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 ask the alumni what they have done after leaving the University of Toronto, and which skills they learned there have come in useful in their careers.
As graduate students, we are both the consumers of education and the producers of knowledge, and the success of universities depends on the research we produce. Many university ranking systems disproportionately value research impact: the Time’s Higher Education University rankings has 30% of the ranking composed of publication citation impact and an additional 30% comprised of research volume, income and reputation. Yet, graduate students are considered trainees and by attending courses and conducting independent research, we are supposed to be preparing for the next chapters of our lives. In a recent survey from the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto, we asked our 288 alumni to evaluate the effectiveness of that training.
In a previous NatureJobs blog post, we summarized the vocation and location trends uncovered in this survey. In this post, we ask how well graduate training the University of Toronto immunology department prepared our alumni for their chosen careers and pass along some of the comments that emerged.
Is there a need to adapt training to align with job preference?
For many students, academia is no longer a favourable career option post-graduation. This sentiment has led the graduate students of our department to push for enhanced career preparedness training. To our department’s credit, they have begun to take steps in that direction. However, a prevailing attitude amongst faculty members is that the current training already provides the necessary soft skills needed for any profession. As we’ve all heard before, “graduate training teaches you how to think”. We asked our alumni to evaluate their own experiences to address the question of whether or not our current training is truly sufficient.
Graduates who entered academia felt most prepared for their first job post-graduation
Overall, our alumni felt very prepared for their first job post-graduation. When asked to rank preparedness on a scale of 1 to 5 from least to most prepared, the average score was 3.9. On its own, that result is encouraging. One of our alumni even commented that, “… good scientific training develops skills that are applicable to a wide range of jobs”.
However, when the results were broken down by job category post-graduation, a different trend emerged. Although most of our graduates who went into academia felt very well prepared, a number of the alumni in R&D and “other” fields of employment had scores of three and below. In fact, the average score dropped from 4.2 in academia to 3.7 in R&D and 3.2 for “other” careers. Clearly, the current program at the University of Toronto immunology department is better designed for training academics.
Most graduates obtain the necessarily skills for their first job in the lab and not from graduate courses
Graduate level courses are a requirement of our degrees. Unfortunately, a growing number of our students feel that they are simply hoops to jump through and are neither relevant nor valuable. Considering the effort and time invested in these courses, only 47% of our alumni felt that they gained any crucial job skills from their required coursework. On the contrary, over 95% felt that they gained critical skills for their first job post-graduation directly from lab-based research. In addition, 12% and 38% of them felt that they picked up useful skills from extracurricular university courses and from outside of the university respectively. Speaking to this point, one alumnus wrote that the department should “offer or promote non-curricular courses or training workshops geared towards specific career paths outside academia”.
University graduate level courses need improvement and could benefit from added diversification. Offering several courses on recent advances in immunology to immunologists, as is done now, seems redundant. Instead, what most of our graduates and current students want from their courses is training in burgeoning fields and practical job skills. This approach would foster an interdisciplinary approach to graduate training, which is directly reflective of trends in modern day science. In support of this, many of our alumni in post-doctoral positions commented on a need for graduate level training in bioinformatics and big data assessment.
The most valuable skill for the first job post-graduation was report writing and presentation
When asked to identify useful job skills post-graduation, there was a clear divide amongst the alumni between discipline specific specialist skills and transferable skills, with the later receiving a much higher overall ranking. The most valuable skills, as indicated by our alumni, were those that focused on communication, general analytics and project management. In comparison, specialist knowledge and data processing skills were ranked less favourably. This idea that soft skills are much more valuable to students also cements the previous point on the redundancy of graduate-level courses. Despite this, the majority of our assessment as graduate students directly pertains to our work in the lab, rather than our soft skill proficiency.
Most of this post has focused on evaluating the training provided to graduate students from the lens of alumni. However, in their comments, many alumni raised a different perspective and identified a clear need for better supervisor training. One alumnus wrote, “I think faculty are put into management positions, but have no training in how to manage people. There should be courses for the mentors to learn how to manage [students]…” This is an often-overlooked point in graduate-level training. Our personal experience is heavily dependent on the quality of our supervision and mentorship. Given how heavily the university relies on graduate students for their success, we think that they should support our success through effective training for our futures.