Professional self-care

Janvier 2019

By Jay Bassan, PhD candidate in the Nitz Lab at the University of Toronto

As academic science leadership slowly comes to terms with the low proportion of PhD graduates who end up with faculty jobs, the emphasis on professional development during graduate school is growing.  But, without sufficient integration into PhD programs, professional development is at risk of being relegated to the end of an ever-growing to-do list. As trainees, we must force ourselves to practise professional self-care: cutting time out of the work week to focus on achieving our own career goals.

Earlier this year, the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies published the 10,000 PhDs project. By tracking down 88 per cent of U of T alumni who earned their doctorates between 2000 and 2015, the project confirmed a phenomenon that is gaining recognition in academic circles: most PhD graduates don’t become PIs.

The trend is especially pronounced in the sciences. Among the 5,818 Life and Physical Science graduates, 1,330 are now in tenure-stream faculty jobs.  In contrast, 1,568 of 3,765 Humanities and Social Science graduates secured comparable positions.

The solution seems simple: help PhD students move into non-academic jobs after graduation. Universities provide workshops and resources on how to build your CV, how to network, how to ace job interviews, how to manage projects, and generally how to succeed in the workplace. Sounds great, if you have the time. But as graduate students—for whom research is expected to be a more-than-full-time job—we can rarely find time for professional development, let alone prioritize it.

On a personal note, I know I’ve benefited hugely from my professional development activities. Between growing my ‘soft skills,’ working on accounts and budgets, and interacting with orders of magnitude more people than I would have in lab, I’ve gained the practical skills to start building my own biological image processing company.  While I appreciate that the technical skills I needed for this came from my research, I’m convinced I wouldn’t have even considered entrepreneurship if I hadn’t been involved in committees and organizations outside of the lab.

My suggestion is that we integrate professional development activities into our work week.  We have to stop thinking of student government and involvement in professional organizations as extra-curriculars, and start recognizing that these activities are the first rung on our post-PhD career ladder.  This is most important for those of us who don’t want to stay in academia, but it’s clear that even PIs must have strong management, leadership, and teamwork skills.

It would be naïve to ignore the conflict between taking more time for professional self-care and the supervisor’s desire for results and publications.  While some PIs encourage students to prepare for their career after graduation, some see professional development activities as a distraction from lab work.  My hope is that all PIs will realize that the traditional PhD program fails most students in terms of career preparation—after all, it would still benefit a lab to have successful industrialists, business people, civil servants, and entrepreneurs as alumni.

So, let’s take a few hours out of the lab week to progress our own careers. Let’s seek out leadership opportunities as well as courses, workshops, and conferences that align with our own professional goals. And, instead of burdening ourselves with even more work, let’s recognize that these activities should be part of the PhD training process. We might, for now, just have to deal with some PI-rolls.

Jay Bassan is a PhD candidate in the Nitz Lab at the University of Toronto.  His research interests centre around imaging mass cytometry, and the analysis of multidimensional images. He’s Vice-Chair of the Chemical Institute of Canada Toronto Section and in his spare time, he loves home brewing.

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