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Chemists in Career Services

Profile: Alexis Thompson, Ph.D. (Chemistry, 2007), Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Illinois

Alexis Thompson made the jump from physical chemistry research into career services-- and she loves her job! Courtesy photo.

 

When Alexis Thompson was in grad school studying physical chemistry, she discovered that her passion was helping other people discover their passions.

After she got her Ph.D., she landed her first job as a career adviser– more specifically, as the assistant director of career services in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois.

As a career adviser, Alexis spent her time meeting with students to answer questions, help them prepare job applications and perform mock interviews. She also created and hosted professional development programs that addressed students’ needs.

Side note: What’s cool is

I actually met Alexis in the first year of my Ph.D. program, right around when she was wrapping up her degree. In my first year, I attended one of her career workshops and got to hear about her nontraditional career path. I’m pretty sure this is what first got me thinking about how a Ph.D. qualifies you for more than just academia or industry.

Not surprisingly, most university career advisers don’t have doctorates in chemistry. Many come from a background in education or counseling.

But Alexis’s background in science makes her uniquely suited for her current position. If you’ve been through grad school, you have tasted and seen the academic world from the inside and can relate to the struggles that science students are going through, in a way that non-science people can’t.­

And though it’s not always apparent, many of the skills you acquire through toiling in the lab and facing research ups and downs—well, they can carry over into your seemingly unrelated career.

Alexis can certainly attest to the power of transferable skills. She had quite a learning curve when she started her first job in career services. But she felt confident diving into an entirely new field, thanks to her Ph.D. training.

So, how exactly did Alexis take her chemistry Ph.D. and break into career services? Continue reading →

Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

As it is, only a tiny fraction of Ph.D. chemists can bring their research skills to academia because professorship jobs are few and far between. Would the creation of professionalized post-doc positions be a win-win solution? Photo credit: flickr user mstephens7.

Chemistry currently suffers from unemployment issues that stem from there being too many PhDs and not enough jobs. I’d like to open up a can of worms and ask your thoughts on the creation of professionalized postdoc positions in chemistry to address this problem.

This idea was proposed in Nature News back in March by Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist trained at University College London. Speaking from her experiences in the life sciences, she argued that academia is broken and would benefit from the creation of permanent, university-funded, long-term research positions, which she termed professionalized postdocs:

“To avoid throwing talent on the scrap heap and to boost prospects, a new type of scientific post for researchers is needed… we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone…
The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the ‘tournament’ model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change…
“An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set.”

In less than three months, this blog post got more than 3,000 comments, with responses varying from raving support to derision.

Many commenters agreed the system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. Others agree but feel the system is beyond repair and that the changes proposed are too idealistic.

Another camp felt that a makeover in academia would only be possible with major infrastructural changes within universities and funding agencies. It would need to be shown that although full-time permanent research positions are more costly, the money would be well spent: long-term scientists would be two to three times more productive than new grad students or postdocs, and the high turnover rate of talent in a lab would be reduced.

Wait a sec, I thought. This sounds an awful lot like a technician or research scientist. Commenters who pointed this out said there is nothing to change since such a position already exists.

The key difference, Rohn pointed out in her response to such comments, is that the position would be long-term and not be dependent on the renewal of a grant, resulting in greater job security. Additionally, professionalized postdocs would do original research and not just be another set of hands.

But professionalized postdocs would reduce the number of spaces in the lab available to new grad students and postdocs. Isn’t that a bad thing?

If you would be as happy as this guy doing academic research long-term, but don't want the added duties of a professorship, a professionalized postdoc could be the ideal choice for you. Photo credit: flickr user Nomed Senkrad.

That’s a tricky question. As it is, too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs available, contributing to the high unemployment rates in science. Academia would benefit, several commenters said, by emulating the way medical schools manage their supply and demand problem. Every year, the number of students accepted is determined by the projected need for doctors. Yet in academia, undergrads are actively recruited to graduate school without consideration for their future job prospects, and this is a severe problem.

Hold on. I thought the U.S. was all gung-ho about convincing young people to go for science since we don’t have enough scientists. This blog post seemed to argue for the contrary.

But we need to make a distinction here: the shortage of scientists at the MS/BS level is a real problem, but the overabundance of PhD scientists is something entirely different. It’s a pyramid structure, where there are far more jobs for MS/BS-level scientists than for PhDs. Unemployed PhD scientists commonly find they are overqualified for many of the jobs out there.

Especially in academia, the number of spots are so few that only a tiny fraction of grad students and postdocs have a shot at becoming professors. Some would argue that it has as much to do with luck as it does hard work and research smarts. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

The point is this: academia would benefit from providing  long-term postdoc positions to PhD scientists who want a research career in academia but don’t want all the other responsibilities that come along with academia. Otherwise they will be forced to take their skills elsewhere and find work in other fields.

…not that exploring careers beyond the bench is a bad thing. That is, after all, what this blog is all about! But alternative careers away from the bench are not for everyone, hence, the proposal of this alternative career within academia.

If such a change could be wrought, I think it would be a win-win. PI’s would benefit from having seasoned researchers stick around for the long haul. Permadocs would happily pursue research careers in academia without the added pressures of being a professor. And the number of PhD scientists would go down, which would help our current supply and demand problem in chemistry.

What do you think?

Related Posts:

Doctoral Dilemma
Too many Ph.D.s?
Educating Ph.D. chemists
Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess