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When You Do Not Have a Plan

Suzanne Osborne

November 7, 2013

Some researchers can tell you about their moment of scientific awakening which inspired them, even as children, to pursue a career as a world-famous scientist. I am not one of those people. My path instead includes a last minute decision to take biology in high school followed by applying to science in university without thought to what future job I wanted. For 3 years I would be one of those undergraduates who displayed little interest in lab courses and the one who signed up, quite literally, the night before the deadline for a senior thesis project: hardly the idealistic notion of career planning. My senior thesis changed everything when I took to research like it had been my plan all along, compelling me to apply for graduate school. When it came time to decide whether to do a PhD I did pause to think about career options but when you are enjoying your project, have a great relationship with your laboratory members and have both funding and publications, the decision to hide under the security blanket of an extended education seems inevitable. This type of career planning unfortunately often results in a panic attack in the final year of your PhD.

Obviously there is fair amount of blame I place on myself for my lack of preparation and I have struggled a lot subsequently trying to shape my future. With the perspective I have gained following graduation, I now also blame another source: my university. I cannot speak for every institution but after 5 years and more than $35,000 in tuition I do not feel that I received any real career guidance. After much consideration I feel that graduate school should be streamed: formally organized based on career trajectory.

Precedence for PhD specializations exists: many Canadian universities offer joint MD-PhD programs. Why are there not PhD-Business, PhD-Teaching or PhD-Communications programs set up? Undergraduate and graduate level courses are essentially free to take for a graduate student yet this fact is poorly advertised, depends solely on student initiative and enrollment is likely discouraged in favour of more time spent on the primary research project. Cross-departmental collaborations could facilitate, for example, a business course for graduate students in the life sciences.

One advantage of such streaming is that it would force students to make critical decisions at an earlier stage of their career training. This is emotionally beneficial to the student who avoids career panics in their final year and additionally encourages a more open dialogue with the supervisor who can aid in tailoring the graduate experience to meet the needs of the individual student.

One of my biggest hurdles in deciding on a career path was that I had no training or experience in anything outside of core research. Having a more career focused PhD will endow the trainee with more job-specific training. From the student’s perspective, having a streamed PhD would aid in their career decision making process and, with the added training, would expedite their ability to acquire a job following graduation. Offering specialized PhD programs also has obvious benefits for the institution since more qualified trainees that enter the workforce increases the prestige of the university.

I recognize that no university or supervisor can hand a student a job on a silver platter. There remains much onus on the student at the graduate level to shape their career trajectory. However, so long as we continue to label graduate school as a training environment, the institution could go a lot further to aid us in preparing for the workforce. One option which is beneficial to both the student and institution is to create streamed or specialized PhD options in some of the more traditional career paths such as business, teaching or journalism. In retrospect, there seemed so many opportunities that I could have taken to develop my chosen career path. When you do not have a plan you lose out, so get one! NOW!