Pathways Beyond the Professoriate: The Confused Grad Student’s Friend

By Nathan Ahlgrim Neuroscience ‘14

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            What makes a successful graduate school experience? As alumni, what skills and tools were necessary for real career success? America is in the middle of a debate over whether the opportunities provided by four-year colleges are worth the time, effort, and crippling debt. Many are now championing trade schools or other routes. This debate is climbing up to the graduate level, largely driven by the ever-growing supply of Ph.D.’s pushing against a static number of professorship positions. Graduate students focused on a juicy tenure-track position know grad school success is little more than a means to that end.  What about the rest of us, skeptical of academia and ready to reintroduce ourselves into normal society?

            Approaching the job market with skepticism is only logical given the numbers. With approximately 6.3 Ph.D. graduates for every tenure-track job opening, 5.3 of us would be better served looking elsewhere. Whether it be academic passion, unfounded optimism, or the training culture, those data are not changing many minds. Nature recently published a survey of their readers, and found that 52% of respondents are still gearing towards an academic career. Many alumni know the struggle better than current students; most of them are not reading this behind a name card reading “Professor.” After all, only a fraction of Ph.D.’s secured an academic position by graduation in 2011. And the competition is only getting tougher: 6,000 more Ph.D.’s were cranked out in 2015 than in 2010, all fighting for the same number of jobs.

            The constellation of factors leaves a graduate student thusly: staring into the void, trying to decide whether to jump head first into academia or risk the scorn of their peers by going the alternative route. Enter Professional Development, giving graduate students the weapons to fight the impending battle for employment. A surprising amount of the resources at Emory is housed with Alumni Relations and Director Robin Harpak. In response to the employment maybe-crisis, many Ph.D. programs are opening up to the idea of preparing students for multiple careers as it benefits both the student and the institution. With 41,000 STEM Ph.D.’s graduating in 2015 in a market of approximately 6,500 tenure-track jobs; it is unavoidable that most graduate students will now be leaving academia. Whether they gracefully land in a career they are prepared for or crash down to earth after defending depends on the training they receive. Grad students need an ally from the top to make professional development effective, but more importantly, valued.

Robin has a simple explanation for the unlikely alliance between graduate students and Alumni Relations: “students are future alumni.” The cynical take is that its professional development services are all about securing donations. Setting up the students of today not only makes them grateful and willing to give, but puts more money in their pockets making them more able to give. She embraces that reality. The sad truth is that these non-academic alumni will probably have more cash to throw around anyways, since academic postdoctoral positions do not pay nearly as well as jobs in industry for those with the same qualifications. Career diversity just makes good economic sense. Still, students and alumni benefit from Alumni Relations’ efforts regardless of their core motivation. The “student-to-alumni experience” may be a secondary goal to fundraising, but students profit just the same.

Pathways Beyond the Professoriate (PBP) is one such tool to hone the grad student’s career path. Kicked off in 2010, PBP is a lunchtime panel of alums from diverse careers. The cultivated series explores careers outside the traditional professor life, including policy, industry, and administration. Students get the opportunity to ask the questions that keep them up at night (at least about jobs), and network with successful alumni in new fields.

Programs like PBP are popping up all over, expanding future options for the confused grad student. With guidance from Robin and her colleagues, many GDBBS programs now include professional development courses in their core curriculum, expanding access to alternative career paths. Many in the old guard of science view professional development as a waste of time. This program is attempting to normalize the transition into non-academic careers. In fact, Robin fights against the “alternative” moniker altogether. Did you feel like you failed at grad school for wanting something besides a juicy tenure track position? Was your advisor ever disappointed in you for the same reason? Changing the connotation from “alternative” to “one of many options” could make that dreaded conversation about departing academia much easier for a lot of current students.

But are these programs creating new alumni who are better employed, better paid, and more satisfied? The project is so new that Emory lacks hard data to evaluate its efficacy. LGS is currently crunching the numbers of the handful of graduating classes who had access to expanded professional development services. Although the answer to that question is still in the works, one thing is known: GDBBS students show up to everything. Their attendance is more impressive given their 40-60+ hour work week. Whether it be the panels of open and honest alumni or the free lunch, Robin says GDBBS always represents a majority of participants. The student body, at the very least, is grateful for the investment.

Emory approaches professional development as an investment. Its current graduate students are fortunate to have such a unique investment from up top. Current alumni express their gratitude for the investment in their willingness take part in programs like PBP (above and beyond any donations they choose to give). Lisa Tedesco, Dean of LGS, assigns 100% of the school’s unallocated funds to support professional development. Those funds could be used for anything from academic conferences to recruitment efforts, but the school is throwing its weight behind professional development. One can only hope that their effort translates to the self-assurance and tools graduate students need in this ever-changing job market. Ph.D.’s are not and never will all be tenure-track professors, but that is not the same as saying Ph.D.’s are not and never will all be successful. Do you dream of big hair and rock n’ roll, but feel pigeonholed by your Ph.D.? Brian May, founding member and lead guitarist of Queen, Ph.D. in astrophysics, shows us that a successful graduate student takes many forms.



*Laney Graduate School offers a range of professional development resources, from career counseling to mentoring to resume workshops. Are you one of those students fretting about post-graduate plans? Refer to the website to explore the options. Who knows, you might just find the answer to your quarter-life crisis.

Edited by Amielle Moreno, Neuroscience '12