A Call to Support Professional Development for Early Career Researchers

An academic career is no longer the only career goal for PhD graduates. A plethora of job opportunities exist, but do ECRs have the support and resources available to successfully transition into the career of their dreams?

A Call to Support Professional Development for Early Career Researchers

Earning a PhD involves a considerable investment and signifies someone who is curious, knowledgeable, and dedicated. But how does one leverage a PhD diploma into a fulfilling career? PhD graduates have many career tracks to choose from as job opportunities in nonprofits, business, and industry are flourishing compared to fifty years ago. A growing body of data, including our survey shows academia is no longer the primary home for PhDs and interest in jobs outside of the ivory tower develops during training as graduate students and postdocs. Unfortunately, graduate education lags behind the curve in preparing PhDs for diverse job placements. Over the past decade, many stakeholders have called for the modernization of graduate education. In the absence of major structural changes to graduate degree requirements and training programs, institutions are attempting to support the career development of graduate student and postdoctoral researchers through events hosted by career development offices. But is it enough?

Figure 1

To assess the needs of the international community of ECRs and institutional resources that are available to them, the career development initiative of the eLife Community Ambassadors launched a pilot survey in early 2020 (Figure 1). The survey results include career aspirations of ECRs, an overview of crucial resources needed for career development, and tips for principal investigators (PIs) to support professional development for their graduate students and postdocs.

The professional aspirations of our ECR community are diverse (Figure 2) with 72% of respondents indicating interest in more than one career pathway. These results support previous findings that many STEM trainees are interested in multiple careers either in conjunction with, or beyond, academia. For ECRs with a singular career passion, the most popular choice was academia. Somewhat surprisingly, only 7% of graduate students surveyed and 32% of postdocs indicated academia was their sole career interest (Figure 3).

To gain insight into how ECRs learn about and prepare for their next career move, we asked about the use of professional development resources. The respondents indicated if a given resource was available at their institution and if they took advantage of it. If they did use it, they defined how helpful it was to their professional development using a scale from “not useful” to “crucial.”

The first step in supporting ECRs is to reflect on their future career paths and current professional development needs.

The most well-known resource available to our cohort of ECRs was the career panel. A total of 86% of respondents were aware of career panels and/or symposia at their institution, 66% had attended them, and the majority (graduate students and postdocs equally) indicated that this resource was critical for their career development. Other crucial resources reported by 17-25% of ECRs were individual career counseling, workshops/courses in writing skills, workshops/courses to improve teaching, and actively curated alumni networks (Figure 4, blue).

Regardless of the fact that most of the respondents share a core list of transferable skills necessary for job attainment (communication, leadership, and networking), there was no resource deemed unanimously crucial (Figure 4). This finding could arise from a disparity among events at different institutions or perhaps suggests that professional development is not a one-size-fits-all program. For the most successful professional development programs, event structures and offerings should be tailored to the needs of individuals or groups within the program itself.

So, given that the professional landscape for PhDs is evolving beyond the tenured track faculty career, how can PIs best support the professional development of their trainees?

The first step in supporting ECRs is to reflect on their future career paths and current professional development needs. How do mentors define “success” in the professional growth of ECRs? PIs should consider how to best advise ECRs according to their specific career choice. A simple way to do this is to refer them to the offices of career development, graduate studies, or postdoctoral studies at their institution for assistance.

The second step is to suggest mentees to fill out an Individual Development Plan (IDP). Over 33% of ECR respondents indicated the IDP was crucial to their professional development, while 14% hadn’t heard of it. Offering to discuss IDP results with a mentee will likely initiate conversations about their career goals and demonstrate the support and willingness of their PI to help them succeed. Mentors should encourage their trainees to research and explore diverse careers early on.

Third, if a graduate student or postdoc has career aspirations outside of academia, the PI should encourage them to participate in internship(s) and other experiential opportunities outside of the lab. When asked about this topic, many respondents indicated that they did not have time nor did they think their PI would be supportive of these experiences. This culture needs to change, since every ECR who completed an internship mentioned how it was valuable to their professional development.

Fourth, a PI’s network could aid in the professional development of trainees, either by providing internship opportunities or by mediating introductions for informational interviews.

We advocate for institutions to continually adapt to the current professional needs of their trainees, a goal that can be achieved through frequent, in-house surveys.

Finally, the survey showed that 11% of the respondents did not pursue professional development assistance because they did not want to ask their PI for permission, so the importance of having a vocal and openly supportive PI cannot be overstated.

Overall, the majority of respondents (62.2%) were at least somewhat satisfied with their institution’s professional development resources, suggesting that academia may be moving in the right direction, but, unfortunately, the needs of our ECR community are not being fully met. In our survey, 7.3% of respondents (mostly postdocs) were very dissatisfied with the available institutional career development resources. Academic institutions must integrate diversified professional development series into their programming to support the wide variety of careers. We advocate for institutions to continually adapt to the current professional needs of their trainees, a goal that can be achieved through frequent, in-house surveys.

Within individual research groups, we encourage PIs to open conversation with their trainees about career aspirations. Ideally, PIs should leverage the same attention and resources for ECRs going into non-academic careers as they would for mentees staying in academia. Imagine trainees interested in science policy as the next Rush Holt, U.S. Senator and physics PhD; those interested in industry as the next Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, the chemical engineering PhD who scaled-up penicillin production with Pfizer during WWII; those interested in writing as the next Siddartha Muhkerjee, the medical doctor who wrote with stunning accuracy about the history of cancer in the emotional memoir The Emperor of All Maladies. We additionally invite ECRs themselves to ask questions, fearlessly explore the incredible and diverse options, and take charge of your career.

About the authors:

Amanda Hurley is currently a postdoctoral associate at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Amanda is an eLife Community Ambassador, serves as the Professional Development chair for her local science policy group (Catalysts for Science Policy), and sits on the board of the early career research nonprofit, Future of Research. Connect with Amanda on Twitter.

Sarvenaz Sarabipour is an assistant research scientist at Institute for Computational Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, United States. Connect with Sarvenaz on Twitter.

Sundar Ram Naganathan is a HFSP postdoctoral fellow at EPFL, Lausanne. He studies symmetries and asymmetries in embryonic development using zebrafish as a model system. He is an ardent advocate of open science, an active preLighter, an eLife Community Ambassador and an Ambassador for ASAPbio and protocols.io. Connect with Sundar on Twitter.

Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst in the University of California (UC) Office of Federal Governmental Relations. In addition to working at UC, Adriana serves as Co-Director of the Policy Taskforce at Future of Research (FoR), is Chief Outreach Officer at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance (JSPG), and a Biomedical Workforce & Policy Research Investigator at the STEM Advocacy Institute (SAi). Connect with Adriana on Twitter.

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