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University Graduate School equips Ph.D. students for diverse career pathways, connects them with industry leaders

University Graduate School equips Ph.D. students for diverse career pathways, connects them with industry leaders

December 22, 2020 at 11:34am

What can I do with a Ph.D.?

It sounds like a trick question. A doctoral degree is the highest possible academic achievement in most fields. But how can you fully take advantage of all the skills and high-level knowledge you are learning during grad school when job hunting?

There are lots of ways. Traditionally, folks have pursued careers as tenure-track faculty members in academia. But that trend has been shifting nationally in the last few decades. Increasingly, Ph.D. students are finding jobs outside of higher education – and applying their skills to a variety of fields.

A 2017 National Science Foundation survey found that those holding doctoral degrees in science and engineering fields were roughly split between employment in the private sector and academia, 42 percent to 43 percent.

Higher education institutions across the country, including FIU, have noticed these unprecedented shifts and have begun to prepare their graduate students to head into the job market ready to break into a variety of industries and career paths.

During the summer and fall of 2020, FIU’s University Graduate School inaugurated a program with that goal in mind.

The program’s launch was in the making since 2018, when the university first forged a partnership with North Carolina State University to support and expand the Accelerate to Industry (A2i) work force training program for grad students. FIU later joined a consortium of academic partners across the country working to bring the A2i training model to their institutions.

A2i was founded by North Carolina State University and is funded by the National Science Foundation through an Innovations in Graduate Education grant; FIU is an academic partner on this grant.  

FIU’s A2i program

A2i offers a bold approach to work force readiness designed to help grad students connect with industries, learn about career options and gain valuable business, communication and leadership skills.

At FIU, Susan Webster, assistant dean at the University Graduate School and assistant vice president for Research and Economic Development, dove into A2i trainings and led the way in creating the university's A2i program.

When the pandemic hit and programming went remote, Webster reached out to North Carolina State University to partner on a virtual semester of seminars focused on job search strategies during the summer.

In the fall of 2020, FIU hosted its major virtual event: a two-day immersion experience for Ph.D. students to connect with industry leaders, learn about resume writing and gain leadership skills.

“This allowed graduate students to explore employment opportunities with industry and helped them connect directly with leaders,” Webster said. “Ph.D. graduates have always been a part of industry, but this helps highlight career options and pathways.”

More Ph.D. students are heading into industry jobs in part because there are a limited number of jobs available nationally in academia. As a young graduate, Webster herself recalls applying to various postdoctoral and starting faculty positions. She says students facing similar journeys – or those who already know they want to use their degree for a job outside of academia – need options.

“A big part of the reason people pursue an advanced degree is to advance their career,” she says. “What are your possibilities post-graduation? This puts it in a framework where students can ask questions and understand that. Students can hear from industry leaders and see how the technical expertise and skill set that they may not think about (such as running a lab or managing a grant), can be useful in a particular industry.”

Connecting with industry, preparing for the future

FIU’s virtual event featured a number of international movers and shakers in diverse fields from biotech, pharmaceutical and health companies to consulting companies and the business world. Among the panelists were several Panthers, ranging from FIU Business alumnus Oscar Grau to Robert Hacker, co-founder and director of StartUP FIU, a university-wide initiative to foster innovation and entrepreneurship at the university.

Team members from FIU’s Career and Talent Development also presented their top tips on LinkedIn profiles, and FIU’s Center for Leadership and Service team led grad students in a mini version of its hallmark Academy of Leaders training, which allows students to build crucial skills, including awareness of personality type and leadership style; group development; and conflict resolution.

“I was absolutely blown away by the guest speakers Dr. Susan Webster and UGS invited,” said Sherri Ahern, a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration. “They [are] titans in their fields, but also willing to give graspable advice to students who have yet to enter the work force. I had never really thought of a career outside of academia before, but based on what the speakers talked about, I see now that expanding my horizons is completely doable.”

One of her most valuable takeaways: “How vital a well-set-up LinkedIn account is. I edited my profile on the spot, and it is ten times better than it was before the session!”

Andria Beal, a doctoral student in biology, expanded her network and made a new contact at the event. “I know I do not want to stay in academia, and I want to make sure I know my options for going into industry or possibly going out on my own with a company or non-profit. This allows students to find mentors that fit their interests beyond academia.”

After this success, Webster says she and her team are gearing up to organize more A2i events for FIU and are planning to expand the program to cater to master’s degree students as well.