Broadening experiences and striving to change academic culture: The BEST grant places nonacademic careers in the limelight

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog


In 2014, Science reported that only about 15% of biomedical PhD researchers secured a tenure-track position, leaving 85% to figure out how to best apply their skills and training to “alternative” career paths. The NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training [BEST] grants are designed to help universities expose graduate students and postdocs to non-academic research-related positions in domains such as policy, biotech, teaching, or science communications.

This past October, 17 awardees of the BEST grant came together in Bethesda, Maryland for their fourth annual conference to discuss how to successfully inform a growing population of biomedical and life science graduate students and postdocs about careers beyond the traditional scope of tenure-track research.

The NIH created the BEST grant in 2012 to help recipient institutions train scientists for “nontraditional” career paths. In the subsequent year, Wayne State secured the $1.8 million, 5-year grant. “The funding is set up to provide faculty time to build a program, so after the 5 years of NIH support, hopefully the university will be committed to running this,” said Dr. Patricia Labosky, Program Leader at NIH’s Office of Strategic Coordination. These sentiments were echoed by the grant’s PI and Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Ambika Mathur, in a 2014 press release: “The long-range goal is to institutionalize these practices so that our students become the next generation of innovators and leaders in science. The extended outcome of our program is to place students in diverse careers in addition to academia, and to educate the biomedical community that such diverse careers are viewed as desirable and successful outcomes of doctoral research training.”

Each awardee tailors their BEST program to suit their doctoral population. In the Midwest, in addition to Wayne State University, the University of Chicago and Michigan State University (MSU), also received the grant. At MSU, the program is a multi-year co-curricular experience, which takes into account its location in an area that is not heavily industrialized. Similar to Wayne State’s BEST program, which has a three-phase training plan that culminates in a career exploration or internship, the University of Chicago’s myChoice program is a multi-step curriculum designed to expose participants to a variety of career paths, such as entrepreneurship, teaching, policy, industry, communication, among other areas. Another feature of MyChoice is that programming is open to participants from other institutions in the Chicago area. (A full description of each BEST awardee’s program can be found on the NIH-BEST site.)

While the mission of the BEST grant seems straightforward enough, it poses a serious challenge to scientific training culture in academic institutions which has tended to view nonacademic careers as a lesser choice and failed to provide students and postdocs with information about other viable options. As a result, many doctoral students are often confused about their possible career trajectories once they make decisions to depart from the tenure-track route.

Where did this scientific training culture come from, and how can we help transform it to benefit the academic labor force while serving the scientific research enterprise?

An Academic Pyramid Scheme?

Over 50 years ago, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, in a speech entitled The Uses of the University (1963), explained how historical forces have shaped the role of the university in society. The university was no longer cloistered, but now “a prime instrument of national purpose,” with its job to produce “new knowledge,” which was “the most important factor in economic and social growth.” He noted the deficiencies of sprawling universities, which included large classes that made researchers too busy to teach. He also warned of the possible negative impact of federal influence.

Paula Stephan, professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and Science Magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year, referred to the current graduate and postdoctoral training system as a “pyramid scheme” that uses young aspiring scientists as sources of cheap labor for grant-funded research, yet fails to reciprocate in the form of career opportunities. In How Economics Shapes Science, Stephan argues that federally funded academic research squashes innovation by probing “safe” questions. According to Science, “She shows why the demand for low-cost graduate students and even lower-cost postdocs is perpetual, insatiable, and out of proportion with subsequent career opportunities.”

Stephan’s work is an assessment of the culmination of those circumstances – historical, economical, and otherwise – that have brought us to this point. Despite her rather grim observations, however, there is an optimism inherent in the growing acknowledgement of the situation. As was clear at the NIH-BEST meeting this October, not only policy change but cultural change will be required to prevent the current system’s implosion, as well as to produce innovative research and to recultivate an atmosphere of reciprocity, as opposed to the lopsided relationship that most labs rely on to produce data cheaply and quickly. As Stephan notes in the Science article, now is the perfect time to discuss “the need to provide students with good information and help them explore alternatives early in their graduate career.”

The discussion is occurring and it can be quite vehement. Strategizing is underway whether or not academia is ready for it. At the NIH-BEST meeting, PhD students and postdoc delegates from BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of this culture and the “countercultural” influence of the BEST program in an open and frank conversation. Many praised the program for being a lifeline in an atmosphere where expressing interest in anything beyond the academic career track is still disparaged.

The NIH already acknowledges that federally funded students and postdocs should be actively engaging in career development. A clarification published in 2014 by the NIH’s Office of Management and Budget states that “this dual role is critical in order to provide Post-Docs [and graduate students] with sufficient experience and mentoring for them to successfully pursue independent careers in research and related fields.” This is a stipulation of all those supported by NIH grants. The problem is that in most training settings, little mentorship or direction outside of the traditional career trajectory that assumes a future academic position is provided.

Waiting for the “switch to flip”

At the NIH-BEST conference, a panel comprising graduate students and postdocs from the BEST awardee institutions discussed their impressions of academia, their experience with the BEST program, and what they perceived to be the biggest obstacles in eradicating the taboo associated with considering careers outside of academia. The discussion was enlightening, frank, and oscillated between palpable frustration and burgeoning hope.

