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Building a bridge from PhD to the workplace

Faculty of Science, Grad Studies and Career Centre pilot program connects grad students with industry
By: Will Sloan
February 03, 2017
Humza Nusrat

Photo: Humza Nusrat is one of 20 PhD physics students in the Industry Insights and Navigating Networks program. Photo by Clifton Li.

It’s conventional wisdom that PhD students pursue a career in higher education, but studies show this is true for less than 40 per cent of cases. Looking beyond the classroom, a new pilot program from the Faculty of Science, the Yeates School of Graduate Studies, and Ryerson’s Career Centre is helping graduate students sell their skills on the job market.

Launched in November 2016, Industry Insights and Navigating Networks (IINN) creates an immersive learning experience, connecting 20 biomedical physics PhD students — 83 per cent of the full cohort — to a variety of industries aligned to their studies.

“It creates a clear bridge with industry and builds professional development skills and networks for our students,” said Rebecca Dirnfeld, Career Education Specialist for the Faculty of Science and IINN program lead. “It also exposes participants to the diverse career paths available, and teaches our PhDs to leverage their professional expertise to attract opportunities both inside and outside academia.”

The program includes two modules (in November 2016 and February 2017) that provide students with skills in securing timely, relevant labour market information; learn networking strategies; and design a value proposition to showcase their expertise, using industry specific lexicon.

Students also take part in a job shadow with an industry professional, during which they are expected to conduct an informational interview, practice their value proposition and undertake reflective exercises. Participating organizations range from SickKids Research Institute, external link to Visual Sonics, external link.

The program culminates in March with a networking forum, bringing together participating Faculty and industry professionals, where students will practice the self-sufficiency and new-found industry knowledge developed through their job shadow against a backdrop which enables them to expand their network further.

“What the program does is twofold,” said Caroline Konrad, director of the Career Centre. “It introduces students to curating and interpreting labour market information related to their research, and developing a value pitch for outside academia; and then it pairs that academic learning with live experience outside the classroom.

“One goal is to prepare our PhD students to be able to navigate and explore conditions outside of academia for after they finish their studies. The other is to raise the profile of Ryerson PhD students to industry.”

For Humza Nusrat, PhD physics student, the program is an opportunity to see the range of options available after graduation. “I didn’t really go into grad school with a plan about what I’ll do after. Academia was definitely one of the things I was looking at, and industry was always this black box. This program was a way to actually find out what was in there.”

Nusrat’s job shadow was at Klick Health, a Toronto-based digital marketing agency. “I think one thing that’s missing in science grad programs is communications: explaining what you do and communicating with non-scientists in a professional context.

“The professional I was shadowing explained how you should look ahead to what a company values, and try to develop those skillsets. Coding is something I can start working on now that in two years will be a big asset for me.”

The job shadow also showed him career possibilities he didn’t expect. “I thought industrial R&D would be very rigid and focused and not very creative, but after working with Klick, that perception really changed. Industrial R&D is something that I didn’t think I wanted to do before, but I’m interested now. Another area that I didn’t know existed before was editorial for scientists. For pharma companies, Klick has science PhDs on staff to make sure that advertising adheres to regulations.”