Ph.D. Plus Gives Duke Engineering Grad Students Career Edge

Students learn essential business skills to prepare for industry jobs

It can be tough out there for people seeking careers in the sciences like engineering—and that goes for Ph.D.s as well as undergraduates.

Although still better than most fields, diminishing job opportunities for finishing graduate engineers—whether in academia, business or industry—mean more Ph.D.s are idling on the sidelines, waiting for an opportunity. A recent National Science Foundation survey found that in 2011 fewer engineering Ph.D. graduates had employment or postdoctoral work lined up than at any time since 1996.

So a group of graduate students in Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering took it upon themselves to improve their odds of success when embarking on their career journey. 

These graduate students, with the support of Monty Reichert, associate dean for Ph.D. education and diversity, created the Ph.D. Plus program at Pratt last year. The program works like an abbreviated business school, providing internship opportunities and filling the school year and summer with speakers and seminars led by experts from many walks of professional life. They come to campus for a myriad of formal and informal forums to impart practical information about how they transitioned from the ivory tower to the real world.

That’s an important perspective, since about 70 percent of Pratt Ph.D. students today enter non-academic fields, whether it be traditional engineering firms, device companies, consulting or even banking.

“You may have earned a Ph.D., but you’ve probably never been a president of a company, run a business meeting, delegated tasks to others or a host of other important business skills needed to succeed,” said Pratt Director of Business Development and faculty advisor to Ph.D. Plus Bob Barnes. “The goal of the Ph.D. Plus experience is to help grad students gain these skills before they get into the real world.”

Duke’s program is part of a trend at engineering schools to better prepare Ph.D. engineers for professional life. Similar programs are offered at Dartmouth, Purdue, Georgia Tech and University of California, Davis.

What makes the Pratt initiative unique is that it is totally student-initiated, organized and led. The students research the speakers, organize itineraries, set up seminars and small group discussion sessions and collect feedback from attendees to make sure the events are relevant to the student body. The students even find their own internships—while taking advantage of the extensive connections of program leaders, Duke University Career Services and other on-campus resources.

PhD Plus seminar committee chair Guy Lipworth

According to Barnes, “The whole idea is to empower students by finding user-friendly programs that can help them after graduation. Whether it’s learning how to run a meeting or setting up production schedules from the business community, or learning the ins and outs of writing grants, we feel it’s best for graduates to be aware of what’s awaiting them from the beginning.”

“The most important thing we stress is career awareness,” said Vrad Levering, a Ph.D. student who spent nine years at a medical device company before coming back to work on his graduate degree in the lab of Gabriel Lopez, professor of biomedical engineering (BME). “Whether you want to go into industry or academia—students should be prepared to broaden their overall skills, not just those of their specific field of study. These skills can be essential for success.”

An important part of the program is a meaningful two- to three-month internship, where graduate students can gain practical experience in their field of interest, whether in an academic or industry setting. The key challenge is finding those internships that mesh with students’ current line of research, so their experiences can relate to their faculty mentors’ research when they return to Duke.

“The idea is that after this internship, the students can come back and not only provide additional insights into their current work, but to give practical advice to other students about the outside world,” Levering said.

Those students who complete an internship under the Ph.D. Plus program receive a special notation on their diploma.

The Ph.D. Plus program can be a critical connection between research and implementation for students, said Professor Mark Wiesner, who is thesis advisor for student Judy Winglee. Upon the completion of Judy's internship he said, “Students learn what challenges are in practice, and that can help them better form research.”

Beyond preparing current students, Reichert believes that the Ph.D. Plus program should help efforts to recruit the top graduating seniors to choose Pratt laboratories to begin their graduate careers.

“Our students are better prepared thanks to Ph.D. Plus,” Reichert says. “They are more marketable to employers and more confident in their skills.”

BME grad student Suzana Vallejo-Heligon, one of the founding members of the Ph.D. Plus program and a member of the Reichert lab says based on the growing popularity of the program and increasing turnouts for our events, Ph.D. Plus is something students have been looking for. She notes that some recent events have attracted more than 100 students.

“The great turnout is a testament to their interest,” she says.

Find upcoming Ph.D. Plus seminars and workshops, or learn more about the Ph.D. Plus program