A Letter to Research Mentors: How to Support Your Trainee’s Non-academic Career Development

Feb. 13, 2019

Dear Research Mentor,

I’m writing to you on behalf of your trainees (postdocs and graduate students) who aren’t interested in a “traditional” academic career - whether they know it yet or not.

While we, your trainees, are glad you’re here to mentor us in academic research, that might not be the best path for us. 

Between the increasingly competitive nature of tenure-track positions and the plethora of other careers available to Ph.D. holders, fewer than 35% of biology Ph.D. graduates stay in academia, tenure-track (15%) and non-tenure track (18%) combined.

For those who choose to remain in academia, the path seems straight and narrow. Publish. Postdoc. Publish more. Apply. Every academic researcher has been there and knows how to help facilitate their trainees’ success.

But the path is less clear for Ph.D. trainees who don’t want to stay in academia. How do you help trainees navigate to a non-academic or teaching-focused career in which you have no personal experience?

As a student who forsook academia mid-way through my Ph.D., I can attest that the most helpful thing is a supportive mentor. A mentor who didn’t assume that by pursuing non-academic careers, I wasn’t invested in my research or doctorate. 

So on behalf of your non-academically inclined trainees, here are some suggestions and resources to have a more active and encouraging role in helping them compose the most important publication ever: their career.

The Lit Review:

Every project begins with a good lit review. Your trainees need to learn where the gaps in scientific careers are. In other words, what fields are growing and where their personalities, preferences and skills might fit best. This seems like something the student should do on their own, but you can facilitate the process. 

First, have a conversation with each of your trainees about non-academic careers. Many trainees are unsure of how their mentors feel about them pursuing non-academic careers and may not broach the subject with you. So, take the lead and reassure them that you support their career aspirations regardless. Next, encourage your trainees to complete the free individual development plan (myIDP) offered by Science Careers. A helpful first step to career exploration, the myIDP ranks potential careers based on self-reported strengths and preferences, then provides resources for learning more.

Facilitate exploration of career literature by sponsoring your trainees’ membership to professional scientific societies such as AAAS and ASM. These memberships are inexpensive ($30-80 per year for students) and offer a wealth of resources for professional development and career information that your trainees can take advantage of, such as ASM’s page on careers in microbiology.

Once your trainees have identified some potential career options, help them learn more through informational interviews. Put them in contact with former trainees of your lab or department in those fields, and encourage them to cold message or email professionals in the industry using LinkedIn and the first step of the Active Career Exploration plan.

Experiment:

Now that each trainee has formulated hypotheses about potential careers from their lit review, it’s time to put them to the test. Generally, this kind of experimentation is going to require time away from the bench, but probably not any more than taking a single, 3 credit hour course each semester. Additionally, career exploration will lead to skill building in areas that are likely to improve your trainees’ research, whether through learning industry techniques to apply, consulting perspectives that improve project design and analysis, or improving their presentations and writing. I’m sure my own Ph.D. mentor would tell you that my own foray into science communication greatly enhanced our writing process.

Encourage your trainees to take advantage of university student groups and programs to learn about their career interests. And to engage in skill building programs and volunteer opportunities from ASM or AAAS to build skills and test their interests. But the key action as a mentor during this phase is to be supportive of your trainees’ varied interests. Consider holding quarterly career check-ins to reassure them of your continued support and mentor them through their career experiments.

Don’t assume that an interest in a non-academic career means that a trainee is any less invested in their research project or success as a Ph.D. While it may seem that they’re spending more time away from the bench, it doesn’t necessarily mean time doing research is lost. You can only do so many PCR reactions in a day without messing something up. And taking a couple of days for a training or volunteer event probably makes up for the weekend in lab spent troubleshooting that Western blot.

Some trainees (particularly graduate students) might be interested in a month(s)-long internship or fellowship, such as with industry or the AAAS mass media fellowship. This longer commitment might be a bit hard to swallow, but it’s important that you trust your trainees to honor their commitments. Sure, it might take them a few more months to defend or publish that next paper, but the training process is as much about their career as yours. Plus, these are huge opportunities that often lead to a full-time job post-defense. A prospect that adds incentive for them to defend and another successful trainee to your list.

To help your trainees manage career exploration, research, and department responsibilities, consider having them track their effort spent in each area and agree on an acceptable distribution. My current mentor suggests the following:
  • Pre-candidacy: 50% research, 40% coursework, 5% career development, 5% service
  • Candidacy: 75% research, 10% career development, 10% service, 5% coursework
  • Postdoc: 75% research, 15% career development, 10% service

Publish:

In the research lab, the lit review and experiments all lead toward a publication, but here the goal is a dream job (or the next logical step toward one). Once your trainees have chosen a focus for their career, encourage them to apply for training grants and programs to continue enhancing their resumes and skills. 

Use your social networks to spread the word that great new candidates are about to graduate, keeping in mind that women in particular are under-sponsored. Also encourage your trainees to peruse society job boards such as ASM’s Career Connections or Science Careers.

Once they’ve found a dream job to apply to, write killer letters! I mean, you probably already know that, but it may take more effort since you might need to focus more on their away-from-the-bench accomplishments. Even if you’ve been supportive of your trainees’ career exploration thus far, this is where any unconscious bias may come through. So, be conscientious that your letters are supporting these trainees as enthusiastically as your academically-inclined trainees (resources to avoid bias in reference letters).

Future Directions:

Each non-academic trainee that you mentor, adds to your network to support future trainees. Remember that not all of the faculty in your department are as supportive of non-academic trainees as yourself. Use your position to help advocate for those trainees by inviting seminar speakers from teaching-focused universities or other non-academic career tracks (ASM has a program for this!). Include trainees in department programs and initiatives (e.g., newsletter; Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) to build their skills, resumes, and earn additional letters of recommendation. Lastly, you might consider proposing mandated professional/career development for all department trainees to ensure that all trainees have the opportunity to strengthen their CVs and explore fulfilling career paths.

In closing, thank you for taking the time to further our careers. You’re awesome and we appreciate what you do for us.

Sincerely,
A grateful trainee.

Author: Ada Hagan

Ada Hagan
Senior Contributor Dr. Ada Hagan works with the ASM Journals Chair Dr. Pat Schloss in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan. Her postdoctoral research focuses on representation and bias in scientific publishing, focusing on the field of microbiology. In addition to diversity, equity and inclusion, Ada is an advocate for science communication and research trainees. You can follow her on Twitter @adahagan.