Expanding Opportunities in Graduate Education

By Austin Nuckols

People enter graduate school programs for a variety of reasons. Some students are motivated by personal experience, aspiring to learn more about a disease or illness that they have personally faced. Some enter to build expertise in a field with the simple goal of understanding more or because they enjoy research and its results-driven nature. And yet, some students may not be clear on why they decided to pursue a graduate degree, knowing only that they seek a purpose to be revealed through the grueling trials of graduate education. Regardless of motive, the number of students enrolled in post-baccalaureate education has increased 38% from 2000 to 2016 (Institute for Education Sciences | National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Unfortunately, this increase in enrollment has not been met with an increase in available independent research positions leading to, as one author put it, “a holding tank of frustrated senior postdocs unable to find permanent positions” (Bourne, 2013).  Indeed, the NIH budget saw a 22% decrease from 2003 to 2015 (Garrison, 2017). Despite increases to the budget in the years since 2015 (Garrison, 2017), the impact of this twelve-year depression lingers, leading to increasingly competitive postdoctoral positions as the increase struggles to catch up to an ever-growing pool of highly qualified researchers. In response, there has been a noticeable trend of researchers leaving academia to explore options in industry, biotechnology, entrepreneurship, consulting, and other science-related or even science-unrelated positions (see figure) (Fuhrmann, Halme, O'Sullivan, & Lindstaedt, 2011; Garrison, 2017; Mangematin, 2000).

“Distribution of Biomedical Science PhDs by Sector of Employment” graph taken from Garrison, 2017.

“Distribution of Biomedical Science PhDs by Sector of Employment” graph taken from Garrison, 2017.

As such, it is now more common for students to enter graduate school with the intention of pursuing a career outside of academia or for them to discover through their time in graduate school that they do not want a tenured professorship within academia. However, despite these observable trends, it is common that students lack structured resources for learning about other “nontraditional” career options. Often, professors are not prepared to offer guidance toward pursuing these careers (Juliano & Oxford, 2001), and some even vehemently oppose the transition away from the academic setting. In some cases, this narrow perspective is so strongly held that revealing one’s intention to move out of academia can seriously damage his or her working environment or even future career. This problem is so serious, in fact, that online resources like VersatilePhD.com mandate identity protection for all their users within their Code of Conduct (see figure below). 

Screenshot of VersatilePhD Code of Conduct clause detailing methods for identity protection and the reason for this.

Screenshot of VersatilePhD Code of Conduct clause detailing methods for identity protection and the reason for this.

A comprehensive study examining career preparation strategies for biomedical doctoral trainees (including both graduate students and postdocs) found that trainees with non-academic career goals are likely to show lower career development/career search efficacy. Additionally, they are less likely to reach out to their own or other faculty advisors for career guidance (St. Clair et al., 2017). Globally, graduate students already report rates of depression and anxiety that are six times higher than those of the general public (Evans, Bira, Gastelum, Weiss, & Vanderford, 2018). Undoubtedly, the lack of a clear career trajectory, or the support to find one after their dissertation defenses, would only contribute to the further development these mental health issues and reduce the quality of life for graduate students.

However, having recognized this issue, many universities are beginning to offer a variety of professional development resources for their students. These resources allow students to probe their interests, identify fitting career options, and even explore possible career options through internships or interviews. Here at Emory University, we can consider ourselves fortunate. Emory is actively taking strides toward providing resources and opportunities for a more “balanced” education, such that graduate students may freely pursue and be adequately prepared for non-academic careers. Among the resources offered by Emory are the BEST program, Individual Development Plans, Pathways Beyond the Professoriate lunch talks, InterSECT job simulations, an institutional subscription for Versatile PhD, and links to various websites containing information and potential internship opportunities. Furthermore, there are many clubs that exist as a resource for students to explore alternative careers. Some might disagree as to the availability or usefulness of these resources, but I recommend that graduate students truly explore the multitude of content available, as there is value to be gleaned from these resources. I encourage all who are interested to pursue the resources listed on both the GDBBS website (for whom it is applicable) and the LGS website. A list of additional websites will be appended at the end of this article for ease of access, including some that are not affiliated with Emory University. 

