T

he white lab coat and tenured head-of-lab positions are holding less appeal for young neuroscience students, but many of them struggle to find alternatives. I’m speaking from personal experience here. Although I earned a PhD, I haven’t worked at the bench beyond my training. Instead, I found my way to a role as a staff scientist at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. But I don’t consider myself any less of a neuroscientist than my peers working in labs.

I didn’t make the transition on my own. I had plenty of help from a multidisciplinary training program at the University of Pennsylvania and supportive mentors. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this kind of support isn’t all that common.

Many young neuroscientists enter PhD programs with aspirations to run a university laboratory or work in industry. A growing number want to pursue alternative careers in science. A recent paper published in Neuron recognizes that what once was “Plan B” for neuroscience trainees — job opportunities outside the lab or clinic— is growing in popularity.

advertisement

“This growth poses new challenges for academic training programs as they prepare young neuroscientists for a more complex, competitive, and diverse career landscape,” write the Neuron authors, leaders in neuroscience including Todd Sherer, the CEO of The Fox Foundation, and Rita Balice-Gordon, the former chair of my graduate program who is now at Pfizer.

Although schools are rethinking their neuroscience graduate programs, the central dogma of scientific education — PhD program leads to postdoctoral training leads to faculty position — must shift first.

That hasn’t happened yet, as was evident in a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum with the Neuron authors. Trainees worried about getting program leaders to discuss alternative careers and offer skills training that would make more of them employable in nontraditional settings. As one Redditor put it: “Most graduate students feel a bit of ‘doom and gloom’ about their future career prospects. The positions in academia are obviously in high demand with low supply, and alternative options are not readily available or even presented to many graduate students.”

Our nation and our health depend on the continued contributions of a well-trained, vibrant, and diverse pool of scientists. How can we help more PhD students and postdocs become aware of the wide variety of ways that they can put their skills to work? I offer a few suggestions.

Training programs should be built on the premise that cross-field experiences are invaluable. Exposing young scientists to different but complementary disciplines, such as bioengineering and data science, vastly expands what they will be capable of doing. (My most cherished takeaway from my short postdoctoral fellowship was an understanding of how engineers think, speak, and solve problems.) Program directors should commit to moving students through curricula that make it clear how their scientific training connects them to a vast range of opportunities, from teaching high school to working in high tech, and expand their practical training to build skill sets for finding and thriving in careers beyond the lab.

Mentors should build a culture of respect for students’ desire to branch out, and proactively help them build networks to advance toward their goals.

Alumni of training programs who have followed the road less taken should “pay it forward” by providing guidance for PhD students and postdocs and spreading awareness of alternative career paths. I regularly go back to my alma mater to participate in career seminars and share my story. I want to help future cohorts get that “Wow, I didn’t know scientists could do that” feeling.

Newsletters

Sign up for The Readout: A guide to what's new in biotech

Please enter a valid email address.

New approaches to doctoral and postdoctoral education will gain importance as our population ages, and we see increases in brain and other chronic diseases. Every young scientist should feel, as I do, that it is a dream come true to pursue his or her passion in a training program and then translate that work into making a real difference in an engaging career. Let’s make sure the next generation of biomedical scientists knows there is a big world beyond academia and the lab bench that needs their talents.

Catherine Kopil, PhD, is director of research partnerships at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Leave a Comment

Please enter your name.
Please enter a comment.

  • It is true indeed that we need more young and promising scientists get out there and mingle with the more weathered ones. More than one lesson could be learned on the field. Being in touch with the direct end of their road – the patient – not only grounds them but inspire them. That is the human side of medicine and science. Great things can come out from a fortunate instruction at a great educational facility. But only fabulous and life changing therapies can come out when you combine instruction and a field trip to reality with patients. You see, when you touch base with the tangible patient described in text books, you find the empathy and similarities about being human, a mother or father, sister or brother or offspring. It is at this very moment of connection with school-life-reality that will lead your way in the wonderful world of science. As a mother of two teenage boys, one about to choose the right college for med-school and the other at the gifted and talented IMSA, I cannot stress enough the importance on focusing on the human side of science, and my motherly advise of “go get them, but be safe, be happy and if you can, bring me the cure to PD”. Katie Kopil is the epitome of this example and I am thankful for people like her and her wonderful advise with articles like this. Todd Sherer is the ultimate perfect CEO to deal with an imperfect disease. Pfizer is more and more focused on meeting the patient as a human in desperate need of help, and they’r making it. Thanks to all, and to the future generations of physicians and scientist, please don’t give up. Claudia Revilla, PD patient, mother and wife

  • As a recent neuroscience graduate who left academia for paths less traveled, I whole-heartedly agree! I feel that Neuroscience in particular suffers from this as a field, probably because it can become quite niche and there’s a lot of hubris around. Some Professors might even consider neuroimaging as a ‘soft science’ compared with say electrophysiology. To then go and say you want to leave the field completely is impossible to some. On the otherhand there are a number of professors who helped me to seek out pastures new and have pointed other upcoming graduates my way for advice, but unless you look and ask you wouldn’t know.

  • As every time I apply for a job, either in academia or biotech industry, I have to compete with no less then 100 other candidates, I feel confident in saying that the place is already pretty damn overcrowded.
    The only right advice to give is, choose a profession where you work less, have more stable careers and earn two to four times more, like the medical profession. It comes also with a much higher social status and there seems to be a chronic shortage of them

    • Work less…like the medical profession… really?!

      Sure, once you get to consultant. But what about until then?

Sign up for our Morning Rounds newsletter

Your daily dose of what’s new in health and medicine.

X