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Ph.D. students rethink the tenure track, scope out non-academic jobs

Traditionally, the holy grail for doctoral students has been a professorship at a prestigious university. But in a sign of changing times, many Ph.D. students are now seeking jobs outside higher ed. Enter "Beyond Academia," a career conference organized by Ph.D. students and postdocs.

The holy grail for Ph.D. students has traditionally been a professorship at a prestigious university, the reward for years of rigorous research, frugal living and a hard-earned collection of published journal papers. But in a sign of changing times, many Ph.D. students today are looking for jobs outside the halls of higher education, as tenure-track faculty positions at campuses nationwide become scarcer in a tight job market.

Psychology Ph.D. students Bryan Alvarez (top left), Els van der Helm, Will Griscom and Alison Miller Singley are among the organizers of the “Beyond Academia” conference. (NewsCenter photos by Yasmin Anwar)

Enter “Beyond Academia,” the first career conference at the University of California, Berkeley, organized solely by Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows, an unlikely group for a non-academic job fair. The sold-out event — to be held in Berkeley this Friday, March 22 — is a quiet revolution if one considers the investment of time and money that goes into grooming a grad student for a tenure-track position.

“There are Ph.D. students who feel they can’t come out and say they want to leave academia, they’re too afraid,” said Els van der Helm, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in psychology and lead organizer of the conference. “This will give them a chance to explore other options. We have to start a conversation about this because academia is not for everyone.”

That said, there’s a risk involved for van der Helm, who is something of a wunderkind in sleep research, and other exceptional scholars: “Once you leave academia,” she said, “it can be hard to get back in.”

A changing career landscape, due to a divestment in higher education, among other things, is forcing a generation of graduate students, including many of UC Berkeley’s 5,800 Ph. D. students, to weigh the rewards of academia – job security, flexible schedules, travel, passion for one’s field – against perhaps better-paying and more accessible jobs in corporate, government and nonprofit sectors.

A study published last year in the journal Science suggests only 20 percent of U.S. graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will land a tenure-track position within four to six years of completing a Ph.D. Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation reported that in 2009, nearly 50,000 students earned Ph.D.s in America, the highest number ever recorded. And, between 2005 and 2009, American universities conferred 100,000 doctoral degrees, but only 16,000 new professorships, according to the 2010 book “Higher Education?”

Els van der Helm, lead organizer of the conference, plays pingpong in the graduate lounge at Tolman Hall.

That noted, the percentage of UC Berkeley doctoral students landing a tenured faculty position is much higher (57 percent) than the national average of 41 percent.

“Our data show an enormous range of career trajectories our doctoral degree recipients have followed in the past,” said Andrew Szeri, dean of the Graduate Division and a professor of mechanical engineering. “I certainly don’t expect the future to be different in this respect. What can be different is that we can be better prepared to present a more balanced view of where people go after earning their degrees.”

As for the “Beyond Academia” conference, at which Szeri will be introducing keynote speaker Marty Nemko, a career coach and author, he added: “It makes good sense to consider the full range of possibilities as you near completion of your degree. I certainly did – and learned a lot in the process about what I really wanted to do.”

More than half of UC Berkeley’s 10,000 or so graduate students are in doctoral programs, and 23 percent of those are in engineering. Other popular doctoral programs, in order of their preference by students, are mathematics, the physical sciences, the social sciences and education. A survey by UC Berkeley’s Career Center of students who graduated with Ph.D.s between 2007 and 2009 shows that 56 percent got jobs in academia,  with 34 percent of them in tenure-track positions, 45 percent in post-doctoral appointments and 10 percent in non-tenure track faculty posts.

Van der Helm, a native of the Netherlands, started contemplating her career prospects last summer after presenting research at prestigious conferences in China and Japan. After coming down from that adrenalin high, she took an online “Strengths Finder” test to help determine her career path and found that her talents were just as well, if not more, suited to non-academic jobs. In the fall, she took UC Berkeley education professor Michael Ranney’s course “Getting Your Doctorate and Getting a Good Job,” where she met others who shared similar career concerns, and they formed a group.

Psychology doctoral student Bryan Alvarez wants to create interactive exhibits that educate people about critical issues

Among them was Bryan Alvarez, a seventh-year doctoral student in psychology who had been conducting campus life surveys and hosting “Grad Anon” support groups at UC Berkeley that delved into career concerns. When van der Helm, whom he knew, contacted him with her conference idea, he jumped right in, knowing the climate was perfect for an event of this scale.

“The interest is just phenomenal,” said Alvarez. “The number of Ph.D.s is rising exponentially and everyone’s connecting through social media, so conversations are happening online and elsewhere about how to best use our skill sets.”

Last November, the group sent out an online career survey to their UC Berkeley peers in psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science. In one week, they received 92 responses. The survey quickly wended its way to other graduate student groups in chemistry, physics, education and other departments, and it soon became clear that respondents were hungry for information about jobs in technology, consulting, K-12 teaching, think tanks and other non-academic workplaces.

Since then, 230 UC Berkeley graduate students have signed up for this week’s “Beyond Academia” conference, whose sponsors include the psychology, vision science, cognitive science and linguistics departments at UC Berkeley, as well as the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, the Graduate Assembly and the Associated Students of the University of California.

Cal grad Flavio Oliveira, Ph.D., is a researcher at Facebook and will be a panelist at the conference

Panelists will include Google statistician Rehan Khan; Facebook researcher Flavio Oliveira; Insight Data Science founder Jake Klamka; Jodi Davenport, senior project director of WestEd, which uses research to improve education; Elizabeth Iorns, CEO of the Science Exchange online marketplace and Sandra Aamodt, a science writer and former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience.

“A lot of the speakers told us, ‘I wish I’d had a conference like this when I was in college. It would have made my search so much easier,’” said Ian Cameron, a UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience and president of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Association.

A Canadian citizen, Cameron applied for about 10 jobs in academia and got one interview, which landed him a post as a senior researcher at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands.

“I really do like academia, and I’m on a track to stay in it,” Cameron said. But he says he would also have been thrilled to land a research or policy job in government or nonprofit sectors: “I want to be involved in building something, whether it’s building a lab or building a program at a think tank or a nonprofit,” he said.

Mariana Garcia, a fifth-year doctoral student in vision science and a member of the conference leadership team, also hasn’t ruled out academia: “I just want a job that I’m excited to go to every day, a job that isn’t meaningless, where I’m making a difference,” she said.

Alison Miller Singley, a second-year doctoral student in psychology, left the corporate world for academia and is looking for a job that combines both: “My fantasy job would be translating research into the development of education tools, which I could accomplish in academia or out,” she said.

While the conference leadership team’s career goals and experiences differ widely, they all agree that in the current climate, Ph.D. students need a lot more options, and that the “Beyond Academia” conference should be an annual event.

“We’re not saying, ‘Don’t stay in academia,’” van der Helm said. “We’re saying, ‘If you pick academia, know what you’re not picking. Take a break. Look around.’”

For more information about the “Beyond Academia” conference, visit their website online.