Contributors Yuriy Baglaenko and Eric Gracey
Students from the department of immunology at the University of Toronto recently completed a survey of their 288 alumni, tracking their career choices and progressions through life. In this post, Yuriy Baglaenko and Eric Gracey follow the alumni around the globe, to see where they have ended up after leaving the University of Toronto.
The sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 had global economic ramifications, still felt to this day. This crisis was particularly close to the heart of business schools, which were criticized for not instilling the proper skills and ethics in their graduates. In response to this disaster, many MBA programs restructured to adapt their training by having continuous dialogues with industry and adding a stronger focus on softer skills.
Recent reports have provided evidence that the scientific system may also be facing an impending crash, with funding levels stagnant, grant success rates diving and an increasing reliance on trainees as producers of knowledge. Will graduate training preemptively change to avoid a scientific meltdown or continue to lag behind a changing world?
Why survey alumni?
Unfortunately, graduate training is rarely evaluated. New courses and technologies might come and go but fundamentally, graduate education has remained unchanged for many years. Only recently have a limited number of academic or industry track PhD programs been introduced to bring training in line with a changing job market. Alumni surveys offer direct insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the graduate experience, which allows for critical and honest criticism on the process. Although neglected, this information is important to everyone from prospective and current graduate students to the universities and research institutes. To understand both the potential and shortcomings of our graduate training, the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto recently completed a survey of its 288 alumni throughout its 29 years of existence.
In this post and infographic, we discuss location and career trajectories over time and highlight the importance of conducting such surveys.
The majority of graduates don’t leave Canada
There is dogma amongst students that to succeed in academia or industry you need to leave for greener pastures. Many of us are openly encouraged to leave Canada, particularly for careers in R&D, in order to gain experience at internationally renowned institutions. It’s hard to say whether that deep-rooted advice is accurate, but certainly the majority of PhDs (67%) and an overwhelming number of MScs (81%) graduates from the immunology department at the University of Toronto either remain in Canada or eventually return home. Of those that are located in Canada, a little under half of PhDs (48%) and the vast majority of those with an MSc are found within a stone’s throw of their Alma Mater in the Greater Toronto Area.
From the feedback that we received from the alumni, there were several reasons that alumni chose to stay in Canada. One of many was the unwillingness to leave family and relocate to different cities. Others, particularly those seeking work outside of academia, built substantial networks in Toronto and so the necessary support was there to find employment after graduation.
The second most popular option for country of employment was the United States with California, New York, and Boston being the top destinations. This result is expected as these are the current hotbeds of biomedical research with which members of our department have deep connections.
The MSc program is a gateway to medical school
In the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto, students are not required to have completed an MSc degree before pursuing their PhDs and many prospective students enter directly into the doctorate stream. This puts MSc students in a particularly strange category, as those that had any desire for continuing in academic research would likely have transferred into the PhD stream. Instead, the MSc program seems to be a gateway into non-academic careers with an overwhelming number (40%) of students entering medicine.
Recent PhD graduates in early career stages are split between academia and alternative careers.
Despite the damning reports and the prevailing negative sentiment towards academia, 54% of the immunology alumni less than 5 years out of graduate school remain in academia with most employed as post-doctoral fellows. Approximately half of these alumni work outside of Canada. Thus it would appear that taking the traditional career route of post-doctoral fellow is becoming the alternative career for recent graduates. There are many reasons for this including the increasing size of the post-doctoral holding pool and the recent economic crisis. The latter is illustrated by the fact that many of our alumni going to the United States for a post-doctoral position must bring their own funding to cover salary.
This leaves almost half of our recent graduates entering non-academic careers in business, research and development, and government. This is striking when considering that universities focus primarily on training research scientists.
Interestingly, the proportion of PhD graduates in academia declined with years’ post-graduation. Mid-career graduates who completed their degrees 6 to 14 years ago were less likely to be in academia and more likely to have migrated to the R&D sector.
PhD graduates who completed their degrees over 15 years ago are primarily faculty members.
The majority of alumni who completed their degrees pre-1998 are faculty members in institutes across North America. This high success rate may reflect the rise of immunology as a discipline over the last three decades, or it may be due to boosts in US and Canada federal research funding like the creation of the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR), a major Canadian granting agency. Whatever the reason, this high success rate no longer reflects the current job market for recent graduates. The numbers of immunology graduates is on the rise and the proportion of available faculty positions continues to plummet.
These alumni in faculty positions are our supervisors and mentors. From their perspective, attaining faculty status was a probable possibility and usually the only career path they would have known. To the recent graduate, the academic research landscape has drastically changed.
The job market has changed and our training needs to change with it
It is difficult to offer concrete advice from these findings. Certainly, by looking at PhD alumni trajectories over time, it is clear that the market has drastically changed over the years. For mid-career graduates, the frequency of those in faculty positions has dropped and vocation in alternative careers, specifically R&D and business, are on the rise. There will never again be time when most immunology alumni can obtain faculty positions. Is this the writing on the wall for imminent changes to the traditional graduate education? Change needs to happen and it needs to happen soon lest graduate production drops and a generation of scientists are lost. Improved and diversified training will drive enrollment, which boosts research output and supports economic growth. Taking steps to constantly evaluate and potentially improve graduate-level training, using alumni surveys, benefits everyone.