PhD graduates can take part in a survey to help create a visual map of career clusters.
Melanie Sinche is a nationally certified career counselor focused on STEM careers, currently serving as a Senior Research Associate at the Labor and Worklife Program in Harvard Law School, studying employment patterns of science PhDs. She formerly served as Director of the FAS Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Harvard University. She is an accomplished career counselor, trainer, and speaker. In addition to building three career centres for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, she has delivered career development presentations and training sessions for universities, government agencies, professional associations and non-profit organizations across the country on career-related topics for graduate students and postdocs. Her current focus is to improve data collection on PhDs and postdoctoral scholars across the U.S. She is also working on a book-length project on careers for PhDs in science with Harvard University Press, scheduled to be on the market in the fall of 2016. In this interview, Julie Gould asks Sinche about how she got involved and interested in this field, her new book and how PhD graduates can help with her research.
How did you get involved in the STEM careers space?
I don’t actually have a STEM background – other than my dad having a PhD in physics and being involved in scientific organizations over the years, such as the Society for Native Americans, Chicanos in Science and the Biomedical Sciences Careers Program in Boston. I was actually in graduate school decades ago for Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Michigan (UoM). But while I was there, I volunteered at the career centre to be a peer counsellor and work with other grad students, reviewing CVs and advising. I absolutely loved it.
When I was close to finishing my studies and was thinking about my career – whether or not to do a PhD – a job opened up in the career centre at Michigan and I took it. I’ve been in this field ever since.
What was it about working in a careers centre that you enjoyed so much?
I have always found it rewarding to help others find satisfying work. It has been such a gift to work closely with so many PhDs over the years, and to have an opportunity to be exposed to their work. Every day is different, and everyday brings new challenges, which keeps career counselling and advising interesting to me.
What are you doing now?
Following my time at the NIH, a job opened up at Harvard University to serve as Director for the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. I spent 3 ½ years there, building programmes and serving postdocs, and then moved into a research position with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, headed by economist Richard Freeman. I have been working with Richard and this programme for a year now, conducting research on employment outcomes of PhDs in science.
What are you working on at the moment?
I know there are so many scientists out there who are still completely isolated, with no access to career services or advisors. I wanted to create a handbook for those who really need help, and so I’m writing a book. The idea is that the book will serve as a guide for any scientist anywhere who wants to change jobs or find a job. My goal is to take PhD scientists through the career development process: self-assessment, career exploration, goal setting, and the job search. This book will serve as a manual for finding a satisfying job in any field of interest.
As part of your book research, you’ve recently launched a survey to find out where PhDs in science are going after they graduate. How did this get started?
The National Science Foundation (NSF) collects comprehensive data annually on this population, but existing NSF data sets still contain gaps in the data. Their most recent, large-scale survey effort, the Early Career Doctorates Survey, does not address some of the questions I wanted to explore, so I decided to draft my own survey and collect data on my own. I am grateful for the previous work of Geoff Davis, Michael Roach, Henry Sauermann, Kenny Gibbs, Michael Teitelbaum, and Paula Stephan, who have all assisted me in drafting this new instrument.
What information are you trying to capture with your survey?
The survey completes the piece that is missing from our understanding of the PhD employment landscape: where are PhDs currently employed? What are the career choices that future PhDs have? We know that current students and postdocs are aware of faculty jobs, and most PhDs in science recognize that there are also opportunities in private industry, but if you dig a bit deeper, you come to realize that many have a limited understanding of what people actually do. I wanted to illuminate this kind of information on a granular level: where are PhD graduates working? What are their job titles? What sector are they in? What activities do they regularly engage in? I will use this data to create a visual representation of where people are working—a careers map for PhDs in science.
The second research question that I’m asking (and that the NSF doesn’t cover): What skills do scientists develop organically during their PhD programs, and are these skills required for the jobs they eventually move into?
My goal is to demonstrate that there are significant skills that PhDs build organically during their studies that are attractive to employers across different sectors. To prove this, I knew I needed hard data. If we have this kind of information, it might inform how we train graduate students, PhDs and postdocs in the US.
How are you exploring what skills employers are looking for in PhD graduates?
I developed the list of skills used in my survey from data collected every year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). NACE results are collected from HR recruiters/employers from the private sector. Every year, they publish a set of outcomes called Job Outlook. They survey all of the employers and ask: What skills are you seeking from your students? However, their focus is on the undergraduate population hired by employers, not on the graduate student and postdoc populations. Still, as you read the list of skills desired by employers on the most recent NACE survey, it is clearly aligned with what goes on in graduate school: the ability to analyse large amounts of data, critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking, team work. I want to show PhDs everywhere that they do in fact have skills that employers value!
Are these skills enough though?
The PhDs that I work with come in to see me and say: “I have no skills.” “I’ve been studying this one molecule or protein and I have nothing to offer.” “I’ve got nothing of interest to an employer.” And as much as I say “yes you do,” it’s meaningless. I need data to back it up.
But the conversation then follows on to: you cannot expect to find a job with these skills alone. You need to engage in some sort of transitional experience.
Trainees need to spend time in some kind of transitional experience. Either as a volunteer or intern, shadowing an employer or taking extra classes in finance or big data, for example. Students need to demonstrate experience to be more attractive for the jobs they are trying to move into. So in addition to my hypothesis that PhDs do emerge from their programs with important skills, I also want to present data on the kinds of transitional experiences that people who were hired used to get into the job in the first place.
How can PhD graduates help you?
They can take part in my survey! The survey project is called “Identifying PhD Career Pathways in Science” and is open to all PhDs earned between 2004 and 2014 in any discipline within the physical, life, engineering, computational, or social sciences. The survey will close on 28 April 2015, and results will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal and will also appear in my upcoming book.