Education Opinion

Preparing Graduate Students for STEM Careers Outside Academia

Most STEM graduates don’t primarily do research or work in academia after they earn a Ph.D. How do we prepare those students for the multitude of other careers they could pursue?

By , D. H. McCay, C. T. Driscoll, R. L. Glas, K. M. Gutchess, A. J. Johnson, and G. D. Millard

Current graduate programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) prepare students for a career that most of them will never find themselves in. These graduate programs have traditionally been apprenticeships that prepare students to become researchers at academic institutions [Hancock and Walsh, 2016]. However, more than 50% of all doctoral degree holders do not work in academia or even do research as their primary job (Figure 1).

Science and engineering doctoral degree holders work in different sectors, engage in different primary work activities.
Fig. 1. The percentages of employed doctoral degree holders in all fields of science and engineering that (a) work in different sectors and (b) engage in different primary work activities. [NSF, 2013b].
Given these trends, a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends adjusting our mind-set to recognize that many of our most talented graduates will enter career sectors such as industry and government [National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018]. Ideally, programs should encourage students to explore such diverse career options by allocating the time and resources needed to pursue course offerings designed for career exploration, as well as seminars, internships, and real-life professional experiences.

With this report as a backdrop, we offer recommendations that have worked in our experience to build a program that prepares students for diverse careers after graduating. Our recommendations are derived from experience developing the Education Model Program on Water-Energy Research (EMPOWER), one program in the first cohort of National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) programs at Syracuse University.

Employment Trends and Opportunities

A 2013 study by the National Science Foundation (NSF) suggests a disconnect between skills desired by employers and professional development provided in graduate programs [National Science Foundation (NSF), 2013a]. Employers from diverse sectors expect STEM doctoral degree holders to have expert content knowledge, strong communication skills, a multidisciplinary focus, entrepreneurial and project management skills, a sense of professionalism, and the ability to apply knowledge across a broad context [Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service, 2012]. Despite employer expectations, the NSF study indicates that today’s STEM graduate programs still leave critical gaps in skills focused on science communication, preparation for nonacademic careers, broadening the societal relevance of research (e.g., engaging nonscience audiences, policy makers, and stakeholders through outreach), and entrepreneurship.

Testing water quality in Fayetteville Green Lake during a domestic field course on water and energy.
EMPOWER NRT faculty member Chris Junium shows students how to test water quality in Fayetteville Green Lake during a domestic field course on water and energy. Credit: D. McCay

To help fill these gaps, NRT has funded more than 50 programs since 2014 that emphasize interdisciplinary research and are uniquely focused on producing STEM professionals prepared for research-related careers within and outside of academia. Our program addresses the connections between hydrocarbon energy production, use, and effects and water systems.

Within water and energy fields, many careers outside of academia require advanced research-based degrees, and employment trends are typical of trends across science and engineering. Less than half of geoscience doctoral graduates are hired by universities; most work in oil and gas (22%), research institutes (21%), and the federal government (14%) [American Geosciences Institute, 2014].

We know that STEM Ph.D. graduates explore for natural resources, advise policy makers, run industry labs, manage environmental restoration efforts, and more. With this in mind, how do we give students the skills they need to navigate the diverse career paths they eventually may take?

Principles for Developing Graduate Programs for Multiple Career Pathways

Pulling from our NRT experience, we suggest five guiding principles for adapting research-based STEM graduate programs to address training gaps.

  1. Allow programs to be student-designed and highly individualized. There is no one-size-fits-all program that meets the needs of all students. Career opportunities are simply too diverse. Rather, students need to design their programs to meet their anticipated needs. Through the process of identifying and evaluating available career trajectories, students take ownership of their career preparation [St. Clair et al., 2017].
  2. Provide exposure to careers in STEM early and often. As one NRT student noted at a recent career seminar, “It’s not that I don’t know what I want to do—it’s that I don’t know what I can do.” Programs need to develop mechanisms to improve student awareness of career pathways in their field. It is critical to expose students to the full spectrum of possibilities early in their program to maximize the time and opportunities for skills training.
  3. Create a program culture that values professional development. It is essential to weave professional development into the start of a student’s graduate program. Emphasis on science communication, interdisciplinarity, negotiation, professionalism, and the ability to apply disciplinary knowledge across a broad context cannot begin too early. Students learn the value of such training when they have time and opportunities to integrate professional development and career path experiences into their programs of study. Institutions can demonstrate the importance they place on such training by providing assistantship support during internships, offering seed grants for networking events, and hosting professional development workshops. With strong program support, students can be more effective in their career development and job search process [St. Clair et al., 2017].
  4. Build a strong sense of community. As soon as a graduate student group has been established, it is imperative to bring students together often. Programs should foster continuity across disciplinary boundaries and between cohorts of students (i.e., incoming and senior). Community building is the first stage of professional network development and a critical component of establishing a culture that values career preparation and student-centered programming.
  5. Don’t reinvent the wheel. STEM graduate programs can leverage a wealth of existing resources. Many campuses have programs designed to support career planning and professional development. We have found that participation in these programs fosters student awareness of the myriad of campus resources available. Such programming provides the foundation for students to seek and tailor resources available to support their individual career interests [St. Clair et al., 2017]. Programming should facilitate personal connections between the students and the campus services available to meet their needs.

A Model Test Bed of Best Practices

We developed the above guiding principles on the basis of experience creating a graduate program for students to study the water-energy nexus and prepare for a range of careers. The program has many elements, but the three fundamental components include a foundational seminar, individualized professional development coursework, and a capstone career path experience (Figure 2).

