Making the Most of School

Agencies and institutions strive to better prepare graduate students and postdocs for futures in academia and beyond.

By | May 1, 2016


When Meredith Frie started a PhD program in cell and molecular biology at Michigan State University, she, like most graduate students, focused exclusively on her research. “For the first three years of my graduate program, it did not occur to me to expand my training outside of traditional work in the lab,” says Frie. “[But] when you go out and look for a job . . . having a PhD isn’t enough, because everyone you’d compete against for a job would also have a PhD.”
Fortunately, Frie happened to be attending one of 17 universities with a National Institutes of Health–funded Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) grant, devoted to improving career development training for graduate students and postdocs. In her fourth year, Frie completed an MSU-BEST–sponsored internship in the campus’s Innovation Center, where she learned about pathways to commercialize basic research. “I always had an interest in the pharmaceutical industry and drug development, so it has been really nice to have the opportunity to meet people in the field I might want to work in,” she says.

Frie is not alone. Career development training is patchy across institutions, and most graduate students and postdocs receive few structured opportunities to gain the skills and experience that are critical for landing their first job. “It’s not enough just to love your science anymore,” says Patricia Labosky, program leader at NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives who oversees the BEST grantees. “You have to be able to communicate it well. You have to be able to write grants, to manage people and budgets, all those sorts of things.”

Opportunities are especially limited for those who have their sights set on nonacademic careers, which are frowned upon by some advisors. But new initiatives like MSU’s BEST program are beginning to give trainees the exposure they need to succeed in whatever career they choose—and they’re aiming to change attitudes about alternative careers in the life sciences.  

“The research enterprise is [composed] of far more than just academic research labs,” says Chris Pickett, director of the Rescuing Biomedical Research project launched last September by a group of 16 researchers from as many institutions to address the dire training and funding circumstances faced by US biomedical researchers. “Providing training for students and postdocs to successfully pursue careers outside of academia will only strengthen the enterprise as a whole.”

Planning for the future

UNDERSTANDING YOUR OPTIONS: Students participating in the Johns Hopkins-MedImmune Scholars program present their research, which is carried out under the guidance of a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a research scientist at MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of Astra­Zeneca. CAROLINE POUNDSAt Stanford University, graduate students and postdocs can take part in a Career Exploration Opportunities (CEO) course, where they meet with PhD-level scientists who have succeeded in biology-related fields outside of academia.STEPHANIE EBERLEWhether trainees plan to follow a traditional academic career path or branch off to pursue alternative options, one key to success is knowing where you want to go. At the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMassMed), a recipient of an NIH BEST grant, all third-year graduate students in biomedical sciences are required to take a course focused on completing an individual development plan (IDP) that charts their desired career trajectory.  

A number of BEST programs also offer career panels to provide students the opportunity to learn about the many different science-related careers outside of academia. “One of the goals of our program is to push trainees to think about careers earlier,” says Elizabeth Silva, director of the University of California, San Francisco’s BEST-funded Motivating Informed Decisions (MIND) program. “In my experience in the professional development office, students would often delay thinking about these things until they were very late in their training.”

Once trainees have an idea about what they might want to do, the next step is to try it out. To give students and postdocs such real-world experience, many BEST-funded programs sponsor internship/externship opportunities that allow trainees to gain experience (part-time or full-time), while building a portfolio of work and making connections with people working in a career of potential interest. Such opportunities are particularly important for those who want to pursue a nontraditional career path, according to Phil Ryan, director of student services at the NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education. “Most postdocs have no experience that makes them hirable for their first job outside of the lab,” Ryan said at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Summit on the Sustainability of the Biomedical Workforce held in Washington, DC, this past February.

At MSU’s BEST program, students are asked to complete two externships in their second and third years. Program organizers help students identify opportunities and persuade resistant faculty to allow their students to take the necessary time away from the lab. (See “Faculty Support” below.) At Spartan Innovations, part of MSU’s Innovation Center that helps turn technologies developed at the university into successful businesses, Frie is currently doing a part-time, nine-month externship, working to commercialize a drug developed by Rob Abramovitch’s lab to treat tuberculosis. “The experience has given me a different perspective on scientific research—why we do research,” says Frie. “It [has] challenged me to think of research from a business or for-profit perspective.”

Sarah Kelly, another MSU graduate student, is doing a part-time, year-long internship at the school’s technology transfer office, where she has learned about markets for different kinds of inventions. “The BEST program has given me a platform to reach out to these different agencies and different kinds of people in this career field,” she says.

Providing training for stu­dents and postdocs to successfully pur­sue careers outside of academia will only strengthen
the enterprise as a whole.—Chris Pickett,
Rescuing Biomedical Research

Even universities without BEST grants are beginning to put more emphasis on experiential learning. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (JHUSOM), for example, has a variety of programs designed to get trainees out of the academic setting. In addition to the Biomedical Careers Initiative, which sponsors full-time summer internships at biotech companies and scientific societies, the university recently launched the Johns Hopkins-MedImmune Scholars program for students interested in working in the biopharmaceutical industry. Students in the program must identify two thesis mentors—one at JHUSOM and one at MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca—and then develop a project to be carried out in both laboratories.

“Access to the expertise and technologies in a major pharmaceutical company provides new opportunities that can transform your training and the research that you can do,” says Peter Espenshade, associate dean for Graduate Biomedical Education at JHUSOM. At the end of the program, the students have the option of going to MedImmune for a 12-month practicum after completing their doctorate, which Espenshade hopes will eliminate the need to do a postdoc to get that first industry job. “The current clearinghouse for careers in biomedical science is after a postdoc,” he says. “We are trying to move that decision point earlier, saving people time and increasing their earnings.”

