Beyond Academia: Career Paths for Ph.D.s in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences

 November 17, 2014


In the past few months, a spate of articles in both the academic and popular press has handwringingly highlighted how few science PhDs actually end up in tenured or tenure-track professorships: approximately 22.3%, according to the most recent NSF Survey of Doctoral Recipients. These articles carry alarmist headlines about a “quiet crisis in science” and a “stagnating job market for young scientists”—not exactly promising news for graduate students and postdocs pondering their future careers.

That same NSF dataset, however, also yields a more encouraging number: just 1.8% of science Ph.D.s are unemployed. Thus, while graduate students and postdocs may fret about how challenging the job market is, their perceptions are skewed by neglecting to consider the non-academic job market that employs over 75% of science Ph.D.s. Unfortunately, the career role models that graduate students and postdocs have at Duke are nearly all tenure-track professors, many of whom are unequipped to give non-academic career advice.

To remedy that, I recently helped organize Beyond Academia: Career Paths for PhDs in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a day-long professional development workshop designed to expose graduate students and postdocs to career opportunities outside of academia. We invited sixteen speakers, all of whom had a Ph.D. in a psychology or neuroscience-related field, to serve on discussion panels that were broadly organized by career field: grant-giving organizations, government and policy, science communications and outreach, and the private sector.

Though the Duke Graduate School, Career Center, and Office of Postdoctoral Services sponsor a great series of workshops on non-academic job careers, our field-specific workshop was valuable for two reasons. First, all of our invited speakers were from fields that were closely related to our own departments, and several were alumni from our programs. This made the panelists relatable, and because we spoke a similar research language, it was easier to see how our field-specific skills would transfer to non-academic careers.

Second, because the workshop was jointly sponsored by the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, the Neurobiology Graduate Training Program, the Psychology and Neuroscience Graduate Program, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Admitting Program, it provided much needed official acknowledgement from our departments and degree-granting programs that careers outside of academia do exist, and that it is okay, and perhaps even imperative, to consider such careers as we plan our futures after Duke.

From our panelists, we heard firsthand how a department or advisor’s attitude towards non-academic careers can powerfully affect the ease and success of one’s job hunt. While one panelist praised his Ph.D. advisor for supporting his pursuit of non-academic professional development opportunities, others told stories of forgoing applying for prestigious AAAS fellowships because they were afraid of backlash from their dissertation committees, or hiding industry internships on the afternoons that their advisor left early for spin class.

I, like the majority of our post-workshop survey respondents, am not ruling out an eventual career in academia, but I am also actively evaluating what my non-academic career prospects are. As a cognitive neuroscientist who studies risky decision-making, I know it is foolhardy to bet my entire career on a 22.3% chance of success. I left the Beyond Academia workshop feeling reassured that I can find post-graduation employment, even if I still don’t yet know what type of employment it will be. Just as importantly, I also left it feeling reassured that I could discuss my non-academic career options with my advisors and consider a broad range of potential careers with their support.


Rosa Li
Rosa Li

Ph.D. student, Psychology and Neuroscience

Rosa Li studies risk-taking in children, teenagers, and adults. She blogs about science at Science Beyond the Abstract and tweets @sciencebta.