Sequence of training elements that prepare students for multiple career pathways in STEM.
Fig. 2. Sequence of training elements that are integrated with traditional, research-based graduate degree programs to prepare students for multiple career pathways in STEM.

Foundational Seminar

We found that a required semester-long foundational seminar course that brings together the student cohort every week is a critical component of changing program culture, establishing a sense of community, and developing student ownership and agency. The foundational seminar involves students from multiple disciplines and is required in the first four semesters for Ph.D. students (two semesters for master’s students). Students must participate continuously, which integrates multiple cohorts of students at multiple stages in their program. Those cohorts pass down and advance institutional knowledge and program culture.

The foundational seminar serves as an “interdisciplinary discussion space” [Hancock and Walsh, 2016], and it allows professional development, career discussion, and exposure to campus resources to begin early and be repeated throughout a student’s graduate program. We feature different career options by hosting nonacademic speakers, offering career panels, and discussing the future of STEM careers in relevant disciplines.

EMPOWER NRT students at work in the program’s foundational seminar.
EMPOWER NRT students Changcheng Pu and Robin Glas at work in the program’s foundational seminar. Credit: D. McCay

Our program provides training in the scientific enterprise through experiential learning around peer review, grant proposal review, and data visualization. We also invite on-campus professionals to the seminar for targeted training and to establish one-on-one connections with students. We regularly solicit student feedback, enabling students to take ownership of the seminar program and ensuring that the seminar meets the needs of each cohort. There is no formulaic structure for the seminar that works every semester or for every student, so the format and content are constantly changing in response to the dynamic student group.

Professional Training Specialization

Building on the seminar, students pursue individualized professional training for their careers of interest. By self-selecting coursework in some combination of communication, policy, business, entrepreneurship, law, information technology, and education, students can explore different fields, develop soft skills, and grow their professional network.

We have collaborated with professional schools at Syracuse University to identify appropriate coursework for STEM graduate students that may count toward degree requirements. The coursework is analogous to certificates of advanced study (CAS), although it is highly individualized. Alternatively, students can complete existing CAS programs, such as one in sustainable enterprise.

Capstone Career Path Experience

Students are required to obtain experience in career sectors through internships, collaborative site visits at research labs, study abroad, or other opportunities designed to foster scientific knowledge outside of the university [Hancock and Walsh, 2016]. Although internships are routinely referenced in this context, we emphasize that career experiences cannot be formulaic or overly prescribed.

We advise that programs not place students in career experiences, but rather support students as they seek out such experiences via their professional network, career knowledge, and interests. We have integrated professional network building into the program through the visiting professional speakers, work with campus career services, workshops, conferences, seed grant opportunities, and coursework.

A number of funding models support career experiences, including supplemental awards from NSF (e.g., the Graduate Research Internship Program, Graduate Student Preparedness Opportunity, and Non-Academic Research Internships for Graduate Students (INTERN) supplemental funding for nonacademic research internships), as well as fellowships available through national organizations. Some employers fund internships or paid professional experiences. Our students have pursued career path experiences with the U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, local nonprofits, and academic institutions. Funding, for 1 month to an entire year, provides students the flexibility to pursue career experiences.

Showing STEM Graduates a Multitude of Career Options

STEM graduate programs have many strengths, but recent data and employment trends suggest a disconnect between graduate training and the skills desired by employers outside of academia. Programs addressing these gaps in career preparation take different approaches, and ongoing evaluation will assess their effectiveness [Feldon et al., 2010]. Our model is to adapt STEM programs through program design to try to meet the needs of today’s students and allow for student ownership over their career preparation.

EMPOWER NRT students collect water samples near Syracuse, N.Y., during a regional field course on water and energy.
EMPOWER NRT students Amanda Campbell, Alaina Hickey, and Kyle Blaha collect water samples on Fayetteville Green Lake near Syracuse, N.Y., during a regional field course on water and energy. Credit: D. McCay

References

American Geosciences Institute (2014), Status of the geoscience workforce, Alexandria, Va.

Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service (2012), Pathways Through Graduate School and into Careers, Princeton, N.J.

Feldon, D. F., M. A. Maher, and B. E. Timmerman (2010), Performance-based data in the study of STEM PhD education, Science, 329, 282–283, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1191269.

Hancock, S., and E. Walsh (2016), Beyond knowledge and skills: Rethinking the development of professional identify during the STEM doctorate, Stud. Higher Educ., 41(1), 37–50, https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.915301.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018), Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century, 174 pp., Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, D. C., https://doi.org/10.17226/25038.

National Science Foundation (NSF) (2013a), Innovation in graduate education challenge results, Arlington, Va.

National Science Foundation (NSF) (2013b), Survey of doctorate recipients, Arlington, Va., https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvydoctoratework/.

St. Clair, R., et al. (2017), The “new normal”: Adapting doctoral trainee career preparation for broad career paths in science, PLoS ONE, 12(5), e0177035, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181294.

Author Information

L. K. Lautz (email: [email protected]; @lklautz) and D. H. McCay, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University, N.Y.; C. T. Driscoll, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University, N.Y.; R. L. Glas and K. M. Gutchess, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University, N.Y.; and A. J. Johnson and G. D. Millard, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University, N.Y.

Citation: Lautz, L. K., D. H. McCay, C. T. Driscoll, R. L. Glas, K. M. Gutchess, A. J. Johnson, and G. D. Millard (2018), Preparing graduate students for STEM careers outside academia, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO101599. Published on 20 August 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY 3.0
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