Choosing an Adviser Who Can Help You Leave Academe

Many, if not most, doctoral students enter graduate school with the hope of becoming faculty members. But graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley recently hosted a conference, titled “Beyond Academia,” that focused on landing nonacademic jobs. The conference sold out.

According to a Berkeley news release, “a study published last year in the journal Science suggests that only 20 percent of U.S. doctoral 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 the U.S., 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?

So what if you are not in the top 20 percent, or just don’t want to work in academe? If you’re following my posts, you recently read that I switched advisers during my second year of graduate school. I moved from synthetic organic chemistry, where I could have easily landed an industrial job without doing a postdoctoral fellowship, to photophysical chemistry. My job prospects dimmed considerably.

So I reluctantly looked for a postdoctoral assignment, but I was careful in doing so. I selected my postdoctoral assignment with an eye toward maximizing my chances of landing the industrial research-and-development job that I wanted at the time.

I knew that in industry you have to make something (i.e., a product to sell), so I looked for advisers involved in synthesis. Thinking back to my undergraduate research days, I focused on polymer synthesis. I noticed a young faculty member at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Joe DeSimone was in his fifth year at UNC, and he had a very novel financing mechanism: He had assembled a consortium of companies to support his research. When I wrote to him, I said I wanted to learn from him about the business of chemistry as much as I wanted to learn about the science. What I didn’t know at the time was that Joe had the heart and soul of an entrepreneur (he’s since won the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lemelson Prize, among other accolades). After what was perhaps the shortest postdoc in history, I was offered a job at his first start-up company.

So what should you look for if you want a postdoctoral adviser in the sciences who can help you land a nonacademic job? Here are some tips:

  • Look for (relatively) applied research. Look for research that can create products in addition to theories.
  • Look at the adviser’s sources of funds. Is the adviser doing any sponsored research for corporations? If he or she is, chances are that corporation is hiring his/her graduates.
  • Most faculty members keep a list of former students and postdocs, with their current place of employment. Ask for it. These are people you may be reaching out to in two years to find a job. Look for diversity on the list. Try to find people in industry, in government, and in nontraditional career tracks (like patent law or technology transfer).
  • Be upfront in your interviews about your desire for a nonacademic job, and only accept a postdoc with an adviser who is willing to support you in your search.

It’s difficult to admit that you want to leave academe. We hear so often that you can never go back. But if you really do want to leave, find a postdoctoral adviser who will help you find the kind of job you desire.

Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the chief executive and a founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of weed control for turf and agriculture. She is writing a series of posts about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s in the sciences.

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