Bridging the Leadership Gap: Investing in Graduate Training

As a BRITE intern, Jenn Burt  helped the Georgia Strait Alliance build relationships with scientists

As a BRITE intern, Jenn Burt helped the Georgia Strait Alliance build relationships with scientists

At the center of graduate education is a dirty little secret, that’s actually no secret: Most graduate education in science (natural and social) leaves graduates woefully unequipped to thrive in the careers they pursue.

I’m not writing to opine why, but rather to tell you a bit about what I’ve learned about fostering post-graduate leadership while initiating a program at University of British Columbia (UBC). This Biodiversity internship program, or BRITE fills a major gap in graduate education, while also inserting crucial science into policy and practice. Of all that I’ve done at UBC, it’s probably my most important contribution.

Pressing issues in environment and sustainability require the expertise of leaders well trained in science. Climate change, biodiversity loss, land-use change, food security, ecosystem-service degradation, marine pollution, and over-harvesting are just a few of the challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century. There are, of course, plenty of graduate students in science, but current programs inevitably lack the real-world and leadership training and experiences that would enable them to succeed and lead in non-academic organizations.

But only a small fraction of PhDs — perhaps 20%, based on recent statistics — will land tenure-track positions at universities. The others — the 80% — go elsewhere. In so doing, they are not failing us, rather we are failing them by insufficiently equipping them for success outside academia.

Without appropriate training and experience, science graduate students are hampered from identifying and realizing appropriate opportunities. They also miss critical experiences that would enhance their future and current work — even if that future work would be in a different organization or sector. Similarly, the science needs of partner organizations go unfilled, increasing the gap between science and practice/policy, to the detriment of both.

In my next post, I’ll write about how I developed the BRITE internship program as a partial solution to bridging this gap. What’s been your experience working on this challenge? What approaches do you find most promising? Leave a comment.

Kai Chan, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a Canada Research Chair (tier 2) and associate professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at University of British Columbia. Read more at his lab’s blogs and follow him on Twitter.

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About kaimachan

Kai Chan is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair (tier 2) at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Kai received his PhD from Princeton University in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a concurrent certificate in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy. He subsequently did a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University in Conservation Biology. Kai’s research is interdisciplinary and policy-relevant, in four primary areas: (1) biodiversity and ecosystem services (the processes by which ecosystems benefit people, directly and indirectly), with a particular focus on cultural/intangible values; (2) sustainability science, connecting ecosystems to human producers and consumers; (3) models of social-ecological systems for ecosystem-based management; and (4) applied environmental ethics. In all, he strives to understand the workings of and values associated with social-ecological systems, in order to facilitate decision-making that promotes human well-being and social and ecological justice. Kai leads CHAN’S lab (, Connecting Human and Natural Systems; he is a director on the board of the BC chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a Leopold Leadership Fellow (2013), a member of the Global Young Academy, and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. In 2012, Kai was the Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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