If you are a PhD student, you have probably heard something along the lines of “this is a PhD, figure it out by yourself.” While PhD students enter their programs expecting to become highly independent researchers, we do not expect to graduate completely unprepared for the job market. We are told by advisors and administrators that research is the only thing that matters and that if we just focused more on our research, we would be fully equipped for post-PhD life. This is far from true. In fact, focusing solely on research for five years can be detrimental to students, especially those who want to pursue non-academic careers. Industrial jobs require a different skill set than academic jobs, and PhD graduates pursuing a career in industry often find themselves overqualified for the research component and under qualified for non-technical components. But when we request career guidance from our programs, advisors tell us that our research experience on its own is sufficient, that we should be more self-driven and that “this is a PhD.”
This lack of career readiness is widespread in PhD programs. Less than one third of respondents to Nature’s national survey of graduate students felt that their PhD program prepared them very well for a satisfying career, and 79% of respondents were concerned about their job prospects. The current PhD experience must be replaced with one that can be tailored to the individual students’ professional goals, be it industry or academia, and that evolves with changes in the job market.
The career crisis is particularly prevalent in STEM PhD programs, the curricula of which are designed to raise the next generation of academics. Due to the strong emphasis on developing research skills, many PhD students are driven to believe that academia is the superior career option. However, to become qualified for and obtain an academic position, students must complete one or more postdoctoral experiences. This requires scientists to forgo a livable salary for at least eight to 10 years after college. At the same time, the proportion of STEM PhD graduates who end up entering a tenure track position is only 7.6% in the life sciences.
To make matters worse, PhD students are largely only encouraged to take coursework and attend workshops that directly relate to their research. If a chemistry PhD student wants to take a class outside of chemistry — for example, economics, which might be relevant for industry work — their advisor is likely to say no. At first glance, Brown appears to be open to graduate students pursuing knowledge outside their immediate field through the Open Graduate Education Program, which enables 10 students each year to pursue a master’s degree alongside their PhD. According to the program’s website, PhD students are encouraged to pursue a field that may be either “close to or quite far removed from that of the doctoral studies.”
In practice, many of the students who are accepted into Brown’s program choose a master’s degree that can directly benefit their thesis research, and the faculty that select the STEM recipients seem to be biased toward students who wish to be academics. In feedback on my own application, the committee agreed that while I was qualified for the secondary master’s degree and had an outstanding academic record in my chemistry studies, my career aspirations in business consulting were “uninteresting.” They encouraged me to reapply this year with aspirations that better suit the aim of the program. I can only assume that the “aim of the program” was preparing students for academia by allowing them to bolster their dissertations with related master’s degree work. The “academia or bust” mindset dominant in universities forces PhD students to endure low-paying work in the hopes of attaining a coveted — but ultimately unlikely — tenure track position. Universities must allow PhD students to attain skills other than research, or else their graduates will find themselves caught in a postdoctoral career bloodbath.
To prepare students to pursue a satisfying career, universities must allow them to indicate their desired career paths as soon as they begin the program. If a student wishes to pursue an industrial career, internships, soft skill training and business training should be readily available and encouraged, and coursework in business knowledge should be required. For students who wish to pursue academic jobs, training in people management, effective communication and effective mentoring, as well as coursework in grant writing, should be required. And for students who wish to pursue careers adjacent or unrelated to their PhD research, programs should tailor the entire curriculum to best suit the needs of the student. Students should never have to be told “no” by their advisor when they seek to expand their knowledge beyond their research field. Without these critical changes, students will continue to face grim career prospects.
In a job market where nearly 40,000 STEM PhDs graduate annually, we must be able to differentiate ourselves in a way that is valuable to our sector. We cannot be expected to do everything by ourselves — the institution must meet us halfway. And at a university that claims to value freedom and flexibility of academic study, it is ironic that PhD students can rarely explore fields beyond that of their research or consider careers outside of academia. If Brown wants to live up to its mission, it must rethink the structure of its PhD programs.
In this vein, the spirit of the Open Curriculum should not be reserved for just undergraduate students. Intellectual exploration is beneficial regardless of one’s educational status. As Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01 says:
“Our goal is a high one — that each and every one of our students is engaged, empowered and transformed by their education. What’s unique about Brown is that we elevate the role of students in achieving that goal as active participants in framing their own education.”
PhD students are supporting this university by engaging — over-engaging, really — with our education every day. We ask only that, in return, our education empowers and transforms us in a way that prepares us for our dreams.