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Program prepares engineering PhDs and postdoctoral researchers for careers outside academia

An ILead panel on success stories from PhD engineers and scientists held in January 2017. A new program provides PhD students with guidance on how to market themselves (photo by Alan Yusheng Wu)

All professors have a PhD, but in engineering only one in four PhD students become professors. A new program is helping PhD students and postdoctoral researchers at the University of Toronto prepare for careers outside academia, from industry research and development to government policy.

Applications for the OPTIONS (Opportunities for PhDs: Transitions, Industry Options, Networking and Skills) program are now open. Over the next four months, participants will learn more about job market conditions, hone strategies to prepare for applications and interviews, and develop new competencies to bring to the marketplace.

The program is being led by U of T Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) and the vice-dean, graduate studies.

“In the different roles that I have held in the faculty over the last several years, I have seen that PhD students in particular are hungry for career advice,” says Julie Audet, an associate professor in the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Enginnering who is the vice-dean, graduate studies for the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “This program bridges a gap between the university and the industries where our graduate students work.” 

The OPTIONS program is supported by the School of Graduate Studies’ innovation in graduate professional development fund, and is modelled on U of T engineering’s prospective professors In training program, which helps graduate students prepare for an academic position. Starting last January, a series of eight prototype workshops were held to test out ideas that will be incorporated in the new program. These included career planning sessions and panel discussions with PhD graduates now working in industry, government or other non-academic fields.

“The main source of anxiety and stress for me in the past year had been not knowing exactly what I want, and what I can do,” says Nazanin Orang, who is pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering. “The structured exercises and peer support really helped me realize my own potential, and how I can put it to work.”

Starting in late September, PhD students who enroll in the OPTIONS program will attend a two-hour workshop each week throughout the fall semester, covering everything from creating an effective LinkedIn profile to fostering productive team dynamics.

“The OPTIONS program appeals to me because it provides structured space for self-reflection and career planning that I might not otherwise get,” says Christian Euler, a chemical engineering PhD candidate.

“I think the program would help me to better understand how I can continue pursuing my goals and make them reality.”