Beyond Academia: Connecting PhDs with the world

The process of earning a PhD is a Sisyphean endeavor, involving painstaking research of a niche topic for anywhere from 5 to 10 years. The promise on the other side of these degrees is employability, especially within the academic institutional system that produced them.

However, the academic job landscape has been steadily changing over recent decades, leaving graduating students in a lurch. One MIT study estimates that in engineering fields in the US, a single professor graduates nearly 8 PhDs on average, indicating an unsustainable growth in demand for academic jobs; meanwhile, the supply of such tenure-track positions has remained fairly constant [1]. The situation isn’t much better in the humanities [2]. As a result, PhDs have begun to flock to alternative careers in industry. In 2017 employment of PhDs in industry surpassed the employment of PhDs in academia for the first time [3]. The amount of PhDs leaving academia is only increasing, so it’s no wonder grad students are questioning the status quo of the academic job search.

That’s where Beyond Academia comes in. Over the past nine years with a team of 10 – 20 PhD student and postdoc volunteers, Beyond Academia at UC Berkeley has put on professional development events aimed towards educating graduate students about the myriad of career opportunities outside of tenure-track professorships. While this may seem like an obvious objective, many departments and advisors still almost exclusively promote academic jobs to their students. Those wishing to buck tradition and find an alternative career path are often left to fend for themselves.

With support from our colleagues at the Career Center and the Graduate Division, our events focus on developing professional skills, applying for jobs or fellowships, and setting yourself up for success in grad school. The Beyond Academia team is recruiting for the 2021-2022 year! If you’re interested in joining us, fill this form.

Connecting graduate students at all levels

Beyond Academia programs a variety of events throughout the academic year that address various aspects of graduate professional development. In the fall, we host a panel featuring senior-level graduate students called, “What I Wish I Did In Grad School.” This event gives new graduate students a chance to hear advice for navigating the rigors of grad school from more seasoned graduate students, who share their success stories and growth from failures. How do I navigate a work-life balance? What are the mental health resources on campus? How do I set boundaries with my advisor? These are some of the topics broached at this session. This event is also a fantastic way for new graduate students to meet each other and interact with people outside of their own department.

Towards the end of the fall semester, we coordinate an event called the Professional Profile Clinic. Here, speakers provide tips on crafting a well-constructed resume and LinkedIn profile for job hunting. In addition, students get the opportunity to have their resume reviewed in 1:1 sessions with industry and career development professionals. For many graduate students who are unsure about industry norms in professional profile development, this type of event can be invaluable. When we hold this event in-person, we also offer free personalized business cards and headshots for attendees!

Finally, the transition to virtual platforms during the year of the pandemic also enabled us to begin a monthly Speaker Series. Each month, we invite a speaker with a PhD working in a non-academic setting to talk to a small group of students about their career trajectory and experiences. With a small group, the environment is incredibly casual and informal, so it’s a great opportunity for students to broaden their network and learn more about specific career areas, from biotech to the public sector.

Bringing it together: the annual conference

Our flagship event of the year is the annual conference, a two-day affair where we invite over a hundred PhD-holding speakers from outside academia to participate in panels, workshops, and keynotes addressing various aspects involved in the transition beyond academia. This year’s conference happened on February 25th and 26th, featuring Dr. Karen Kelsky (founder of The Professor Is In) and Dr. Jennifer Cohen (Associate Director for Biosciences Diversity Programs at Stanford University School of Medicine) as keynote speakers. Other sessions included professional development workshops with titles such as “Negotiating the Job Offer” and “Presentation Skills,” panels on careers such as management consulting, data science, university administration, and more.

The conference is designed to showcase the speakers’ diverse careers and the variety of trajectories that got them there.  One common misconception among PhD students is that they are only qualified to work in the field of their PhD research – this conference strives to turn this belief on its head and demonstrate that the PhD experience is much more universal than it may seem.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges in conference organizing, we decided to commit to a fully virtual experience and hosted the conference on the Hopin online platform, combined with networking sessions on Gather.town. In addition, we made conference registration free and available for trainees around the world, not just at UC Berkeley. As a result, we were ecstatic to find that the conference garnered over 3000 registered attendees from every continent except for Antarctica! Of these, UC Berkeley represented the largest fraction, comprising about 300 registrations. In normal times, the conference occurs at Clark Kerr Campus and draws about 200-300 attendees, making this year’s conference the largest ever by a long shot.

