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CBE Life Sci Educ. 2013 Winter;12(4):711-23. doi: 10.1187/cbe.13-02-0021.

What do I want to be with my PhD? The roles of personal values and structural dynamics in shaping the career interests of recent biomedical science PhD graduates.

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  • 1Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Human Resource Development, National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA 22230 Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education, University of Maryland, College Park, College Park, MD 20742.


Interest in faculty careers decreases as graduate training progresses; however, the process underlying career-interest formation remains poorly defined. To better understand this process and whether/how it differs across social identity (i.e., race/ethnicity, gender), we conducted focus groups with 38 biomedical scientists who received PhDs between 2006 and 2011, including 23 women and 18 individuals from underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds. Objective performance and quality of advisor relationships were not significantly different between scientists with high versus low interest in faculty careers. Career interests were fluid and formed in environments that generally lacked structured career development. Vicarious learning shaped similar outcome expectations about academic careers for all scientists; however, women and URMs recounted additional, distinct experiences and expectations. Scientists pursuing faculty careers described personal values, which differed by social identity, as their primary driver. For scientists with low interest in faculty careers, a combination of values, shared across social identity, and structural dynamics of the biomedical workforce (e.g., job market, grant funding, postdoc pay, etc.) played determinative roles. These findings illuminate the complexity of career choice and suggest attracting the best, most diverse academic workforce requires institutional leaders and policy makers go beyond developing individual skill, attending to individuals' values and promoting institutional and systemic reforms.

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