More Ph.D.s get sneak preview of non-academic careers

, Media Relations February 24, 2014


Scientists spend a lot of time crunching numbers to draw conclusions from data. And so it’s hardly surprising that  Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers at last week’s “Beyond Academia” career conference in Berkeley were doing just that.

Magda Strzelecka and Tyler Troy of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Program were among 450 young scientists looking at non-academic careers

“We look at numbers, and the likelihood that we will land tenure-track positions is about 10 percent,” said Magda Strzelecka, a post-doctoral researcher in molecular biology at UC Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Program. “It would be great to have an academic job, but I want to be prepared in case it doesn’t work out.”

Tyler Troy, a chemist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and also a member of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Program, had other concerns about a career in academia: “As an academic, you have to be a manager and a grant writer and that’s becoming increasingly difficult,” he said.

Strzlecka and Troy were among 450 doctoral and post-doctoral students at the sold-out conference at International House on Thursday and Friday looking at career options outside the halls of higher education. They also belong to a generation of graduate students weighing the rewards of academia – job security, flexible schedules, travel, passion for one’s field – against possibly better-paying and more accessible jobs in corporate, government and nonprofit sectors.

Ellen Konar (left), a social psychologist and chair of Mindset, speaks the technology industry panel, flanked by moderator Anna Goldstein

Conceived by a group of Ph.D. students and postdocs in psychology, neuroscience, vision science and cognitive science,  the  first Beyond Academia conference  took place in March 2013 and drew more than 200 graduate students. This year’s event doubled in participation and length, with graduate students not just from UC Berkeley, but from as far afield as New Jersey (Princeton) and Brazil, attending panels, workshops and networking sessions led by representatives from Google, Yahoo, Genetech, The Rand Corporation, Children Now, the Exploratorium, Neuron and more.

“Step outside your comfort zone. Just do it,” said Ellen Konar, a social psychologist, data scientist and chair of Mindset Works, an interactive online education program, who was on the conference’s Technology Industry panel.

Her call to action was well received: “I definitely want to get out into the work world and do more applied science,” said Lakshmi Narayana, a fifth-year doctoral student in Environmental Science, Policy and Management who specializes in plant genetics.

Rehan Khan, a Google statistician

At a lunchtime networking session, Rehan Khan, a statistician at Google who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University, talked about what has kept him in the job: “I like the people,” he said. He recalled how his first projects at Google were not unlike being in academia, especially the teamwork. “It still had that feeling like we were in grad school,” he said.

Nicole Abreu, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in psychology and one of this year’s conference organizers, isn’t sure yet which career path to take: “I’m undecided, which is why I’m here,” Abreu said. “I want to find out what I like, but I also want to find out what I don’t like. That’s the value of a conference like this.”

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