A little while back I wrote a blog post called “Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees,” which proposed that PhD programs finish in 4 to 5 years and that thesis committees take a more active role in the future career options of their students. The formal degree structure permits such suggestions and their broad application, but what happens when you graduate and enter the black hole of a postdoctoral fellowship? There is no degree, no formal university structure, no defined endpoint, and a huge amount of variability in the reasons people find themselves there.
This makes broadly applicable solutions much more difficult in postdoctoral land, but it does not prohibit the identification of the key issues facing this cohort of early career researchers and the proposal of some solutions that can be picked up by individual institutions. In my mind, the quality of postdoctoral fellow training is compromised by three core issues:
- The supervisor holds all the cards – salary, promotion, contacts, reference letters, and people who work with/for them – and therefore has an incredible impact on the postdoc’s future success. If there is an issue with a supervisor, there are few outlets and this can definitely lead to a wide range of unproductive and unhappy situations.
- Non-academic careers are seen as a failure. You’ll notice in my PhD post that I used the word demonized and here I’ve used failure. This is because I think the problem is different at the postdoctoral level. By choosing to undertake postdoctoral work, one loses the career story line of “I did my PhD with the intention of moving into a career in ____” and the majority indeed set out to pursue the professor path. When this option is selected against (for any number of reasons), the default position by many is to see the career move as a failure to reach the goal of professor.
- Smart people don’t like to fail. There are two problems here. The first is that most people in the group of postdoctoral fellows who do not have a sufficient CV or skill set to become a professor do not admit it (and I want to stress to men that you are more likely to have this reality/expectation disconnect than women). The second problem is that making the lateral move to another career is challenging to explain or justify (despite it often being the best decision for everyone).
A secondary mentor program would be a simple and inexpensive way to help deal with many of these issues. The key characteristics/components of such a program could be:
- non-mandatory – if the postdoctoral fellow does not wish to use a formal mentor structure, they should not be required to do so.
- regular checkups – this would be up to individual departments/institutes, but should probably be at least once a year and would need to take place with some regular frequency.
- confidentiality – an agreement not to discuss confidential items with the postdoctoral fellow’s supervisor (e.g. non-academic career pursuits).
- career assessment – the secondary mentor should provide advice on whether the career goals are realistic considering the CV and research skills of the fellow.
Such a program would not only benefit postdoctoral fellows but would also serve to make faculty mentors aware of the different options (internships, jobs, workshops, etc.) being considered and pursued by trainees in their departments. Moreover, it would give the postdoctoral fellow a second port of call for collaboration suggestions, research advice and even a reference letter from someone with a formal role in their training.
A much larger issue that will be the focus of future ramblings will be the dire need for young researchers to take their own careers into their hands. Very few people will be tapped on the shoulder to be tempted away from an academic setting and making such a change requires an active interest from the postdoctoral fellow themselves.
The next post in this mini-series will focus on simple suggestions for helping out at the early career researcher stage (and the hopeful transition to tenure track). Until then!
There has been a lot of rumbling over the last few years about how poorly compensated postdoctoral fellows are and how the system churns out too many doctoral students. Many have suggested that the best solution is to trim the number of positions and increase the salaries of those remaining. However, I suspect that many of the people arguing for better pay and fewer postdoc positions do not consider that they might be part of the cohort who would lose their jobs if such a measure were undertaken.
I imagine that just about everyone would like to have more money and more job security, so I always find the “pay me more” arguments tough to swallow unless they are backed up with some good reasons and a clear plan for how things will be paid for. There are certainly good examples of exploited and underpaid postdoctoral fellows – I know this is especially prevalent in Canada and would love to remedy it. However, there are several things one must bear in mind before proposing radical solutions that involve removing swathes of people from the most productive and independent part of their academic careers.
- The research needs to get done – cutting the number of postdoctoral fellows means fewer hands, and fewer heads, undertaking research. If you told a leading scientist that their lab would shrink by one-third and they would pay the same amount of money to accommodate salary increases, they would not need to be a mathematics professor to disfavour this approach.
