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NC State creates industry on-ramp for grad students

The post-Ph.D. career path isn’t always clearly marked. In this article from UIDP member NC State University, the writer explores an innovative program, Accelerate to Industry (A2i), which creates an onramp for grad students to demonstrate their capabilities for jobs in industry. What’s more, the program is scalable for academic partners.

Although universities continue to award advanced degrees at a rate that outpaces academic employment, abundant career opportunities exist in the private sector, especially for those who demonstrate technical prowess alongside business acumen. Accordingly, workforce data continue to signal both a declining interest in academic careers among graduate students, particularly PhDs, and that the numbers of PhDs being employed in industry is rapidly reaching and will likely soon exceed those in academia. Recent National Science Foundation data show a more alarming trend; as of 2016, the percentage of doctorate holders who report no definite post-graduation employment commitments has risen to nearly 40%, across all broad fields of study which represents a 10% percentage increased since 2016.

Graduate degree holders, especially non-MBA graduates, who attempt to secure industry jobs often lack key insights and competencies that promote positive job outcomes, including: (1) awareness of accessible industry careers and of their non-technical, transferable skills; (2) business and professional skills highly valued by industry; and (3) completion of industry-specific work experiences wherein they apply learned business and professional skills. These challenges can significantly impair employment outcomes and the ability to adapt to the corporate environment. Graduate programs that are not closely associated with business schools typically instill strong technical acumen but are often not equipped to meet these industry competencies, especially regarding facilitation of cross-disciplinary experiential learning in the corporate environment and training of business skills. Although some academic programs provide industry-specific training, especially as exemplified by Professional Science Masters programs (PSMs), those approaches often lack collaboration outside the confines of the specific degree.

Wanted: An on-ramp to work in industry

Responding to the cultural shift among graduate students who want to pursue jobs in industry as well as the changing landscape of the job marketplace, the Graduate School at NC State established Accelerate to Industry (A2i) in 2017. A2i consists of several scalable interventions intended to: (1) improve graduate student career outcomes, (2) foster talent recruitment for companies, (3) enhance diversity within the industry workforce, and (4) promote targeted engagement between universities and the private sector. Through career exploration activities, development workshops, discussion panels, team projects, internships, company site visits, and other events, A2i is intended to innovate workforce development in North Carolina, and across the United States.

A2i activities are designed to increase awareness of industry careers and “culture”, and to develop key competencies highly valued by industry (e.g., leadership, market analysis, commercialization, communication). A2i sets in motion a new workforce development model that will increase graduate students’ competitiveness for industry careers. The program is comprised of five modules that engage graduate students from the onset to the advanced stages of their degrees. It is designed as a series of progressively more immersive experiences (outlined in the figure below) to build the strategic skills that will make these students not only successful in industry, but will allow them to own their career pathways.

5 A2i modulesIn brief, A2i consists of the following components:

  1. Industry Job Search Strategies is a professional development workshop series that offers practical advice in discussion-based lectures as well as talks from corporate sponsors.
  2. Industry Company Site Visit allows students to learn about the types of careers available from corporate sponsors while also providing corporate sponsors the opportunity to recruit students to fill their talent needs.
  3. Industry Internships are shorter, 6- to 8-week placements with A2i corporate sponsors
  4. Industry Team Practicum teach participants how to work in interdisciplinary teams to solve industry problems brought to the program by A2i’s corporate sponsors.

The signature program, the annual Industry Immersion, introduces participants to potential careers in industry through an intensive week-long experience. The week’s activities include: a workshop on resumes, feedback session on ‘tell me about yourself’ questions and best practices for behavioral interviewing, a Leadership Lunch series where C-suite individuals give keynote talks, and panels that range from alumni of A2i sharing their perspective on transitioning to industry to career pathways panels where industry sponsors share their career journey. In addition, participants work in interdisciplinary teams to produce 5-minute pitches that they present to a panel of industry experts. Presenting their idea for a product or service that is profitable and can be commercialized, participants then answer questions from the judges and are given an overall valuation on the viability of their idea.

mentor and student interactingThese interventions are designed as individual modules, so that students can benefit from one activity without necessarily completing the others. As such, A2i is scalable, and other institutions can implement the components that best suit their needs, according to available resources. NC State licenses the programming for free at no cost to Academic Partners.

