How a 2-Day Boot Camp Is Helping Ph.D.s Identify Career Options

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By Leonard Cassuto

One of the more vexing challenges we face in reforming doctoral training is that it remains so parochial. It’s not unusual for professors to be unaware of an innovation taking place at the university across town — or even one being tried by the department down the hall. As for doctoral reform in other countries, well, they may as well be on other planets. Even though international communication is easier than ever before, most academics in the United States have little idea of the workings of higher education in other nations.

Such educational isolationism holds us back. Doctoral programs around the globe are confronting many of the same challenges, but our disconnection from our neighbors means we never collaborate. The academic-job market didn’t collapse only in the United States, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the ravages of the pandemic extend beyond the borders of American academe.

Now more than ever, amid budget cuts and academic-job shortages, we need to publicize our best practices and share programs that work. In that spirit, I want to spotlight a career-diversity program for graduate students in Ireland — the Odyssey Program at University College Cork — that deserves a tryout on the American side of the pond.

Launched in 2018, Odyssey is a compressed orientation to the career paths available to Ph.D.s and postdoctoral fellows. Its stated goal for participants: “Adapt, integrate, and expand on their existing expertise to prepare for the many diverse career choices ahead of them.”

Odyssey serves all students, but it deserves special attention for its friendliness to scientists. When it comes to career diversity for Ph.D.s, the humanities and social sciences get a lot of the press, and for good reason: Many creative reforms in graduate training have emerged from those fields. But the academic-job market for scientists is likewise bleak. By some measures, it’s actually worse than in the humanities. Yet many graduate students in the sciences remain single-mindedly focused on the scant number of tenure-track openings that remain at research universities.

Lots of money pours into big science because the research is expensive, but those outlays don’t equate to professorial jobs. Instead, the staff of a typical science laboratory at a research university is pyramid-shaped. The lab employs many people from undergraduates on up, but only the lab director has a tenured (or tenure-track) position.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom (and most of Europe), much work in these labs is increasingly performed by postdoctoral fellows, hired on limited-term contracts. Those contracts, funded by grant money, only get renewed if the grant money keeps coming.

Meanwhile, postdocs search for their own faculty positions from which they might run their own labs. While they apply and wait each year, they fill a pool of contingent-laboratory labor. The numbers (see below) tell us that most postdocs won’t ever get the faculty jobs they seek. In this respect, they resemble the adjuncts who teach in so many American undergraduate classrooms.

The Odyssey Program at University College Cork is essentially a well-designed two-day boot camp to get Ph.D. students and postdocs out of this bind. “Its simplicity would knock you out,” said Mary O’Regan, a manager who oversees human resources for the university’s research programs and is Odyssey’s primary architect. And that simplicity makes it inexpensive and transferable.

The program has two stages: a dose of reality followed by a shot of hope. Its genesis lies in O’Regan’s own discovery of the reality that faces most Ph.D.s and postdocs on the campus, and her desire to communicate it. She saw Ph.D.s clinging to dreams of faculty positions, but when she collected the numbers, she concluded that most “don’t have a hope” of getting one.

According to a 2010 survey by the Royal Society in Britain (which includes Northern Ireland but not the Republic of Ireland, where University College Cork is located), less than a tenth of the country’s Ph.D.s got permanent jobs in academe. In Ireland, by O’Regan’s own calculations, the chances were more like one in 30. Only about a half of 1 percent of all British Ph.D.s in the sciences ended up as full professors, the Royal Society survey showed.

The situation in the United States isn’t quite that awful, but it parallels that of Ireland and Britain. “Only around 15 percent of U.S. science postdocs secure tenure-track jobs,” according to a 2016 article in The Scientist — and of course the pandemic will surely push those numbers lower.