- Some projects work out and others do not – the postdoctoral period of research is a time of great independence and involves undertaking very risky/adventurous research projects that often do not work out. We all understand this does not necessarily reflect on the innate abilities of a particular person, but if we don’t let the risky projects get started, then they won’t ever be tried.
- Selecting the “lucky ones” will be really, really hard - we already find ourselves in a state where fellowship applications get ranked as “fundable”, but do not end up getting funded.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease – the vast majority of complaints seem to come from two places: the life sciences and the humanities. One suffers from chronic underfunding (humanities) and arguably deserves a greater share of the research pie, while the other (life sciences) suffers from over-subscription where hordes of trainees end up competing for the same jobs and spend 4-6 years (or longer!) as a postdoctoral fellow before getting past the first round of a job search.
In the life sciences, I feel that this debate always gets confused because it comes back to the two reasons that people find themselves in postdoctoral fellow positions:
- Academic training (i.e., a springboard to a PI job)
- Research (i.e., they enjoy doing bench science, and want a career doing it)
I see the former as a group who would tolerate lower pay for a few years to get the potential independence and security of a tenure track post and I see the latter as those who want a stable career in science asap (i.e. higher pay, benefits, etc). If two such groups are classed as one and the same by institutions (or themselves!), it is a guaranteed recipe for big fights about how to best represent the core issues of postdoctoral fellows.
Overall, I don’t like the idea of cutting off people from the academic track before the postdoctoral stage. Therefore I think a sensible approach is to create a system that allows postdoctoral fellows begin their training but regularly challenges them to consider alternatives. I’ll be describing the core components of this system in my next post – stay tuned.
I just finished a bit of a marathon read which gives advice to early career researchers on how to best situate themselves for success in research. The guide, Charting a course for a successful research career was written by Emeritus Professor Alan Johnson and offers some good advice for early career researchers. Its audience is extremely broad (international early career researchers in all disciplines) and the tone is quite conversational and as a consequence I found it slightly ethereal and felt the take home messages were sometimes difficult to extract. Nonetheless, a targeted read through the table of contents for the section(s) most applicable to you should get some useful tidbits out, so do take a look.
Overall, the guide insists that early career researchers must take control of their own career and focus on planning – with this I could not agree more. We have long advocated on this site the real need for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows to regularly assess their career options. Nobody else is as concerned with what you do with your training (mothers excepted) so please do not stick your head in the sand without considering how much you want to pursue academic research – the environment is too competitive to simply drift into your career.
Check out some previous posts on this topic if you are interested:
- The importance of leaving academic science on good terms
- Novel ideas for the biomedical research workforce, anyone in Canada listening?
- Engaging early – changing direction before graduation
- Introducing career streams into academic research
- Career streams in academia: Who foots the bill?
- To postdoc or not to postdoc?
- Professionals in High Demand
- Old Debate, More Participants: What do 80% of PhD holders do for a career?
- Say NO to the Second Post Doc!
For those planning on pursuing an academic career, Professor Johnson makes an excellent point that should not go unnoticed. Think ahead. Not just about where your project will go or what the next cool technique is, but make sure you are thinking about where science is going. Johnson suggests reading vision statements of universities, granting councils and political parties and asking how your research will be funded in 10 years. This is sage advice and will position you much better for hiring committee questions around your future “fundability”.
When I was in Canada going to university in the late 1990s/early 2000s, there was a massive push on training engineers – Nortel was booming, RIM was emerging, and all roads led to the tech sector. When Nortel collapsed, the ripple was felt across the entire sector and many young engineers found themselves without jobs, some of whom are now in completely different fields. Is the life sciences/genomics explosion of the last decade traveling down the same path and will early career researchers who have not thought broadly about their research find themselves on the outside? Currently, Canada is investing quite a lot into regenerative medicine and genomics research and the country is well-respected in both areas, but the industrial biotechnology sector appears to be unable to attract substantial capital. If this continues, will the industrial sector be able bear the huge number of trainees we are producing?
