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Getting a Ph.D.? Consider “Alternative” Careers

It’s fair to say that the majority of us who come to graduate school have a similar career goal in mind: a faculty position.

The Ph.D. is viewed as the gateway to academia and deciding to venture away from that is taboo. We go as far as to call nonacademic jobs “alternative,” which carries a connotation similar to “second choice.” This culture of academia-or-bust has generated an unfavorable disparity in the number of postdoctoral fellows applying for faculty positions and the number of jobs available. This job crisis was the focus of a recent, eye-opening seminar held on campus as a part of Johns Hopkins’ growing effort to change the way students view the value of their Ph.D. An Illustration of a fork in the road

On October 15, an overflowing room of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty listened as Dr. Gregory Petsko, professor emeritus of Brandeis University, discussed the results of a study he recently conducted on the current state of academia.

Those of us looking to become professors are planning to, or currently doing, postdoctoral research. The problem is that only about 20 percent of postdocs in the life sciences actually become professors. That is a sobering statistic for academic hopefuls, but it also highlights the interesting reality of Ph.D. careers: 80 percent of life sciences postdocs end up in nonacademic jobs.

“We have to change our language when we speak about “alternative” careers because the way we talk about things shapes the way we think about them,” said Petsko. He urged us to stop believing that academia is our only option and challenged us to consider other roads. “Walking off the career path you’ve been told to walk is scary. If you’re not scared, that means you aren’t thinking enough about this, but you can’t let fear make the decisions.”

Perhaps his best advice was something I wish I had been told sooner in my graduate career. You need to start considering your options now. The sooner you start viewing academia as one of many job options available to you, the easier it will be to accept a nonacademic job offer. That’s not to say academia isn’t a great career choice, but that should be an informed decision made after you’re aware of all options.

At Johns Hopkins, there are numerous ways students can explore other avenues with their Ph.D. The Biomedical Careers Initiative is a fantastic resource for discovering what opportunities your degree can offer you and how to prepare yourself to successfully venture down those career paths. Whether you are a graduate student, postdoc or a prospective Hopkins employee, I urge you to take a look around their website and start exploring.

The information and opportunities are available to you, but no one can tell you what to do with your life. You need to take the initiative to discover this on your own and have the courage to look away from the career path you were told you had to follow.