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Changes Can Be Made

Carol Sibley

January 1997

This article first appeared in The Next Wave (http://sci.aaas.org/nextwave/forums_postdoc/), an internet
forum hosted by Science magazine. It is reprinted here with permission from the AAAS. Following the internet article is an interesting discussion in which these issues are further explored.

I earned my Ph.D. in 1974, did a postdoc for 2 1/2 years, and began my job as an assistant professor in 1976. While I was a student and postdoc, I did little thinking about my future career. I assumed that I would go on to become a faculty member at some academic institution, and when the time came, I did. This may seem like a fairy tale to most of you who are currently at the beginning of your careers. The world has changed radically in the subsequent 20 years. The problem is that most newly trained scientists have mentors whose own experience was much like mine. As a group, senior faculty members have no experience in helping students and postdocs in their labs to make headway in the current job market. I think that we, as advisors, need to take three very important steps to improve the situation.


First, we need to recognize that scientific training can and should be used in a wide variety of interesting careers. The atmosphere in many academic departments still supports the idea that any career outside academia or research institutions is second-rate. Younger scientists are frequently afraid even to admit that they are considering alternatives, fearing that their advisor will conclude that they "don't have what it takes" and will write recommendations that reflect that conclusion. Unfortunately, this fear is not always unfounded.


We all have a formidable task: educating the faculty so that we recognize the impressive diversity of creative and interesting career paths that already exists. Career seminars, personal visits, and informal contacts can all make an impression. I graduated just at the time when the first biotech companies were being founded (giving you a sense for what a fossil I am!). At the very beginning, there was a sense that no "real" scientist would choose that career, but that idea was dispelled very rapidly. Even skeptics noticed that the creativity of the scientists at Genentech easily equaled that at universities. Faculty members can be obdurate (I don't suppose I need to say that!), but we do usually respond to clear evidence that creative scientists are
productively using their training in a variety of new ways. We need to keep pointing this out, pushing for a change in the prevailing notion.


Second, we need to begin to put more diversity into our Ph.D. training. I don't have very radical views on this. I have talked with many people who have moved out of academic research into other interesting areas. To a person, they emphasize that they use their scientific training even if they are no longer working directly in research. It may sound trite, but the scientific skills you learn in the lab—critical, logical analysis of data; organization of your own work; definition of a problem clearly enough so that it can be solved; creative solution of problems - are all highly valued in many other situations. In addition, many people who work in a large lab acquire skills in management of people, resources, and budgets that become vital when they move into other areas. The worry that moving out of bench science will somehow "waste" the time spent on master's- or Ph.D.-level training is clearly unfounded.


However, we do need to make room for people to add to this training. This can take the form of formal course work, but we can also make opportunities for people to try out alternatives—to teach courses, to work with people outside academia, to seriously explore alternatives they might find attractive. For example, we have had two graduate students who took a leave of absence toward the end of their graduate career and taught at a small college for a year or two. In both cases, the opportunity arose for them to fill in during a sabbatical, so they could capitalize on the opening only by interrupting their graduate training. This is always a bit tricky for an advisor: Will that person really return and finish? However, in our case, both people did return to finish their Ph.D.s and are now teaching at liberal arts colleges, positions they could not have landed without their teaching experience. Flexibility of this kind will be increasingly important in helping younger scientists get the full range of experience needed to identify and follow satisfying career paths.


Third, all of us, faculty and students alike, need to learn how to identify and land these new kinds of positions. My contemporaries and I are reasonably good mentors for those who want to choose the traditional academic route. We know how to look for a position, whom to contact about possible openings, how to write a recommendation that will be effective, how an academic CV should look. When it comes to advising younger scientists about positions in other areas—such as business, law, forensics, journalism, teaching at institutions other than research universities—we are more lost than our students. Improvement in this vital area will also take effort from both sides. As more scientists make advances in these other areas, we can begin to identify colleagues who can advise students in practical ways and involve them as mentors, as well.


Here in the genetics department at the University of Washington we are experimenting with one approach to this problem. Last summer, we had a weekly informal seminar series on careers outside the university. We featured scientists from the Seattle area who have earned a Ph.D., but who are using their training in some area that is outside the usual academic research arena. We had enthusiastic support from an impressive array of scientists who volunteered to participate in this series. They were not only willing to talk with students at seminars, but they have advised them individually and encouraged all of us to broaden our horizons. We plan to hold such a series every other year. In most areas where there is a research university, a similar forum would be reasonably easy to organize. If faculty members are not doing things of this kind, then students and postdocs will need to take the first steps, but most faculties have at least some members who can and will help. Identify these individuals, get some initial contacts made, and I think that the effort will expand to include even some of the reluctant "old fogies."


The world of science has changed a lot since I got my Ph.D. We can no longer persist in the fiction that the only proper use of scientific training is a career in academic research. Mentors need to learn a new
set of attitudes and skills if we are to be effective resources for our students. We will need help from our
students, postdocs, and colleagues in the widest possible range of careers if we are to make the necessary changes, but the changes can be made. This forum on Science's Next Wave is a start. Let's use it as an exchange for practical ideas to make the first steps.

Carol Sibley is a Professor of Genetics at the University of Washington. She is happy to provide more information on her department's job seminar or other related topics. Contact her at Genetics, Box 357360, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-7360, sibley@genetics.washington.edu, (206)685-9378.

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