Of course, we cannot predict the future, but it behooves young researchers to keep their heads out of the sand and think about the future – not only of their own careers, but of their field and the other fields around them.
My last post generated a fair amount of commentary both here on this site and on Reddit. It seems that many people have experienced exactly what NIH Director Francis Collins described: they’ve been made to feel like failures for leaving academia. If the vast majority of PhDs and postdoctoral fellows will not become tenure-track academics, then we should be embracing non-academic careers as the default pathway for most trainees. This requires a huge cultural shift away from seeing trainees as generators of science and toward viewing trainees themselves as the product. Making supervisors and institutes accountable for the trainees they produce, keeping lab sizes down to a size where meaningful mentorship can be maintained, and recognizing the value of non-academic careers are all key to making this shift successfully.
Tracking former students and postdocs in a meaningful way
A recent phenomenon at granting agencies has been to track the outcomes of students and postdocs, both in terms of how long they are in the lab as well as what they are currently doing for a job. A big question that spawns from this is whether particular professions or outcomes are more or less valued? If so, who decides if it’s more valuable to create a PhD-level patent lawyer vs. a sessional instructor vs. a professor? I am not sure how this information is used and I worry that it is simply to ask the question “How good is this professor at creating new professors?”
As I mentioned in my last post, the product of a university should, above all else, be its people. We consistently fail this goal by nearly exclusively valuing the production of papers and patents irrespective of what happens to the trainees involved in producing them. Instead we should be measuring a successful research PI by evaluating – in a meaningful fashion – their training and teaching abilities.
Bigger is not always better
One of the most frustrating things about measuring the “productivity” or “success” of a lab is that it is almost always done as a cumulative exercise. Rarely do you ask the question, “What is this professor’s productivity per lab member?” Not too long ago, there was an eye-opening study that showed research productivity plateaued at $750,000 of research funding and got noticeably worse as funding went up (as measured by number of publications and their average impact factor). Even this, though, did not break down the production per person, though it can be reasonably assumed that better funded labs have more people.
Big labs produce more papers, that’s very true – but how many careers are buried in the wake of such “productivity”? It would do grant evaluators well to ask how many trainees and employees does each lab have and how is the lab’s publication record distributed over those people. Anecdotally, I can cite several examples of small labs with excellent productivity that get crushed in grant evaluations for having a thin publication record – a “publication per lab researcher” metric would do such labs a great service and push the heads of larger labs to ensure that everyone in their group is being taken care of properly.
Seeing the forest for the trees and the Selfish Gene
On the note of taking care of one’s trainees, I fail to understand why professors don’t see “non-academic” career options as valuable to them. Yes, professors can have tunnel vision when it comes to doing things that benefit their lab moving forward, but surely minting new academics is not the only way to have a positive working relationship with your former trainees.
If you produce a journal editor, might thaey not end up working at a journal in your field? Would you rather have them respect the lab for the way it is run and the science that emerges from it or that they be bitter about their final few months/years and be spreading bad vibes throughout their new circles?
If you produce an industry researcher, might they not end up working for a company in your field? Good relationships with companies have often sprouted collaborations that benefits both the academic and industrial partners both through shared reagents, shared expertise, and good product development opportunities. Even the most selfish professors should be able to see this logic and be keen to have students of all career motivations leave their labs as happy as possible.
Changing the perception
I have long wondered whether people are better motivated by negative or positive reinforcement. Should we reward those professors that invest in training students and postdocs with diverse career goals or should we penalize those that neglect their university duties? As it currently stands, there does not appear to be much reward for those who invest in training and teaching and there appears to be a sizable cohort of professors who are not well-liked by their trainees.
I suggest measuring output based on all the trainees that pass through a lab by noting where they go and how well they were supported and I would also incorporate productivity per researcher into evaluation metrics. Such measures would stimulate professors to consider carefully those that they take on board and I believe would bring down overall lab size of large labs and increase the productivity per research dollar.