In Britain, Ireland, and the rest of Europe, the movement of Ph.D.s away from academe actually reflects government policy aimed at “preparing researchers for careers beyond academe.” The goal is to “boost the permeability of talents across Europe’s economy and society” and, in the specific case of Ireland, “meet the needs of small, medium, and large enterprises” there. The problem is that no one has bothered to tell the students themselves that they should be looking for jobs broadly and not just focusing on academe. They’re keeping their eyes on the traditional goal of becoming a professor, with predictably disappointing results.

O’Regan looked around her university and recognized a pattern of symptoms among its Ph.D. students and postdocs. In an interview via Zoom, she said she saw “desperation, a feeling of failure, of feeling unwanted. They stick their head over the parapet and wonder: What am I going to do?” Yet they remained stuck, unable to contemplate stepping off the academic treadmill. “People were coming into me in tears, they were so tired,” said O’Regan.

With the active support of the university’s then-president, Patrick O’Shea, O’Regan devised Odyssey. The task of redirecting Ph.D.s, she said, begins with educating them about the reality they face on the faculty-job market. When graduate students or postdocs first sign up for Odyssey, O’Regan first meets with them individually. “I tell them they’re on a losing wicket,” she said. She gives them “a really tough statistical breakdown of the likelihood of their ever getting an academic position.” The numbers start to shake them out of what O’Shea called a “disgruntled, zombie state” in which they focus on a single goal.

The first day of the program “goes through their fears,” O’Regan said. Group exercises help students identify their “three top competencies” and how to capitalize on them, and their three main weaknesses, and how to shore them up. A poor public speaker, for example, might identify opportunities for low-stakes practice. Personal stories from program alumni bolster the possibility of such change, and a guest speaker typically narrates their own shift to a new set of career goals.

Day 2 explores new vistas. The program organizers, aided by guest speakers, survey career opportunities outside of academe — and why industries “appreciate research and hire Ph.D.s,” O’Regan said. Participants learn how recruitment and hiring works in the business world — the “story from the other side.” They learn networking techniques and talk with a human-resources professional. At the end of the day, each participant assembles a “personalized career action plan.”

If all of that seems straightforward, well, it is. But the workshop, conducted for 20 people at a time, changes minds and hearts, O’Regan said. The outcomes testify to this — for, like all effective reforms, Odyssey engages in ongoing self-assessment. About a half of the Ph.D. students who have gone through the program since its inception have been hired to positions outside the university, setting aside those who are still in graduate school.

But the program’s participants speak for themselves better than the statistics do. I contacted some of them by email. One Ph.D. in health economics said that before the workshop, he “did not know that there were so many options available to Ph.D. students outside academia.” The experience “gave me confidence,” he said, “and made me feel worthy of the jobs out there that I could apply for and succeed.”

Eoin Sherwin, a 2015 Ph.D. in neuropharmacology, said that he was “in a rut” as a postdoc and Odyssey opened his eyes. “One of my biggest takeaways” from the program, he said, was the idea “that I am more than what my research defines me as.” That awareness led him to the realization that that “there are values in doing a Ph.D. and a postdoc that go beyond what one researches in.”

Sherwin works in the corporate world now. He credits the Odyssey program with showing him the “opportunities that are out there.” Sherwin’s current supervisor told him that he was hired because of his skills — specifically, his Ph.D. The research he had already done signified his ability to shift focus, adapt to new knowledge, and learn it quickly.

That’s not news to the growing number of employers who know what Ph.D.s can do, but Sherwin admitted that he had “never really placed much value on that myself.”

Sherwin’s experience shows that Ph.D.s have the tools and the skills to thrive in jobs beyond a college campus. For many graduate students, the problem is that they don’t know that they have those skills. One of the simple — and valuable — virtues of Odyssey lies in its ability to simply show people what they already know how to do and how to apply it in a new arena.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University who writes regularly for The Chronicle about graduate education. His latest book, written with Robert Weisbuch, is The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, published in January 2021 by the Johns Hopkins University Press. He welcomes comments and suggestions at lcassuto@erols.com. Find him on Twitter @LCassuto.

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