Embracing Change: Equipping Ph.D.s for Careers Outside Academia

Kristen Brown
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UCS | November 24, 2014, 11:06 am EDT
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I grew up in Georgia, where the results from the November 5 midterm elections reflected a victory. Friends back home are celebrating the exciting news of a change in congressional leadership. However, in my current environment working as a chemistry Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, friends distinctly feel the opposite.

Wednesday morning, November 6, I woke up to social and scientific media channels expressing disappointment about the likely coming shift away from science-based policy making. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ director, Ken Kimmell, emphasized that the election may feel like a setback. Scientific American delivered an article titled:  Science in a Republican Senate: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. My Facebook feed was crowded with language like “now what?”, “unbelievable”, and “taking deep breaths”; one friend even says “I’m running out of states to flee.”

The unified reaction reflects a concern that science initiatives will fall to the bottom of the congressional priority list. For example, it appears that Senator Jim Inhofe, a noted climate change denier, will head the committee that oversees environmental policy, and Senator Ted Cruz, who shares similar beliefs, may chair Commerce, Science and Transportation. Just recently, Senator Mitch McConnell indicated his desire to limit the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, particularly as it relates to the regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions.

It is clear that, for us scientists and academics, this change is detrimental. How do we continue to promote scientific literacy to the American public and Congress for the sake of sustained progress? How, as Mr. Kimmell says, do we continue to defend science?

Building the next generation of public leaders

As a Ph.D. student nearing the end of my time in graduate school, I would urge academic institutions to support students’ efforts to enter a career outside of academics and even industrial research. Since I decided not to enter academia, I have constantly been asking myself two questions: 1) Where do I go next? and 2) How do I build the skills to get there? Fortunately, unlike many, my institution supports the latter, even in absence of providing a strong answer to the former. Northwestern offers a variety of professional development training (entrepreneurship, business courses, public speaking, etc.) to its Ph.D. students. I have also taken leadership and intrapreneurship courses available through Kellogg and the School of Continuing Studies. I have enjoyed spending the time to expand my toolbox outside of fundamental chemistry research in order to enter a global and interdisciplinary society.

But how do I merge this professional development training with my background in renewable technologies in an environment outside of research? Like many Ph.D.s, I see the clear directions to enter into academia and industry. That path is laid out and supported by the department and my advisor. To enter business, consulting, or policy—all areas in which Ph.D.s can have a large impact—the path is less clear and less encouraged.

A university’s loss may be the scientific community’s gain

Distribution of S&E degrees by level of degree: 2012 . Source: NSF.

Distribution of S&E degrees by level of degree: 2012 . Source: NSF.

The National Science Foundation reports doctoral degrees were awarded to 35,360 science and engineering students in 2012 alone. If we hope for change, why not actively encourage the tens of thousands of students who will not enter a career in research to go out into the world, armed with scientific integrity and ready to fight within our society for change? Why shake our heads in disappointment as another gifted scientist leaves academia for a policy or business position? These are changes we should not view as losses, but as gains for the scientific community.

When I consider my own role as a scientific advocate, I see opportunity and promise ahead in a career. While I will certainly apply for research positions at a large, global company involved in the energy industry, I will also apply to be a AAAS Congressional Fellow through the American Chemical Society. I consider working with the new Congress as a scientist not a handicap, but an opportunity. Now more than ever, we need scientists on the front lines, fighting in difficult places for necessary change.


Posted in: Science and Democracy

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