Over the years, our site has had many articles on two major themes: the education and training of scientists, and the effective transfer of knowledge between academic science and other sectors (e.g., industry, policy, science outreach).
Last week, Nature published a short interview with NIH Director Francis Collins concerning the policies being adopted to improve the training situation in biomedical sciences. Briefly, postdoc stipends will be increased along with the number of grants that encourage early career independence, and funding will be made available for training programs that prepare students for a broader set of career options. These are all welcome changes, of course, but I fear the problem of communication between sectors will remain unsolved unless trainees and educators fundamentally shift the way they view “non-academic” careers.
After admitting to not exposing his own trainees to multiple career options, Collins highlights the problem that I will spend the remainder of the article speaking to:
I worry that a number of them (postdocs) are receiving the message that if they don’t get a tenure-track position, they have failed. The good news is that nearly all postdocs are likely to be employed in interesting positions, but many will not travel a narrow academic path.
This is where the human element comes into play. Postdoctoral fellows are generally clever and successful people; they’ve finished at or near the top of their classes in high school and university and clearly like asking questions about things that have yet to be answered. The difficult disconnect comes when, for the first time in many of these people’s lives, they are being told, “No, sorry, you’re not good enough to go down that path, just go figure something else out.”
Many people will counter with arguments about huge swathes of postdocs who actually do not want to have a tenure track position. While data are being collected on this, the relationship that these postdocs have with academic science remains problematic. Observing and competing with the ambitious few who make it, it is reinforced over and over that these young scholars are not good enough to be at the top. This is completely and utterly appalling – it is a damaging cycle and it is sapping the motivation of our best and brightest.
The real problem comes when the majority (Collins quotes greater than 75%) of these people obtain non-tenure track jobs. Just like all the nasty emotions that flare up when you are rejected in a relationship, science leaves the bitter taste of failure and the defensive walls get built up. Is it possible that such walls are still intact when it comes to dealing with academics in future positions? I have visions of disgruntled former academic postdocs (getting more disgruntled as the human resource crisis escalates) being in science policy and industry positions and making the gap between governments, industry and academia grow even larger. We need to find ways to support the choices of trainees earlier and resist the demonization of non-academic career choices.
Research labs at universities should be places of training, not small businesses. Having a skilled worker move on to something else is potentially bad for business, but should be seen as an excellent end product for a university.
I am certainly not advocating for the pampering of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but there are several approaches that I will propose in my next post to take better advantage of the huge investment that we make in the training of these young scholars. Career training programs like those the NIH will support are a good step, but until postdoctoral fellows stop flying under the radar of their supervisor when they partake in such programs, we’ll still be constructing walls that will need to be torn down later.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research have announced their October 2012 call for applicants to the Science Policy Fellowship Program. As in years prior to this one, it seems that the fellowships are available only in partnership with Health Canada:
- Exploring ways of integrating academic clinical trials into Health Canada review process of therapeutic products
- Health and health system returns on investments in interprofessional collaboration
- Blood safety and emerging pathogens
- Intervention evidence to inform public health actions on childhood obesity
The topics look broad and this will likely attract an equally broad set of applicants – remember that you need to obtain a letter of support from the agency prior to the Dec. 5 application deadline. Clock’s ticking!
Now that two rounds of fellows have been appointed and presumably completed (or are close to completion), it would be great to hear from either employers or fellows about how well the program works and what the fellows are now doing … any of our readers out there who know someone who has been involved and think they might be ok to speak on the issue, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few weeks back, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars circulated a newly released online tool from the AAAS called my Individual Development Plan (or myIDP). I’ve finally had a chance to sit down and browse through it (and do the self-assessments) and I would highly recommend PhDs and postdocs to take a look as well. It doesn’t take long to set up and fill out and, if nothing else, it will make you think about what you actually want to do for a career.
