Postdocs, Ph.D. students orient toward careers outside academia

March 16, 2018

Even for those used to working with data, the figures are sobering. The number of tenure-track positions in biomedical sciences has remained relatively constant for three decades. Yet the number of postdoctoral positions have more than tripled in that time. A 2014 study estimated a ratio of 6.3 Ph.D. graduates for every biomedical academic tenure-track position.

Fortunately, there is good news. Emerging technologies in the business and even the non-profit sector are opening up opportunities for Ph.D. and postdoctoral graduates to develop their skills and experience outside the laboratory. For instance, algorithms – once the preserve of mathematical theory and early computing –are now routinely deployed in customer-service software and facial recognition technology.

Graduate Career Networking – a School of Medicine Alumni Association-sponsored event held in early March – offered Ph.D. students and postdoctoral trainees an opportunity to explore non-academic track careers with Ph.D. graduates who were working in business and non-profit sectors.

Dr. WebberEmily Webber, Ph.D., was one of those advising School of Medicine Ph.D. student and postdoctoral trainees at the event. Dr. Webber earned her Ph.D. at Bowling Green State University and was focused early on a career in data science. 

"There was some help, but essentially you are on your own," she said, recalling her career path following graduation. Now Assistant Director of Prospect Management and Analytics at the OHSU Foundation, Dr. Webber feels doubly fulfilled. Not only is she building her career in data science, but she is also supporting an organization with whose mission she feels a strong affinity.

Dr. Webber recognizes the challenges for those still working toward the completion of their degree or program. "It's hard to see how the very specific skills you are building can have a broader application outside academia," she said. "But they absolutely do."

Navigating the cultural differences between tenure-track and commercial employment can also be daunting for those steeped in academic tradition. "Ph.D. students and postdocs are used to being assigned a title, a role, a rank," she said. "The executive decision to take that final step and independently identify yourself as a data scientist can initially be scary. But in the end, it is the most liberating component of this journey."

Graduate Career Networking 2018 attracted over 40 students and 17 Ph.D.s, whose fields ranged from health policy and technology transfer to research integrity and intellectual property law. The event was sponsored by the School of Medicine Alumni Association with funds provided by the Office of the Dean.

Photo: Dr. Emily Webber discusses career options with a School of Medicine Ph.D. candidate.