented associates in the graduate deans’ office. There should be more.
How do you hope that this will change?
Universities should be forthcoming on what their degrees qualify graduates for. They should catalog what their alumni are doing and eagerly share their “scorecard” with incoming students. If graduate school is as much a partnership between program and employer as between programs, there should be a stable of stakeholders that any student should be able to contact. The university itself should maintain a record of the needs, barriers, and performance of graduates from programs—and offer to share such information.
As part of this Windback Wednesday series: From Academia to Industry, we’re looking to find out what you still want to know about making the leap. To any PhD or post-docs out there looking to make that leap into industry, how prepared do you feel? What resources have you been looking at? Are there any questions you would like us to answer? Please leave comments below, or get into the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #AcademiatoIndustry