This was written collaboratively with Suzanne Barbour, Dean of the Graduate School at UNC Chapel Hill. It describes an initiative to address the career choices of graduate students who opt out of an academic career. We’ll be reporting on this throughout the semester as our work develops.
By Buck Goldstein and Suzanne Barbour
Beginning with the creation of the University of North Carolina in 1789, followed by Trinity College (now Duke University) in 1838 and North Carolina State in 1887, the state of North Carolina has invested heavily in higher education. That investment has paid dividends that exceed even the most optimistic expectations.
Central North Carolina, known as RTP (Research Triangle Park), has become one of the nation’s most impressive economic engines. Long known as a generator of enterprises in the biotech and agri-tech industries, over the last decade a remarkable start-up culture has also developed, and recently Apple and Google, among others, announced major initiatives based in RTP and the suburbs that surround it. Other companies took notice, turning Raleigh and Durham into boom towns ranking among the fastest growing cities in the country.
In addition to climate and cost of living, the primary reason the region is booming is the higher education infrastructure. Thousands of students with advanced degrees graduate every year from schools within a 30-mile radius of one another. All of the schools have robust entrepreneurship programs aimed primarily at undergraduates with bright ideas and professors eager to commercialize their research. Less attention has been paid to developing a robust pipeline between graduate students and the enterprises that are hungry for talent that can fuel their growth.
From a distance, this seems like a perfect match: A fast-growing region highly reliant on advanced knowledge workers and a group of research institutions producing thousands of such workers each year. Capitalizing on the opportunity is another matter. In some disciplines, academics often deem it a sign of failure when a prized graduate student opts to join the private sector instead of entering academia. Many graduate students aren’t aware of opportunities outside the traditional academic job market. Conversely, potential employers view distinguished academic institutions favorably but often have no clue about the depth of their graduate talent pool or how to recruit talented graduate students from the arts, social sciences, and even natural sciences.
At the same time the demand for knowledge workers is exploding in RTP, the national job market for traditional academics is contracting. Typically, there are hundreds of applicants for virtually every academic job posting. As a result, graduates with advanced degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill are increasingly opting for careers outside of academia, and that trend is similar throughout the country. The recent drop in college applicants will only make the situation worse. Less students means less demand for professors.
Dean of the Graduate School Suzanne Barbour and I plan to connect the dots between companies looking for talent and graduate students looking for jobs. Fortunately, CareerWell, an initiative of The Graduate School at Carolina, which began in 2020 and is aimed at workforce readiness, provides us a place to start.
We’ll begin by learning more about our primary constituencies: our students and employers interested in hiring them. We want to understand the career paths our students want to explore, and we hope to expose them to choices they might not know they have. We’re also interested in working closely with employers to develop a set of experiences in and outside the classroom that can prepare highly talented graduate students for the changing world of work. We’re convinced if we have the right people in the conversation, we listen carefully, and we explore multiple approaches, we can develop a seamless pipeline from graduation to meaningful employment.
We also plan to extend to the graduate school the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that has been growing on our campus for almost 20 years. By exposing students to people with advanced degrees who have embraced a non-academic track, and by making it easy and acceptable to participate in the campus-wide programming around innovation and entrepreneurship, we hope to diffuse the unspoken attitude that venturing outside academia is going over to the so-called dark side. Internships and mentoring will also be important in building such a culture. We hope that pairing the two of us – one an academic and one an entrepreneur; one a scientist and one a humanist – will be a symbolic first step toward creating the kind of culture that views a job at Google with the same respect as a faculty position at a college or university.
We’re also interested in creating a sustainable economic model. We believe if our efforts create value, we will find a way to pay for them. Initially, we plan to bootstrap a variety of different approaches supplemented, we hope, with a set of pilot grants. If we are successful in building the pipeline we propose, we expect that industry and private foundations will support our efforts.
Finally, we want to learn more about what’s working elsewhere. Our colleague Joseph DeSimone began an effort at Stanford University last semester aimed at exposing chemistry graduate students to the world of entrepreneurship, and we hope to learn more about his class. Joe already shared his syllabus with us. One of us has visited and written about the Langer Lab at MIT, perhaps the nation’s most successful example of technology transfer. Closer to home, our colleagues at North Carolina State have developed an intriguing model called “Accelerate to Industry.” We look forward to learning more about these efforts.
All the evidence suggests that changes in the American workforce will result in less opportunity to enter the professoriate, but there will be increased demand from outside the academy for bright well-prepared individuals with graduate degrees. We’re excited about developing this talent pool, and there is no better place to test our strategies than in our region of North Carolina.
Buck Goldstein is the University Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice in the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill. Suzanne Barbour is Dean of the Graduate School at UNC Chapel Hill.