Ask a fresh-faced, bright-eyed Ph.D. student at the outset to name their career goal and a majority will say, “professor.” Although most of them will never get there. The numbers that achieve this goal are very low indeed, varying somewhere between 0.5-10%, depending on the country and discipline.
One of the problems is that, inside academia, a non-academic career is viewed as an abject failure. How often have I heard the sentence, “he’s moving to a job in industry” spoken with the same intonation usually reserved to pass on the word about a friend with an incurable illness.
Leaders need to be able to be able to strike a balance between reaching their goals and developing their people. Therefore a leader needs to be able to help their people weigh up their career options. So what is a supervisor of a graduate student or post-doc not destined for a professorship to do?
Treat non-research options as valid
Exposing your people to broader career options leads to more and better science. Not everyone is cut out for an academic career, and in my experience, many graduate students and post-docs have only a hazy idea about their options. Francis Collins said last year in an interview,
“I worry that a number of [post-docs] are receiving the message that if they don’t get a tenure-track position, they have failed. The good news is that nearly all postdocs are likely to be employed in interesting positions, but many will not travel a narrow academic path.”
In a recent article, Group Leader is not the only career option, I shared the breadth of career options what one group of post-docs developed during a workshop. Sometimes the results of such a simple brainstorming exercise can be enough to open their eyes to the range of possibilities.
Prepare your people for a life outside academia
In a recent interview, ahead of the annual EMBO meeting, Kai Simons said,
“Well, it should not be that the career ladder is so abrupt, that you train PhDs and postdocs to become PIs, and then you exclude almost everyone – that just doesn’t work. We pretend that everyone who gets a Ph.D. should become a scientist, but that’s of course completely stupid, because that’s not how it is. Bruce Alberts had a very good idea: the PhD should be two-stream, with a harsher stream where you demand more research-wise, and another stream where you provide more soft skills, to prepare the students for a life outside of research. I think it’s a good idea, and we should experiment more with Ph.D. programmes. We should be supporting and promoting the trend towards scientific careers outside of research.”
Many universities and institutes have begun to improve their soft skills, leadership and project management training for graduate students and post-docs. Where I disagree with Simon is that I think all graduate students would benefit from such training, not just those who will leave academia.
After all, research operates under the Peter Principle: people become group leaders because of their research excellence and then need an different skill set to lead other researchers. So it makes sense to equip those in the “harsher” stream with the additional skills they will need later in their careers.
Explore non-traditional options to structure research careers
Traditionally, in an echo of “survival of the fittest”, the research career path has followed the motto “up or out”. Thus research loses many fine researchers each year, for the simple reason that they did not come up with an idea that would attract enough funding to feed them and one or two more colleagues.
Researchers are dedicated; for many their work is also their hobby. And the system sets certain milestones in their career by which they need to have achieved academic independence or else they need to leave. So, people with perhaps 10 to 12 years research experience leave and are replaced by others with much less experience.
One possibility worth exploring together with colleagues would be to move institutes towards a project-based organization structure rather than a traditional group-based structure. Francis Collins discussed another possibility: a non-group leader career track in research. This would be one step to ensure that experienced researchers can continue to pursue their hobby for many more years to come.
Only a small percentage of academic researchers make it to the level of group leader or professor. It’s part of your role as leader to help the rest to find their career niche, For this you can either make them aware of the range of careers now available, help them acquire soft skills useful for other careers, or explore with your colleagues how to offer dedicated researchers non-group leader career paths.
Photo: Mike Loiselle, Shutterstock