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The Black Hole

Old Debate, More Participants: What do 80% of PhD holders do for a career?


I received a pamphlet the other day entitled: Careers Support for Life Science Post Docs

(thanks to Anne and Lynn for letting me post this!)

This got me thinking and building on the momentum from Beth’s Why do PhDs leave and What Types of Jobs are out there entries along with the heated discussion around my Say No to the Second Post Doc entry I decided to have a look around Canadian universities to see if programs were present for the 80% of PhD holders who will pursue an alternative career.

Through that search, I identified great variability, with some universities having good institutional support (e.g.: University of Alberta) and others doing an impressive job on their own as concerned post docs (e.g.: University of Toronto). Many still lag far behind though… so I’ve selected highlights that are generally applicable and worth a visit:

University of Calgary
A newsletter that looks sharp, is generally relevant to post docs and could easily serve as a model for other post doc (or research institute) newsletters. One of the themes that I see here and recurring throughout the country is a lack of role models for PhD holders – hence the interview approach… find a handful of people who have PhDs and ask them where they are and how they got there. I’ll look forward to reading future issues.

University of Toronto
If you’re going to have a post doc association… follow this lead and have a Career Development Coordinator. The majority of your members will not be going down the professor route, it makes absolute sense to have someone who knows what resources are available at your university and in the city for them to speak with.

University of Alberta
Institutional Support… for real. It looks like there was Killam money put into establishing something permanent for post docs – this is a great way to ensure the long term stability of information/resources and avoid the problem that many trainee groups cannot get their heads around – how to do succession planning. There are many organizations that get started with the energy of a handful of interested people and then fade into oblivion. Institutional support (i.e.: an office, a contact in senior admin who is permanent, a mailing address, etc) is critical to the long term success of these organizations.

McGill University
Has emphatically stated that Post Docs are trainees… in fact, they are all mandatory members of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society at McGill. This comes with a good array of career services, though it does seem that they are mostly tailored for graduate students. Not all post docs would want this status, but it is certainly a way of handling things like group benefits and access to facilities.

University Affairs
A great set of resources for post academic career planning in Canada including great articles, podcasts, blogs (Career Sense and Margin Notes), and news/events pages.

The best set…
There are many great examples in Canada that Universities can mimic in their own institutes, but the best set of alternative career resources to be found for PhD holders seems to be on the American Association for the Advancement of Science website under the Careers Section. These booklets are a MUST READ for PhDs looking for a non-tenure track career path. The other sections of the AAAS careers page are also quite extensive (again, why does Canada have no equivalent to the AAAS for its scientists?). Granted, this is US-centric, but it still far outweighs the type of resources available in Canada and offers great advice for those struggling with the decision between 80 and 20.
Here in Cambridge, they’ve really put a lot of effort into ensuring the success of their academic trainees. It makes so much sense too, because every person that comes through your university is a reflection on your university.

Canadian Universities need to learn this and invest in their people.

Some great examples from a post doc’s point of view:

First – a dedicated full time office for life science post docs (another for physical sciences and another for social sciences/humanities)

Second – a vibrant post doc society that provides numerous guides (finding a post doc, finding accommodation, how to supervise, etc), hosts social events, and organizes professional development seminars.

Third – an idea I’d never heard of, but again makes a whole lot of sense… they have a database of Cambridge alumni who have agreed to be contacted for advice/questions about where they ended up with their PhDs. It’s a free service called GradLink – I’ve browsed it and it covers hundreds of different disciplines from across the world.

Another interesting follow up question that I’ll certainly blog about on another occasion:

Are Canadian Institutions training Post Docs to have the core competencies suggested by the National Post Doc Association?
1. Discipline-specific conceptual knowledge
2. Research skill development
3. Communication skills
4. Professionalism
5. Leadership and management skills
6. Responsible conduct of research

Admittedly, most of these depend on a good supervisor who cares more about training the next generation of scientists rather than getting the next paper out. It seems so short sighted (and a little self-centred) to think that a single lab’s productivity with respect to “knowledge learned” could outweigh that of multiple labs run by well trained scientists…. but like I said – another time perhaps.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Sonn / April 15, 2010 at 15:49

    How did you come to the 80% figure? Isn’t it more like 65-70% to be accurate?

  2. Dave / April 15, 2010 at 16:10

    Hi Sonn,
    The 80% number is from the National Science Foundation in the US which shows that just 19.6% of new professors had obtained their degree within the last six years. I have yet to obtain comprehensive statistics in Canada. Remember that this is for people who get a PhD and not people that are in a post doc. Lots of PhD holders do not start a post doc at all.

  3. Beth / April 22, 2010 at 03:56

    I’m curious, Sonn – where did you get the 65-70% from?

  4. Interested Citizen / September 14, 2010 at 03:27

    re your next blog… it will be intruiging to read what metrics, other than published papers, you think could be sufficiently robust to enable useful comparisons between laboratories (e.g. when assessing funding applications, etc)

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