This summer, NC State established its first A2i Summer Institute (a train-the-trainer event) in which 22 administrators and individuals working on professional development from 15 institutions of higher learning attended a 3-day workshop. To help facilitate NC State’s expansion plans for A2i, The Graduate School at NC State was awarded an Innovations in Graduation Education award from the National Science Foundation for almost $400,000. Over the next three-years, NC State will be inviting Academic Partner Institutions across R1, R2, and Master’s comprehensive schools to bi-annual training events. At these events, partner institutions will learn about how to begin implementing A2i on their campuses.

A2i’s Current Academic Partners

A2i academic partner logos University of Florida, University of Arkansas, Florida International University, UNC Charlotte, NC Central University, University of Toledo

A2i’s Current Academic PartnersA2i sponsor logos Google, Lord, MedPharm, Bayer, ABB, Eastman

A2i Perspectives: Corporate Sponsors, Students, and Academic Affiliates

Industrial librarian speaking to staffFrom an industry perspective, as Scott Armentrout (Director of the Eastman Innovation Center) explains, “Eastman’s participation in NC State’s A2i program equips students who are entering the workforce with the skills they need to succeed in their next career step. For us, this involvement is both altruistic and strategic. Our interactions with these students are part of our ongoing engagement with the university, and this event in particular enables students to better understand Eastman as a potential employer, while giving us another touch-point for potential applicants both now and in the future.”

Rebecca Davis, NC State and an A2i Alum, returned this year to represent one of A2i’s newest corporate sponsors, Q2. Rebecca says that, “Early in my job search, I had little success with a lackluster, overly technical resume and a lack of focus in my search. A2i taught me that I already had the professional skills my target companies wanted – I just didn’t know how to market myself. With the guidance of A2i’s industry mentors, I revamped my resume to highlight my accomplishments in the framework of industry and illustrate that the skills I learned during my PhD and postdoc training were exactly what my target companies needed. A2i also gave me exposure to all types of industry career paths, allowing me to focus my job search and ultimately find a challenging and fulfilling role as a Project Manager for a world-class clinical trial lab services provider.”

mentor speaking to menteeReflecting on his recent experience participating in A2i’s Industry Immersion, Masrur Nahid, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State, writes “Participating in…A2i immersion week and getting exposure to companies like Bayer, BASF, Eastman, ABB, LORD and others, especially meeting with their people and learning the company cultures etc., are the best experiences I have gotten in my entire career! I must admit that I was never exposed to this ‘real-world’ to learn from these ‘real-world people’ in my 7+ years of research career as I buried my head into my own bubble and focused only in the academia, even though I worked in 4 universities and 6 national laboratories across 4 continents: from Oceania to Europe and America, and collaborated in 20+ and led 6+ projects!”

A2i’s Immersion Week 2019 participants shared the following on an anonymous exit survey, “I loved this. I feel way more prepared then I did before and more confident to talk to industry professionals.” Another wrote, “I definitely feel like I have a better understanding of what transitioning to industry will be like and how to best market myself and the skills I’ve learned in grad school to be a successful candidate in the tough job market.”

Scaling a winning program

Jill Huerta, director, Center for Graduate Life at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, attended NC State’s inaugural Summer Institute with her colleague Jay Skipworth, associate director for employer management and strategic initiatives. They are launching A2i on their campus in Spring 2020. Jill is “extremely enthusiastic about launching A2i this year to provide our graduate students with the opportunity to explore and prepare for career paths in industry. Our students will benefit greatly from the professional development sponsoring corporations will provide in areas such as communication, teamwork, and presentation skills, and corporations with a presence on our campus have already expressed an interest. They’re looking forward to the prolonged interaction with our students that will allow them to share their company culture and recruit candidates who are a strong fit.”

A2i sets in motion a new national workforce development model that will increase graduate students’ competitiveness for industry careers. The program’s expansion will help students across the landscape of graduate education own their career pathways.

To Learn More About the A2i Program

For additional information on the A2i Program, please visit the A2i website or contact Dr. Joseph Aldinger, director of Accelerate to Industry, The Graduate School.