The structure of today’s PhD program has not kept up with academic employment realities. A recent (April 21, 2011) edition of Nature suggested, in a series of articles, that there are far more scientific PhDs graduating than can be accommodated in tenure-track positions, leaving PhD students wondering about their own future. Getting a PhD does not guarantee a job in academia. With only 30 percent of science graduate students finding jobs in academia, and with government and industry not able to offer appropriate employment to all the remaining grads, the prospects seem bleak. PhD graduates, still hoping to attain a tenure-track position, may opt for years in postdoctoral studies or as sessional instructors, essentially becoming the undervalued and underpaid stepchildren of academia. Yet graduate students still flood into PhD programs, drawn by a desire to raise the bar of knowledge in their chosen field and perhaps, at the outset, unaware of the job market.
Recognizing the inadequate communication between academia and government and industry, the Alberta Graduate Council decided to host the first province-wide, multidisciplinary research- networking event. Called the Alberta Graduate Conference, it brought together graduate students, engineers, entrepreneurs, industry researchers, industry liaison officers, health-care practitioners, university administrators, technology transfer officers and government officials. Some 400 students presented research and ideas, asked questions, and shared knowledge with people in their field. Two grad students walked away with a $5,000 prize.
Over the course of the three-day conference it became clear that bringing graduate students together with each other and potential employers and granting councils could benefit everyone. In an interactive discussion with graduate students, industry and the government agency, Alberta Innovates, the conclusion was that a lack of dialogue among all the players is a barrier to employment. And also, skills for careers outside academia need to be acquired by PhD students during their university program.
For example, a seminar by an industry participant, the Centre for Drug Research, described a broad skill set that postdocs need to possess to be productive in industry – skills that PhD graduates often lack. Apparently, there are government and industrial internship programs that are available for graduate students. Many people at the conference, including me, had not heard of such initiatives. Another issue raised was the reluctance of national research funding agencies to allow students to pursue these types of internship and career development opportunities, without losing their funding for the remainder of their research. A broader awareness of possibilities outside academia is an important and simple first step towards a more effective graduate training program.
It is often said that people have difficulty making connections between the traditional culture of academia and the “time to market” mentality of industry. But some of the “secrets to success” aren’t that difficult to apply. A panel of successful Alberta entrepreneurs told conference attendees that when a problem is identified, the secret to success is to do something about it. Such simple advice could easily be applied to improving the graduate student program.
This conference showed me that expanding the PhD experience does not require a major overhaul of the graduate program. What it requires is networking, communication and some updating of the program to broaden its scope beyond the shrinking job market of academia. Rather than complaining about the state of the PhD program, and reminiscing about days gone by in academia, graduate students need to start bridging the gap by making their skills both relevant and employable in a changing work environment.
Should this experiment be repeated? Definitely. The Alberta Graduate Conference was a catalyst for change and opportunity in Alberta, and is a concept that others should consider across Canada.
Ms. Zwicker is a doctoral candidate in the department of physiology at the University of Alberta.