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Careers

Thinking ahead in graduate school

Chemistry Ph.D. students know the odds of getting an academic job but need more information about other careers, study shows

by Andrea Widener
May 6, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 19

When pondering whether to pursue postdoctoral training, chemistry graduate students understand what their chances are of getting a faculty job, a new survey shows.

How postdoc plans impact career outlook
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Credit: Science
A survey published last week in Science asked graduate students to pick the career path they find most attractive. The authors then compared those who say they plan to get postdoctoral training with those who do not. Here are the responses for chemistry graduate students.
Note: Numbers do not add to 100% because students could select more than one answer.
A survey comparing the results of the career paths of graduate students.
Credit: Science
A survey published last week in Science asked graduate students to pick the career path they find most attractive. The authors then compared those who say they plan to get postdoctoral training with those who do not. Here are the responses for chemistry graduate students.
Note: Numbers do not add to 100% because students could select more than one answer.

But the results confirm educators’ fears that students don’t feel well-informed about what training they need to work in industry R&D, start-ups, or government (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2061).

The survey results are “intriguing,” says Michael Doyle, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who was on an American Chemical Society panel that recommended changes to graduate education. “It’s really going to cause a stir.”

Educators have long worried that students do not get enough training or mentoring to make informed career choices, Doyle explains. That could lead them to waste years in a low-paying postdoc position that won’t help advance their career.

Until this study, knowledge about what graduate students understand about the labor market was mostly anecdotal. That’s why authors Henry Sauermann of Georgia Tech and Michael Roach of Cornell University surveyed almost 6,000 graduate students at 39 research universities—including around 670 chemistry students. They followed up with those who did a postdoc.

“We wanted to get into people’s brains” to find out what they knew about the job market and how they thought about their career options, Sauermann explains.

The researchers found that graduate students across scientific fields had a good understanding of the academic job market. Those who choose to do a postdoc were more likely to pursue careers in academia, which requires additional training. Chemists had a more realistic view of their own chances of getting a tenure-track job than life scientists, who tended to overestimate their odds of getting a position.

However, a large percentage of those getting a postdoc were most attracted to careers outside of academia, the study found. It’s not clear whether they need postdoctoral training for those jobs.

Many students don’t have a sense of how many jobs are available or what background they require, Doyle says. Chemistry students think they need a postdoc for some high-level industry jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, for example.

Sauermann agrees that’s a problem. “We don’t know enough about the industry labor market,” he says.

But the issue could also be a lack of training. Cynthia Fuhrmann, who created a jobs training program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says it’s important for graduate students to think about their career early. Students at her campus start mandatory career training their first week on campus and it continues through graduate school.

“It is concerning that early-career scientists who we invest so much in—as a scientific community and as taxpayers—are making career decisions without being well-informed about the options available to them.”

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