It is divided into three self-assessments:
- Scientific Skills: identification of “the scientific skills and knowledge areas in which you are proficient”
- Interests: defining the “scientific tasks that you enjoy doing”
- Values: helping you figure out “What is most important to me? What rewards or outcomes do I want from my work?”
Basically, you go through a quick series of rankings (you have to keep the range broad or it doesn’t work!) in each area and it spits out your best career matches based on your skills and interests. It is a welcome sight to see that they’ve collated 60+ careers that you could do as a trained scientist – food for thought!
For those that are curious, it told me that I shouldn’t be a tenure-track professor, but rather I should look at options in science policy, science writing and public health. While it hasn’t pushed me from the tenure-track quest just yet, it is interesting to consider such options and I’d be interested to know if others find it a useful/accurate tool.
Overall, this type of tool underscores a very real need for PhDs and postdocs to take an active role in their own career planning. Do not wait for someone to tell you to move into another career and do not be brainwashed into thinking that academia is the only option. If you want academia, you should be actively choosing it, not passively accepting it as the only credible option. Thinking about other possibilities will only help affirm your decision and get you more motivated to dig deep for the uphill struggle.
It is not the only tool available of course and the Science Careers site is a fantastic place to start. In particular, take a look at the Tools & Tips page where there are excellent resources to help guide you through the process. Also, remember to take a look through our series from two summers ago called “So you want to be…” which gives some advice on how to first start looking for non-academic career options.
For those who want to stay in the academy, the Individual Development Plan is still useful – it will help you identify which skills you need to get the professor job and hopefully it will also motivate you to organize a step-by-step plan to get there. Of course, you’ll need to pop out a few publications on the way, but remember that the research itself is only one component of the battle (albeit the most important one!).
While science training programs try to reach the appropriate levels of career guidance, I cannot stress how important it is for PhDs and postdocs to make this sort of self-assessment – is academia the only thing you could see yourself happily doing? If not, you really owe it to yourself to get out there and explore.
Earlier this summer, two major reports were released from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences. Beryl Lieff Benderly offers an excellent, though slightly pessimistic, summary of the reports and their potential implications on the Science Careers site and this is well worth a read if you’re not willing to wade through the over 400 pages combined. If you do read through the reports outside of your day job, it will likely take you as long as me to form some opinions on their contents and whether or not they can work in practice. The reports cover much more than what I will talk about below, but I’ve tried to pull out some ideas that I think Canadian universities and policy makers would do well to pay attention to.
On a side note, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars is looking to collate the opinions of its postdocs (all of those working in Canada and Canadians abroad) to help focus its advocacy efforts on the key issues for early career researchers in Canada. Please visit their website and Facebook page if you would like to share your thoughts (or leave them below).
The three items arising from these reports that I was particularly impressed with are:
- Reduce the time to complete a PhD
- More fellowships, less grant funded PDFs
- Two streams: Scientist and Academic
1. Reduce the time to complete a PhD
My PhD took 5 1/2 years to complete and, as someone who is at least curious about the prospect of running my own lab, I see enormous benefit from the extra time in training over a 3-4 year PhD. My final two years were easily my most productive and I was able to build networks of scientists through a lengthy stay at a single institution. Was it necessary for this time to be spent entirely as a graduate student though? The ability to assess information critically and design good experiments can surely be taught in the first three to four years — if people need the time for finishing PhD research projects for publications, let them take on a year or two of postdoctoral work in their PhD lab. It is simply unfair to expect someone who is getting a PhD for a purpose other than becoming an academic to spend five to seven years (the 2006 median in the U.S. was actually 7.9 years) of their twenties in graduate school. If we beat the drum about the need for PhD quality scientists in law, journalism and public policy, then we must come up with ways to train them more efficiently.
Graduate programs at Canadian universities should be substantially shorter and broadly inclusive of all types of graduate students — from those driven to become professors to those looking to acquire the skills of a doctorate for another profession.
