The Great Migration
With more scientists than ever seeking jobs outside academia, what skills will they need to succeed?
Twenty-five years ago, Randall (Randy) Ribaudo was living a researcher's dream: He graduated with his PhD in immunology in the late '80s, nabbed a postdoctoral position at the National Institutes of Health, and went on to run his own lab in the National Cancer Institute. But, because he started on the research path relatively late (he would not be up for tenure until age 44) and since he did not have an MD (a potential detriment to his chances for tenure), he wondered what other career paths he might pursue with his PhD training. It was by "dumb luck," as Ribaudo recounts, that he connected with a small biotech company, where he was eventually hired.
The transition was exciting—full of peaks, but also of valleys. Early on in his new job, Ribaudo was asked to review a business plan. He had never looked at one before in his life—but because he was hired as a 'scientific expert,' he was loath to admit there was something he didn't know how to do.
"It was truly trial by fire," says Ribaudo. "My street smarts helped me hang on, but I probably should have been fired a few times." Over time, Ribaudo's business acumen grew. He worked closely with salesmen—"really good salesmen, not people just out of undergrad"—who, unknowingly, taught him the basics of advanced communication.
When the biotech bubble burst many years, and several companies, later, Ribaudo again reevaluated his career options. He had learned so much throughout his trials and tribulations in industry that he decided to partner up with a fellow entrepreneur (Larry Petcovic) and a fellow PhD (Todd Pihl) to make the transition easier on others.
"Larry would always talk about scientists as leaders, how they were untapped resources—they had tremendous capability and brilliance that was not being used," says Ribaudo. Together, the three men went on to form Human Workflows LLC, a company designed to help PhD-trained scientists discover their potential outside of academic labs. They run a course called SciPhD that is based on the premise that "for entry-level scientists to be competitive and successful in industry jobs, they must master six categories of skills: leadership and supervision, project management, communications, negotiation, finance, and networking."
"Doctoral training is currently focused on building technical and subject matter expertise for research-based careers. So many professional skills that are important outside academia are either lacking or deemphasized," says Monica Kerr, director of Science Alliance, the Academy's program for graduate and postdoctoral students. For the past several years, Kerr has teamed up with Ribaudo and Petcovic to offer the Science Alliance course "From Scientist to CSO: Leadership & Management Development for Careers in Business and Industry."
The massive influx of PhD-prepared scientists into non-traditional fields, such as biotechnology, patent law, business development, science writing, sales, consulting, and medical communications, is not always the result of increased interest on the part of the researchers. Instead, a convergence of factors has led to a sometimes stinging truth—"there's not room for everyone to become an academic," says Linda Miller, associate dean for basic science at New York University.
There has been much debate among the scientific and higher education communities over the solution to such a problem—overhaul the content of PhD programs to better encapsulate training for alternative careers; drastically cut down enrollment in PhD programs, thus dampening production of the so-called 'PhD machine;' and many more.1 But the factors involved in this perfect storm of PhD overproduction seem to be relatively straightforward: widespread budget cuts at the federal and state levels, tenured researchers not retiring due to economic factors, and increased admission to PhD programs.
"The majority of jobs for science and engineering PhD holders are now in industry and other non-academic settings," says Kerr. In fact, only 14% of PhD graduates go on to careers in academia, according to a Washington Post article from July 2012.2 Other stats—61% of postdocs aim to become tenure-track professors, while only 37% actually achieve that goal—tell a similar story.3 The primary job market for PhDs is no longer the ivory tower.
The primary job market for PhDs is no longer the ivory tower.
But not all see this fact as decidedly negative. "The fact that a science PhD can be leveraged in a variety of ways means that scientists are no longer constrained in their options. There is a growing appreciation of the value PhD-trained scientists bring to roles beyond research," says Kerr.
"Industry is more respected now than it was," says Miller, who points out that industry and academia are not at odds, but rather two points on a continuum. "It's better recognized now that most pharmaceutical companies have skills in areas that are complementary to skills that academic research centers have."The question is then, what are the alternatives?
