When I was a Ph.D. mentor, one of the most satisfying and also challenging tasks was helping my graduate students pursue their career in a manner consistent with their true aptitudes and interests. It is typical that a graduate student seeking a Ph.D. in the biological sciences has the prospect of an academic career uppermost in their mind, or that is often the likely expectation that many Ph.D. mentors have in mind for their students. However, I had students who were not so sure that an academic career path was what they wanted. I think this situation is extremely common and thus mentors need to be prepared to help their student find their best path wherever it leads.
Too often I fear many mentors think that undecided students just need to overcome their doubts and pursue an academic career as the best possible choice. This is likely due in part to the fact that the mentor herself decided upon the academic career path. However, within the last decade or so many new outstanding career opportunities have opened up for Ph.D.’s in the biological sciences. Foremost among these is the emergence of the field of Biotechnology. This field has grown up capitalizing on the emergence of new technologies that permit the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, (e.g. the genetic manipulation of microorganisms for the production of antibiotics, hormones, etc.) In addition, Biotechnology may be more likely to directly target treatments for specific diseases. This exciting new focus of research that takes place largely outside traditional academic environments greatly expands the prospective career opportunities for Ph.D. students
In addition to the new opportunities in Biotechnology there is also a burgeoning need for scientific writers. Scientific writers have the unique ability to fill the urgent societal need for better scientific communication and understanding in these times of revolutionary changes in biology that raise increasingly complex ethical issues for society to address. So clearly the best career choice for the student is no longer a simple matter to decide.
In my opinion, there is no sure way for a mentor to know the best choice for their student. Therefore the first and most important task is for the mentor is to create an environment where the student feels able to voice their thoughts and ideas about their career choice. There is an undeniable tendency in academia to view a career choice other than basic academic research with disdain. So it is no small task to create an environment where a student can speak freely about their career ideas if they include a non-academic focus. Additionally a mentor must actually listen to what the student has to say. Only by truly listening can a mentor assist the student in choosing their best career path.