Giving graduate students an advantage


Jonathan Monk knows he’s one of the rare ones. He decided to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at UC San Diego with no designs on a life in academia.

“When I started, I 100 percent wanted to go into industry,” he said.

While his focus separated him from his fellow graduate students, Monk was always sympathetic to the plight of many of his colleagues who did want to find a job teaching and researching at a university.

“It’s just harder and harder to get a job in academia,” he said. “There are more and more students and fewer and fewer jobs.”

It’s not just the graduate students in humanities who are struggling to find an academic appointment. According to the National Science Foundation, there are more than seven times as many science PhD graduates as science professors.

In 2013, 29 percent of science and engineering doctoral recipients found jobs in academia while 55 percent went on to jobs in the private sector. By way of comparison, in 1993, 36 percent landed academia jobs and 45 percent went into the private sector.

The biggest problem: many of those who hope to go into academia have little idea of the corporate world. They know chalkboards, not boardrooms.

When he was president of UC San Diego’s Graduate Student Association, Monk decided to help tackle the problem head on, bringing up the issue with Chancellor Pradeep Khosla in monthly meetings.

“The Chancellor said, ‘You’ve got a lot of good ideas. Put together a program and I’ll fund it,’” Monk said.

The result is Gradvantage, a professional development program that focuses on preparing students for careers outside of academia with monthly career nights, enhanced job coaching and workshops to improve communication skills. A central focus of Gradvantage is a specialized certificate in leadership and teamwork from UC San Diego Extension.

To get an idea of what industry was looking for from UC San Diego graduate students, Monk and others consulted with such companies as Qualcomm, Illumina and General Atomics as well as museums in Balboa Park to develop Gradvantage.

“We sat down with them and the feedback was interesting,” Monk said. “They said, ‘We know you are smart, but you need a sense of humility, and you have an inability to work in teams. We need you to not only be able to work in a team, but also know your role in that team.’”

Through that feedback, UC San Diego Extension developed a yearlong certificate program that teaches the essentials of teamwork and project management. The certificate also includes a hands-on capstone project that requires participants to work in teams to tackle problems facing UC San Diego. Those issues could include anything from mental health initiatives to helping boost attendance of minority students at the university.

The hope is the skills gained through Gradvantage will ensure that UC San Diego graduate students will be able to take advantage of the growing demand for their talents outside of academia. According to the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, about 2.6 million new and replacement jobs are expected to require a graduate degree between 2010 and 2020.

As Monk, who received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University, closes in on completing his doctorate, he’s contemplating his job prospects. Studying how to interfere with a pathogen’s metabolic network, as part of UC San Diego’s Systems Biology Research Group, has caused a slight change of heart when it comes to his career.

“I want to do both,” he said. “I still want to work in industry, but I like academia, too.”

Irene P
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5/4/2017 11:00:01 AM

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