US Chronicle for Higher Education – Canada Prepares Young Researchers for Nonacademic Careers

By Jennifer Lewington, Stratford, Canada  

For young doctoral students in Canada, acquiring professional skills is increasingly essential. The supply of postgraduates outstrips the demand for full-time academics, and many students find themselves eyeing alternative careers in industry, government, or the not-for-profit sector. New training programs have sprung up in the past few years, with more on the way, designed to give them professional skills, such as communication, leadership, and intellectual-property management, for careers in industry, government, or academe.

“We see that the majority of our university graduates don’t have an academic career, so we are sending the message to think about the future career of your trainees,” says Isabelle Blain, vice president of research grants and scholarships at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Three years ago, her agency introduced the Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program, which provides $1.7-million over six years to leading university researchers who provide young scientists—from undergraduates to postgraduates—with professional-skills training, including opportunities to work in labs at other universities and in the private sector.

This year, the council financed 18 such projects, which will provide training to 300 students.

The council developed the program after looking at a similar initiative introduced several years earlier by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and at other such programs in the United States.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, another Canadian government agency, expects to unveil its own professional-skills program next March.

One measure of the demand for such skills training is the growth in workshops, internships, and seminars offered by Mitacs, a national organization financed by government and industry to recruit, train, and deploy graduate students for the Canadian economy. In 2010, Mitacs offered a broad suite of programs to 3,000 graduate students, up from modest offerings in 2005.

“There has been a huge sea change in the Canadian system about these kinds of programs,” says Arvind Gupta, chief executive of Mitacs and a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia. “Partly it is recognition that we are no longer training Ph.D.’s to be professors.”

Mr. Gupta says industry needs highly qualified graduates who can communicate across disciplines and write a business plan—skills not typically taught in their academic specialties.

A recent survey by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council and the Canada Mining Innovation Council identified a lack of polished communication skills, business acumen, and leadership in otherwise highly qualified academics recruited to the industry. For example, Canadian mining companies work with aboriginal communities and need employees who can communicate, negotiate, and grasp legal issues, says Martha Roberts, director of research for the Mining Industry Human Resources Council. “If you blunder badly in any of those negotiations, you end up setting them back years.”

Young researchers say they find the training invaluable.

“Industry interests me more so now because there are fewer academic jobs,” says Casey Gardner, a doctoral student in chemistry at McMaster University, who is participating in the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s training program.

She is working with a professor at McMaster, along with students and researchers from other universities in Canada and Europe, to develop cell-based therapies to combat diabetes and other chronic diseases. Students also attend workshops on intellectual property, project management, and other topics applicable to careers in Canada’s fast-growing biomaterials and biomedical-engineering industries.

The opportunity to receive such wide-ranging experience early in her career “is huge,” says Ms. Gardner. As a chemist, she most values the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from medicine and other disciplines. “They have different ways of approaching problems,” she says. “You learn to speak their language and you learn to look at your own problems from a different perspective.”

At McGill, Nadia Mykytczuk, a microbiologist and postdoctoral fellow, is involved in another project under the council’s training program that aims to pave the way for a Canadian mission to Mars.

As part of her research, Ms. Mykytczuk has gone on field trips to the Arctic, working in cooperation with geologists, physicists, and astronomers to study microbial communities as potential analogues for life in places like Mars. Though her academic discipline is microbiology and molecular biology, she has presented papers to academics in other disciplines, and participated in formal intellectual-property collaborations between McGill and Canadian and foreign-government agencies and private labs.

The varied training opportunities, says Ms. Mykytczuk, represent “the best launching pad I could ever hope for.” Her goal is to pursue a career in academe despite the scarcity of full-time jobs. She says the training programs have strengthened her academic portfolio and widened her network of contacts, thereby enhancing her competitiveness in future job searches.

German Ph.D. student Hannes Dempewolf, an evolutionary plant biologist completing his studies at the University of British Columbia, credits landing a job at a United Nations affiliate to support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s training program.

He received a $6,000 (U.S.) internship (available to international and domestic students) last summer that paid for a stint at the UN’s Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome. He says advisers at the university’s biodiversity research center and the trust gave him hands-on training in writing proposals and synthesizing ideas.

Without the internship, he says he would not have been able to participate in a successful grant proposal by the trust that now is able to hire him on a full-time basis.

“It was an opportune time for me to be there when the proposal was being written, and funded,” he said, adding that he gained insight into what excites potential donors. As well, he learned the intricacies of writing proposals to fit UN funding criteria. “I had no clue about any of this before. It was incredibly useful to me to get that kind of background.”

The new emphasis on broadening skills and knowledge of young researchers is winning praise elsewhere.

“Many academics do a disservice to graduate students by leading them to believe that the primary reason one does a Ph.D. is to pursue a job in academia,” says Jay Doering, president of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, whose organization endorses the new focus on professional-skills training. “Maybe we should not be training students for academia but training them to have the skills they require.”

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