2. More fellowships, less grant-funded PDFs
An interesting table is presented in the NIH report that shows the relative future success of NIH fellowship funded vs. grant-funded postdoctoral fellows. Both the average time to obtaining a first operating grant (RO1) and the average success rate is substantially higher for those on fellowships (5.3 years, 48.3%) compared to those funded from grants (6.5 years, 32.5%). The cynic would say that these numbers simply represent being on the gravy train where each award breeds the next, just as papers from well-known labs are purported to get an easier ride in big journals. However, I would argue that this makes an even stronger case for making more fellowships available in lieu of grant-funded posts where more “chances” can be taken by award committee members. Furthermore, the NIH report makes an excellent point that few, if any, mechanisms exist to judge the quality of training given to a grant-funded researcher. More fellowships would allow better tracking and quality control of training environments.
Will Canada’s granting agencies do the same? It sure as hell makes for better press than NSERC’s 9% success rate in PDF fellowships…
3. Two streams: Scientist and Academic
Though the timing can be quite varied, many of those who hold a PhD realize that they have a preference for bench work compared to running their own group. It seems to me that professors can recognize who the most valuable members of their research team are, but it also seems that the careers that get best supported are the ones that shoot for independent investigator. If a postdoctoral fellow is highly skilled and does not want to run their own group, wouldn’t it make sense to put them in permanent positions that have good salaries and benefits? We’ve written about this before in a previous entry, The solution: Hire scientists to do scientific research… On this note I have to share the pessimistic view of Ms. Lieff Benderly on the kitten-strength recommendation from the NIH:
“The working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.”
Will universities and research institutes step up to the plate and hire departmental research scientists, or will research scientists be forced to depend on their supervisors’ grant wrangling skills? My bet is on the latter if there is no obvious benefit for research institutions.
In conclusion, I hope that all of those who work for a granting agency, university or research institute will read these reports. Understand that there has been a dramatic change in the biomedical research workforce over the last decade and try to address the changes. Shorten the PhD, reward researchers on merit, and let scientists do scientific research for a career.
Quick hit: Beth forwarded something interesting to me in a follow up to my slightly controversial critique of the Three Minute Thesis article – Jorge Cham of PhD Comics fame has just launched a two minute thesis video competition to have your thesis illustrated. An interesting idea for sure and something that should aid in the communication of scientific concepts to lay audiences when complete.
Quarterly summary: Transition success
This quarter was a disruptive but productive one as The Black Hole successfully moved from our old site to being hosted by University Affairs – we are very happy with our new home and colleagues and look forward to engaging more people as the momentum for the site builds. Instead of a summer series like So you want to be a…. and Notches in the STIC, we decided this summer to focus on a resource page which we hope to launch in early autumn to help early-career researchers better navigate through the resources that we’ve spoken about in the past. Stay tuned!
- The research bottleneck – flying blind
- Introducing career streams into academic research
- A call to arms
- Show me the money!
- Engaging early – changing direction before graduation
- Career streams in academia: Who foots the bill?
- Reality TV invading university – Thumbs down to the three minute thesis
- Networks – the big kind – and how they drive Canadian science
- Our blog for early career scientists – hello to UA readers!
Our other activities
- Pleasantly surprised at World Stem Cells congress
- Strategies to boost regenerative medicine: Growing an extra layer of skin
- View from the floor 5: Pushing the boundaries with technology
- View from the floor 3: Till & McCulloch Meetings
- SB identified the Action Canada program as a way for people to obtain policy experience.
- Monica challenged Jonathan on the usefulness of looking at grad student statistics, believing the real problem to be the increasing length of postdoctoral terms.
- A lengthy discussion on the increasing number of PhDs being trained was had following Jonathan’s Introducing career streams into academic research post
- I had some strong disagreement to my critique of the Three Minute Thesis competitions – see here and share your views too!
