In a Competitive Market, New Scientists Seek Out Career Advice

Scientists may begin their studies with an eye on a tenure-track position, but these coveted jobs have been vanishing under a glut of science degrees and university budget cuts. As researchers found in a 2012 study in the journal PLoS One, jobs in academia become less attractive to U.S. doctoral candidates as they progress through their studies.

Resources to help early-career scientists find fulfilling jobs in an    increasingly competitive academic market—and in less traditional fields—are thus in high demand. At conferences and online, experts from AAAS and other organizations are seeing a significant interest in constructive advice and improved tools for building better careers.

"We want to play a valuable role in helping emerging and new scientists to better understand science careers in a global context," said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, "as well as how to ‘tool-up,' apply, persist, build networks, and to become leaders in all sectors of the scientific workforce."

At the 28 February to 2 March Emerging Researchers National (ERN) conference, hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation's Division of Human Resource Development, more than 600 undergraduate and graduate students had a chance to test their research presentation skills before a diverse panel of judges. Representatives from 19 companies and 31 graduate schools also attended to recruit students for research fellowships and job opportunities.

Building success. Environmental sciences student Akida Ferguson of Delaware State University won first place for her presentation at the 2013 ERN conference.

Marcus Jones, an assistant professor in infectious disease and genomic medicine at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, helped to judge the presentations. At conferences like ERN, students "get to learn an important skill: presenting their research and selling themselves," Jones said. "Everyone should be able to give a 60-second speech to a millionaire about why they should fund your research."

Ashli Allen, a senior at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, said that the ERN experience was useful and helped her focus on her plans to work toward a Ph.D. in physical therapy. "I did a lot of networking," she said, "and met some amazing people who will be able to help me at the next level."

Many of the ERN judges were undergraduate alumni of historically black colleges and universities or members of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, George said. She noted that several AAAS programs, including the ENTRY POINT! internships for students with disabilities and the AAAS Minority Science Writers internships, work directly to prepare underrepresented scientists for the global workforce.

In 2012, a working group of the U.S. National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director suggested that more intensive career preparation would be especially valuable in building wider science participation among underrepresented groups. It recommended that all NIH grants that support postdoctoral researchers include a career-building tool called an individual development plan, or IDP.

myIDP, launched last fall at the Science Careers Web site, is the only online site to offer an IDP tailored for scientists. Nearly 30,000 users—roughly equivalent to one-third of the U.S. postdoc population—have registered to use myIDP. The site offers exercises and advice to scientists on how to "match up their own skills, their own interests and their own values with a variety of available career paths," said Jim Austin, Science Careers' editor.

Austin worked on the site with researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology who had been tracking the need for a professional development tool for a decade. The American Chemical Society and the U.S. National Science Foundation, along with the NIH, have expressed interest in using IDPs, Austin said.

"A lot of us knew of the frustration that was out there," he said. "We knew that scientists training in academia could no longer depend on the types of jobs that they were traditionally trained for, and would need to do some serious thinking about where they were likely to end up."