Our conference attendees generally found the conference to be very useful. Regarding the experience, they thought it “completely exceeded…expectations,” was “hugely validating in ways [they weren’t] expecting,” and “left [them] feeling more energized and confident that [they] will have a career and find meaningful opportunities.” Our invited speakers enjoyed the conference greatly as well. One remarked, “I love BA’s Mission and find it to be extremely important support for graduate students. [I] wish I had something like this in my time!”

Lessons learned from the pandemic  

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Beyond Academia team was faced with unprecedented challenges and growth opportunities. One of the main challenges was transitioning our annual conference to a virtual format. Some of the lessons learned from this transition were how to effectively design an intuitive conference interface, how to provide virtual technical support during the conference, and how to train others on navigating the conference platform.

An extraordinary surprise from going virtual was the global impact we had. Having this kind of influence wasn’t possible with the in-person conference format used previously. However, the virtual format posed some limitations as well, such as the exhaustion caused by screen exposure over extended periods of time and the lack of spontaneity and ease of networking interactions. In the future, we are optimistic about combining the best aspects of both virtual and in-person approaches for the best possible conference for our attendees.

A chance for professional development

Many of us who joined Beyond Academia didn’t realize the impact it would have on our own lives. In addition to providing professional development opportunities, it has also taught us invaluable skills. For example, as co-directors of Beyond Academia, collaboratively managing a team has allowed us to learn leadership, meeting facilitation, communication, and collaborative problem solving skills.

The work we put together as part of the Beyond Academia team has undoubtedly been an incubator for transferable skills, especially in terms of project management, strategy, and professionalism. For example, by recruiting around a hundred speakers every year for our conference we learn networking skills and build lasting relationships with industry professionals. Fundraising, budgeting, partnership building, website management, listserv and social media management, interviewing, scheduling, and problem solving – these are just some of the skills that Beyond Academia team members have acquired and which will greatly benefit us in future professional endeavors.

Typically, the academic research structure does not encourage deep team-oriented responsibilities. In contrast, being a part of the Beyond Academia team has given us the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues who are equally committed to the organization’s mission. Moreover, it has truly been a joy to be able to work with such a diverse group of colleagues, all of whom come from different departments, programs, and backgrounds and with whom we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work otherwise. Our team comprises graduate students and postdocs from all sorts of fields, from ethnomusicology and comparative literature to physics and chemical engineering.

Belonging to the Beyond Academia team truly feels like being part of a successful interdisciplinary startup. In addition to providing professional development events for graduate students and postdocs, Beyond Academia is a platform for team members to develop valuable skills. Our organization has lasting impact as well – beyond our events, we have a network of alumni who have successfully transitioned to careers outside of academia and with whom we collaborate on a regular basis. Ultimately, we consider the legacy of Beyond Academia to be unique and invaluable to both the UC Berkeley community and to the global graduate student and postdoc community and we are grateful for the opportunity to have such an impact.

The Beyond Academia team is recruiting for the 2021-2022 year! If you’re interested in joining us, fill this form.


Works cited:

  • Larson, Richard C et al. “Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia.” Systems research and behavioral science 31,6 (2014): 745-750. doi:10.1002/sres.2210
  • Winter, Frederick A. “Plus C’Est La Même Chose.” Inside Higher Ed, 2021, www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/02/09/new-reality-humanities-phds-transformation-not-crisis-moment-opinion.
  • Langin, Katie, et al. “In a First, U.S. Private Sector Employs Nearly as Many Ph.D.s as Schools Do.” Science, 12 June 2020, www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/03/
    first-us-private-sector-employs-nearly-many-phds-schools-do.

 


Categories: May 2021, Professional Development