When I was a college student interested in pursuing a career in news, there was frequent grumbling among my classmates because our school did not offer a degree in journalism. Having a specific degree would help us get reporting and editing jobs when we graduate, the students said. To which my college replied: We are not here to get you a job, we are here to give you a solid liberal arts education. (The school did start a minor in journalism, but in the spirit of not making it too vocational, it was called the program for Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy. True story.)
Lest this sound like a complaint, I actually sided with the university. There are plenty of journalism grad schools out there for people who want a job-specific degree, and all the nitty-gritty career training that comes with it. You can make a solid case that undergraduate programs should not be geared toward getting people started on a particular career path.
But there's no such case to be made for graduate schools. These programs are all about taking the well-rounded college education and giving it laser-like focus in an area that will likely define a person's career path for years, perhaps even decades, to come. With that comes some responsibility to provide tools and services to help students understand what that career path is all about.
I hear the same complaint from PhD scientists all the time: 'Our schools never told us what the landscape was like out there. We had no idea that there were not enough job openings in academia to employ all of us.' Well, just to clear the air: there are not, and never will be, enough jobs in academia to employ all the people pursuing scientific PhDs. It is not in the students' or the schools' best interests to keep pretending that academia is the primary career path. I'd like to see more effort from graduate programs to demonstrate the reality of the job landscape, as well as the many great opportunities that exist beyond the ivory tower.
To be sure, there are examples of programs that do this really well. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which is not affiliated with a particular university, helps local biotech companies fund fellowships that are filled by grad students in the state. It would not take much time or money for university programs to team up with companies in the area to help establish internships that would give their students valuable industry experience — and offer companies some fresh, affordable talent.
Another simple option is to bring in speakers representing a range of job profiles who can discuss their careers, what they do on a day-to-day basis, and what interested students can do to follow in their steps. Speakers who have experience in pharma, biotech, clinical labs, communications, PR, grant writing, marketing, product management, sales, and journal editing would offer a terrific range of perspectives to students contemplating their next steps. You might even throw in a cocktail hour and make it a networking opportunity.
Here in the US, President Barack Obama has issued a request for information about building the "bioeconomy," part of which focuses on how to implement better alternative-career training for scientific grad students. This is such an important part of making sure the next generation of scientists is every bit as successful as we hope it will be — so let's make the most of this opportunity for discussion by coming up with innovative and creative approaches.
Meredith Salisbury is editor in chief of GenomeWeb. Feel free to disagree with her at [email protected] The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Genome Technology.