One graduate student from a Midwest institution, who had previously worked in industry and who wanted a PhD to advance her career, discussed how swiftly and forcefully her perception changed when she got into graduate school: “I was blindsided … I really couldn’t understand why people weren’t giving me the information I was seeking. In some cases, the [principal investigators (PIs)] couldn’t help me. They’re trained to help people who want to go into academia.” She continued, “Our mentors, throughout our training, are PIs. Even if they want to help, they don’t think they can teach us anything more than academic careers. This is what makes us think that it’s either an academic career or not. Our mentors are paving the path for us down that one way.”

Natalie Cain, a postdoc from UC Davis, spoke of her experience as a graduate student and the hope that she would one day acquire the desire to pursue an academic career. Cain noted that, “The people above you are telling you that this is what you’re supposed to do and you’re just hoping that at some point the switch will flip and you’ll say, ‘Yes, I do want to work in a university.’ You might wait a long time for that switch to go and then when it doesn’t, you’re playing catch up.”

Waiting for the switch to flip often times leads to procrastination. Students, believing that eventually they’ll want to follow in the footsteps of their mentor, delay considering other options and pursuing career development opportunities. Ada Weinstock, a postdoc from NYU, suggested that high achievers who may be unsure of their options in the sciences go on to graduate school and postdoc positions in order to put off making a life decision for fear that it will be the wrong one. She noted that “We are so afraid of failing that we don’t want to make a decision … Give people tools to help them make a decision.” Heather Clancy, a graduate student from University of Colorado, summed up the problem perfectly: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Yet resistance to programs such as BEST is perplexing. Scientists are taught to evaluate all reasonable possibilities when designing and interpreting experiments, but they seem to possess blind spots for applying the same rationale to their own lives. Maybe herein lies the psychological crux of the problem:  PhD programs attract dynamic overachievers who are both open-minded and perfectionists, searching for validation from mentors that may never come. Couple this with the natural propensity for scientists to evaluate all information before making a decision.  The paucity of said information, as well as the robust disparagement of searching for it, creates a perpetual procrastination loop and a plume of postdocs unsure of where to funnel their energies.

Although a topic for another article, it is worth mentioning that the panel of BEST delegates at the conference was entirely female. Perhaps this was coincidental, but it may reflect the general frustration, unrest, and urgency that many women in STEM fields experience, who not only carry the burden of the under-funded and under-mentored academic system, but also the additional obstacles of unconscious bias and multitasking in the face of other life choices, such as motherhood. In fact, mothers are likely the most in need of choices outside of the traditional trajectory. Much like the persistent discouragement of pursuing careers outside of academia, women who are considering families must also guard this potentially stigmatized desire.

The Postdoc Holding Pattern

Oddly enough, the so-called “alternative path” is actually the dominant route taken by most. This is not due to a failure to “cut it,” but in most cases, a realization that one’s desired life path may be incompatible with what an academic career entails, as well as wanting to avoid the overwhelming uncertainty of securing sufficient funding and tenure in the future.

The numbers overwhelmingly corroborate the emergence of students deliberately veering away from academia. Melanie Sinche, director of education at The Jackson Laboratory and author of Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Sciencesurveyed just over 8,000 PhDs who graduated between 2004 and 2014: 22% were in tenure-track faculty positions and 13% in non-tenure track positions, leaving a whopping 65% in so-called “alternative” careers. Nearly 68% completed one postdoc and 27% two distinct postdocs (4% engaged in three or more). Maybe even more disconcerting, only 28% of the sample employed outside of the tenure-track felt the postdoc was required or preferred for employment in their current position (80% believed the PhD was necessary). These figures, presented at the NIH-BEST conference in October, led Ms. Sinche to conclude that a primary goal of the BEST program must be to discourage PhDs from using a postdoc position as a “holding pattern,” and to encourage them instead to engage in career decision-making earlier in their training.

Programs like BEST offer students and postdocs additional insight into other viable career options and help them to identify and cultivate transferable skills, the significance of which is often overlooked.  It also turns the abstract “someday” into something real. It forces busy scientists to take the amorphous “future plans” off of the back burner (in a lab environment where it is often difficult to plan beyond the next experiment, committee meeting, or grant deadline) and thrusts it into the forefront.

Not everyone who enters the BEST program decides against academia. One postdoc from UCSF on the conference panel had her desire to become a tenure-track faculty member confirmed while participating. She may be a member of the most important contingent of BEST, because those who decide to stay in academia will be at the forefront of the cultural change. These future professors and lab directors will not foist their own career template on future generations of young scientists, but hopefully, guide them to resources to help them make their own fulfilling life decisions.

In the meantime, current and future PhDs may find solace in Ms. Sinche’s survey, which found that the majority of PhDs are quite happy in their present positions (academic or otherwise). As I listened to the panel of inspiring and determined women at the conference, I knew that each would eventually find her own route even if she has to blaze through stagnant convention to get there.

As the program wound down, one student said, “This has been a long time coming. It is going to take a huge overhaul. The mindset will still be there in years to come, but we need programs like BEST to change the culture.”  Indeed, it will have no choice but to change, fueled by programs like BEST, and inspiring people like the ones I met at this enlightening conference.