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The Widening World of Career Choices

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As any graduate or medical student will well-understand, choosing a career direction to pursue after graduation can be a daunting task. What is your dream job? Where would you like to be located? Where do you see yourself in five years? These decisions require careful reflection and research, and importantly, mentorship and advice from professionals and the institution.

In the past 10 years, there has been a paradigm shift throughout the graduate programs at Johns Hopkins. Previously, Ph.D. students were encouraged only to pursue academic jobs, with most following the traditional postgraduate school path that had been taken by nearly all of their advisers — several years spent as a postdoctoral fellow before going on to start a lab and become a principal investigator. However, the percentage of students with steady, tenure-track positions in their field after graduation has been steadily dropping since the 1970s, and currently only 8 percent of doctoral graduates in life sciences will hold a professorship within five years of completing their Ph.D.

Obviously, it’s untenable for graduate programs to prepare students solely for the academic life, only to have fewer than 10 percent able to find jobs in their field. But the pressure to promote academia is deeply ingrained in the scientific culture. Investigators are often measured by the success of their students, and it can be challenging for professors to advise students on how to best follow a path they themselves have not taken. Debra Silver received her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1997 and reflected that at the time, “alternative careers were still considered dirty words.”

Now, due to necessity, that perception has shifted. An uncertain funding climate combined with a drastic scarcity of faculty positions has left training institutions with a need to educate and encourage their students to pursue a variety of “alternative positions.” Although a big ship turns slowly, Johns Hopkins graduate programs should be commended for the work they have accomplished to this end in the past 10 years. The Professional Development and Career Office has more than doubled in size and offers a number of services to students throughout their time here.

Specifically, it regularly hosts panel discussions with professionals from a wide variety of career styles to discuss the pros and cons of their professions, as well as the best approaches for students interested in following each path. Professors throughout Johns Hopkins have also begun to recognize the reality of the changing academic climate and have made a concerted effort to help students find the career that will suit them best, whether academic or otherwise. Silver, now a principal investigator at Duke University, has two of her own students going through this process, and she lauds the changes to no longer tout academia over other options while encouraging students to search for careers that will enable them to find their own happiness.

As you approach the end of your time in graduate school and begin to look at the ever-widening world of career options, take the time to think about the right direction for you personally. Don’t be afraid of change — a majority of Ph.D. students find their desired career has shifted during graduate school. There are many advising services available, and professors across the hospital and medical campus have become far more willing to encourage and assist in finding positions outside the traditional academic track. There is a right career for everyone, and the tools to find and join yours are finally here.

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