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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Beryl Lieff Benderly

Prize-winning freelance journalist Beryl Lieff Benderly contributes both the monthly “Taken for Granted” column and frequest blog posts on science labor force and early-career issues and blogs to the Science magazine website. Her hundreds of articles have appeared in Miller-McCune, Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Prism, Slate, Ladies Home Journal, Smithsonian and the New York Times and LA Times book reviews, among many other prominent publications. The author of 8 books, she has appeared on CNN, the “Today Show,” and serveral NPR stations and has taught science and health writing at the University of Maryland and in workshops co-sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and universities in Mexico, in Panama and Chile and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Elected a Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science, she is treasurer of the National Association of Science Writers. Her 10 national writing prizes were awarded by IEEE-USA, the American Association of University Professors, the American Psychological Association and other organizations and cover topics including biomedical engineering, the scientific labor market, cancer genetics and linguistics. She prepared for her writing career by long ago earning an M.A. in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and later dropping out of doctoral work at Washington University (St. Louis).

Conducted and contributed by Brian | September 2013

“When I was in graduate school, people talked about the union card, the PhD, and the implication that your mentor would induct you into the guild and you would be taken care of. Well, that is no longer true.”​

Listen to the conversation podcast below (player should appear shortly).

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Featured songs: "Even White Horizons" by Akufen and "Back" by Alpha

Conversation Highlights

“I’ve always loved writing. I originally thought that I was going to be a professor. I started in graduate school and got an MA degree in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, I moved to Washington University in St. Louis to do my doctoral work. But, my main preparation to become a journalist was dropping out of graduate school.”

[On gaining knowledge about the current ‘postdoc situation’] “If you do anything long enough, you cannot help but learn a lot about it.”

“The academic labor market keeps getting worse. It is certainly the worst in life sciences but it has gotten worse in other fields too. The probability of the traditional faculty position is getting smaller. It is already vanishing. The universities keep relentlessly turning out more PhDs and bringing in an increasing number of international postdocs. Secondly, the universities are not hiring as many tenure track faculty. Many of the people retiring from faculty positions are not being replaced with other full-time faculty members, but with contingent faculty. [Additionally] many full-time or senior faculty members are not retiring because the law changed in 1993 removing the age limit for mandatory retirement. [Furthermore] for many faculty [members], the 2008 crash really creamed their retirement funds. [As a result], the predicted retirement of the baby boomers is not happening to the extent that people had expected and the probability of a new PhD landing on the tenure track is falling year by year.”

“The one trend that I view as favorable is that word is getting out more and more to new PhDs and graduate students that this faculty / tenure track position is a mirage for most people. [As a result] recent research has shown that young PhDs or graduate students do seem increasingly aware of this reality. Therefore, they may be doing a better job of preparing themselves for opportunities outside academe. Tenure track faculty positions are becoming the ‘alternative’ career.”

“The universities are not responding to the need [and trend] of PhDs to be prepared to work in industry.”

The academic culture has traditionally portrayed the academic career as the only honorable or decent [career]. [Notably] half of chemists have gone to industry anyway. That is a different culture from life science. Life science is the most crowded.”

“Some schools are starting to respond [with professional training programs and degrees]. More and more reports are saying that PhDs need preparation for work for cultures outside of academe where people can do very important work that can be intellectually stimulating. What hasn’t changed is the University’s dependence on cheap labor of grad students and postdocs. The grant machines run on the cheap labor of grad students and postdocs in sort of illusory idea that these are training positions. But, they are not really training anybody for future jobs.” 

“There are some university programs in which they are endeavoring to teach PhDs the culture of industry and entrepreneurship. Therefore, if a PhD or postdoc develops some technology that has commercial potential, there are programs where people can learn how to commercialize their research. There are also some programs where PhDs or postdocs can learn subjects that are relevant to a career in industry. Another thing people can do is to take courses [outside of their field], for example, in business.”

“Many employers say that it is important that people have a very good background and education and be a good scientist, but if somebody has knowledge or courses or an internship in the business world or the industry world is a tremendous advantage.”

“In Europe, they have developed [a program] a structured PhD where the PhD program actually requires that the person have certain competence in management, budgeting, and project management. In industry scientists tend to work in a multi-disciplinary team which isn’t really that familiar with people working in academic labs. In academic labs you work in groups, but in industry you work in teams. Therefore, it is a different culture. [However], people that have familiarized themselves with that [industry] culture can benefit themselves when looking for work. Additionally, for the people that have a ‘commercializable’ piece of something that could be a product or sold in the marketplace there are a number of programs that people can learn entrepreneurship.”

A young scientist has to be very entrepreneurial. It is very important that people really succeed in being entrepreneurial. The problem is that the professors don’t know. They know academia, and that’s all. Otherwise, they are clueless. Many universities have good career services which [unfortunately], many PhD students do not go to. People really must really be entrepreneurial and not depend on your professor because they do not know – they never had to do it [in this market] so what do they [really] know.”

“There are some programs, for example at the Keck Graduate Institute, that have a postdoctoral master’s degree [which is more business oriented]. These have been very successful. Basically, the person has a PhD and then gets about a half of an MBA. These people have been very successful in getting jobs in industry.”

[On talking to people that have left academe and why they made the move] “They want to leave academe because they want their work to have an effect in the real world. Several people said that. It is very nice in academe, you work on all these paper, but in the real world it does not have any effect. It all depends on what a person wants.”

[On the importance of communication] “In academe, scientists tend to communicate with each other and they communicate with each other in technical language and academic papers. This is completely opaque to other people. [However], if you are in industry, apart from academic laboratories, you are dealing with people with many different backgrounds that are non-scientists. You have to be able to convey to those people what you are talking about in terms they can understand. A person can be a brilliant scientist, but if they cannot communicate they will not get hired.”

[From Beryl’s conversation with an individual from Dow Chemicals] “People could really benefit on learning how to communicate. You can get training on communicating with non-scientists.”

“Communication is crucial to every career.”

[On answering what she would tell students if she were an academic advisor] “I would tell my students that I could offer them the chance to study science and maybe try for an academic job but I can’t promise them that. I would recommend that they definitely consider what other career [options] may be attractive to them. [I would ask them] what are your values and what is important?”

In addition to the information provided within the conversation, Beryl also encourages listeners to view her recent American Society for Engineering Education Prism article on various 'real world' PhD programs as well as utilizing their university resources to learn about opportunities and develop relevant skills.