Prospects for Ph.D. earners are dismal in the academic job market, with stories abounding of people who have doctorates serving lattes at Starbucks.
N.C. State University has taken on that conundrum with a new program that leads science, technology, engineering and math doctoral students to careers in industry.
Known as A2i, or Accelerate to Industry, the program started last year with 50 students. It's so popular that NCSU trademarked the curriculum, which is now offered at the University of Florida, the University of Arkansas and soon, at other campuses around the country.
The program is something of a crash course in business for hard-core scientists who rarely make it out of their solitary world in the lab. They learn soft skills such as teamwork, networking, project management, mentoring and marketing their ideas. They're exposed to industry leaders and recruiters who can offer advice and, ultimately, jobs.
On Friday, the 60 students in A2i did product pitches, "Shark Tank" style, at the end of an immersion week of training. The program is sponsored by companies such as LORD Corporation, ABB and Eastman.
Increasingly, graduate students see their future in industry, said Laura Demarse, assistant dean of NCSU's graduate school.
"It's depressing to be honest with you, how few Ph.D. candidates actually enter in to the academic pathway," Demarse said. "We really feel a need to create meaningful opportunities for career readiness and development for our STEM grad students."
U.S. universities awarded nearly 55,000 research doctoral degrees in 2016, according to the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates, a report released this year. Forty-five percent of doctoral earners with promises of jobs said their main role would be in academia, according to the survey, which also reported a 7 point decline in academic employment commitments for science and engineering Ph.D.s in the past decade.
If academia is not a viable path, the Ph.D.s need to be steered elsewhere, Demarse said.
The program aims to give the budding scientists the tools they need to jump into a job at a chemical company, a manufacturing firm or a pharmaceutical startup.
"These are just good skills to have but we don't address them directly as part of their academic training," Demarse said, adding, "How does one navigate a corporate landscape? We don't learn that in the academy."
An added bonus is that for one week, the students get out of the lab and learn to talk about their science in a broad way, connecting to people who work in science in the private sector every day.
Amit Mishra, a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering, started at NCSU thinking he would ultimately be in a faculty position. Now, though, he'd like to get some industry experience before returning to the classroom and lab someday.
He also likes the idea of working in product development. "I'd like to have my research go into a product that is eventually sold to a consumer," said Mishra, 27.
Leandi Kruger has had a long pathway through science labs at Duke University and N.C. State, where she started her education thinking she wanted to be a veterinarian. She later worked in a basic science lab at Duke, earned an MBA at Duke and now works in a research collaboration between Duke and NCSU's vet school. She's earning a doctorate in cell biology.
The immersion week has broadened her view of what kinds of careers are possible. One thing she's always known is she likes the intersection of business and science. "Labs are just businesses, bringing money in and putting money out," said Kruger, 34. "A lot of them are mismanaged, so I wanted to beef up my skills in that area."
It was the corporate sponsors who drew Joseph Tilly, 26, a chemical engineering student, to A2i. The companies work in his particular field of research, polymeric coding systems.
He said he was able to gain insight into what the companies value in their new hires. Now he knows what he needs to work on in the next year before he graduates.
Tilly is also learning to market himself.
"I don't do it enough, I never really learned how to do it," he said. "It's helping me develop a bit more confidence. I'm learning to speak about my work and myself in a way that is interesting and engaging and more marketable than I was previously able to verbalize."
There's a misconception that the goal of every doctoral student is to be an academic, said Peter Harries, interim dean of the graduate school at N.C. State.
"The drumbeat that you hear is why are we producing all these Ph.D.'s when there are no academic jobs?" Harries said. "But in reality there are lots of other jobs that need the skills that Ph.D. students have. There's something special about going through that process of really focusing on a specific area or doing research in an area that really hasn't been done before. There's a lot of value to that, that I think just gets glossed over."
At the immersion week, corporate scientists told the students about the thrill of seeing their innovation move out of a lab or research paper and into production. "Then you're hooked," said Seth Carruthers, global technology director of LORD.
Carruthers, a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, told the group Thursday that he wished he had something like A2i when he was a graduate student.
Harries said the goal is to open students' minds to new opportunities.
"If we're going to bring them in for Ph.D.'s I think we do bear some responsibility to help do what we can to make them successful."