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The Black Hole

Engaging early – changing direction before graduation


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.

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.

  1. The popular “So you want to be a ….” series
  2. Old debate, more participants


David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SB / July 3, 2012 at 13:14

    Though not restricted to grad students and not specific to science, one opportunity that may be of interest to people curious about a future in public policy is the Action Canada program:

  2. Ben Paylor / September 5, 2012 at 18:23

    I missed the boat on commenting on your excellent post while it was current David, but would love to add the Banff Centre’s Science Communication program to this list as well – The two-week annual course is an excellant source of training and networking for a career in science communication. I’d also add that interested students should not be scared away by the high cost of tuition for the course, as there is often substantial financial support available!