Popular posts this quarter
- Introducing career streams into academic research (2,333)
- Reality TV invading university – Thumbs down to the three minute thesis (1,753)
- Networks – the big kind – and how they drive Canadian science (956)
- Our blog for early career scientists – hello to UA readers! (702)
- The research bottleneck – flying blind (587)
In my last post, I urged non-traditional sectors to engage motivated PhD students early in their careers as direction into non-academic careers is sorely lacking. Until coming to the U.K., I had never met a third-year PhD scientist who already had his sights set on working in the financial consulting sector. At the time, this struck me as odd — what does transcriptional regulation have to do with finance? — but then I noticed many more of my doctoral and postdoctoral colleagues branching out into careers like science policy, medical device consulting and finance.
Perhaps this is a U.K. thing (with very developed finance and science policy sectors). But even so, it challenged me to reflect on why university programs or professorships were rarely supported by these sectors that clearly benefit from their extensive training. This post aims to help such non-science sectors understand what is currently being done to engage early by other organizations while also highlighting possible opportunities for early-career researchers.
Industry, from biotechnology to engineering, certainly captures huge hosts of PhD graduates for the long haul. Increasingly, however, it seems companies are making their move earlier in the career of scientists due to the rapid shift in human resources which is leading to older (and grumpier) postdoctoral fellows. A bounty of opportunities have cropped up to give PhD students industry experience, ranging from the very broad (e.g., NSERC industrial postdoctoral fellowships) to very specific (OBI programs centred on neuroscience). I have listed several programs and short descriptions:
- NSERC Industrial R&D Fellowships: NSERC has run this program successfully for many years and postdoctoral fellows get to be placed directly into industrial settings.
- See the Potential Postdoctoral Fellowship program: Run through the Canadian Stem Cell Network, these are postdoctoral awards of $50,000 a year which are meant to focus on an area of mutual interest between trainee and the sponsor company. The current projects either have to be related to a disease area of interest (ophthalmology, cardiovascular or neuroscience) and use one of the following modalities: tissue replacement, cell therapy or iPS cells.
- MITACS: two programs are available through MITACS. The first is the Accelerate internship program which places graduate students or postdoctoral fellows with industry partners for four months. The second is the Elevate fellowship program which is for one to two years involving an approximately 25:75 time split between company and university.
- Experiential Education Initiative: the Ontario Brain Institute has launched a series of programs aimed to encourage early-career researchers to pursue start-up companies, management training fellowships and internships. All programs are focused on a neuroscience theme.
- Connect Canada: this program seeks full-time graduate students or postdoctoral fellows to undertake a four- to six-month internship during the middle of their training. They need to be based at a university, but can be training in any field so long as “their skills are sought by the participating firm to support its innovation process”
Outside of industry, there are limited opportunities from what I can gather, but one of particular note is the Students for Development Program, which is an AUCC-sponsored program which selects students (anywhere from undergraduate through to PhD) to have three-plus months working in a developing country. Some bios of previous and current interns are available here.
There has also been some leadership by CIHR to diversify the output of its fellows. Specifically, CIHR has launched a Science 2 Business Fellowship and a Science Policy Fellowship (at Health Canada only). These programs are in the early days, but it is good to see such experiments supported at the national level.
From the science policy perspective, I think that Canada could take some lessons from the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy which launched in 2009. The centre focuses on engagement throughout graduate and postdoctoral training by physically being based in Cambridge, hosting numerous lectures and networking events, and farming people out into policy roles through their workshops and fellowships. Canadian universities would benefit from such organizations that give access to both those curious about science policy and those preconditioned to careers in policy.
Overall, the message I want to leave graduate students with is to think early and often about what else you might do besides academia. You may well decide to stay on the academic path, but you owe it to yourself to explore. I hope that other companies and organizations interested in hiring talented university graduates will also see the value in getting the attention of students early. Slowly but surely, we are removing the demonization of non-academic careers, but this takes time and needs support from lab heads and university administrators.
Finally, if you’re still stuck as a graduate in the life sciences about possible careers, please do read our old posts from the Black Hole website.