In the News

Leaders for the Future: New Roads to Travel

“I have started to change my view of what I am capable of—not only in terms of how my scientific skills are transferable to different industries, but also in simply thinking, ‘If I felt like it was the right path, I think I could be an entrepreneur.’ This fundamentally alters how I view my professional future and my options outside of academia.”
—Grace Ha, Ph.D. Candidate in Marine Ecology

Mirroring a reality at universities across the U.S. and around the world, only a small percentage of doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars conclude their studies at UC Davis and pursue a tenure-track faculty career at a university. A new program, Leaders for the Future, helps prepare students for success outside of academia.

Leader for the Future Grace Ha

A 2012 National Science Foundation study found that fewer than 17 percent of new STEM Ph.D.s are in tenure-track faculty positions within three years of graduation. Similarly, a study of occupations conducted by the Modern Language Association in 2013 found that less than 60 percent of humanities and social sciences Ph.D.s secure tenure-track positions. Clearly, the road once less traveled is now the norm. 

UC Davis is home to more than 7,000 graduate students in nearly 100 programs, with almost three-quarters of these students pursuing their doctorate. Fully 80 percent will use their advanced research training and education not on a campus but in a variety of sectors, including industry, government and nonprofit settings. “These can no longer be called ‘alternative’ careers,” notes Prasant Mohapatra, vice-provost of graduate education and dean of Graduate Studies. “We must be innovative in how we prepare students and postdocs for diverse career paths.”

In fall 2017, 20 doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars formed the first cohort to participate in Leaders for the Future, an innovative program that embodies the university’s holistic approach to advanced education, which also encompasses the FUTURE program, funded by the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) initiative, and GradPathways, professional development program. A second Leaders for the Future cohort began the program in January 2018.

Our graduate students’ development doesn’t start and end within the walls of a classroom or laboratory. It’s essential that they be provided with the critical skills that will fortify their long-term career prospects.
—Prasant Mohapatra, Vice-Provost of Graduate Education and Dean of Graduate Studies

A cross-campus collaboration between the Office of Research, the Internship and Career CenterGradPathways (Graduate Studies) and the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Leaders for the Future is a five-month certificate program that provides Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars from all disciplines with training in the skills needed to excel in careers across industry, government and more. Program fellows connect with applied experiences beyond academia through “immersive” activities—internships, job shadowing and special projects—while developing leadership, business communication, project management, innovation and entrepreneurship skills.

“We know that Ph.D. students have finely honed skills that translate well to a broad array of career paths,” explains Teresa Dillinger, academic administrator for professional development programs, Graduate Studies. “Programs like this one provide additional professional development that will serve participants well in whatever path they choose.”

Leaders for the Future is an implementation of the Advanced Scholar Career Enablement and Development (ASCEND) Program, funded by the State of California through Assembly Bill 2664: University of California Innovation and Entrepreneurship Expansion. The $22 million initiative—$2.2 million per UC campus—is intended to enhance the state’s network of programs and services that support innovators, entrepreneurs, startups, investors and industry and community partners. 

Leaders for the Future

A different vision of success

Leaders for the Future is founded on the recognition that the business world is very different from the realm of academics, in terms of timelines, teamwork, communication and culture. The program appeals to Ph.D. students and postdocs who want to differentiate themselves by supplementing academic accomplishments with innovation, communication and business skills gained and used outside the university setting. 

The experience is bookended by full-day orientation and closing bootcamps in which the fellows are active participants. In the intervening five months, the fellows attend a series of workshops that explore how to communicate with impact (with a focus on what academics say vs. what business hears; nexus work, a/k/a building networks; making the leap into a business or startup career; business writing and presentations; and negotiations and job offers. They also attend a three-day Entrepreneurship Academy for a deep immersion in what it takes to bring an idea or research out into the world.

For Srinivas Tapa, a fourth-year biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate, the academy brought home the message that “a career path is not set in stone or a straight line; it deviates and crisscrosses more often than not.

“Graduate education sets one up to have a wealth of skills in their toolbox, but more importantly, the skills necessary to adapt to any situation,” he says. “For example, I am passionate about cardiac device innovation and heart research, but I have realized now that I want to be in project management and business development, rather than research and development.”

Srinivas Tapa

A broader network

Leaders for the Future fellows reflect the full range of academic endeavor at UC Davis, from pharmacology to linguistics, from political science to biomedical engineering, from wildlife, fish and conservation biology to chemistry and plant science, musicology, education policy—and more. This diversity of backgrounds and perspectives enhances the experience and allows participants to expand their networks into new fields. 

Linda Su-Feher discovered that “New ideas and perspectives can come from the unlikeliest of places. I was surprised by the incredible diversity of mentors at the academy and how each mentor had a unique perspective about similar topics.

“The program helped connect me with people I never would have met in my usual academic circles. Learning about others’ career paths, personal struggles and goals was singularly motivating for my own work.”

Real-life experience

Marjannie Eloi Akintunde, a senior career advisor at the UC Davis Internship and Career Center and program coordinator for Leaders for the Future, works individually with each fellow to facilitate their “immersive” experience— a valuable opportunity to explore “in real life” careers in NGOs, industry, government and more.

Ph.D. candidate Aveek Das did a summer internship at Siemens at Davis, working as a data scientist building a prediction model to understand how fossil fuel plants would generate electricity in the future. “This was a tremendous experience, as I got to learn new tools and data science related libraries, and applied the same to a rich dataset,” he says. ”Working on a project end-to-end gave me to the opportunity to explore some aspects related to data engineering and visualization. 

“The most important takeaway was the importance of communication with your peers and supervisors in an industry setting. I was working with two different supervisors—with one of them being located remotely—and I realized that communicating my observations, takeaways and expectations and keeping everyone on the same page is essential to keeping my project moving forward smoothly.”

“The program was beneficial to me in so many ways,” explains Kendra Tully, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in political science. “Through the workshops and activities, I gained more confidence in what I wanted to do. In understanding the different ways in which academics and professionals communicate, I learned how to be more concise and message-driven. Through my internship with the Department of Developmental Services I gained real-world experience and discovered ways in which my strengths could be best applied.”

This exposure to a nonacademic work environment, Akintunde explains, helps facilitate a smooth transition into industry. “Our fellows have found internships at Google, Genentech and various State of California agencies. They are very creative with special projects, such as developing a transfer program with a community college and organizing a social justice event with the City of Davis.”

“Our fellows are very bright, eager to learn and work hard,” she adds. “I’ve witnessed fellows going from being shy and quiet and not sure of their career choices at the start of the program to becoming confident, bold, sure of their career path and knowing how their strengths from their Ph.D. training can contribute to a career and to society. It is an honor to work on this program”

“As a graduate student, I can get lost in the details of my research and forget about the bigger picture. These experiences have helped remind me of the very reason I decided to pursue science as a career: to improve human health through discovery.”
—Linda Su-Feher, Graduate Student in the Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Program

Krysti Ryan, Leader for the Future

A golden opportunity for California

“I’m thrilled to see the success of Leaders for the Future in enabling business and entrepreneurial education programs, coupled with invaluable immersive experiences for our students,” says Dushyant Pathak, associate vice chancellor for technology management and corporate relations in the Office of Research.

“Immersive experiences combined with directed business training and mentorship are key to helping prepare our graduate students and postdoctoral trainees for successful nonacademic careers. This is an essential area of focus of AB 2664 funding in training the workforce of the future for regional and statewide economic impact.”

Meet OUR Leaders for the Future Fellows

Click here for profiles of some of our Leaders for the Future fellows.