JHUSOM also organizes an equity research externship in collaboration with T. Rowe Price, a global investment management firm. Graduate students who participate in the program work in teams to pick a biotech stock that looks to be undervalued, then write up a proposal that they will pitch to T. Rowe Price executives. “Traditionally, people with MBAs or business degrees have gone into investment management, but more and more investment firms are finding that PhDs with a biomedical degree have a better ability to look at the science behind the companies,” says Patricia Phelps, director of professional development at JHUSOM. Phelps also plans to kick off a similar program covering regulatory affairs, in which students will develop a new drug application to the US Food and Drug Administration and have it evaluated by regulatory-affairs professionals.

“What I’m hearing from students is that they might know what they want to do, but they don’t know how to get there,” says Julie Rojewski, program manager for the MSU-BEST Program. “We have a mechanism to empower the students, to introduce them to resources and connections to close that gap.”

A broader reach

Outside of the 17 recipients of BEST grants and a handful of other institutions that are developing their own programs, most universities do not have the resources to create such initiatives from scratch. Although the NIH’s BEST programs are the biggest investments in this area—totaling some $3.7 million across the 17 institutions—foundations and other organizations are also looking to improve biomedical career development. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s postdoctoral enrichment program, for example, is a minority-focused program that has so far provided approximately 30 postdocs with $60,000 over three years to support their training activities. The funding can help trainees attend a Gordon Research Conference, small and focused meetings that are a great place for postdocs to network with scientists in their field; an advanced course at Cold Spring Harbor to further their expertise in a specific area; or other activities that ultimately make them more competitive in the job market. “You can’t overestimate the value of having independent funding when you’re a postdoc,” says Victoria McGovern, senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund also administers small institutional grants that are intended to help implement career development programs developed by offices of postdoctoral affairs or graduate-student clubs. The grants aren’t as large as BEST grants—the fund offers only $30,000 to $50,000 per institution, says McGovern. “Our [program] is really aimed at getting interesting ideas and testing them out.”

To help disseminate ideas for new initiatives, a working group convened at the ASBMB Summit in February proposed an online center, or repository, of resources that would help interested universities replicate successful programs. “It feels like we’re at a tipping point now—there’s a lot of different efforts happening, but there’s no central practice or clear place to share what is happening,” says working-group coleader Cynthia Fuhrmann, assistant dean of career and professional development at UMassMed. A steering committee led by Fuhrmann and the University of California, San Francisco’s Bruce Alberts and supported by the ASBMB will propose mechanisms for creating and vetting the materials and certified training advisors that universities can call upon for help.

In addition to supporting the creation of more career-focused programs, Fuhrmann and Alberts hope that the center will help make career development a regular part of graduate biomedical education and overcome the stigma attached to careers outside of academia. “We’re investing as a nation so much into biomedical research, which is really critical,” says Fuhrmann. But when trainees are not provided adequate career development opportunities, “we are creating an inefficient system for trainees and we’re not taking advantage of [that] investment.”

Whether or not such programs will be successful in helping trainees land a job more quickly remains to be seen, but the NIH and its BEST grant recipients are actively evaluating the outcomes of their training services, tracking information on students’ time to graduation, number of publications, and job placement, says Labosky. “We are doing a very extensive cross-site evaluation analysis of all the programs, and we’ll have the baseline data soon and some initial results.”

At the University of Chicago, for example, four of the eight postdocs who completed part-time, three-month internships through the BEST-sponsored myCHOICE program have received job offers, as have three of the students who did externships, says Abby Stayart, the myCHOICE program manager. “The fact that we’ve been getting these job offers just a few months after starting these internships to me is just jaw-dropping.” Erin Adams, principal investigator of the myCHOICE program, agrees: “This is first-hand proof of how important a network is to getting a good job placement.” 

Viviane Callier is a freelance science writer living in Washington, DC. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University from 2011 to 2013, and served as a contractor at the National Cancer Institute until last month. She is currently a science fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Many faculty members were initially wary of—or outright opposed to—the increased emphasis on career development training, which they feared would take trainees’ time and focus away from the lab, says NIH’s Patricia Labosky, who oversees the BEST grants. “At first I thought that would be the hugest hurdle” to building the programs, she says, “and something that we
would never, ever surmount.”

That’s why some program directors, such as Stephanie Eberle of the School of Medicine Career Center at Stanford, coach both trainees and faculty. Eberle emphasizes to faculty members that the goal is to integrate academic and professional development, not to do one at the expense of the other. And for the students’ part, Eberle has them develop a specific plan that their PI will agree to. “Students might say that they want to do an internship in biotech, but they don’t know how much time it will take, and haven’t planned how they are going to finish their lab project when they return,” she says. “They don’t come in with a plan, and this is what scares our faculty the most.” Eberle even recalls one case where a student lost her research funding while doing an internship. “We learned the hard way the value of having a set plan.” Now, Eberle’s office has forms that help to structure the conversation between trainees and their advisors. “It’s much easier this way,” she says.

While some professors may still be wary of such career development efforts, the programs have a growing number of supporters among the faculty who are relieved that universities are beginning to share the responsibility of helping students and postdocs find the position they want, even if it’s outside of academia. “At MSU, a large number of PIs are supportive of their students finding positions outside of universities, but they themselves don’t always feel equipped to discuss this with them,” says MSU-BEST program manager Julie Rojewski. “They are eager to have us partner and offer this to their students, because it’s competency and knowledge they just don’t have.”


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