Nowadays, it is no longer absolutely true that applying for a PhD means that you are striving for an academic position in the future. Although a majority of graduate students are certainly still aiming for a career in academia, and will thus benefit from doing a postdoc or two, more and more graduates are pursuing careers outside of academia. Admittedly, the structure of the PhD program is tailored with the goal of producing individuals with the right tools and capability to run their own labs. However, we have to be aware that non-academic careers can no longer be appropriately termed as “alternative careers”, and in fact, a large percentage of PhD graduates do NOT end up as principal investigators of their own labs.

Taking this into account, the current setup of a PhD program is no longer suitable in preparing graduates to be able to make informed decisions about their career planning. Most graduate students may not have a good idea of what they want to do after getting their PhD. I believe that it is time for graduate students to take a more active and direct role in determining what kind of PhD experience they get aligned with their career goals. It is better for graduate students in their first year to already have a clear idea of the potential career options in the future, as having a clear goal in mind is much better as opposed to just “getting through” a PhD and “figuring it out later”.

Introducing the Individual Development Plan (IDP)

One way to accomplish this is to set up an Individual Development Plan (IDP). You can do this on your own, or do it through your program department. AAAS offers a format of an IDP for graduate school that you can make use as a career planning tool for:

  • self-assessment
  • setting goals
  • tracking graduate school progress.

Create your plan to evaluate your skills, interests, and values, and determine what career options are suitable for you.

Find Out Who You Are

First, assess your skills, interests, and values by filling out several questionnaires. Based on your answers, several professions will be ranked according to how much your skills, interests, and values match a specific career.

While this is highly informative, remember that these matches are not hard and fast; these can certainly change as you progress through graduate school. It is important to periodically perform these assessments and career matches. As an example, the first time I filled out my IDP, the career that had the highest fit for me was a principal investigator. However, a few years later, based on changes in my skills, interests, and values, the highest ranked career option became a science writer.

Making Your Career Goal-Oriented

Not only can you use the IDP to learn more about yourself, but you can further use it as a guide in setting up your career advancement goals. Now that you have a clearer understanding of what you want to do in the future,  set short-term as well as long-term goals and keep track of your own development throughout your PhD.

While your PhD training will help you develop your laboratory techniques, writing and oral presentation skills, your IDP will identify other areas that you need to focus on in order to be competitive in your job search in the future (e.g. leadership training, nonscientific writing, teaching, etc) . Plus, you can use your IDP in conjunction with your annual or bi-annual thesis committee meetings, which will provide more structure and direction to your whole graduate school experience.

Focus on Non-Academic Careers

Reach out to different associations that specialize in helping PhD graduates transition into non-academic jobs. One such example is Cheeky Scientist, which provides members with great resources for getting a career in industry. Another great tool for those interested in non-academic careers is Oystir, which combines the concept of the IDP with a job search engine, resulting in more personalized job matches.

Things are Changing but You Don’t Have to Wait for Change to Come

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognizes that an improvement to the PhD program would be to integrate ways for students to learn about and provide training for non-academic careers. To address this, NIH initiated a funding opportunity called “Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST)”, which provides universities with funding for graduate and postdoctoral training programs for a wide range of career options. To date, there are 17 research institutions awarded with the NIH BEST grant, and each has their own training program. It is the goal to have these training programs implemented in all PhD granting institutions in the future. However, you need not wait for this to happen.

The resources are out there; take charge of your own graduate school experience, be proactive, and take control of your career planning