Fail Better: Thi Nguyen

Neuroscientist didn’t get the tenure-track job she expected, but she is still a scientist

Thi Nguyen has a PhD in neuroscience and a rewarding career in academia — but not the one she expected. Nguyen is associate dean for graduate career and professional development at the Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s a new position created to help graduate and PhD students prepare early for today’s top jobs. Some of those careers are at universities; most are not.

“Depending on the discipline, between 10 and 30 percent of graduate students will find a tenure-track position. That’s not a lot,” Nguyen said. “The good news is that our students are highly sought-after in industry and other sectors. The key is to develop skills and gain experiences early that will serve you well, whether you work in an academic or nonacademic setting.”

Nguyen, who has a PhD in neuroscience, has developed innovative programs to prepare PhD students for careers both in and outside of academia. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, Nguyen imagined that one day she would study metabolic disease and nerve degeneration at her own university lab. But events both good (the birth of her first child) and bad (rivals scooped her research twice), forced her to re-evaluate her career path.

“It was hard to let go,” Nguyen said. “We all felt that we were trained to be faculty. Some of us were even told that a job in industry was the dark side.”

Not Nguyen. As a peer mentor, she had helped fellow postdocs explore career paths outside of academia through innovative career-development programs. Nguyen realized this work could be more than an avocation; it could be her career.  When a job in the career office opened, she applied.

“One of the questions I was asked was: ‘Why does a PhD neuroscientist want to be a career adviser?’” Nguyen recalled. “To me it was a very easy answer: I wanted to support my fellow peers. I understood their struggles, their challenges and their strengths very well. I wanted to help them tell their stories and make the most of their education.”

She won a grant to develop a course called “Strategy for Scientists,” which teaches scientists core business concepts and how to strategically build plans and partnerships. Stanford University, Harvard University, UT Southwestern Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are among the institutions that have adopted part or all of the program. She also received a grant to develop brief job-simulation exercises in fields such as business development and public policy. Graduate students can learn more about these programs and other opportunities at GradCareers.

“I credit my PhD education for the success of these programs,” Nguyen said. “I used my grant-writing skills to earn these competitive grants. I used my research skills to ask the right questions and put the right controls in place. I used my critical-thinking skills to develop effective strategies.”

To better understand where graduate students land, the Graduate School has started to collect and publish career outcomes data. Users can view, by discipline, the number of graduate students who earn jobs in government, business, nonprofits and academia, in both tenure-track and nontenure-track positions. For instance, 49 percent of chemistry graduates work in business, while about 36 percent work in academia as postdocs, tenured or tenure-track professors, nontenure-track instructors or academic researchers, with the remainder working in government or the nonprofit sector. In contrast, 47 percent of history graduates are tenured or tenure-track professors, while 23 percent work in business. 

“The staff at the Graduate School is focused on our data being both comprehensive and transparent,” Nguyen said. “Step one is study the breadth of the fields where graduates build careers. Next, we will study their job satisfaction and which skills they need to succeed. We will go where the data take us to build curricula and programs that serve our students’ real needs.”

To that end, Nguyen and her colleagues have started to build relationships with alumni — professors, certainly, but also government researchers, nonprofit executives, science journalists and business owners.

“I’m inspired by the many ways they are putting their graduate educations to work,” Nguyen said. “They prove that there’s more than one way to make a difference.” 

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