"One of the biggest reasons postdocs are rejected is that they are overqualified and under-experienced," says Ribaudo. "But how can you get experience without experience? No one would ever get into a new field." To Ribaudo, the key to breaking into any non-traditional job field is to show that you have the skills that are needed in that field—even if you don't have that field on your resume.
"Don't think for a moment that you are going to stand head and shoulders above 700 other molecular biology PhDs that are applying [to industry jobs] because of your gene sequencing skills; they can all do that," says Ribaudo.
Instead, employers look for people who can do the science, but also have what it takes to lead, work well in teams, and communicate effectively, says Lauren Celano, co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life sciences search and career development firm, and guest speaker at the Science Alliance course, "Making the Leap: A Non-Academic Career Planning & Job Search Boot Camp."
"Working in cross-matrix teams, being able to communicate with people who aren't your peers, using empathy, learning to report outcomes—these are things I didn't understand during my first industry job," says Ribaudo. And yet these are the very skills for which employers may be looking.
Celano notes another trend she has observed among industry employers—they seek employees who can (and want to) learn new things. "A lot of companies look for people who can understand the many components that make up the entire pharmaceutical industry. For example, a toxicologist might understand both chemistry and biology." Performing research in academic labs—known for their specialization—may not provide that broad perspective, so students are looking beyond their PhD programs to get the skills necessary for the range and reality of scientific career options.
"There tend to be more resources on campus for faculty preparation and so we try to focus on the gaps," says Kerr of the Science Alliance courses. The good news, says Ribaudo, is that "scientists actually have many of these skills, despite some people's perceptions that they don't. They just need to understand the importance of these skills, get in touch with them, and get even better at them."
Diana Friedman is executive editor of The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine.
1. McCook, A. (2011, April 21). Rethinking PhDs. Nature, 472,280-282.
2. Vastag, B. (2012, July 7). U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren't there. Washington Post Online.
3. Dance, A. The best of times and the worst of times. HHMI Bulletin.
A Matter of Trust: The Case for Better Communication Skills
Linda Miller believes that communication skills are exponentially more important for scientists today than they were 20 years ago. The reason? Public perception.
"Twenty years ago there was an almost knee-jerk trust by the American public in terms of research. It was a given that scientific research was being done for the greater good and that our FDA was one to mimic around the world." But, says Miller, the honeymoon is over.
So what happened? It was a combination of factors—"death by a thousand cuts, if you will." Several high-profile cases of scientific fraud, the widespread HIV epidemic (and the feeling that drugs were not being developed and approved fast enough), and politicized debates over climate change all changed American's attitudes towards scientific research, says Miller. Confounding the problem, across-the-board budget cuts have "put science on trial—people ask 'why should your program be spared?'"
The point Miller is making is not one of doom and gloom, but rather one that underscores the need for better outreach on the part of scientists. "I think it's much more important that scientists are able to justify why they are doing what they are doing" and then to impart that understanding to the general public.Until fairly recently "scientists were these wild, free birds," focusing on research, and not really dealing with people issues, says Miller. But, they now have to learn to more effectively deal with an inquiring public. The outcome—more communication-savvy scientists—is good for everyone, she believes. "More science these days is 'big science'—big collaborations. It behooves scientists to learn basic collaboration and negotiation skills, not just to communicate to the public, but to better work with their fellow scientists from around the world."
Lauren Celano's Tips for Building Your Brand
- Present yourself as an expert in area X; you're not just a job title.
- Think about your value-add to companies. Be clear about what you can bring to the table.
- Consider taking a job at a contract lab. You'll use many of the same lab techniques, but in a more business-focused environment; it's a great learning opportunity.
- Make it easy for companies to find you: set up a LinkedIn profile with a professional picture.
- Engage in face-to-face networking.
- Ask for personal referrals to new contacts when possible.
- Set up a Google alert or join the LinkedIn pages for companies you are interested in joining to stay up to date on their activities.