student life

What’s New & Needed in the Modern STEM Graduate Degree

Today's PhD student may not end up as tomorrow's professor. Where will they go? And how can they prepare?

It was at my previous college that I had the privilege of attending a lecture on “The New PhD.” It was all about the traditional doctoral program, what it traditionally prepares students for, and why that needed to change.

The old-school graduate program was very focused on one thing: preparing the student for a career in academia. That means moving on to a postdoctoral researcher position, or professor, or some other teaching position. There’s only one problem: academia is becoming more and more flooded with qualified individuals, and it’s becoming harder and harder to land a job there.

Another option is industry.

PhD graduates can also take their degrees into a career in government or industrial sectors. Maybe that’s consultation for law and policy; maybe it’s research in pharmaceuticals. Either way, the position is going to require a lot more than just scientific expertise.

Of course, academia requires more than that as well. Settling into a tenured professor’s role means managing various lab projects (and people). Let’s add “project management” to our list.

Marketable Skills for Grads:

Project management

What else? Writing definitely comes up a lot (grants, scientific papers, reports), as does various other forms of communication. You get a lot of that in grad school. But we’ll add it just in case.

Marketable Skills for Grads:

Project management
Public speaking
Writing

You may know that biotech is in a huge state of growth right now. There are start-ups popping up all over the place. Landing a job in industry might mean working at a giant like Genentech, but it might mean a hundred PCR’s in your boss’s garage. Entrepreneurialism, teamwork, stress management (things move fast in industry, especially at start-ups), marketing, networking – those are pretty important in the early stages of a business, during which the company is spending a lot of time trying to get their name out there and convince investors to believe in them.

Maybe you won’t be involved in all those decisions. But if it’s a twelve person team and you’re pipetting stuff in the background, you may well have a say. Regardless, these soft skills are sure to come up as valuable along the way.

I also can’t help but add some hard skills concerning computer literacy. Programming, coding, data analysis – having expertise within biological sciences and coding is a rare skill, but increasingly in demand in today’s research.

Marketable Skills for Grads:

Project management
Public speaking
Writing
Putting technical information in layman’s terms (are you presenting to investors or to Congress? Doesn’t matter, none of them majored in biology anyway)
Entrepreneurship
Teamwork
Team building
People management
Time management
Stress management
Networking
Coding

You get the idea.

Being a scientist in today’s world also means being able to communicate across disciplines. Science is increasingly becoming not just interdisciplinary, but transdisciplinary. Computer science and biology have combined into computational biology. Engineering and biochemistry have combined into metabolic engineering. In our brave new world, we need scientists who are not just experts in multiple subjects, but experts at applying and integrating those subjects to solve problems holistically.

Marketable Skills for Grads:

Project management
Public speaking
Writing
Putting technical information in layman’s terms
Entrepreneurship
Teamwork
Team building
People management
Time management
Stress management
Networking
Coding
Expertise within your thesis
Expertise outside your thesis
Cross-disciplinary collaboration and communication

Some colleges are recognizing this and encouraging their grad students to gain fluency across disciplines, intern at start-ups, invest in savvy business skills, and dive into résumé weaknesses. And they are producing scientists increasingly in demand in the modern world, in academia, industry, and beyond.

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