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Good Bye and Good Luck: Should the graduate school curriculum reflect the reality that many students aren’t destined for academic careers?

March 2008--In the past, graduate students who detoured from the path of academic research to jet off to “alternative careers” with six-figure salaries, liberal expense accounts and cushy business class travel, were the exception. But times have changed, and research advisors have come to grips with the fact that these so-called alternatives have turned mainstream.

“I knew all along academia wasn’t for me,” says recent Hopkins pharmacology graduate Chris Von Seggern, without a hint of apology in his voice. “I viewed having a Ph.D. as part of my long-term goal to end up as senior management for a big pharmacology company.” Even with such a clear vision—and a master’s degree in public health—Von Seggern had a difficult time loading his curriculum vitae with things that could benefit him out there in the business world. When he took a job with a biotech consulting group, he struggled to write business proposals and understand company financials and forecasts.

The preparedness deficit for science-related careers after earning a Hopkins Ph.D. is a fact of life not lost on the faculty. “Students these days have lots of opportunities for career paths, and we need to make sure that we’re providing them with the best educational experience,” says Randall Reed, professor of molecular biology and genetics. “The fundamental question is: How do we train students to be ready for the entire range of biomedical research possibilities that we face today?”

In response to shifting tides over the last decade, many major research institutions have grappled with ways to help students better their future prospects in the changing marketplace. But success has been limited, and there seem to be few examples of robust Ph.D.-to-private enterprise programs. As of the current academic year, Harvard lists only two non-research classes; neither are business-related. And here at Hopkins, says Reed, “we don’t have any formal processes associated with any of our grad student programs that expose students to these other pathways.” Reed believes that it may be beneficial to offer candidates experience in science administration, business and law to supplement the core scientific research training they now receive.

The idea is fine in theory, says Mario Amzel, director of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry, but it would need to be embarked upon after much thought and consideration. “We shouldn’t be doing things that we’re not good at,” says Amzel, who worries that the School of Medicine is unprepared for such a feat, and he recommends that the School not veer too far from its core. “We’re really good at training Ph.D.s as scientists.”

Von Seggern says he would have loved to have some business classes in his curriculum, but that there are other creative ways to prepare students for biotech careers. At his alma mater, Penn State, biotech undergrad and graduate students formed a consortium that offers free consulting services to local Philadelphia biotech start-ups. Von Seggren also advocates opening up courses from other parts of the Johns Hopkins University system, such as the business school, and recommends that students take advantage of the School of Public Health, where Medicine students are already welcome to enroll in classes.

A program that currently helps students in the science-to-business crossover can be found here at Hopkins. The Whiting School of Engineering offers a minor in Entrepreneurship and Management, with classes in everything from accounting to tech transfer to business planning and finance. “It’s by far the most popular minor on the campus,” says Edward Scheinerman, associate dean for education at the engineering school. Understanding the power of linking professional development and technical education, the Whiting School will soon launch a Masters of Science in Engineering Management program.

The reasons students are jumping the academic ship are many, and there certainly seems to be no reversal to the trend in the future. “A large number of students I know don’t plan on going into research,” says Brice Wilson, a fourth-year graduate student in the department of pharmacology and molecular science. “A lifestyle pursuing academic research isn’t a 9 to 5 job, and by the time you’re done with five-plus years and a postdoc, at that point, most of your peers have settled down and reached their critical wage-earning time in life.”

--Victoria Bruce

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