Guiding Your PhDs to Nonacademic Careers

More faculty are accepting and promoting nonacademic career alternatives for their graduate students and postdocs. But for some faculty without extensive industry experience or contacts, it’s difficult to offer advice and counsel to these students. This workshop provides information and tools for faculty who want to mentor their PhDs who have nonacademic job interests as to the opportunities available and additional skills required for a successful job search.

Some of the topics we’ll cover:

  • The non-academic job market for PhDs
  • Skills required of PhDs for nonacademic jobs
  • Making industry internships work for the PhD and advisor
  • Counseling and networking resources for nonacademically-bound PhDs
  • Supporting non-academic career PhDs emotionally and behaviorally
  • Managing academic and nonacademic career PhDs in the same group
  • Sharing experiences and challenges in mentoring nonacademic career PhDs

 The tools and topics of this workshop are targeted to faculty who embrace (or at least accept) nonacademic career choices for their graduate students and postdocs. The workshop is not a discussion of the appropriateness of a graduate education for nonacademic career candidates.

If you are interested in learning more about this workshop or in reviewing the slides, please contact me.

And here is a link to career planning resources for PhDs.

Feedback from the workshop:

" only comments are that this is very timely, important, and the workshop was fantastic."

"Thank you for the excellent information and enthusiasm you brought to our faculty in today's workshop. One of our faculty members has already sent us a message that he was able to have a 'very fruitful discussion right after today's session' with one of his postdocs. Very positive comments."


Here are some notes following the first successful workshop at Berkeley (12/2014):

Critical success factors for the workshop:

  • The invitation to the workshop must make it clear that the intended audience is faculty who already embrace (or at least) accept nonacademic career choices for their grad students and postdocs.  In doing that, we eliminate the argumentative types who don't want students to leave academia. The cohort we had at Berkeley talked about some of the challenges of supporting nonacademic candidates (NACs), but they accepted the fact that many of their students would pursue nonacademic careers and were seeking help in advising them.
  • Faculty sponsorship of the workshop is essential.  Ideally, the invitation should come from a dept or group head, or a dean (eg Dean of Graduate School or Research Provost, or equivalent).   Our first workshop was sponsored by QB-3 which is an interdisciplinary institute providing funding and resources for quantitative life sciences research.  We had about 15 faculty in a small conference room which was perfect for this pilot workshop.
  • Our target audience for this workshop was life sciences faculty.  Some of the content was specific to life sciences (like the discussion of myIDP). I think it might be possible to expand the workshop to include any STEM PIs.
  • Grad student and postdoc support for the workshop was enthusiastic ("I wish my PI would attend..." was a common refrain). We had the student group Beyond Academia provide logistics support and to help us find faculty sponsorship, but they maintained a low profile.  At the workshop itself, only faculty (and some QB-3 staff) were allowed to attend despite requests from postdocs, etc.  It is important to restrict the workshops to faculty to enable a free exchange of ideas.  I have separate workshops targeted to grad students and postdocs.
  • We tried to keep the workshop to an academic hour (~50 mins), but we ran over by about 5-10 mins.  There was plenty of discussion and the faculty were eager to share challenges and experiences.  With more time, I would increase the level of interaction even more. If possible, I would aim next time for a 75 minute slot.
  • We did not hand out the slides at the beginning of the workshop.  Many participants asked for the slides following the workshop and I was happy to oblige.  I consider their requests to be a prime indicator of how they valued the workshop content. We should consider whether to make the slides available during the workshop for taking notes.
  • It's critical  that the workshop presenter have made the academic-nonacademic career transition in order to be credible.

Notes on the Workshop content:

  • There was an active discussion around industry internships. Two of the attendees had PhDs who had done internships and both viewed the experience as very valuable for both them and the students.  Both said the internships were a pain to set up and required a lot of time, but still the experience was worth it.  One said that it convinced her student not to pursue an nonacademic career(!). 
  • One big challenge with NACs which surfaced was the speed with which they can leave a lab.  One PI had a couple of NACs exit in a matter of a few weeks, leaving undone research and unwritten papers (which weren't going to matter to them in their new careers).  This obviously reflects a lack of communication between the parties.  I will make sure to address this in future workshops both for faculty and NACs.
  • About half of the attendees were using myIDP, but there were varying opinions as to its value.  I think the consensus is that most of the value comes from the process and communication, less from the actual career planning content.

The follow-up response from the faculty was very encouraging and I'm eager to do more of these workshops.  I'm also considering publishing an expanded version of the slides as a handbook or pamphlet.  Comments, please below or send me an email.

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