Career Advice on Cosmic Variance

by Kelle on May 27, 2011

A couple weeks ago on Cosmic Variance, Sean asked his readers for advice for scientists interested in pursuing a non-academic track: Soliciting Advice: Non-Academic Careers for Ph.D.’s

The comments are chock-full of great ideas. The couple things I take away are:

  • The need for science policy folks is greater than I thought. (But are all these jobs in DC?)
  • There are lots of resources that need to be added to our Career Paths wiki page. (It would be great if a couple of you could help with that.)
  • I personally really like the model described by Blair (#64) about training and mentoring customized to the student’s strengths and desires. However, not all advisors know how to do this. PhD advisors and graduate chairs must be armed with the tools to make preparing students for a variety of career paths a regular part of PhD training.

What are the common threads you see? And most importantly, what actions can be taken to implement these ideas and change attitudes?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard Scalzo May 29, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Hi Kelle,

This is a good topic and a lot more outwardly constructive than the usual kvetching about the scarcity of permanent academic jobs (which, don’t get me wrong, will go on anyway and serves its own purpose). I’ve also linked the same post.

I agree about the need for pro-active mentorship, and I feel I’ll owe it to my own students (someday) to provide them with the best possible preparation for wherever they’re going, given abovementioned job scarcity. I couldn’t feel right about preparing them *only* for academia in such a climate. While I understand that not all academics have a talent for hands-on mentorship, they should at least be aware (a) that students all have different talents and weaknesses, (b) that the job market is equally diverse and that academia simply can’t absorb 100% of graduate students, and (c) that they’ll get better students, and more and better work out of those students, to the extent that they can help enable those students to understand their own goals and get what they themselves need out of the experience. It’s not just good mentorship, it’s also good leadership and good project management, which is increasingly the province of academics these days. If the field wants to attract and retain top talent, I suspect it will encounter problems if it just sits idly by and continues to let nature take its course. There’s an ethical dimension, but increasingly also, I think, practical repercussions as smart and motivated young scientists become more and more discouraged by tales of limited opportunities.

Given that advisors vary in their abilities and willingness to step up to such a plate, this kind of thing probably needs to be handled at the departmental level, as you allude above. Having a mentoring component to grant proposals (as we’ve seen recently in the America COMPETES Act) is probably a good first step in bringing awareness of the importance of mentorship to all and sundry… but I wonder whether centralizing control over mentorship, especially backed up with power over the purse strings, might be too heavy-handed and inflexible to work for all departments, advisors, and junior scientists. It would certainly be nice if effective mentorship of young scientists were considered in tenure cases, though that might be very difficult to implement in a culture where research output rules all (whatever the cost to mentees). A more tractable possibility might be to create new AAS awards or departmental/institutional awards for outstanding faculty mentorship, if the money can be found.

Failing all that, it might be helpful if we each took a little responsibility to look out for scientists more junior than ourselves — e.g., if the postdoc associations paired postdocs with graduate students, or had local teas or lunches to ensure more mixing up and down the chain of being. One thing I like about ANU / Mt. Stromlo is that *everyone*, faculty + postdocs + grads + undergrads, comes to morning tea. Finally, as much as we should encourage faculty and senior scientists to take responsibility, we also need to remind students that they too need to step up to the plate and build a diverse professional network as early in their career as they can, to ensure that they get the support and direction they need. Supervision and mentorship are not the same job, and one can’t expect one’s Ph.D. advisor or postdoc supervisor to provide the mentorship that may be crucial in helping to set their future course in the world.


2 Warrick Ball June 3, 2011 at 6:32 am

Sean has followed up by collating a lot of the comments into a new post. Not sure how much of this isn’t already covered in the Wiki here. If I find a free moment I might even transfer it myself!


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