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Alternative Paths: Graduate Chemistry Council Showcases Non-traditional Careers for STEM Ph.D.s

April 5, 2017

Academia or industry? If you’re a STEM Ph.D. candidate, you’ve likely been asked this question countless times regarding your post-graduation plans. Students in science doctoral programs have been bombarded with the perception that these are the only two career options. The culmination of a successful Ph.D. is often measured by landing the coveted postdoc position with a big-time researcher or diving into research-based industry positions. These traditional paths, however, are slowly becoming less attractive as broader career options for STEM Ph.D.s become more visible. According to the National Science Foundation annual surveys, roughly 46 percent of STEM Ph.D.s work in academic positions at educational institutions, while nearly 32 percent are employed by the private industrial sector. Unfortunately, most Ph.D. programs provide little support or exposure for students to explore careers outside of research.

graduate chemistry councilThe Graduate Chemistry Council (GCC) has showcased non-traditional careers by hosting various professional development and networking events over the past two years. GCC received The Professional Development Grant from The Graduate School for both 2015 and 2016 which funded two major events each year.

First, “Non-traditional Careers for STEM Ph.D.s” is an annual event that features a panel discussion from speakers involved in careers ranging from science writing and policy to educational outreach and patent law. Over the past two years, the panel showcased a diverse group of professionals including:

Listed from left to right starting with the top and then the bottom

During the events, the panelists shared the positive and negative aspects of their careers and explained what motivated them to pursue careers outside of research. Their advice resonated with the audience, which included graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from seventeen different departments.

The “Non-traditional Careers for STEM Ph.D.s” events also included breakout sessions with panelists who led small groups of five to six participants. The breakout sessions were the most beneficial part of the event for attendees who were able to connect with the speakers on a more personal level and explore the nitty-gritty details of what it takes to pursue a non-traditional STEM career. In the future, GCC hopes to expand this event to include more speakers and departments.

GCC also hosts “Coffee Breaks with Ph.D.s,” a monthly event that promotes small group discussions between students and non-academic professionals. The group size is typically limited to five students, which creates an informal setting that provides students with a unique networking opportunity. By mingling over coffee and donuts, students can ask their most burning questions and make personal connections that will be vital in their future job hunt.

Reality, Passion, TalentIn addition to building their networking circle, “Coffee Breaks with Ph.D.s” gives students a broad perspective on career decision-making strategies. Melanie Roberts, founder and director of Emerging Leaders in Science and Society, was one of our guests last semester. She explained that the Ph.D. student’s journey is like a Venn diagram consisting of three circles labeled reality, talent, and passion. In the beginning, the circles are all the same size, and the intersection point is very broad. As the student progresses through her journey, the size of the circles changes until, eventually, the intersection point becomes smaller and more focused, and you realize the precise career path you truly want to pursue. The long, tiresome hours at the bench can sometimes distort our interpretation of the importance of each circle in the Venn diagram and blind us from broad career options, but going through the journey will help us clarify our priorities.

The professional development program organized by GCC is demonstrating that the opportunities are out there. It’s just a matter of finding what you’re passionate about--whether it involves pipetting or not.


Samuel Alvarez

Samuel Alvarez

PhD student, Chemistry

Samuel Alvarez is a PhD student in the chemistry department. He studies the growth mechanism of different metal nanomaterials.


Allison Keim

PhD student, Chemistry

Allison Keim is a third-year PhD student in the Chemistry Department. She studies proteins and chaperone complexes in the malaria parasite. 


Brian Langloss

Brian Langloss

PhD student, Chemistry

Brian Langloss is a fifth-year PhD student in the Therien Lab in the Chemistry Department. He designs and synthesizes nanomaterials for bioimaging and radiation dosimetry applications.


Professional Development Tag

  • Career Paths
  • Professional Development Grant