RALEIGH – It used to be that a position in academia was the expected career path for doctoral students. Over the past several decades, however, opportunities within colleges and universities have continued to dwindle. As a result, universities are identifying new ways to assist their students in the transition from graduate studies to industry.

“Universities are not hiring new faculty at the same rate they have historically,” said Laura Demarse, assistant dean for professional development at N.C. State’s graduate school. (She is pictured above.) “As a result, universities must ask how they can help students find meaningful opportunities for their graduate degrees.”

It was this question that drove Demarse and her colleague Jason Cramer, who leads the graduate school’s private sector career development, to launch the workforce readiness program Accelerate to Industry, or A2i.

The program immediately became popular with students and business, boasting participation from ABB, Eastman Chemical, BASF, Lord Corporation, Google and more.

How to succeed in business

After spending years focused on their areas of study, many graduate students lack the soft skills needed to gain employment outside of the academic arena. A2i solves this issue by bringing together industry leaders and students at its Industry Immersion Week, which was launched last year.

“Universities across the country want to produce Ph.D.s because they are economic drivers, but we also need to provide better opportunities for them to understand the broad and diverse pathways that are available to people who hold advanced degrees,” said Demarse.

A2i modules

Industry Immersion Week and other A2i programs want to ensure graduate students understand:

  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Communicating with nontechnical audiences
  • Personal branding
  • Intellectual property and regulatory affairs
  • Business strategy and commercialization
  • Personal and research elevator pitches

For Ph.D. candidate Kelsey Boes, participation in Industry Immersion Week allowed her to think strategically about how ideas are brought to market.

“The different teaching modules taught us about intellectual property, market analysis and product development to better prepare us for industry jobs,” said Boes, who is studying fiber and polymer science in N.C. State’s College of Textiles.

The intense week of study also focused on important soft skills. For Boes, the development of one-minute and three-minute elevator speeches has already provided benefits.

“The elevator pitch is one of the most valuable things I learned,” said Boes. “It makes going to industry events much less intimidating and makes me more appealing in the job market.”

For industry participant Nicholas A. Kraft, Ph.D., verbal communication is a essential soft skill as doctoral students enter the business world.

“Communication skills are critical,” said Kraft, lead principal scientist at ABB, which has major operations in the Triangle and North Carolina. “As doctoral students and post-docs enter the business world, they must transition from a focus on sharing highly-specialized methods and results with an audience of similarly trained experts to a focus on sharing big-picture ideas and implications with a broad audience of stakeholders.”

Networking opportunities provide insight

In addition to introducing students to core competencies needed to succeed in business, A2i’s programs provide students with opportunities to interact directly with leaders in industry. For Boes, it has allowed her to build her industry network.

“Following the immersion week, I met with one of the presenters one-on-one to learn about her career path in marketing and as a female in industry,” she said. “She then connected me with another biotech firm in Durham, so it has been an awesome waterfall effect of meeting more and more people.”

The graduate school also ensures students are ready to engage with event sponsor. Last year’s sponsors were Eastman Chemical, Lord Corporation and BASF.

Before Industry Immersion Week, students attend workshops and make site visits to ensure they understand the sponsors’ employment expectations and company culture. The graduate school team also provides counsel to students on how to communicate their research in a nontechnical way.

In addition to events held exclusively with sponsors, Industry Immersion Week features presentations from more than 40 speakers from companies across the country. Speakers at last year’s event were from companies including PPD, SAS, Biogen, BD, GSK and more.

Graduate student programs provide opportunities for business

Industry Immersion Week is just the first in a multi-pronged program that not only prepares graduate students for success in industry, but one that also creates opportunities for businesses seeking well-trained employees.

“We are helping our industry sponsors and employers by educating them on the tremendous amount of talent and technical acumen available to them through N.C. State,” said Demarse.

The graduate school works closely with companies to assess their needs and vett students to ensure they are knowledgeable about the company and can interact with industry in a meaningful way.

“Immersion Week provides companies with a substantive opportunity to showcase their values, ideas, and employees to a diverse pool of talented and enthusiastic researchers,” said Kraft. “In addition to building brand recognition, participation allows companies to work with participants in a collaborative setting, which in turn allows both the companies and the participants to assess how well their interests and values align.”

The program has already been a success. Several graduate students were offered employment following last year’s Industry Immersion Week.

Industry immersion program to grow

In addition to the second Industry Immersion Week, which will take place in August, the graduate school has launched other A2i modules for graduate students. These modules include industry team practicums, internships, site visits and a series on job search strategies.

The program has also drawn the attention of other universities. Demarse is currently working the University of Georgia and University of Arkansas who want to adopt the program, which is a trademark of N.C. State.