It’s no secret that early-career researchers are struggling with increased career uncertainty these days. In June and July, 61% of roughly 7700 postdocs from around the world reported feeling that the pandemic has negatively impacted their career prospects. A similar survey of more than 3000 U.S. graduate students found that roughly one in five altered their career plans after the pandemic started. “[W]e need to have a serious conversation about not finding academic jobs in the next four years,” wrote one respondent, who is now considering industry positions. “It is the elephant [in] the room.”
Amid the crisis, universities are reporting a surge of interest in career and professional development resources. At Cornell University, for example, appointments for individual career counseling sessions increased by 37% during the first 6 months of 2020—a marked change compared with the previous 5 years, when interest in appointments had been relatively steady, according to Susi Varvayanis, executive director of the university’s Careers Beyond Academia program. “We have seen a spike in needs.”
Cornell is far from alone, says Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “Most of our campuses say that they’ve never had higher levels of utilization of professional development offerings.” That indicates “we really need to double down on our professional development work,” she says. “If we can give students real career exploration, thinking about the multiple ways in which people find rewarding work, it’s hugely important.”
Opportunities for in-depth, hands-on career exploration are particularly helpful for graduate students and postdocs interested in nonacademic careers, says Audra Van Wart, associate dean for training, education, and program development at Brown University. Trainees might have a particular career path in mind based on their interests and skill sets, but until they get a taste of what it’s like on a day-to-day basis—for instance, by completing typical tasks during a job simulation or internship—it’s hard to really know whether they’ll enjoy it.
Van Wart is the lead author of a paper published online last month that provides recommendations for institutions looking to build out their career development offerings. The paper focuses on four types of hands-on learning opportunities—job simulations, employer site visits, job shadowing, and internships—that were implemented by institutions funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) award program. “What we were hoping to do was to combine all the things that we were doing that worked well and provide a resource to others that might help them in constructing their programs to fit their needs,” Van Wart says.
Science Careers spoke with Van Wart—who holds a Ph.D. in neurobiology and had her own career path upended by the Great Recession of 2008—about career exploration approaches that might help guide early-career scientists who are currently struggling. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: In your paper, you and your BEST coauthors focus on hands-on career exploration opportunities. Why do you see them as essential?
A: They’re important because they help trainees determine whether a career is going to fit with their particular skill set, values, and interests. Many grad students and postdocs are interested in careers besides academic tenure-track positions, but they often don’t have any experience in those job settings. So it’s important for trainees to get some experience before making a decision—whether it’s getting a quick glimpse through a job simulation or by visiting a job site, or whether it’s a full-blown internship.
When I worked at Virginia Tech, I would bring in Ph.D.-level professionals to give career talks to a large group of trainees. Then we would have a half-day session with a smaller group of trainees who had a serious interest in that career path, and we’d do a job simulation by giving them a case to work on. For example, one day I brought in people who worked in the biotech industry, and we asked trainees to decide whether or not to buy a smaller company based on information about that company’s intellectual property. We were trying to highlight that there are roles at those companies other than leading research teams, and that not all of the decisions that get made within those companies are necessarily scientific decisions; there’s a business component, too.
The foundation of that idea was actually the interview process that I went through when I applied for my first job out of my postdoc, which was an editorial position at Neuron. It was pretty brutal—I had to look at the last year of the journal and write up analyses of the six best and six worst papers published that year. I had a weekend to do it and it was Thanksgiving, and I’m thinking, “Why am I doing this? Do I really want this job?” Then, during interviews, there was more of that. I was asked to assess individual papers, and also discuss the hottest areas in science and think about who I’d want to write a review article on the topic. By the time that was all over, I had done a little bit of all of the various components of the job. And I walked away feeling like, “I really like doing this.” That’s kind of what sealed the deal for me.
Later, after I took the job at Virginia Tech to build out graduate and postdoc training, I looked back on that Neuron interview. I felt like if I could create that kind of experience in a day or less, that would be really useful for trainees who can’t do a full-blown internship.
Q: What can trainees do if their institution doesn’t offer career exploration programming?
A: It never hurts to ask. If there’s something being done at your friend’s institution, and it looks doable, see if your department is willing to provide some resources for you and some other students to help coordinate something. There are ways to make these things happen if you take that first step.
You can also seek out career information yourself—for instance, through informational interviewing and networking. People usually enjoy talking about what they do and are flattered that somebody else wants to do what they’re doing. Some of the best advice I’ve received has come from reaching out to professionals in fields I’m interested in.
Q: Many universities are facing tight budgets. Are there ways to cut costs when developing these programs?
A: For most of the activities we describe, the major expenditure is the people and the time that it takes to coordinate the activities. You have to prioritize what programming is going to be most effective and what will help the greatest number of people. Having partners—such as other departments on campus—is also a good way to go. That way, you might be able to share resources to deliver some of the programming. At Brown, our postdoc association has been great. They help organize some of the programming that we’re doing, and it’s also a good experience for the postdocs doing the work.
Q: You were a postdoc during the Great Recession of 2008. How did that influence your career planning?
A: When I was in grad school, I felt strongly that I wanted to go the academic route; I didn’t really consider that there was another option. But during my postdoc, I was in a very interdisciplinary lab and there were people who were like, “When I’m done here, I’m going to go start my own company” or “I’m going to go work for Google.” There was no stigma associated with it—they were just going to do it—and I thought, “Why am I not at least considering some other things?” So I started to attend career panels and network.
I became even more open to that possibility when folks from my lab and surrounding labs who had very high-profile publications were having trouble getting tenure-track jobs. The job market was getting very competitive, and I assessed how long I felt I would need to be in my training position in order to be competitive and to successfully launch my own independent career.
My personal situation also factored in. I had a child during my postdoc, and my husband was a postdoc. The idea of making some money and entering the professional world was very appealing.
When I saw the job posting at Neuron, I thought it sounded like a really cool job. I was like, “I should apply for that.” But I kept putting it off, and then the job ad disappeared. I started kicking myself—“Why didn’t I just apply for that? I’m so stupid.” Then it popped up again and I took it as a sign.
And I have to say, I loved the job. It really fit with my personality and skill set. I enjoy writing and communicating science. During my postdoc, I also became really interested in other research areas—not to the point where I wanted to change my research focus, but I wanted to have the time to learn about all those other areas. Those were some of the signs that a job like the one I took at Neuron would be a good fit.
Q: What’s your advice for graduate students and postdocs who are going through a similarly challenging time now?
A: First of all, it’s OK to be stressed. It’s understandable; it’s a tough situation. But I’d also say, try to stay calm and focus on the types of things that would make you happy, as opposed to focusing too much on the career that you envisioned when you entered graduate school. Life is a series of choices—it’s not something that’s preset. For some folks, it might mean staying in their position longer than they intended; for others, it might mean exploring other paths that they might not have explored before.
It’s also important to understand that every job will have its problems and challenges. There are pluses and minuses to every job, and the grass always looks greener on the other side. The job where you work 6 hours a day, you get paid six figures, and it’s stress free–I don’t think that actually exists. There are going to be stresses and uncertainties. But the important thing is enjoying what you do.