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What is the future of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in life sciences?

Satish Medicetty | April 24th, 2017

At a recent GTCbio conference I had a conversation with a well-known and highly accomplished Professor about his interaction with a group of graduate students. The Professor was apparently invited to give a guest-lecture and it is common to engage with graduate students during these visits. The Professor was sitting on a round table with 20 graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. He asked them “before starting your graduate studies how many of you intended to pursue a career in academia after graduation?” A total of 15 out of 20 students lifted their hands. Then he asked the question “now how many of you intend to pursue a career in academia after graduation?” Only 2 out of 20 students lifted their hands.

This conversation reminded me of the questions that I faced when I was in graduate school many years ago. The question was not new, but the answer was very different than what I remember from back then. It is true that a very small percentage of students are willing to take the route of being an academic researcher. Much of this change is attributed to the herculean task of getting grant funding, which to a large extent determines the future of an academic researcher.

The Professor and I went on to discuss that many of these young professionals are faced with one of the two broad options listed below:

  1. Find job opportunities in the industry
  2. Continue in academia but work on getting industry funding in addition to government funding

degree750 - What is the future of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in life sciences?

Each one of these options require specific skill sets, which are typically not part of the curriculum at any graduate school. A few pharma companies are offering postdoctoral positions to facilitate a better transition from academia to industry. While these opportunities seem to provide a great transitional platform, these positions are limited. Moreover, there industry postdoctoral positions are not available for all disciplines.

I have known many talented doctoral candidates and postdoctoral fellows who struggled to find their way into sustainable academic or industry careers. It is critical for these young professionals to have good mentors and to acquire good partnering skills to excel in the current environment. The conversation with the Professor and other similar considerations has motivated me to incorporate specific opportunities for young professionals at all the future GTCbio conferences. As our conferences offer small and focused platforms within a specific scientific discipline, these will be effective vehicles to facilitate specific mentoring and partnering sessions as described below:

  1. From Summer 2017 all GTCbio conferences will include “Breakfast with Mentors from Academia and Industry”, where young professionals can sign up to spend more time with senior faculty and corporate executives to receive expert advice and guidance.
  2. From Fall 2017 we are engaging Program Partners and interested organizations in Focus Group Meetings (FGM) that will be held on the evening before the actual conference. These FGMs are meant to facilitate partnering at various levels, and we will be inviting a few selected young professionals to participate in these meetings to acquire skills that would prepare them to find and build successful partnerships. In addition, we will have a session focused on partnering between academia and industry in all our future conferences.

I strongly believe that GTCbio conferences will turn into effective mentoring and partnering platforms. Visit the Education page on our website for more information. Please forward this information to any young professional or their PI that may benefit from this opportunity. I would also appreciate any feedback!