Still, Emory is innovating the graduate education experience through new and exciting courses. Over this past semester (Fall of 2018), I had the opportunity to enroll in the pilot offering of a new course called “Introduction to Entrepreneurship for STEM.” This course was based in the Goizueta Business School and directed by Dr. Robert Kanzanjian, Asa Griggs Candler Chair and Professor in Organization & Management and Senior Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives, Charlie Goetz, Senior Lecturer in Organization & Management and Distinguished Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, and Edward Rieker, Adjunct Lecturer. Throughout the course, we explored concepts behind entrepreneurship, such as development of a product based on solving an existing problem and understanding the unique value these products must hold. We moved into marketing and discussed how to target a message to different audiences from customers to potential investors. Finally, we explored large business strategy and innovation before finishing with a lecture about patent law and its role in the development of a product. The course was masterfully designed and well-executed with interactive classes, guest speakers, and low-pressure assignments (ungraded assignments that mostly consisted of reading or talking to potential customers for your chosen product). Furthermore, each of the speakers came from a biomedical PhD background and transitioned into different modes of business, such as business strategy, entrepreneurship, or patent law, offering insight into how he or she transitioned and what resources to explore to do the same. Throughout the class, we each developed an idea for a product, which we explored through potential customer interviews, refined, and defended as if we were building our own start-up. We developed a website and created a marketing video that we presented in the final session. However, most importantly, we dove into these concepts of business and marketing and were able to relate them to the realm of science or the specific research that we already did. To identify value in your project and see its unique position within a field of research, to market your research ideas to your PI, your committee, your colleagues, or even your field, and to identify the direction of innovation needed within a body of research are parallels to be drawn between the not so disparate worlds of scientific research and business/entrepreneurship. The directors hope to offer the course in future years if there is enough interest moving forward. I, as someone who gained much from it, highly recommend it for those interested in entrepreneurship or business strategy as a career.

Graduate school becomes much more manageable when there is a clear goal at the end. Emory strives to train both knowledgeable and impactful researchers as well as educated and driven individuals who take their scientific and analytical prowess and apply them to diverse non-academic careers. For those who are unsure about their future in research, please know that you are at a university that seeks to provide you with the guidance to follow wherever your interests and talents lead. Take the opportunity to explore the resources presented to you, reach out to your PI or your DGS, and contact other faculty members or Emory alumni. There is a vast network of support on which to capitalize.


  1. Bourne, H. R. (2013). A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs. Elife, 2, e01139. doi:10.7554/eLife.01139

  2. Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36, 282. doi:10.1038/nbt.4089 https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089#supplementary-information

  3. Fuhrmann, C. N., Halme, D. G., O'Sullivan, P. S., & Lindstaedt, B. (2011). Improving graduate education to support a branching career pipeline: recommendations based on a survey of doctoral students in the basic biomedical sciences. CBE Life Sci Educ, 10(3), 239-249. doi:10.1187/cbe.11-02-0013

  4. Garrison, H. H. (2017). Education and Employment of Biological and Medical Scientists 2017. Retrieved from http://www.faseb.org/Science-Policy--Advocacy-and-Communications/Federal-Funding-Data/Education-and-Employment-of-Scientists.aspx

  5. Institute for Education Sciences | National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Postbaccalaureate Enrollment.  Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_chb.asp

  6. Juliano, R. L., & Oxford, G. S. (2001). Critical issues in PhD training for biomedical scientists. Acad Med, 76(10), 1005-1012. 

  7. Mangematin, V. (2000). PhD job market: professional trajectories and incentives during the PhD. Research Policy, 29(6), 741-756. 

  8. St. Clair, R., Hutto, T., MacBeth, C., Newstetter, W., McCarty, N. A., & Melkers, J. (2017). The “new normal”: Adapting doctoral trainee career preparation for broad career paths in science.PLOS ONE, 12(5), e0177035. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0177035

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