Program Will Help Academic Scientists Prepare for Diverse Careers

two colleagues talking

First, the visual: On page three of Caleb McKinney’s Design Leadership course project for Georgetown University’s Master’s in Design Management & Communications there is a simple, Emoji-like cartoon, with three characters.

Two are old steam locomotives, puffing away in different directions. One engine says, “Career preparation during training,” the other, “Career progression.” In the middle is the third character, an understandably distraught individual labeled “Trainee” (read: harried predoctoral or postdoctoral research fellow).

Absent some major course corrections, these trains aren’t meeting anytime soon—and that’s a big problem for the roughly 75 percent of Ph.D. candidates in the research sciences who will end up working outside the university setting.

“Faculty are teaching trainees to specialize in academic research, but are not teaching trainees how to utilize their newly minted research skills for broader industries,” McKinney, Ph.D., says in his report. “Trainees are unware of career options or how best to prepare, particularly developing skills associated with project management, such as managing teams, delegating, and time management.”

Learning Key Skills

McKinney, assistant dean of graduate and postdoctoral training & development at Georgetown University Medical Center, was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to set up an online training program called the Academy for Transferable Management Skills (ATMS), which he plans to launch in December.

Why does a Ph.D. in Microbiology go back to school to get a Design Management degree? (McKinney also holds certificates from the School of Continuing Studies in Project Management and Budgets & Finance.) The answer speaks to the very issue he hopes to address: Ph.D.s, especially those who will eventually work outside of universities, need management, design, and communication skills, but these skills are often missing from their training.

The impediments to better training are systemic and are a result of real, if conflicting, pressures, McKinney said. But these issues can be addressed, and his report is aimed at two groups that have the biggest stake in addressing them: Trainees and the professors who mentor them.

Research professors are under pressure from many sources, McKinney said. There is the pressure to seek out, and maintain, external funding; to publish research; and to leave a scientific legacy. This can leave little time for their other job: Supporting the career preparation of their trainees, who themselves may be working 40 to 80 hours a week.

Faculty awareness of the job market outside the university varies widely, McKinney said, “but a good number … don’t know the full scope of some other career options outside of academia and the full scope of skills that are needed to pursue those options.”

Seeing the Options

Like some of their professors, many doctoral students aren’t sure how to look for career opportunities outside the university.

“Graduates often try to go along the academic route because they don’t see all the other options out there, or they don’t believe they have the proper skill set to access those opportunities,” said one faculty member McKinney interviewed for the report.

McKinney began training and advising Ph.D. students at the National Institutes of Health after spending nearly three years there as a postdoctoral research fellow. After NIH, he moved to Georgetown, where he has worked for three years in graduate and postdoctoral career and professional development.

ATMS will focus on project management skills such as strategic planning, budgeting, and time management. The program is conducted entirely online so students can work it into their busy schedules, and readily apply the frameworks to their current academic research projects. McKinney will recruit Ph.D.-trained industry professionals this summer to help write the curriculum and begin to develop, test, and audit the curriculum before it is formally launched later this year.

“It really is about transforming the way we look at training,” McKinney said.

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