A Departmental Career Series for Ph.D.s: A Crucial Tool for First-Generation Graduate Students

 June 7, 2023

"What do you want to do with your Ph.D.?" is a dreaded question for some Ph.D. students. I decided to start my Ph.D. because I enjoyed my time in the lab and the field of neurobiology excited me. However, in my second year as a Ph.D. student, I realized that establishing my own laboratory was not the career path for me. Naturally, anxiety started creeping up when I realized the traditional route of pursuing a postdoc and then working to find a tenure-track professorship was not what I wanted to do in the future. As I embarked on my self-realization journey, it became increasingly evident that my aspirations diverged from the “conventional path.” As a Ph.D.-in-training, I recognized the need to conduct thorough research and delve deeper into current trends and career opportunities for Ph.D.s in the sciences.

In 2019, the National Science Foundation reported that only 41% of doctorate recipients reported their job to be academic related. Duke’s statistics confirm this shift in postgraduation trends. The Ph.D. career outcomes statistics reported by The Graduate School show that 32% of Duke Ph.D. recipients in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences between 2005 and 2022 reported that their current position was in business or industry, while only 13% were in tenured or tenure-track positions. An analysis of the career outcomes of NIH postdoctoral scholars by Xu et al. showed that almost half entered the non-academic sector, with most pursuing employment in for-profit companies or in government agencies. These statistics suggest that these days having a postdoc doesn’t guarantee a faculty job, but also that there’s an increase in opportunities available for doctorate holders. With this increase in opportunities, how could I narrow down my options and decide which career path is best suited for me? Answering this question was made even more complicated by my status as a first-generation and minority student. A recent study showed that the persistent disparities in career preferences among underrepresented minority Ph.D. recipients are influenced by the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, and gender, shaping their experiences and career trajectories. This resonates with me, as I’ve found it hard to build a network that will aid me in becoming aware of the opportunities in science-related fields.

Neurobiology career development series event

One thing that has helped me bridge the gap is the Neurobiology Career Series, which since 2018 has been funded by The Graduate School’s Professional Development Grant. The career series began as a response to graduate student interest in careers outside academia, and the positive feedback from the community has helped keep it going. Ph.D. candidates Fabiola Duarte and Robin Blazing, the current organizers of the series, get inspiration from resources such as STEM Job Talk and The Society for Neuroscience in deciding whom to invite. We’ve invited professionals in various roles including medical science liaisons, project managers, postdoctoral associates, research scientists, and assistant professors, to mention just a few. In addition, we conduct a yearly survey to assess which career paths graduate students are interested in learning about. When I asked Fabiola and Robin how they feel the career series has impacted students in the Neurobiology Department, they reflected on how the series exposes younger graduate students to a broad range of career paths for them to consider. This allows students to identify what type of career they want and to work towards that goal during their time in graduate school. They also mentioned how this series is also a resource for senior graduate students and postdocs seeking to network and receive job market advice from professionals in the field.

I decided to attend my very first session a month into my Ph.D. The speaker was Jared B. Smith, Ph.D. In his talk, he explained that he had initially planned to pursue an academic career path and was highly invested in his work. However, an opportunity led him to join a biotech company where he now leads a team and continues to do amazing science. I’ve also heard from Chantel Evans, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Cellular Biology department at Duke where she runs her own lab, and from Ashley Juavinett, Ph.D., an assistant teaching professor at UC San Diego who is passionate about improving the way in which neuroscience is taught. It was surprising to learn that “academic” positions can significantly vary—with it being possible to either research, teach, or both. Even more interesting was learning of the distinction between an R1 university, where professors focus their efforts towards research, and liberal arts colleges, where teaching and interacting with students is the focus. As an international student and the first person in my family to work toward a Ph.D., this series has been eye-opening as I had been unaware of the different jobs and opportunities that exist as a doctorate holder. Learning from others’ experiences helped me understand that even if you believe your goal is to be in a specific place, life may lead you somewhere unexpected. This has helped me realize that my future is not one-dimensional.

The informal setting is crucial for the success of the series, as it allows trainees to comfortably ask the speakers any questions they may have, and even ask for career advice. The conversations can range from how the speaker got to their current position to what their day-to-day looks like. Another strength of this series, and what sets it apart from others, is the inclusion and acceptance of how different career journeys look. Being exposed to people in different careers makes us reflect on what we find appealing, which helps us determine our career paths. As a result, we can become more self-reflective in approaching our Ph.D. experience.

The Neurobiology Career Series aids in establishing a dialogue with various professionals, giving trainees the advantage of approaching professional interactions more efficiently. Having the possibility of engaging with those professionals allows us to decide whether those positions fit our interests while having the added benefit of priming ourselves with questions of distinct fields that can be relevant for networking or interviews. While working on this piece, I spoke with Kayla Fernando, a Ph.D. candidate in the Neurobiology Department. She told me, "An immediate benefit I've noticed from attending the Neurobiology Career Series is that I am more intentional about the questions I ask to get the most out of my networking interactions."  Kayla noticed that when she attended a non-Duke-affiliated networking event for life-sciences, biotech, pharma, and biopharma professionals, she could network and learn about potential careers much more efficiently because the questions she had heard during previous Neurobiology Career Series events resulted in the most informative answers.

Fabiola and Robin said that one of the most satisfying things about organizing this series is how the stories of success from the invited speakers help trainees gain confidence in their career search process and seeing how this motivates them by learning that a career beyond academia is possible. As a first-generation student, I've never before been able to interact with professionals in such diverse career paths. Seeing and hearing from people in careers I didn't even know existed has opened my eyes to many new and exciting opportunities. Graduate students need a chance to see what's possible to decide what they want to do with their Ph.D. and that’s precisely what the Neurobiology Career Series provides.


Mariana Holguin-Lopez
Mariana Holguin-Lopez

Ph.D. candidate, Neurobiology

Mariana Holguin-Lopez, originally from Mexico, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in the Neurobiology department and working in Josh Huang’s laboratory. Her research project involves cell fate mapping of distinct neuron subtypes. Alongside her academic pursuits, she is passionate about making research more attainable and accessible to others. In her free time, Mariana enjoys reading, dancing, and indulging in her love for coffee. She aspires to be a mentor to others and to provide them with the same opportunities that she has had.