Pursuing outside career avenues is no impediment to doctoral goals

Professional development work can complement and improve academic outcomes, study finds.

31 August 2021

Andy Tay

10'000 Hours/Getty Images

A “persistent and understandable” concern among supervisors that career and professional development activities for PhD students detract from their dissertation research appears unfounded, according to a new study. In fact, in some cases, these activities could lead to faster degree completion and higher research output.

A PLOS Biology paper has looked at outcomes for 1,742 doctoral students in biomedical sciences at 10 leading research universities in the United States.

Overall, the authors found no difference in manuscript output or the time taken to complete a PhD between doctoral students who participated in programmes focused on their career options and those who did not.

“We hope our study will change the outlook of supervisors and trainees who are resistant to the idea of professional development,” says Patrick Brandt, lead author of the paper, and director of career development and training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“If there is more support for trainees to participate in professional development, we can prepare our research trainees for more meaningful scientific careers, inside and outside academia.” Such training is “especially relevant in light of pandemic-centered disruption to the job market and accompanying economic turmoil,” the paper notes.

In 2 of the 10 institutions included in the study, greater participation in career development activities was associated with a statistically significant decrease in time to PhD completion.

Similarly, at two other institutions, the candidates whose participation in career development was most time consuming (for example, through an internship), had the most first-author publications upon completion. The average number of publications per graduate student in the study was 2.9, with a range from 0 to a maximum of 16.

Preparing for life outside academia

Professional-development activities can range from low-commitment events, such as discussing career paths with alumni who work outside academia, to more time-consuming commitments, such as taking a course or an internship that could last a few months.

Best-practice career training for biomedical scientists is of national importance for research institutions in the US, the PLOS Biology paper argues.

The current proportion of PhD scientists in tenured or tenure-track positions is less than 25% today, compared with one in three in the 1980s, meaning students need to explore other career possibilities beyond academia to be able to choose one that fits them best, says Brandt.

Growing recognition of this is reflected in US National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, which in 2012 and 2013 was awarded to 17 academic institutions to design innovative professional development programmes.

The PLOS Biology study analysed outcomes data for biomedical science doctoral students at 10 of the 17 universities offering BEST programmes. Activities offered under the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) mechanism included career panels, skill-building workshops, job-search workshops, site visits and internships.

Attitudes changing for the better

The PLOS Biology study suggests faculty attitudes towards professional development for doctoral students may be changing for the better. For example, surveys of faculty at institutions offering the BEST programmes found faculty believed the activities made students happier and gave them more confidence to direct their own career development, while also having positive effects in the lab.

There is growing awareness among institutional leaders, too, that good professional development programmes can give them a competitive edge in attracting top trainee talent, says Brandt, who points to increased investment in professional development offices that service all faculties.

A paper posted on the bioRxiv preprint server, which aimed to “better inform and direct the efforts of graduate career offices” of universities by drawing out themes from interviews with 45 internal and external stakeholders, supports this viewpoint.

“Although it was not a central theme of our preprint, we have heard from multiple stakeholders, including trainees, faculty, and external industry partners, about the importance of having centralized career offices,” says Deepti Ramadoss, assistant director for training, assessment and career exploration at the University of Pittsburgh, and lead author of the paper, which has yet to be peer reviewed.

Ramadoss agrees that trainees, too, are becoming increasingly interested in professional development. Separately, this trend is supported by the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science (NGLS) in the US whose institutional members share statistics related to outcomes such as PhD completion rates and graduate career destinations.

“This is helpful for students to clearly see the strengths of each school, such as whether most of their life-sciences graduates stay in academia, head to companies or venture into other industries. They could use that information to find the best fit for them,” says Julie Overbaugh, professor of human biology and associate director for education and career enhancement at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, which is a founding member of NGLS.

The preprint paper featured interviews with pre-and postdoctoral researchers, who were split up into responses from those who were frequent, occasional and non-participants (users) of professional development programmes. The interviews explored how often several benefits and challenges related to these programmes were raised (see graph below).

For faculty and administration staff who were interviewed (also visualized below), benefits of these programmes that were raised included improved mental health and an awareness of the breadth of opportunities that are afforded by having a PhD outside of academia.

alt Benefits and challenges mentioned by pre-and postdoctoral researchers in interviews about how engagement in PhD professional development can be improved. Credit: Deepti Ramadoss et. al.
alt Benefits and challenges mentioned by faculty/administrators in interviews about how engagement in PhD professional development can be improved. Credit: Deepti Ramadoss et. al.

Allocating trainee time

Overbaugh, who was not involved in either the PLOS Biology study or the bioRXiv preprint, says that despite increasing demand from trainees to receive professional development training, and the clear need for this support, it can be financially challenging to create these resources, particularly for less well-funded institutions.

“Moving beyond the idea of centralized offices in each institution, it would be helpful to have a centralized resource centre at the national level to curate the best professional development programmes from across the nation,” she says. “This will enhance access and allow institutions to adapt existing materials for their own needs more easily.”

Meanwhile, institutional commitment to professional development programmes varies widely. “Some students who are paid by a supervisor’s federal research grant still encounter resistance when they request time to engage in professional development,” says Brandt. This is despite a 2014 notice from the NIH clarifying that trainees paid on research grants are expected to devote time to their own career exploration and development.

However, just how much time trainees should spend on such activities outside their research work is not specified.

Ramadoss says interviews revealed variation in the views of both faculty and trainees on this question. “We saw expectations ranging from 1-2 hours per week to 1-2 hours per month,’ she says.

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